Why Would a Millennial Want to Pastor an Established Church?

Sam Rainer

March 19, 2017


A large wave of retiring pastors is moving towards the church. Boomer pastors are currently between the ages of 53 and 71. They won’t all retire at once, so this wave won’t crash into the church like a tsunami. But the American church is not prepared to replace these pastors as they retire.

Just 1 in 7 pastors leading congregations are under 40, and the average age of Protestant senior pastors has risen to 54 from 44 in the last 25 years—a full decade older! Additionally, Millennials are not as likely to choose ministry as a career when compared with previous generations.

Over the next 10 years, a lot of established churches will struggle to find a pastor for the next generation. Why would a Millennial want to pastor an established church with a large portion of older congregants? Obviously, God’s call is what drives most people to a shepherding role, but I’ll elaborate on some practical reasons.

  1. Diversity includes multiple generations. The Millennials are the most ethnically diverse generation. Personally, this demographic excites me for my generation. However, a truly diverse church not only has people with different ethnicities but also people from multiple generations and multiple socioeconomic backgrounds. 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. The older generations will teach you things your own generation may not. The older generations tend to be more loyal. They have more life experience as well. Younger pastors learn wisdom and build patience when working with people decades older than them.
  1. Established churches tend to be more stable. Sure, there are examples of volatile congregations that are a few steps away from insolvency. But most established churches are stable. They have set budgets and set programs. While stability can become the rut in which churches get stuck, it’s also a blessing to a young pastor trying to support a family and learn how to lead. Besides, Millennials are actually moving less than previous generations, so why not stay put at an established church?
  1. Younger people need a sense of history. There is something to a church that can attest to decades of God’s provision and tell decades’ worth of stories about mission work. Young people have to work a little more to learn history (older people lived it!). An established church has built-in history from which to gain a sense of how God has worked over time.
  1. Established churches are more rooted in the community. Generally, the Millennial generation wants to change their communities for the better. An established church, long rooted in the community, is a great way to accomplish that goal.

The wave of retiring Boomer pastors will swell to the point that many churches will struggle to find a younger replacement. The established church needs more Millennial pastors. There are good reasons to consider being one of them.


20 comments on “Why Would a Millennial Want to Pastor an Established Church?”

  1. Thank you Sam. I am a graying pastor and am very concerned about this issue. I am hosting a Summer Preaching Series in August at our church featuring twenty-something and thirty-something pastors.

  2. Rusty Kuhn says:

    I was 24 years old when I was called to pastor my first church; a church that was established in 1816. Everything you pointed out as a benefit to a young pastor has been proven to be absolutely true and beneficial to me in my 20 years of ministry. Great post with wonderful wisdom. Thank you!

  3. Rich says:

    I don’t agree entirely. I agree with the reasons a millennial would want to be pastor of an older, established congregation, I just don’t believe they’re out there. Most of those I’ve had fellowship with are dead, dying, and stuck in past model that is no longer effective. These congregations are unable to move beyond their traditions and are typically “run” by a small group or a “my way or the highway” individual whom no one dares cross.

  4. Jim Rovaggi says:

    Interesting. I’d like to read a counter point to this article. What are the benefits of including millennials into the established church. I’ve been here for three years. I am a 45 year old Lead Pastor in a VERY established church that underwent multiple devastating scenarios. Thank God He has been faithful and the Lord has “righted the ship”. What I’m dealing with now is working very hard to integrate the millennial mindset of moving forward with the more set mindset of “this is the we always done it”. Change does not necessarily produce growth but growth will inevitably produce change. The established church desperately needs the millennial just the millennial needs the wealth of experience offered by a more seasoned group.

    1. Jim,
      I’m 56 years old pastoring a 113 year old congregation. We have hired two millennial staff members. Our children’s pastor is 30 (25 years old when we called him), our student pastor is 24. Our church has embraced them and loves them dearly. They have proven to be mature beyond their years. Having millennials on staff has been extremely beneficial for me. These younger guys have helped keep me young in mind and spirit. We have been able to accomplish things because of their presence that we would not have otherwise been able to do, much less even think to do. The marriage of millennial staff with our more seasoned members has been beautiful to watch. This had led to a harmonious union within our entire congregation as we have become younger demographically.

