In 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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?