What to Expect if You’re a Church’s First Millennial Pastor

Blog 346 Rotary dial phone

Sam Rainer

November 12, 2014

A big wave is coming towards the church. It’s the swell of retiring Boomer pastors. Most Boomer pastors are currently between the ages of 50 and 68. They won’t all retire at once, so this wave won’t crash into the church like a tsunami. However, I don’t believe the North American church is prepared to replace these pastors. My father gives a few implications of retiring Boomer pastors over at his blog:

  • There will be more pastoral vacancies than qualified candidates.
  • Few churches are giving any thought to pastoral succession.
  • There will be an abundance of qualified pastors for interim and bi-vocational positions.
  • Some Boomer pastors will stay at their current positions into their late 60s and 70s.
  • Some Boomer pastors will lead their churches to merge.

I want to focus on what will happen when these pastors are inevitably replaced—more importantly, who will replace them. A new generation of leaders—Millennials—will inherit these church positions. I’m the oldest of the Millennial generation. Most date the birth of Millennials between 1980 and 2000. I barely make the cut as a February 1980 baby, but I connect with Millennials more than any other generation.

As Millennials begin to become senior pastors, their churches will have many Gen Xers, Boomers, and Builders. Of course, the percentages will eventually shift to churches full of older Millennials, but such a shift will take decades.

I’ve been the first Millennial pastor of four churches (in Indiana, Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee). After some trials (a few) and errors (many) at my churches, here’s what I’ve discovered: We Millennials think and act quite differently than previous generations. In short, it’s a bit awkward when Millennial pastors lead in churches full of Boomers and Builders, especially the first time it occurs.

While each church is unique and within a specific context, there are generalizations across generations. Generally, what should Millennial pastors expect as they begin to lead established churches?

  1. You are more comfortable with complexity and messiness than older generations. Millennials don’t like labels. Millennials push back on categories. The Boomers did this to a degree, but we’ve taken it to an extreme. For example, even if we associate more with one political party, we don’t admit it. The upside about this generational trait is Millennial pastors are better equipped sociologically to handle complex and messy churches. The downside of this trait is older generations look at us like we’re Jell-O, and we get confused when they try to nail us to the wall. But all generations have something to add. When you combine the dogged clarity of Builders with the adaptability of Millennials, you get something beautiful in the church.
  1. You are less loyal than previous generations. Your grandfathers started working at 16, and they stayed with the company until they retired. My generation is quite the opposite. Ninety-one percent of Millennials expect to stay in a job for less than three years. The upside of this trait is flexibility. Leading while not being chained to a particular place is freeing—unbiased decisions come more easily. The downside of this trait is older generations may not trust Millennials to make these types of decisions due to a perceived lack of loyalty.
  1. You care more about vision and less about tactics. Millennials are quick to talk with grandness about the potential for change. Perhaps it’s due to us being the youngest adult generation. We still have some maturing to do. Regardless, we love big vision. But what older generations want to know is how we are going to achieve it. One of the best bridges a Millennial pastor can build to Boomers and Builders is allowing them to handle the tactics of vision. They’ve been there, done that. And, for the most part, they are better at it.
  1. You communicate differently. Very differently. So differently that you might as well speak in another language. The rotary dial generation is passing the baton to the Wikipedia generation. And Millennials need to be more courteous when communicating with older generations. While we might forgive each other for talking and swiping smart phones at the same time, Boomers and Builders believe it’s rude. If you talk with a Boomer while also checking your cell, then they will just turn on anger, tune in frustration, and drop out of listening to you.

The wave of Millennials becoming leaders in established churches is just beginning. In 10 years, major shifts will occur. Soon many churches will hire a Millennial senior pastor for the first time. Millennials, it’s on you to work with older generations, not against them. Leadership is a gift, not a right. If older generations are going to give you this gift, then treat it well.

36 comments on “What to Expect if You’re a Church’s First Millennial Pastor”

  1. Rick says:

    Great discussion on a very needed topic. It is a worthy topic that needs further discussion. A discussion that could help generations understand their differences in ways that produce unity in those differences. That is the body of Christ in action. Us pursuing ways to produce bridges that can turn what may result in negative outcomes instead into characteristics that compliment each other,
    .

  2. Thom Rainer says:

    Sam –

    All familial prejudice aside, this post is one of the best insights I have read on this topic. I hope it gets widespread exposure.

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      You’re biased. And a Boomer. But I appreciate it, Dad!

  3. John Pearson says:

    Great insights, with humility. Thanks!

  4. Mark says:

    I’m around the same age as you, Sam (August ’80), and relate to this really well. I’ve had to learn a lot about how to work with the different generations, because their preferences are very age specific, as you’ve pointed out. Related to this, I’ve seen a lot of our peers interested in church planting, which is noble and very important. However, I have perceived fewer of our peers interested in working with established churches, as I’ve continued to do. I wonder if some of the time it’s because of the difficult cultural gap of trying to minister to older people that pushes them toward fresh starts. I’m concerned in general about the possibility of creating unity between age groups, because I believe the cultural gap between children and grandparents has to be one of the largest in history. I hope you’ll keep thinking and writing on this subject. Great post. Thanks for all your good work.

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Mark – Thanks for your thoughts. I have lots of ideas for writing in this area. My problem is not enough time!

