My guess is that most pastor search committees are set on “stupid”.
Stupid because their qualifications screen out some of the best and brightest, denying their church the leadership it needs.
Stupid because they prefer younger pastors over seasoned pastors to fill the empty slot on their org chart.
I’ve seen this stupidity in action, so I know whereof I speak. I’ve heard (in person) megachurch lead pastors declare that they would never consider anyone over 50 for a staff position. On numerous occasions I’ve listened to pastor search teams mouth the same stupid sentiment.
Preferring younger over older pastors is stupid in 3 ways.
- It’s stupid because it is a baseless fad
- It’s stupid because it ignores research
- It’s stupid because it deprives a church of wisdom
1. Preference for younger pastors is a baseless “strategic fad”
Who among us hasn’t been guilty of chronological arrogance? Even though it is easy to fall prey to the trap, a bit of mindfulness should reveal the groundless bias and the baseless fad that produces this stupid preference.
Consider the silly rubric that “younger people prefer younger pastors.”
Tom Spivey, “Can Older Pastors Really Reach the Younger Generation?” observes that this nonsense is typical of churches that want to grow even though they don’t have the chops to pull it off.
Churches that try to grow share a common impulse toward strategic fads. These fads can be recognized if one steps back and simply thinks of the lack of substance they share. However, I continue to hear how much these things matter from churches all over. In my experience and that of my colleagues in healthy, growing churchesâ€¦they don’t.
Spivey offers up a sobering reality that most pastor search teams ignore: younger people often prefer an older pastor. They know the wrinkles under that smile and the streaks of gray reveal a lifetime of experience that offers wise counsel and profitable mentoring.
Nonetheless, the number of churches that have failed to grow by calling a younger pastor (to attract the younger crowd) are legion.
Think about it for a moment.
Does anyone really believe that attracting families with children is simply a matter of putting a younger face in the pulpit? If that worked every church would do it and we wouldn’t have all these churches waiting to close when the last oxygen bottle is exhausted!
Attracting younger people isn’t about dressing the place up and rearranging a few seats on the bus. There’s got to be a wholesale change in the church culture (from the “this church is here for me” mindset to the “we’re here to serve Jesus” mentality). Significant sums of money have to be devoted to Children’s Ministry and the church has got to be a genuine service to young families.
Sticking a young pastor up front in hopes of drawing in a younger generation is foolish. It rests on the attractional church model. It conveys the message, “Come, help us keep the doors open.”
Drawing younger people to a church is more complicated than simply hiring a younger pastor.
2. Preference for younger pastors ignores research
There is no correlation between a pastor’s age and the growth of the church. This has been proven time and again, and yet pastor search teams are still “stuck on stupid.”
Gordon Penfold’s study offers this conclusion:
The history of a pastor was a key factor in determining whether or not a pastor was considered a TAP (turnaround pastor). However, length of tenure, age or number of churches pastored did not provide distinguishing characteristics of TAP.
There is no meaningful correlation between a pastor’s age and church growth. Other researchers concur. Cynthia Woolever, for example, offers the same conclusion in “Who Pastors Growing Churches?”
One assumption is that younger pastors, under the age of 45, serve growing or soon-to-be growing churches. As the chart below shows, that’s not true. In fact, pastors of all ages lead in growing churches! The largest age group serving growing churches are those pastors who are between 51 and 60 years old.
Overall, young pastors are a relatively small demographic group. Only 12% of pastors are 40 years old or younger. Yet one in four (26%) of these younger pastors serves as the senior or solo pastor in a growing church. That margin is even greater among pastors in their fifties, however, with almost one in three (30%) leading a growing church.
Then consider the fact that older pastors lead some of the largest megachurches in America
- Andy Stanley is 55 (“older” according to many a pastor search team!)
- Rick Warren is 60
- Greg Laurie is 61
- Bill Hybels is 62
- John Piper is 68
- John MacArthur Jr. is 75
- Tommy Barnett is 77
- Ed Young Sr. is 78
- Charles Swindoll is 79
- Charles Stanley is 81
In spite of the research and in spite of the data, none of these men would make the cut with a pastor search team “stuck on stupid.”
3. Preference for younger pastors deprives a church of wisdom
Finally, pastor search teams who’ve got their hearts set on youth deprive their congregation of something in short supply.
