18 Comments

Been thinking about this for the past week. "people seemed to have to go through a sort of waiting room process in college ministry or as a youth pastor before getting an actual pastor or associate pastor position." This is accurate with what I have seen, and I suspect is part of the problem. Pastoral ministry has a brutally high attrition rate, and I suspect part of this is due to smart, competent young men who want to lead a flock being stalled out in an associate pastor role at a large multi-staff church where they are expected to execute someone else's vision.

But, if those young men attempt to apply to a role at a solo pastor church, they will find that many small churches refuse to hire young pastors, wanting someone with extensive experience, which often means that when they can't attract the 40 year old pastor with 15 years of experience and a postcard family, they instead go for elderly pastors who are stuck in 30 and 40 year old ministry models, rather than taking a chance on a younger leader with a slim resume.

Because so many churches in America are independently-run Baptist or nondenominational, there is no presbytery, bishop, or other overseer to say to them, as Paul likely said to the church at Ephesus regarding Timothy: "This is the leader you need, ignore his youth".

So young men who are called to lead a church can't find an opening where they can actually lead, and they can either wait to climb the ladder, or move on to a secular career that will offer better and quicker advancement, to say nothing of better pay. Anybody who is smart and charismatic enough to earn an M.Div and get hired at a middle-class multi-staff church can make very good money in the private sector.

Expand full comment

I LOVE THIS! I have talked about several thoughts on this topic. I am a 20 year vet of youth ministry who did NOT want to become a lead pastor....and now am!

-In the 90's there was a shift from churches elevating a call to ministry (missions, pastorate) to being a missionary in the corporate world. The pendulum swung so far that it is odd for youth pastors and pastors to make a "call to ministry" appeal to their congregations

-Part of the issue is rooted in the lack of discipleship. We have made celebrities out of pastors. Instead of them planting new smaller churches with someone they mentored and discipled taking the lead, they do video venues. As a result, there is only room for the best of the best when it comes to preaching.

-The decline of the Bible college has not helped. Many churches have adopted internships and have attempted to form programs that replace Bible college. There are some good ones out there that do a great job, but many do not succeed. The church can create an "apprentiship" as you have said, but they have to commit to it, give to it, and emphasize it.

-Agreed about Jesus picking men, rather than the other way around. Many pastors are so busy doing the work (instead of delegating it) that they miss potential talent and giftedness in their congregations. They simply don't get to meet the young.

-Lastly, the average age of a lead pastor was mid-30's 20 years ago. Now it is mid to upper 40's. That tells you something.

Expand full comment

On the vetting for leadership note, part of the way we look for board members at our classical Christian school is to see who sticks around after events to clean up, who is willing to volunteer and serve, who gives of themselves and has been plugged in for a long time. Then, yes, we select them; I think you're on the right path.

Expand full comment

What is the typical preacher's workload like on days other than Sunday? Asking honestly because the dual career model seems to me as something that's feasible for someone who works 40-50 hours/week in a secular professional job, but I've never worked in a church and don't know what the job entails in practice.

Expand full comment

The apprenticeship model you mention is such a good idea for seminary (and for medicine, where it is once again being piloted in the UK).

I and a good number of my friends went to divinity or theology grad school. There was a clear difference between people coming from a rigorous undergrad background and the majority of students, most of whom were there to figure out their lives or gain some power over Church policy to change doctrines. Biblical literacy is way better at conservative schools, whereas Harvard Div, Pton, Duke, etc are notorious for poor biblical literacy but high in cultural literacy. These schools have incentives to overproduce grads ($$$tuition), so in terms of churches finding people to fill pastor positions, the odds are good, but the goods are odd, as they say.

Interestingly, the problem seems opposite in the Roman Catholic Church. Most young men who want to be priests are traditionalist, smart, and highly committed, and the Boomer priests are afraid of their conservative direction and are trying to keep them out.

Expand full comment

Im wondering how much the shrinking American churchgoing will have on our need for pastors. I could have sworn Aaron wrote about how the RCC has money to fund increasingly dwindling Catholics. As the number of church-goers shrinks, what’s the economics of training pastors look like in the future? Do we still need massive seminaries with AI/the internet for training?

