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.

 

 

 

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16 responses to “Are 60-Something Pastors Irreparably Damaging Our Congregations?

  1. I’m wondering if an additional concern is the interim pastor “system.” In my limited experience, most interims are either retired (or left a church near retirement age). Are they really equipped and called to be excellent interims or is it a “bridge to retirement” job? What does the denomination (PCUSA) to prepare them? Please tell me it’s more than a workshop or two.

    • An excellent interim is like gold. All our interim pastors have special training but – as always – some are more skilled than others. And to be fair, some churches only want a place- holder/ chaplain until “the real pastor” is called or they don’t want an interim pastor at all. All congregations need to use that transitional time well & if they don’t, the new pastor – & subsequently the congregation- will pay for it.

  2. What also are the possibilities for re-energizing our pastors (I also am a 58 year old clergywoman)? One of our Board of Pension programs for focusing/refocusing pastoral vision is unavailable to pastors over 50. The culture at large is increasingly aware and appreciative of the creative contributions being made by people over the age of 65. Where is the church in this? Where is the call to the laity in encouraging creativity among the pastors and members rather than increasingly relying on the pastors because our members are tired, on vacation, or busy with other community obligations? I am blessed with an active, though declining at the moment, congregation, We are looking at new ways of reaching out to the community around us, and are to be open and creative in the Spirit as the Spirit works through all of us. While I understand, and appreciate the question raised here, I think it also contributes to the problem when the focus is just on the pastor, and is stated in the such a general way as to suggest (despite the disclaimer) that pastors over 60 should be put out to pasture since they almost inevitably do irreparable harm to the congregation. Where is our priesthood of all believers in such a thought?

    • Hi Merritt- good points. But I believe it’s the role of the pastor to equip the saints of every age (Eph. 4) & many of us either don’t know how to do this or won’t do this or our people erroneously consider the pastor’s role to be the professional Christian & the only minister.

  3. Sorry…if I could edit my post above I would. A few errors that are annoying me.

  4. Where does the demographic of the session fit into this leadership concern? On our session of 12, 5 are over the age of 60, 2 under the age of 30 (possibly) and the rest in between. How do those numbers impact energy, freshness and openness to change? (I am a 66 yo RE not currently serving on session)

    • Hi Laura – It’s really about how session members are trained and how energetic they are to learn new things, along with the pastor. I have had experience with pastors who were called “to bring growth and change” and when they tried, they were blocked by elders who liked the idea of growth and change but not the reality. Much of this depends on issues beyond the elders’ ages or other demographics. For example, if elders (or members in general) consider the church “theirs” and the reason the church exists is to serve them, it doesn’t matter what the pastor does. A pastor’s job today includes shifting the church paradigm and sometimes this will be more difficult with people who’ve been part of the same congregation for a long, long time – regardless of their age.

  5. And yet we still don’t talk about evangelism. Rich’s “fire in the belly” come close. In order to have vibrant churches with a faith they want to share because it has brought the healing and grace of God into their lives. Erich’s suggestion that we create financial incentives to send seminary graduates at minimal cost to our growth minded congregations might be a start. Get people on the front lines in a place where growth can be seen and felt. More workers in the field ready for harvest 😉

  6. I think this article makes a lot of generalizations and assumptions based on age. It assumes that if suddenly all of the 60 something pastors were out of the way, the church would boom! And it does not speak to 60 something pastors who know how to build leadership of all ages, invite younger members to use their gifts and skills which are so needed, and do it without throwing the baby out with the bath water. Yes, I agree that BOP and Social Security is structured in a way that is unhelpful. But the struggling church is struggling for a lot more reasons than 60 something pastors. Finally, perhaps CREDO should start allowing pastors over 55 to attend. Then those of us who are so tired and worn out can get re-energized properly. Sorry, Jan, but this blog pushed my buttons.

    • Thank so much Judy. Pushed buttons are a good thing for conversation.

      As I said at the beginning of the post, we can’t make generalizations. There are pastors over 60 with great energy and vision. There are much younger pastors who are stuck. Our hope is that we can make whatever shifts are necessary in how we pastor churches to help all our congregations thrive.

  7. I think that mixing things up would definitely help. What if our more seasoned pastors (of any age) were sent to the tiny struggling churches and more “new” pastors (again, whatever that means) were sent to the larger more stable churches? Our system is backwards…..

    • Hi Jeff – I believe I was talking about evangelism. Being missional as opposed to “doing mission” is key. Being to talk about our faith is something that can be taught – even to Presbyterians. (Note: my session long ago once told me that “Presbyterians don’t pray out loud with people.” Not only do we, but we must. And if we don’t know how, we can learn and find that it enriches our relationships with God and each other.)

  8. Folks, put your calculators away — there is no guarantee to live until 70 (my current age) or even until tomorrow. Systems theory: a student taught that the first session of seminary field education in NYC where I attended – autumn of 1967 (few days after we wedded). Seven years later (after dropping out of seminary and performing alternative service (selective service) for two years, I went into “computers” and worked there for more than three decades.

  9. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

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