The numbers of young mainline clergy have declined dramatically in recent decades. The table on page 9 provides a snapshot of age distributions of today’s mainline clergy, and it’s not a youthful picture.
The numbers can’t be explained away by demographic trends. A comparison of the rate of decline of young clergy with that of young members of other professions makes it clear that what’s happening in the church is unique.
In 1970, according to the American Bar Association, 26% of the country’s practicing attorneys were under 36. In the mid 1970s, about 24% of Presbyterian ministers and more than 19% of Episcopal priests were in this age group. This not a huge difference—the legal profession and two Protestant church had close to the same proportion of young leaders.
After 25 years, the relative number of young attorneys had changed little: 23% were under 35. However, in roughly the same time period the number of young Presbyterian ministers fell to just 7% of the denomination's total, a 71.4% drop. The number of young Episcopalian priests dropped to just under 4% of the denomination’s active clergy.
The same pattern is evident when clergy and doctors are compared. The American Medical Association reports that doctors under 35 made up 27% of practicing physicians in 1975 and 17% in 1998. This 37% loss, while significant, still does not compare to those suffered by the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches.
For many churches, the amount of the loss is unknown. In the “Information Age,” coming up with data on the ages of clergy 25 years ago is no simple matter. Some denominations report that such information either was not collected or is not now retrievable. Others note that it simply wasn’t important in the early and mid-70’s and so wasn’t tracked.
Although the United Methodist Church could not provide data on pastor’s ages except for the current year, Rev. Robert Kohler, assistant general secretary for the Section of Elders and Local Pastors at the General Board of Higher Education Ministry, speculates that 25 years ago 80% of seminary graduates were under 35. Now, he estimates, 80% are second- or even third-career types—people over 35 looking for a major life change.
Kohler is not that far off. According to the Association of Theological Schools’ 1999-2000 Profile of Participants, to which 3,964 students at 103 seminaries responded, 30% of seminary graduates were under 30.
Economics and Prestige
It’s clear that fewer young people are considering a professional career leading mainline churches. Church ministers and researchers have their own ideas about why this is happening.
“hen someone is young and is thinking about entering into a field as a professional, and they compare being a pastor with being a school teacher or even other modest paying occupations, it just doesn’t stack up very well,” says Cynthia Woolever, associate for congregational research with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. “People can’t raise a family on that kind of money.”
David Cushman, director of the National Ministries’ Office of Information Services for the American Baptist Church, was a pastor of a congregation for nearly 20 years. However, he makes more money in his current position—Web site development and library work for the church—than he did leading a congregation. His wife is currently a full-time pastor.
“We wouldn’t be able to live on what she makes,” he explains. “We’re in a situation of subsidizing the ministry. I’ve told people if we had to do it over, I’d go into my research position first.”
Economics aside, the prestige of the position has also taken a hit. “The past generation used to talk to mayors; we’ve never had mayors give us the time of day,” Cushman says. Woolever concurs: “There’s not the regard for clergy there once was. They used to be influential in shaping the life of a community.”
“People aren’t encouraging their children to go into ministry, particularly people who are clergy themselves,” says John O’Hara, research analyst for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
A Painful Trend
According to the book Full Pews and Empty Altars, by Richard Schoenherr and Larry Young, 32% of Catholic clergy in 1975 were 55 or older. Currently that age group makes up more than 69% of Catholic clergy.1 This trend is significant in that many feel it’s the path mainline Protestant churches are walking. “Catholics are about 20 years ahead of Protestants in their numbers,” says O’Hara.
“Beginning in the middle 1970s the Episcopal Church became suspicious of young adults going directly from college into the ministry,” says Rev. William Sachs, Ph.D., director of research for the Episcopal Church Foundation. “There was a feeling that second-career people came with greater experience. Many dioceses required applicants take a few more years of work before they'd be considered. Only now is that beginning to shift.”
Rev. Christopher Martin, 32, is a minister at All Saints in Beverly Hills, California. “Almost universally, those of us who are younger found [the church] to be deaf and uncomprehending of what it’s like to be in your twenties and dealing with a call,” he says. About the numbers, he remarks, “It’s just painful.”
Pushing for Change
After reading an article in 1996 about the clergy shortage, Martin called the Episcopal Pension Fund for information about the number of young priests in the church. He and two other priests got the addresses for all of them. “We sent them a letter saying if you’re getting this you’re one of 297 priests under 35.”
That letter led to meetings, and the meetings generated ongoing e-mail conversations and debates about church policy. Eventually, Gathering the NeXt Generation (GTNG) was formed. It is one of the few organizations within the mainline church devoted to young clergy issues.
GTNG members push for change in the ordination process. “People like the bishop here in LA are showing some willingness to work around the [rules] and get young people into the process,” Martin says. “When I went up to be ordained, I was 24 years old and canon law said you had to be 25. The bishop made an exception.”
While GTNG continues to lobby for an updated ordination process, Martin wonders if fewer young people consider ministry because fewer of the attend church.
Getting Young People to Church
“There is the larger problem of young people just not being in the Episcopal Church in great numbers,” Martin says. “My full-time ministry is to people in their twenties and thirties.”
Some denominations, realizing that it takes young people to attact young people, are making the most of what they have now. For example, Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, 32, is the senior pastor in his denomination’s largest church. All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has more than 2,000 members. “It was a surprising move,” Lavanhar says of his call.
Just down the road from All Souls is an equally large Southern Baptist church that recently called a 29-year-old senior minister. “I thought,” Lavanhar laughed while being interviewd, “you were calling to find out why there’s such a trend for large churches to call ministers under 35.”
“My sense,” he continued, “of why All Souls would call someone my age is that they’re really trying to reach out to young adults. Maybe the reason there aren’t more young people in ministry is that there aren’t more young people in church. Young people don’t sense that the church is somewhere to go to find meaning and community. They’re not going to church and thus not going into the clergy as well.”
Lavanhar is working to redesign his church’s Web site and to develop a contemporary service by next fall. Of a similar service he created in Boston, he says that it regularly draws more people than the traditional one.
Evangelicals May Have an Edge
The Willow Creek Association, formed in Illinois in 1992, is a body of 3,513 U.S. contemporary evangelical churches. Since the churches are not required to report data, the association has no age information about its pastors. However, Willow Creek regularly holds conferences for church leaders, and Jerry Butler, vice president for membership and communications, notes that at least half the faces he sees appear to be under 40.
“We cater to the risk-taking, change-agent kind of pastor,” Butler said. “We’re actively trying to touch the younger leader.”
The strategy appears to be working. Butler notes that in 2000, Willow Creek sponsored 30 training events for young pastors or people considering a career as a pastor. More than 2,600 young seminary and college students attended these conferences. That number is up from just a few hundred who attended the year before.
“They know we’re about innovation and creativity,” he said. “We haven’t discovered a new theology, we’re just trying to go back and bring it into this millennium.”
It would be easy to blame the younger generation for a lack of willingness to step up to the plate when it’s clearly their turn to lead. But how to explain the fact that Willow Creek has seen such impressive growth in the numbers of young people attending its conferences? It may be that dynamics internal to mainline Protestantism, not the culture at large, hold the key to a more “youthful picture.” The church needs to look at itself first.
1. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993, pp. 29-31.