Long-Term Pastors & Age

chicago_fall_2More conversation about age:

Issues about age in the ministry – or in any vocation – are often more about energy levels and call than chronology.  And it’s all a little scary.

For example:

  • Imagine being a pastor in her early-50s who has already served her congregation for ten years.  She could stay until retirement (i.e. another 20 years) or she could seek a new call in a different congregation.  What’s the most faithful choice?
  • Imagine being a pastor in his early to mid-60s who has already served his congregation for 12 years.  He could stay until retirement (i.e. another 8 years) or he could retire early or he could seek a new call.  What’s the most faithful choice?

As a pastor who served for 22 years in one congregation, I often worried about staying too long.  It can be a form of clergy misconduct.

At about year 18,  I chose a group of three people (one of whom usually disagreed with me on pretty much everything) and I asked them about every six months if it was “time to go.”  This group changed often due to the transience of the congregation.

I don’t think they were just being nice when they said that they didn’t think it was time to go, but honestly, as years passed, their collective counsel went from “no!” to “we don’t think so” to “maybe.”

For all of us in this situation, it’s complicated.  In my situation, it was more about my spouse having his own call than the fact that my kids were in high school and we “couldn’t leave.”  Our extraordinary TBC said that – if her Dad found his dream job somewhere far away –  she’d happily move.  The truth is that 1) she had a profoundly good life she’d be leaving behind and 2) as it happened, HH wasn’t called away until TBC started college.

And it was still traumatic leaving the home our children had known all their lives.  Nevertheless, we were called halfway across the country.  This is what you do if God calls.

Brian Blount preached at Shannon Kershner’s installation yesterday that following a call is “not a lifestyle choice.”  It’s not about climbing a ladder.  It’s not about moving to a bigger and “better” church.  It’s not about staying close to family or moving closer to family – although I always pray that these things might be under Divine consideration.  Some of us are called to serve congregations close to home and some of us are not.

Calls change as years pass and we who consider what we do as a calling – whether we are pastors or teachers or scientists or construction workers – must assess whether or not we are still energetic, still visionary, still teachable.  Do we in long-term calls encourage risk and fresh expressions of faith?  Do we partner with people in different generations, cultures, experiences than our own?

As I visit numerous congregations and talk with as many as ten governing boards each month, I see time and time again that we are sometimes stuck because we need fresh leadership.  Sometimes it’s the pastoral leadership that needs to change and sometimes it’s the lay leadership that needs to change.  And the longer the pastor or the elders/deacons have served, the more difficult it is to make those changes.

It’s terrifying, really, to make these changes.  The unknown is always scary.  But, friends, it’s a new season in more ways than one.  We need to ask ourselves, “Is it time to move on?”  And if so, how are we preparing ourselves for the next season of ministry?

Or maybe it’s not time to go anywhere.  (Talk with God about it.)


Image of Fall in Chicagoland.  (Notice the blue skies behind those autumn leaves.)

Now That I’ve Got Your Attention . . .

. . . what should we do when:CutEnergy

  • An embattled 59 year old pastor shares that “if he can only stick it out” for 11 more years, he can finally retire.
  • A pastor less than 5 years from retirement confides that he’s done the math and there’s just enough endowment left in his church coffers to get him to retirement, and then the church can close.
  • A pastor shares that his mortgage will be paid off in three years, so he needs to keep working even though he’s pretty much out of energy.

Yesterday’s blog post hit some nerves, and as I wrote, there are certainly vibrant sexagenarian pastors out there as well as some uncompelling forty and fifty-something pastors.  But it’s easier for the young pastors to make a change when a change is needed.  A forty-something pastor can make vocational shifts more easily than someone on the cusp of 70.  And yet . . .

In our particular Presbytery, several of our churches have called pastors in their late 50s and early 60s over the past three years.  Those pastors have displayed energy, teachability, and a professional/spiritual life that has continued to grow and expand.  A couple of them had previously started new congregations or new forms of worship.  They still read widely, attended conferences, and were current on 21st Century theological conversations.

