The Graying of the Pulpit, Revisited
The average age of AG ministers is increasing, but why?
In the year 2000, Maurice Lednicky, then president of Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, wrote an article for the campus newsletter, The Bulletin, that captured my attention. I was only 21 at the time, but I’ll never forget it. One reason it left such an indelible imprint on my mind was the statistics he shared about the aging population of Assemblies of God ministers. Another was the catchy title: “The Graying of the Pulpit.”
Something about that title struck me as interesting and ominous. At the same time, I was full of hope, because I was so young. How could the Fellowship’s ministers be aging so much when so many young people like me were joining its ranks? In reality, when I was ordained two years later, I was one of only 10 ordained Assemblies of God ministers under 24 in the U.S.
When Lednicky first wrote his alarming article in 2000, 29 percent of ordained ministers were 65 or older, and only 2 percent were under 30. Today, 37 percent of ordained ministers are 65 or older, and another 13 percent are between the ages of 60 and 64. So half of all ordained AG ministers are 60 or older. Only 1 percent of them are under 30. In 2000, the average age of ordained AG ministers was 55; now it is 60. And in case you’re wondering about the licensed and certified minister categories, their average age is increasing at a similar pace.
Since 2010, the AG has added an average of 427 net new ministers each year, factoring in those who pass away or resign and the relatively small number who are dismissed. Even with a record number of credential holders at the end of each of the last several years, we’re aging. But why?
Has God stopped calling young people to ministry? I don’t believe so. That’s not His way. Scripture and history show that God has consistently called young men and women to serve Him. So, either those He’s called have stopped responding, or their response to His call is taking place outside of the Assemblies of God. In either case, the following factors may explain our lack of younger ministers.
A Waning Respect for the Ministry
There was a day when clergy were among the most respected professions. Today, according to a recent Barna report, only 25 percent of people say they highly respect pastors. On the other end of the spectrum, 25 percent say they highly disrespect pastors.
While it’s hard to say exactly what led to this distrust and disrespect, I’d like to suggest it stems, at least in part, from the fact that people do not like the disunity and the increasingly hostile rhetoric they see and hear from pastors in the pulpit, and more prominently, on social media.
The Drive for Success
During my years in higher education, I sat with multiple families whose teenagers were considering a college ministry major and heard the parents say, “You’re too smart to go into ministry,” or “You have too much potential to be a pastor.”
I’ve counseled some of these same students as they made hard decisions to pursue a ministry call instead of following a career their parents wanted for them. In some cases, choosing vocational ministry meant the parents would not support the student financially. And these were Christian parents who attend church every week. A drive for success as defined by our culture could cause parents and potential young ministers to steer toward professions with more lucrative outcomes.
Fewer Invitations for Young People to Respond to the Call to Ministry
It is concerning that I rarely hear pastors give opportunities for individuals to respond to the call to ministry. Less emphasis on vocational ministry may result from the assumption that, if God wants individuals to be ministers, He will make that call clear to them.
It could also be that a broader understanding of all God’s people as ministers has lessened the urgency for those called to vocational ministry. After all, if I can be a minister in the marketplace and make more money, why would I commit to vocational ministry?
Lack of Emphasis on AG Higher Education for Ministry Formation
Many young people who feel called to ministry do not sense a need to prepare for ministry in an Assemblies of God college or university.
No doubt, the rising cost of private education is a factor, but so is a lack of understanding concerning the importance of theological education for the formation of ministers. Many who feel called to ministry are convinced they would be better off having a marketable degree to fall back on if ministry does not work out. But the greater risk is a minister who is unprepared due to inadequate ministry training.
Failure to Hand off the Baton to the Next Generation
Transitions in the pulpit are not just from one person to another, but from one generation to another. It is possible that young ministers simply resort to giving their lives to other purposes because no one will give them a chance to lead in ministry. Too often, pastors preach that the church will be here long after they leave, but operate as though it will end with their retirement.
An experienced minister can feel nervous when handing off the baton to a younger, less experienced leader, and may desire to wait until the perfect replacement comes along. But the handoff must be made, because there’s no one else coming.
To be clear, the increasing average age of ordained AG ministers is not the problem. It is a symptom of a problem, or many problems, some of which I have already mentioned. These issues should be a major cause of concern for anyone who cares about the future of ministry and the local church, particularly within the Assemblies of God.
What if fewer and fewer young people join the ranks of vocational ministers in the AG? The Fellowship may experience challenges such as these:
• An inability to fill pulpits vacated by retiring pastors.
• A lack of individuals who are willing to engage in entrepreneurial work, such as church planting and missions.
• A void of youthful energy in our local churches, eventually resulting in an increase of the average age of those attending our churches.
• A knowledge gap created by older ministers’ inability to transfer their wealth of life and ministry knowledge to the next generation of leaders.
Even with a record number of credential holders at the end of each of the last several years, we’re aging.
But before concern gives way to panic, consider another statistic. Even while the average age of an AG ordained minister is 60, 54 percent of AG adherents are under age 35. So, the AG is both old and young — old in ministers, but young in adherents. Frankly, I cannot explain why, but it means at least two things.
First, it is impressive and positive that the age of our adherents is not following the age of our ministers, which one would naturally expect. Second, these statistics show in the next decade, the AG will experience the largest leadership transition in its history as its oldest senior leaders retire.
The good news is that the pool of future ministers in the AG is larger than at any point in our history. What must we do to ensure the readiness of the church’s future leaders? I offer the following possible solutions.