  5. David Young says:

    Sam,
    Thank you for opening further this discussion. I just “miss” the mark – born August 1979 – but ideologically I share with you in the realization that a new generation of church leaders is taking place. In my years of pastoral ministry I have often found myself in that conflict of vision and method. To often there is a desire to “do something” from some older generations, and I so often see in to temper that with the question, “What is it that we should be doing?” I don’t believe we should act unless we have purpose. Our purpose flows from our identity. Our identity flows from our vision of what God Himself is doing and wants to do, in and through us.
    Thank you again for braving the discourse.

  6. Justin says:

    Sam,

    Thanks for these insights. I am a Millennial (27) and was wondering what kind of practical ideas you may have when a millennial is serving under a Sr. Pastor who is the 55-60 range. We are of course working towards the same mission, but the reality is the views, expectations, and methodology to get on that mission is a lot different. I find myself getting discouraged about it, but I know that there could be potential for this to work. What are your thoughts?

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Justin –

      Excellent question. First, listen more. Most of us (myself included) tend to think we listen more than we actually do. Second, mention to your pastor what you’ve learned from him. Tell him frequently, “Here’s what you’re teaching me… thank you.” That will open up more trust for you to make some needed changes. In short, serve first and lead second. It’s a posture all pastors should take.

      1. Justin says:

        Thanks, these are insightful.

  7. Casey Hough says:

    Excellent points — especially #3! Lots of tested wisdom here.

  8. Great article Sam. My millennial son sent it to me this morning.

  9. Sam, great wisdom and insight. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and it’s given me several things to think more deeply about regarding the church where I serve. Thanks bro.

    Nate

  10. Tim says:

    Sam

    I enjoyed the topic, it has helped me with the way I will approach the executive director who is also the pastor in the gospel rescue mission who is a boomer. I was born in 1984 looking at work In Ministry not sure how far I want to go. At this time I will be working in the GRM as a social worker. I think what you wrote can help millennials that are in the leadership work with boomer within in the church.

  11. Craig Giddens says:

    Sounds like an astrology reading. If you were born at this certain time you will have these characteristics and if you were born at that certain time you will have those characteristics. American Christian religion is making a great mistake in dividing people into “Boomers”, “Gen Xers”, “Millennials” and any other group and designing church to accommodate any particular one. That will lead only to apostasy. Sure change comes, but you don’t make that your focus. You focus on growing Bible believers and work change in as God guides.

    1. John says:

      Well said!

  12. Scott Tinman says:

    so with Boomer Pastor’s retiring have we just skipped over Gen Xers and gone straight to Millenials? Is Gen X the pass over generation

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      The Gen Xers span fewer years in their generation, about 15 years compared with 20-25 years for other generations. There are also significantly less of them, in the low 60 million as compared with 77 million Boomers and over 80 million Millennials. Many Gen Xers will lead well in churches, but there are just less of them. Also, as many Boomers will retire later than previous generations, the hand-off in leadership positions in 10-15 years will pass to more Millennials (in their 30s and 40s then) than Gen Xers (who will be in the 50s and 60s).

  13. the rotary gen is passing to Millennials. What does this say for genX?

  14. Scott Youngman says:

    Full disclosure: I’m 65. I started reading this post somewhat expecting to hear how really wonderful Millenials are (and stopping there, leaving the “rest of us” in the dustbin). But you didn’t do that; you cited both your strengths and your weaknesses, then suggested how to work respectfully with the older generations. Now with that attitude, I’m confident you will be a successful Millenial pastor to a church of Boomers and Builders. May you have God’s grace and power to do so.

  15. Rebecca says:

    Personally I’m amazed. I had no idea you all considered us so hard to work with. What in the world!

    1. Most boomer pastors are not leading their churches to change. I don’t know if it is all to be out on the pastors, but the churches themselves will have a huge shock when the boomer leaves and they think they can just snap their fingers and replace him with another pastor just like him. It can be summed-up by the sentiment shared with me by a lady in church “young people have just ruined the church” all I could do is say “ok, I’m sorry you feel that way” the next generation has no desire to reproduce 1955. Nor will they wear polo shirts and build family life centers ;^)

  16. Daniel Sabo says:

    What a great article. I especially appreciate your insight on communication. As a Pastor in my early 30’s coming in to a church of primarily 50+ members I began to really question my communication skills. No matter how many times I said something, the impression was, I never even tried. Like you said, it was as if we were speaking different languages. I have learned to enjoy the journey of learning how to both speak and listen to other generations. Good stuff, thanks for sharing!

  17. Tim says:

    I’m confused. If “teaching the Word” changes due to the age of the teacher, are you sure it’s really God’s Word and not something else?

    1. Reread the great commission. We don’t teach the Bible, we teach people how to live-out the Bible. That changes person to person.

  18. Richard Strohm says:

    Thank you Pastor Sam for your sincere effort in this challenging time and place in the life of the church.

  19. chris doeller says:

    Though this story is a little aged, I am searching (2019) for answers and insights on millennial Pastors. My church recently hired one, and concerned that so much of their time is on other non church related topics, that there will be a future for the congregation. There is a lack of what I would call “rallying the troupes” I think they were expecting a fairly self running system where they would have to simply focus on it Sunday mornings. Most communications is done through cell phone texts & emails. I see no focus on the parishioners, no reaching out,no proposals, no vision, and much time away from the church, for personal reasons. I suppose in another three years this person will move on to a more self sufficient parish, which would not be the worst thing for either side.

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