I remember another colleague in another Presbytery who shared that he “taught continuing education classes” he didn’t “take continuing education classes.”  He considered further education unnecessary, and it showed.  I know very few pastors in the second half of their careers who seek spiritual direction.

While many say that these are tough times for the Institutional Church, I believe it’s actually a fantastic time to be engaged in professional ministry.  We are reassessing why our congregations exist and what’s breaking God’s heart in our neighborhoods.  Some of us have “little to lose” and so we let go of everything we previously trusted that was not God.  We find ourselves free to be more authentic and declare that we – too – have been giving too much attention to the things that kill community rather than those things that enhance it.  This is a great time to be the church.

God deserves our best and it can’t be about our mortgage and our pension and our resume, no matter what our age.  But how can we assist those on the threshold of retirement to leave their churches better than they found them – if not in terms of numbers or programs, then at least in terms of spiritual depth?

Are 60-Something Pastors Irreparably Damaging Our Congregations?

Crumbling church buildingIn the interest of self-disclosure, I am a 58 1/2 years old clergywoman. I know some fresh, excellent 60-something pastors.  And I also know some 50-something (and even some 40-something) pastors who are ineffective leaders.

But, having said this, I wonder what to do when our failing or stagnant churches have 60-something pastors – or even clergy in their late-50s – and a new leadership is needed.  What if those pastors intend to stay with their congregations until they are 70?

The consequence of a declining church led by a tired pastor tends to be irreparable.  But this is an issue facing many of our congregations.

For the pastor nearing retirement, the issues include:

  • The fact that many pastors still have mortgages and – possibly – young adult children in college.
  • The fact that there are financial incentives in many denominational retirement plans for working to 70. (I just calculated my own pension numbers and the financial benefits between retiring at 65 and retiring at 70 are substantial.)

For the congregation in decline, the issues include:

  • The fact that church endowments have been used to pay budget deficits to the point that they are almost depleted.
  • The fact that the pews are no longer full – if they ever were.
  • The fact that the median age of a member in my denomination (the PCUSA) is 63.  For the ELCA it was 58 in 2008.  For the UCC it’s 70. For the UMC it’s 57.  For Episcopalians it’s also 57.

Many of our congregations can indeed turn around, and by that, I don’t mean “return to the glory years” or have full pews and Sunday School classes.  But – if we are willing and faithful – we can turn around in terms of:

  • Becoming communities that reflect the love of God in Jesus Christ.
  • Working to bring the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”
  • Creating community in our neighborhoods that feeds people spiritually.
  • Serving broken people who crave spiritual peace.

As we all know, many pastors have been trained primarily to be chaplains who preach, teach, marry, baptize, and bury.  Effective 21st Century pastors have skills in systems theory, volunteer management, congregational redevelopment, entrepreneurship, community organizing, and . . . preaching, teaching, marrying, baptizing, and burying.  Most of all, we need pastors who are courageous, energetic, risk-taking, and grounded – all to the glory of God.

So, what do we do if a 60-something pastor plans to stick around until 70 . . . leaving the congregation damaged – perhaps – to a point of no return?  After years of tired leadership, many of our congregations will find it impossible to regain both the energy and capacity needed to be the church God has called us to be.

Here are some questions that require serious consideration:

  1. Can our respective denominational Boards of Pensions figure out a way to make it financially beneficial for pastors to retire by 65 – making the way clear for younger clergy?
  2. Can our 60-something clergy partner with younger clergy to mentor each other in these transitional years when our culture is increasingly multicultural, post-denominational, post-Christian?
  3. Can we trust God in all this?

Financial fears keep us enslaved.  Especially in the US where money is our most popular idol, some major shifts are needed.  Who’s up for it?

Image source.




Friday Church Fun: Channeling our Inner Fairy Godmothers & Godfathers

The Church's One FoundationMany articles have been written about equity (or inequity) in pastoral salaries, etc. but the truth is that – as church pledging continues to diminish for a wide variety of good and not-so-good reasons – many of us will look back to these days as The Golden Years of Clergy Compensation.