Readiness of Future Leaders
1. Be a spiritual parent. Ministers must take seriously their individual responsibility to serve as spiritual fathers and mothers to the next generation. Paul said, “Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15).
Guides and teachers are necessary, but they do not reproduce. Fathers and mothers reproduce. The church needs spiritual parents who prophetically call out the greatness in young people with ministry gifts and then walk with them, resourcing and encouraging them as if they are the only hope for our future. Pastors must do this because no one else will.
On a positive note, our abundance of aging ministers means we now have the greatest storehouse of ministry wisdom and experience that has ever been available to the younger generation of church leaders. Older leaders must own their role as sages in our movement and intentionally deposit their knowledge in their spiritual children.
2. Make ministry attractive. Young people may feel a call to ministry, but if what they see when they watch their pastor is misery, dysfunction and disunity, they will have no desire to be a part of it.
Pastors should take every opportunity to celebrate the privilege of being a minister and talk more openly about the joys than the difficulties. Moreover, pastors can make ministry attractive to young people by making the church a place to enjoy, not endure. It should be our goal to live the kind of life in front of future ministers that will make them want to do what we do and be who we are.
3. Create moments that matter. Pastors can create individual and corporate spiritual moments that will serve as markers for the next generation. Pull a young person aside one-on-one to say you see God’s hand on him or her. Challenge people to use their God-given ministry gifts. Take time regularly in corporate gatherings to pray with anyone who feels a call to ministry.
Celebrate the call to vocational ministry as unique and important, and find ways to engage the congregation in commissioning young people who feel called to ministry. These moments will serve as reminders of God’s call, just as Paul told Timothy to remember his commissioning when the elders laid hands on him (1 Timothy 4:14).
4. Lead effective internships and apprenticeships. Jesus and Paul trained their followers through apprenticing, and we have much to learn from their example. First, bring young people who are called to ministry alongside you in your daily work and ministry to experience what you do. Take them with you on hospital visitations, and let them listen in on important ministry and leadership conversations. Invite your mentees to sit in on a board meeting.
Second, delegate authority to young people so they feel some of the spiritual weight of ministry. Let them teach a class or lead a small group. Ask them to organize an outreach or lead a new project. Always follow these opportunities by debriefing with the mentees so you can help them learn from the experience.
5. Encourage young people to attend an AG college or university. Spiritual parents love their kids, but they also know that eventually those young people need to leave the nest and live their own lives. Direct spiritual children who feel called to ministry toward an Assemblies of God college or university where they can receive excellent training to do that which God has called them.
My research shows that church planters who attended an AG college and pursued a ministry-related major have significantly higher ministry outcomes in nearly every category than did their peers who did not. If ministry in an AG church is one’s calling, the best preparation will be at an AG institution of higher learning.
6. Partner with an AG college or university. Our endorsed colleges and universities are a gift to the AG as the administration, faculty and staff come alongside the church to train its next generation of ministers. At the same time, an increasing number of pastors are attempting to engage in the educational space.
Churches err when they go to either of two extremes: fully delegating the preparation of ministers to the schools on the one hand, or trying to do the job of the schools fully on the other hand. Instead, pastors desiring to make their church a training ground for future ministers should seek to come into partnership with an AG-endorsed college to provide students with a quality education and practical ministry experience.
The church and the school both have a role to play in ministerial formation, and the strength of the future church depends on the strategic and collaborative contributions of both.
7. Hire AG college and university graduates. The church must find a way to make room for young ministry graduates from AG schools. In some cases, that means intentionally hiring AG school graduates who have invested time and resources to get the very best ministry training. In other cases, it may mean investing in a young graduate who is raising funds to plant a church, become a missionary or start another missional-entrepreneurial endeavor.
8. Give opportunity to Chi Alpha students and alumni. Thousands of godly young men and women are graduating from university campuses all over the country. Their degree tracks in marketplace disciplines range from business to education to engineering and everything in between. They have also been discipled and taught how to disciple through the ministry of Chi Alpha. And God is calling many of them to give their lives and careers to ministry and missions.
If you live in a college town, build relationships with the Chi Alpha ministry near you and invest in students with a call to ministry. Give them opportunity to leverage their skills and knowledge for the kingdom of God in and through your ministry.
9. Hire and promote women ministers. The AG has always recognized and validated the contribution of women ministers, and rightfully so. But if the movement is to thrive in the 21st century as it did in the 20th, we must not only be correct in our theology concerning women in ministry, but also in our practice.
Women represent the fastest-growing demographic of new credential holders in the AG, and yet, they are still underrepresented in our church’s ministry positions, especially in senior leadership. Pastors must work to encourage and elevate women God has called to ministry, and pastors must open for women doors to ministry that have previously been closed.
My work with ministers-in-training over the last several years gives me great hope in the future of the Church. Our teens and 20-somethings are some of the most motivated, creative and missional individuals the AG has ever seen.
I believe our best days are ahead, but we cannot take for granted that young men and women will automatically want to give their lives to ministry in the Assemblies of God. Those of us who serve in the roles of spiritual parents and grandparents must give young people a reason to stay in the family.
When Maurice Lednicky wrote about the graying of the pulpit, he sounded an alarm that still rings for us 17 years later. It forces us to ask how we as ministers will reproduce ourselves in the younger generation. God is calling them. Now it is the personal responsibility of every minister to encourage, develop and release those who respond to His call.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2017 edition of Influence magazine.