Expand full comment

The Gordon-Conwell article says that they're planning to sell the property and "lease space in Boston" - leasing is the last thing I'd want to do as a seminary attempting to maintain itself against the pressures of ideological conformity. If they do not buy a building, it will put them in a significantly more vulnerable position for cancellation.

Expand full comment
Feb 2Liked by Aaron M. Renn

Interesting post. I think we may also have to get back to having more bivocational leaders like was so common in the early days of Christianity. I'm sort of going through this discernment process myself.

I am middle aged and even though I have a science PhD already, I just started doing a part time seminary program while keeping my full time job, with my pastor's encouragement (long story). I attend an evangelical church but am attending a quite liberal mainline seminary because a big donor dropped funding on them so everyone who gets in gets free tuition. Even with the free tuition, their enrollment is down ~50% over the last decade. I thought I would be a fish out of water, but I was staggered that probably 1/2 the enrollment are people my age or older. Of the young folks, probably most are international from Africa, Latin America, and Asia. And about 40% are like me, ecumenical--not from the denomination the seminary is a part of.

Expand full comment

Good thoughts. Your first paragraph 100% aligned with my thinking as well. Just as there are too many grad students in all the humanities, surely there are too many seminary grad students? But that could still be true and it just may be the case that too many are pursuing a Ph.D. in Theology while not enough an M.Div.

I recall a stat (perhaps from Ryan Burge) that the majority of churches in America are surprisingly small. Like 30-50 average attendance and declining rapidly. As those churches die off and younger generations naturally gather in somewhat larger churches (or, for a smaller number, in house churches), there's probably a natural decline in per capita demand for pastors. Or at least for lead pastors (which is surely the most demanding role).

Though that probably only attenuates the demand on the margin. We still need a pipeline of good pastors. Maybe the way we treat the sense of "calling" is something that needs to be examined. The idea that if you feel a sense of calling strongly enough, it must be the Holy Spirit telling you to go to seminary, and even if you completely lack the talents and temperament for it, you end up signing up for seminary and for some reason no one stops you. I think everyone who spends enough time in evangelical churches knows "that guy".

Meanwhile, if you are a talented leader and speaker of excellent character who knows the Bible well, but don't naturally feel the calling and are perfectly successful in another career, then there's no sense in anyone trying to convince you to consider becoming a pastor.

Expand full comment

As part of the conservative Mennonite church, we license/ordain pastors almost exclusively from within each congregation. This adds great stability and continuity to our congregational life. Pastors are bi-vocational, with the church supporting the balance of their salary. Our current pastors are 54, 39, and 32 years old (with a retired pastor that's 66 years old and preaches 1-2 times per year). Our congregation attendance average is around 250.

Expand full comment

I believe too we need to rethink what a pastor is, and his duties and "job description". Does every pastor need to be a good to great preacher? Are other gifts also fitted to the role? Could a lay person or someone with a so called secular job fill the pulpit while the paid pastor is about the job of shepherding the flock? What must a church look like?

Lots of questions but undoubtedly we need a way to qualify folks for the pastorate without crippling them financially. I like the proposed apprenticeship model here.

Expand full comment
Feb 1Liked by Aaron M. Renn

As the son of a pastor and the president of a seminary that tried to start thinking outside the box over 50 years ago (Birmingham Theological Seminary), I couldn't agree with your thoughts more. Other intersecting issues -- young men today have only seen modeled the "celebrity pastor," the "influencer pastor," etc. So many of our younger pastors spend all their time on Twitter and FB, I often wonder how much time the commit to shepherding the flocks entrusted to them. Seminaries don't train men for ministry -- that should be the churches job. Seminaries provide a much needed element -- academic and theological discipleship. One of our internal mottos at BTS is that we work to push academic discipleship into the hands of the local church -- so they can train men in the experiential elements of ministry -- thereby affirming, confirming, or gently steering men away from a call to ministry. Just a few thoughts! Thanks for the post!

Expand full comment