With an eye on supporting our often underpaid clergy, here’s something that we did in Chicago Presbytery that was relatively inexpensive but good for the soul:

Our generous Synod gave our Presbytery’s Commission on Ministry $33,000 to share with our clergy.  Since we already had grant available for medical and other emergencies and for continuing education expenses, we decided to give 33 of our clergy $1000 Refreshment Grants.

Channeling our inner Fairy Godmothers and Godfathers, we’ve granted $1000 grants for everything from painting classes to gym memberships to kayak lessons to date nights with spouses (babysitting covered too.)

If we cannot pay our clergy generously, then the least we can do is be creative in providing other ways to support them:

  • Give an extra week of vacation in the annual benefits (especially if you can’t give a raise.)
  • Provide “free” guest preachers several times a year for solo pastors and most especially for PT pastors who ordinarily preach FT. (Presbytery staff, retired clergy, specialized clergy like chaplains and professors might volunteer to preach four times a year for a colleague during non-vacation or study leave weekends.)
  • Include sabbaticals in each new Terms of Call – even if it’s just a one month sabbatical after six years.  (Parishioners have no idea how many pastors work seven days a week simply due to real life.  Emergencies consistently occur on our “day off.”)
  • Find money from the denominational coffers to offer $1000 Refreshment Grants to as many pastors as possible each year.  Even if you can only award five grants each year, it is astonishingly good for morale and for the soul.  Even those of us who are privileged enough to grant these gifts find our souls filled.

Have a great weekend, everybody.

Image of Eli Lilly, Patron Saint of Exhausted Clergy.  This post is dedicated to the Rev. Dr. Carol McDonald, our fearless leader.


What Do We Pray For Today?

Today is a good day to take brownies to our local First Responders.  It’s a goodLA 9-11 Memorial day to visit Shanksville.  It’s a really good day to pray and the litany of people to remember is endless – from the children of the 9-11 victims to the children of Iraq, from the families of Foley and Sotloff to the Yazidis.  Let’s all take at least 20 seconds to remember.

That’s about all I can say today.

Image is the 9-11 Memorial in Los Angeles by Heath Satow (2011)

Women in Elevators

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had some interesting experiences in elevatorelevators.

Male strangers have shared that they’ve “liked my legs.”  (Help me Jesus.)  I have felt quite palpable queasiness upon finding myself alone in an elevator with someone who felt a little creepy.

So here’s my thought:  I agree with President Carter who says that the subjugation of women is source of much of what is wrong with the world. Just to be clear, I have also been on elevators with completely lovely human beings.

My point is that most of us do not recognize that Every Day In This Country women are abused by men who are 1) idiots, 2) unaware that women  – like men – were created in the image of God.

Church is where we women (and men) should be learning that God has endowed us with the extraordinary responsibility to make this world “on earth as it is in heaven.”  May it be so.

Girl on Girl Loyalty

Ruth Naomi Orpah 1960ChagallYears ago, I had a twenty-something friend who was asked out on a date by a guy she was interested in getting to know better, but she turned it down because she already had plans that night.  She was picking up a (platonic) girlfriend at the airport.

Guy Who Asked Her Out:  Wait a minute.  You are turning down a date so that you can give somebody a ride? Can’t she take a cab?

Woman Who Was Asked Out:  I told her I’d pick her up.

GWAHO:  I have never heard of a woman choosing a female friend over a guy.

WWWAO:  Maybe you either don’t get out much or you have terrible female friends.

That was a true story.

Yesterday I wrote about Girl On Girl Betrayal which is sadly all too common. That post had a basic heterosexual, binary view of the world which bothered me a bit, and so I’ve asked someone I love to share a different perspective on loyalty and loving behavior later this week.

But for now, what about basic, platonic Girl On Girl Loyalty?  A friend who privately commented to me on yesterday’s post wondered how we can develop this basic loyalty between young girls (and young boys for that matter.)

