Question of the Day: What About Older Pastors Who Need to Keep Working?

Our denomination collects The Joy Offering each December to benefit church
workers with financial needs.  Many of these gifts go to older pastors who find themselves struggling with too little financial support in their post-parish years.  Especially in this economy, many of us could find ourselves in need of financial help post-retirement even into the next decade or so.

My friend Carol Howard Merritt wrote recently about the The Young Clergy Crisis and I totally agree that many of my under 40 friends are struggling at least as much as some of my over 70 friends.

Older clergy have obviously paid off their seminary loans but are trying to figure out how to afford to retire, or even how to pay off their mortgages.  Younger clergy – many of whom started as associate pastors  –  find that associate pastor positions have been eliminated.  And tiny churches can’t afford FT pastors.

[Note: Tomorrow's Question of the Day will be about our youngest pastors.]

In my own blessed 50-something demographic, I find myself doing ministry that  includes:

  • Helping congregations in search of pastors and
  • Helping pastors in search of church positions.

It makes me happy to be the matchmaker, although the Holy Spirit is obviously in charge.

Several pastors seeking paid positions in the church are over age 65.  Maybe they still have mortgages, or maybe they’ve used their savings to help their children, or maybe they’ve depleted their savings to pay medical bills.  Several of those who come through my door have sick spouses who haven’t been  earning a paycheck themselves for many years and things have been tight for a long time.

Yes, we have tiny churches who basically want a chaplain and they might hire an 80 year old pastor.  But more often, congregations want a high-energy pastor who will bring fresh ideas.  I know some high-energy pastors over the age of 70 – don’t get me wrong.  But I worry that their inability to retire is taking work from younger clergy.

And this is not just an issue for the septuagenarian and older crowd.  We all know pastors in their 50s and 60s who find themselves holding onto church positions even though their energy is low, their technological skills are dated, and their leadership gifts are a bit Old School.  But they can’t afford to retire quite yet.  Maybe they won’t be able to retire for another couple of decades.

So, what do we do about this?  As our society is growing older and living longer, I wish I had answers.  Any ideas?

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9 responses to “Question of the Day: What About Older Pastors Who Need to Keep Working?

  1. Somewhere in here the question needs to be asked “What is best for the church?” or “What is best for this particular church?” vs. “What is best for my financial situation?”

    Clergy of any age can be put in a position where their employment at a particular church may be necessary to their current financial needs, but it’s not in the best interest of the church. My wife and I found ourselves in that situation this year.

    We were called as Co-Pastors to our current church several years ago. We had significant membership and budget losses this year due to 10-A fallout and we needed to make some big cuts in our budget to make ends meet. It seemed to my wife and I that no one in the church could see what needed to be done or at least wanted to be the one to suggest it. So we initiated and led the church through the process of cutting staff – including my wife’s position.

    We knew this was not good for our family financially. Her severance runs out this month and we still haven’t found a way to replace her needed income, but we led the church to do this because it was best for the church.

  2. I wish I had an idea. I will be watching this conversation, as I am likely to work WELL past 65 myself, due to student loans, and adoption and medical debt (no mortgage–can’t afford to buy a house!). I hate to be a drain on the system, but see no way out of working a long, long time.

  3. It is indeed a very complex issue … to which our out-dated systems contribute greatly … until we can find a way to better equip and hold accountable all parties involved situation will only get worse, methinks

  4. I agree with what Shawn said about what’s good for the church.

    I wish more pastors would consider this, but I also understand that some pastors are afraid. They don’t know how they’ll pay their bills. They become used to that paycheck – maybe even addicted to it.

    One of the universal issues is the burden of debt. Debt can kill. It can kill a sense of call (“I can’t leave because we owe so much money on our stuff.” or “I can’t take that low-paying call because it will be impossible to pay off my seminary debt.”) There are certainly pastors who have made poor financial choices, but what if the debt has been incurred to make a calling possible – whether that call is to be a pastor (seminary) or to be a parent (adoption/fertility treatments.) It’s a complicated, complicated issue.

  5. In the PCUSA, isn’t all up to the individual congregations in the end? If the congregation prefers to hire an older pastor, they are not “taking” work from a younger pastor, any more than when they hire any pastor over another. Its not like there is some rule that they have to hire the more senior applicant, and if he ends up being a dud, can’t they replace him? Also, do we assume that a pastor who doesn’t retire is only doing staying on because he has financial obligations? Maybe he just genuinely enjoys what he is doing and feels called by God to keep going. No law says that persons over 65 have to throw in the towel for the new guys.

  6. Pingback: More About Young Clergy « A Pastor Named Questor

  7. Anne-Marie Hislop

    There are many pastors who, like me, are second career. That means that we may reach “retirement age” while we are still very fresh, energetic, and feeling strongly called to what we do. We may not have debt or financial worries, at least not serious ones… and many of us are tech savy.

    While I agree that we must continue to explore the need for younger adults to enter the ministry and why so few do, I sometimes feel that the belief that God calls sometimes gets lost when we speak of older clergy. Call is ongoing. If middle aged folks are coming out of seminary, then God is calling middle aged folks. Those of us who came later to ministry continue in ministry because of our joy in the call God has given to us.

  8. I am 33 with a MDiv and 10 years experience as a youth pastor. I cannot find any openings for lead positions around me. Ironically most of the lead pastors at churches in my circles are 60-65 and started in their late 20’s. They all seem to have not -reinvented themselves much and still are leading the way they were taught a while ago. My plea is let us lead! You can still offer a lot in terms of wisdom and support. However you are hurting the kingdom of God if you know a younger pastor can do it better and you are hanging on for the paycheck/fear/pride etc. You got the chance in your late 20’s how long must we wait? Until we are 40?

    • Hi – I serve a Presbytery in the Midwest and have found that most multi-staff churches are looking for heads of staff who are in their 30s or 40s. Pastors in the 50s and certainly in their 60s tell me that they are “too old” to be called to something new. The trick is, perhaps, having patience for when the 70-something pastors decide to retire. There will be several congregations in search of fresh ideas with some seasoning. Our pension system rewards pastors who stay in their positions into their 70s.

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