  5. Jimmy says:

    Great blog Sam!
    I am 33 years old and serve a church that is nearly 84 years old. I was 28 when I accepted the Lead Pastor position. Upon my arrival, the mentality of the church leadership was that they needed a young man to lead them into the future. Please note that around 65% of the church was 55 or above when I came. Those numbers are somewhat changing. I was cautious not to make any changes for the first 3 years of my pastorate. However, once I began to attempt to make some healthy changes, the people that were supposedly seeking change proved that they really didn’t want it. I find it extremely difficult to introduce much needed relevant change to an older congregation. I agree with the thoughts in your post because I have experienced them myself. I’d like to see another post about how the millennial pastors can bring relevant change to an older congregation. We always say, “It takes time” but how long should millenials stay in the older “established” church if they aren’t making progress enough to still have a church 10-15 years down the road? I believe that this would be the question of most millennial pastors. Thx!

    1. Jimmy, similar situation here with very similar demographics. I am 34, came in at 29, and the changes we’ve made have been mostly aesthetic, with very few grabbing onto a vision of ‘rebranding’ as it were. I think you’re right that most millennials are going to ask just how long to wait around—it’s a struggle.

      1. Jimmy says:

        Hey Patrick,
        Struggle is putting it lightly So the next question is where do you go? This is why millennials are planting churches rather than going to already established churches that are declining. It is interesting…

      2. I think you wait until you have built the trust and credibility necessary for the people to follow you. That is different for each pastor and church, and you start out with something easy to follow that will start leading your people where you sense the Lord is leading you.

  6. Wayne Ellis says:

    I believe a mistake is made when a new pastor waits too long to try to bring about change. People are expecting the new pastor to change some things. It still has to be done prayerfully n carefully n the people must be led not driven but after 2 or 3 yrs and no changes have been suggested the people are then surprised when the pastor wants to change something. I’m speaking from 46 yrs experience and I’m 78 yrs old.

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Good, wise words, Wayne. And I agree, there is usually some “low hanging fruit” for pastors early in their tenure.

  7. Matt says:

    I am a millennial pastor of just such a congregation and I love it! All this has proved to be true! It has caused me to grow and trust God, to get over myself, and to learn from others. For what it’s worth, the conventional wisdom (don’t make any changes for the first year) I’ve modified in my approach. I’m more about making thousands of small incremental changes with a LOT of communication. I find if a pastor is willing to play the long game and make a lot of small changes it goes a lot better than making a lot of huge changes all at once.

  8. David A Booth says:

    One of the strange things that happens in almost every field is when people hit middle age they start to wonder “How in the world will we be replaced once we retire?” The fact that pastors are asking this question just makes us like everyone else – but there really is nothing to fear here.
    First, the rising age of senior ministers simply makes sense given that we are both living and working longer. The experience that these older ministers are bringing to congregations should be a huge blessing.
    Second, conservative denominations have a large number of young men who want to train for and to serve as pastors. The real challenge is that they may not be able to find a call once they graduate from seminary. There is no good reason to think that this pattern is going to change in fifteen years when the latter part of baby-boom pastors is retiring.
    Third, in addition to the young men, there very much seems to be a growing number of men who are interested in pastoral ministry as a second (or third) career. This is related to the fact that we are both living and working longer.
    So, we shouldn’t worry that somehow we are stuck demographically with an enormous problem. What we should be doing is encouraging those appropriately gifted to consider pastoral ministry and we should be providing the financial support necessary for them to be able to afford to receive a first rate seminary education to help prepare them for this work.
    Best wishes,

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Thanks David. Good thoughts!

  9. Paul says:

    I’m a millennial fresh out of seminary and looking at established churches. I think that for the skill-set I have (and I interned at a house church), it’s the wiser career move for me.

    The one thing I found (and it’s probably conditioned by being a Californian in 60% atheist San Bernardino) is that many churches/denominations have a “gap” between their one the ground situation and their “of best worlds” expectations/ systems. It seems to be a three-pronged issue:

    1.) I’m reformed theologically, but the closest churches to over half such denominations are over 100 miles and could never train a pastor (as a Pastor’s kid, I have 2x normal experience in such). So that whole swath of jobs I’d fit very well that is locked off. I can’t afford another 2 years of “call boards” which would require moving around the country to start, etc. to take a low paying first pastorate.

    2.)Most churches have no allowance for the idea that a pastor can even be young. The old joke “35 years old with 45 years experience.” What they’ve done though, is they’ve cut out their middle bases. There’s a large “2nd career” section, but very few church systems have done any grooming. It’s all young guns or old hands.

    3.) This has lead to the fact there are a lot of churches who don’t deserve 5 years experience in a candidate . They have slid, declined, etc. to the point they don’t have grounds to draw the very best of candidates (nor do I think they will thrive with them); they are thinking they will only draw from a senior pastor pool though.

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