Assuming that – let’s say – tween girls will always be mean and that’s just the way they are seems almost as ridiculous as assuming that all football players beat their partners/wives and that’s how it is.  Assuming that women will choose romantic opportunities over platonic opportunities is wrong.  Women of any age are not necessarily in competition with each other.  And yet we could cooperate a little better.

Church can be one of the best communities to teach loyalty.

Imagine a church culture that encouraged confidence.  (We were each created in God’s image in unique ways.)  Imagine a church culture that encouraged cooperation and collaboration.  (There is a priesthood of all believers.)

Imagine a church that taught stories like Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah as “how to live in the real world” stories about loyalty and connecting this to friendship today. Maybe you know lots of congregations doing Christian Education this way – relating Bible stories in such a way that life is transformed.  We meet as a community and we leave after the conversation/class/meeting not just socialized or smarter but better friends and human beings.

Imagine a church women’s group which is more than a mission project or a Bible study, but the women were taught how to be loyal friends to each other and to women in the community.  My hope is that everyone reading this can say, “That’s exactly how the women’s group is in my congregation.”  So is it?  Do girls and women learn how to be loyal friends in your church?

Image of Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah by Chagall (1960)

Girl on Girl Betrayal

Sarah and Hagar ChagallHere’s a post for the ladies:

I have always been a girl’s girl.  This doesn’t mean I’m holier or more compassionate than the next person, but Girl On Girl Betrayal is a peculiar disturbance in my gut.  Why would a woman betray another woman?

Yes, we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God.  Yes, we are all miserable offenders. I totally get this.   But . . .  don’t we identify with other women in terms of relationships and work and daily life?  I (totally judgmentally) have a hard time understanding women who backstab other women.

My mother was not one to give advice to her children, but I have a clear memory of Mom announcing at the dinner table, one night, a rare and valuable declaration to my brothers:  Never Date a Girl with No Girlfriends.   I agreed with this admonition absolutely from personal experience and I would find in the years to come that women with no girlfriends had (not always but often) found themselves girlfriendless because they had consistently betrayed their friends for the sake of selfish, often man-centered pursuits.

This is not to say that we women must personally like all other women, or that we understand all other women, or that we are responsible for all other women. But the least we can do is not sabotage each other.

Maybe it’s the particular soup I find myself in lately, or maybe I’ve been walking alongside too many sisters with similar stories, but here are a few questions I would like to ask, in hopes of receiving authentic and wise answers:

1.  Why are the critics of clergywomen most likely to be other women? Are they upset that they themselves didn’t go to seminary?  Did all those generations of men in the pulpit serve as idealized husbands or eye candy or father figures?  Are they jealous?  Are they self-loathing?  Honest explanations would be appreciated.

2.  How can a woman have a sexual fling with a married man without thinking about the sister she is betraying?  Has she been told that The Wife is cold/gay/sick/tired/in-love-with-someone else?  (Believe me, what you’ve been told is not always the truth.)  Is she herself vulnerable and lonely?  Was everybody simply drinking too much and caught up in the fun of being at a conference together?  Did it seem harmless/meaningless?  Am I just a dork who takes marriage vows seriously?  What’s up with this?

3.  Why can’t we women be happy for each other when something goes well?  One friend remarried after becoming a young widow and another friend rued the fact that “Two people fell in love with her, but nobody has fallen in love with me.  It’s not fair.”  Another friend said, “I can’t believe she got that job.  What does she have that I don’t have?”  And yet another recently shared with me, “I don’t trust (that clergywoman) with my husband’s church committee.  I’m not comfortable with him going to meetings led by a woman.” Really?

Yea, yea, yea I know that all of us are occasionally catty and immature and all-about-ourselves, but these things happen in the church (In The Church) every day.  Am I asking too much to expect women to work alongside, be friends alongside, live alongside each other without stabbing each other in the back?

Anonymous responses especially welcomed in this post, but I’d like to know if you are male or female as you respond.  Thank you.