Something they clearly, desperately need.
Now, perhaps more than ever, congregations need the wisdom that older pastors bring with them. The rapid pace of social change in the last 40 years, increasingly “flexible” attitudes toward church attendance, and increasingly vocal minorities trapped by majority opinion all make skilled relationship management more important than ever.
In an article about aging in general (“How Societies Can Grow Older and Better“) TED speaker Jared Diamond enumerates a few of the contributions that seniors make to a healthy society.
- They have experience that youth cannot replicate
- The have leadership skills that require decades to acquire
- Their understanding of human relationships is richer
- They know how to check their egos in order to solve problems
- They possess greater interdisciplinary knowledge
A recent New York Time article, “The Science of Older and Wiser” points out the upside of the senior adult’s cognitive processes.
Unfortunately, research shows that cognitive functioning slows as people age. But speed isn’t everything. A recent study in Topics in Cognitive Science pointed out that older people have much more information in their brains than younger ones, so retrieving it naturally takes longer. And the quality of the information in the older brain is more nuanced. While younger people were faster in tests of cognitive performance, older people showed “greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences,” the study found.
It stands to reason that the more information people have in their brains, the more they can detect familiar patterns. Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuroscientist in New York and author of “The Wisdom Paradox,” says that “cognitive templates” develop in the older brain based on pattern recognition, and that these can form the basis for wise behavior and decisions.
Older pastors possess wisdom, interdisciplinary knowledge and relationship skills that distinguish them from their younger colleagues, Sadly, however, most congregations and denominations have no way to tap into the wisdom and experience of older pastors.
Ageism in the church
Age discrimination is alive and well in the church. It flourishes and comes out into the light of day in many pastor search committees.
But the blame doesn’t reside with the pastor search teams themselves. That is simply where this beast pokes its head above ground. Win and Charles Arn have written about Ageism in the American church.
“We live in a day when racism and sexism have been recognized as the unwholesome attitudes they are. Yet, unfortunately, ageism is alive and wellâ€”even in the church. Although it is no longer considered in good taste to make racist or sexist jokes, old age is still fair game. Ageism is a pervasive, negative attitude toward aging and people who are growing old. Like racism or sexism, it is a destructive and discriminatory form of prejudice that is based on flawed stereotypes. To a large extent, ageism is unique to our contemporary Western culture. For example, in much of Asia it is seen as a handicap to be young, and ageism is virtually nonexistent. In China, it is believed that the older a person is the wiser and more knowledgeable the person is. When asked, â€˜How old are you?’ a 55-year-old in China might fudge a bit and claim to be 60.”
- Some pastors (regardless of age) fail to keep up with changes in the culture and neglect personal and professional development. Rather than looking at the pastor’s birth certificate, take a look at his smartphone, Facebook page and Twitter account. These will tell you whether he’s let life pass him by or not.
- If an older pastor is simply looking for his last post, it would be foolish to hire him. If a younger pastor is simply looking for a place to build his kingdom instead of partnering with the church to build Jesus’ kingdom, it would be foolish to hire him, too.
- The issue isn’t older vs. younger per se, but being aware of ageism in the search process and laying aside the foolishness of overlooking the older pastor in favor of the younger who may not actually be the best fit.
- Age discrimination goes the other way, too. In some churches its scandalous how little money is budgeted for Children’s Ministry and to reach and win families with grade school children.
I’ve got two questions, one for intentional interim pastors and one for settled pastors who are moving on.
- If you’re a settled pastor vacating a position to move on, how can you help your church overcome the foolishness of preferring a younger pastor by broadening the scope of their search?
- If you’re an intentional interim pastor, how can you address this issue with a pastor search team without causing them to dig in their heels and get really “stuck on stupid”?
Image credit: nyul / 123RF Stock Photo
- Gordon Penfold, “Turnaround Pastors: Characteristics of Those Who Lead Churches from Life-Support to New Life” A Paper Presented to the Great Commission Research Network, November 2011, Biola University, p. 8, 24. â†©
- The pastor’s favorite metrics will tell you whether you’ve got a potential retiree or an ego server on the hook. Ask the pastor you’re looking at to describe success metrics. Those will give it away. â†©