Image is Sarah and Hagar by Marc Chagall (1956)

What Rocky Said (and More)

rockyYesterday, Rocky Supinger  – a gifted pastor and colleague who works with youth in California – wrote this provocative statement in his blog:

Maybe my students need church to be the thing that backs down and that expects whatever percentage of themselves they’re able to give–today.

You can read the whole post here.  And read the comments too.

Our church kids are busy.  Our church adults are busy.  And church should never be something that shames us, overwhelms us, guilts us, or bores us.  But consider the comments we occasionally hear in church about families that disappoint:

  • They never do their share as  volunteers.
  • They drop their kids off and go to Starbucks.
  • They won’t bring their kids to youth group.
  • They never help with Vacation Bible School.
  • They are always late for worship.
  • They used the church for baptism and then they left.

Maybe we are missing the basic point.  Our youth, our children, our adults are not expected to “come” to perpetuate and maintain an institution.  Spiritual communities should engage and refresh and lighten the load.  The point is to build a relationship with God and with each other.

So what do we do when our people are exhausted and overwhelmed?  Rocky says, “Maybe it’s the church that should back off.”


In my first church, I met with a family early in my years there whom  – I’d heard – were once very active in the congregation, but now they stayed away. The family included Mom, Dad, and three elementary school kids.  I visited in hopes of convincing them that it would be great to have them “back” again.  But the dad said something like this:

The last pastor told us that we should stay home on Sunday mornings because it’s the only time of the week that all of us are home and we need that family time.  My wife works nights.  I work days.  The kids have lots of activities.  But we need a Sabbath.  We need one day when we can stay home in our pajamas and eat a big breakfast and hang out together with no stress.”

I didn’t buy it.  What pastor would tell a family to stay home on Sunday mornings?  Maybe the last pastor said that or maybe he didn’t.  But I get it now.

Families long for down time.  Is it the church that should back off?

One of the most fundamental questions we must ask ourselves as church leaders is this:

  • Is our goal to create programs that make us feel successful?  (e.g. lots of people, stuff, events)
  • Or is our goal to create a spiritual community that is safe, inclusive, holy, and reflective of God’s love?

One of my smart colleagues AD has suggested that – just as adults often meet for Faith on Tap, God Talk on Tap, etc. – maybe something similar could be offered for youth which involves meeting in dairy bars or Chinese take out restaurants.  Imagine churches offering something – in addition to the regularly scheduled programming – that involves informal conversation around spiritual topics from money to gun violence to sex.  Drop in.  Bring friends.  No pressure.

In my ongoing effort to encourage churches to increase the number of portals through which people can enter the community, this is one idea that allows kids and their parents to participate as they can, when they can.  And depending on the leadership (which like all church leadership needs to be equipped and gifted) it might attract people who would never step foot in a church building.  Just a thought.





Human Beings


Can we all agree that Jennifer Lawrence is a human being? Surely we all recognize that Steven Sotloff was a son, a friend and – now in death – still a beloved child of God.

Why would we denigrate these human beings by downloading hacked personal photographs or watching video of someone’s execution? What is the matter with us?

It’s surprisingly difficult to remember that even our enemies are human beings, created in the image of God. I often find myself in meetings reminding Church People that:

  • This” (slander, ugliness) “is not the way Christians talk to each other.
  • Followers of Jesus do not gossip about each other in church parking lots.
  • People who’ve experienced God’s grace convey that grace upon others.

I observe pastors treating parishioners with open disdain. I observe parishioners openly shredding their pastor’s personalities, leadership, and very existence.

Again, what is wrong with us?

In terms of becoming a 21st Century Church, it’s easier for us Church People to speak snarkily of each other than it is to make the difficult shifts required for faithful ministry. It’s hard work to become a new church for a new day.

Repeat after me: In life and in death, we belong to God. Whether we believe in God or not. Whether we deserve it or not. (I believe we actually don’t.) Jennifer Lawrence. Steven Sotloff. The pastor you disagree with. The elder who makes you crazy. The church official who seems so out of touch. You. Me. We are human beings who deserve respect – if for no other reason than the fact that God created us holy.

Image of Steven Sotloff whom we mourn today.