Ageism: The Real Struggle for Church Staff Close to Retirement

Sam Rainer

February 3, 2019

The magical age for ministry is somewhere between 38 years-old and 56 years-old. I use the word “magical” because far too many churches look at the age of a ministry candidate as some sort of magic bullet. Any younger than mid-thirties and you’re too young. Any older the mid-fifties and you’re too old. I’ve read a lot of articles and posts defending those who are on the younger side. Some megachurch hires a 26-year-old lead pastor, and it’s championed as innovative.

However, I don’t see too many cases made for those who are older. As someone who is younger (I’m 38), I’ll make a case for those who are on the older side of the equation.

When considering ageism, the church may be one of the worst offenders among organizations in our culture. It’s strange given the “respect your elders” mentality in many congregations. When cutting church staff, I’ve heard of cases in which people were pushed out because of their age. Additionally, when hiring, many churches are overt in their search for ministry candidates. “We want someone young!”

Churches will survey the congregation and ask about an ideal age for a new lead pastor. The answers are always the same—somewhere between 38 years-old and 56 years-old. The national median age is 38 years-old, and the median age of a churchgoer in most denominations is someone in their mid-to-late 50s, so it’s no surprise the church would say, “I want a pastor who is like me!”

For those who are older on your church staff, what can be done? How can a church move away from the blatant ageism that seems to be so rampant in congregations?

Stop cutting older staff in the name of “stewardship.” I’ll never forget my first round of layoffs in the corporate world. We were split into two groups and each sent into separate rooms. One group survived. The other didn’t. I made the cut. I thought it was merit-based, until I looked around. The only people remaining were the twenty-somethings. They kept the cheap labor. Even the survivors felt icky. Don’t do this in your church. Even worse, don’t cut people in the name of “stewardship,” because the Bible has a much grander view of stewardship than mere cash flow.

Stop assuming older workers can’t learn. Sure, some people refuse to learn and grow. They deserve to be let go. Likely, most of your older church staff are willing to learn. Give them a chance. Don’t assume they can’t do it! You make a fool of yourself if you claim a faith that can move mountains while at the same time assuming someone in their 60s can’t pick up a new skill set. Be intentional about equipping them and giving them opportunities to learn.

Stop making personnel decisions based on a desired look. Churches after a certain look wouldn’t even hire Jesus. He had no appearance that we should desire him. Such congregations have way more in common with the Pharisees than Jesus.

Be willing to move them into different positions as seasons of life change. As a person ages and enters into new season of life, new opportunities emerge. Capture these opportunities and get creative with new staff positions. For example, you don’t meet too many pastors focused solely on Boomer ministry, but the church desperately needs them. Senior ministry was for their parents. Good luck getting your Boomers to come to your senior ministry events—not gonna happen. But a Boomer ministry? Now that sounds more appealing.

Ask your older staff for their input. Some of them may have great advice on how best to utilize their skill set as they near retirement age. They may fear taking the initiative because often it leads to questions about their viability. Rather, take the posture of wanting them to finish strong and ask them what that would look like.

A multi-generational church should hire a multi-generational staff. Most multi-ethnic churches have multi-ethnic staff. I, for one, champion this movement. What’s often missing in the multi-everything discussion is intentionality with bringing multiple generations on to the church staff. Churches should serve all people, which includes generational diversity—in the congregation and on staff.

Perhaps there are older church staff out there who haven’t spoken up because they fear it would be self-serving. As someone under 40, I’ll say it. Many of you have gotten a raw deal. It’s time for churches to stop with the ageism.

39 comments on “Ageism: The Real Struggle for Church Staff Close to Retirement”

  1. Bob Allen says:

    Great article. While I am pretty sure that I experienced ageism in my search for a ministry position after taking the VRI (early retirement option) with the IMB, I was just (literally 8 days ago) overwhelmingly called (99.4%) as Pastor for Educ/Admin even though I am just months from starting Medicare. Church members of all ages have been supportive and encouraging. One of the benefits I have is confidence and a measure of competence from years of ministry and experience in building real relationships. Not intending to brag because I’m definitely aware of areas where I lack competence.

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Congrats Bob! So glad to hear this news.

  2. Beth says:

    I was a victim. Luckily what man (church leaders) meant for evil God turned in to good. Someone took a chance on this “old” (60+) girl and I’m flourishing in my new job. Even got a sizable raise. Take that, church practicing Agisim

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      I’m sorry you experienced this, Beth. But I’m glad God gave you something better.

  3. Russ says:

    As a 60+ pastor, this was, obviously, a refreshing post to me!

  4. Shelvin Lamb says:

    This article is so accurate. Ageism, aka profiling- it’s wrong but it’s a major problem in our SBC.

  5. Cindy Martin says:

    It is not only with ministers but with support staff as well. I have extensive experience as a ministry assistant – 35 years. I was laid off from a State Convention a few years ago and I have struggled to find another ministry position. My heart’s desire is to continue to serve the Lord in a church even at 61! My mother is still serving at her church as financial assistant at 81. Unfortunately, she has been forced to retire and I find that so upsetting.

  6. John Cotten says:

    Music is my primary tool for ministry. I am convinced, from my own experience and that of others, that ageism is far mor rampant among ministering musicians than senior pastors or any other ministry role, including that of youth minister. Too many churches evidently believe that a grey headed senior pastor is automatically wise, while demanding that their Levite look good in skinny jeans and have just the right amount of both cool caps and facial hair. Oh, and did I mention sneakers and a nice Taylor Acoustic 6-string? Don’t get me wrong. I know several guys who fit that description perfectly who are incredible worship leaders. But not all incredible worship leaders do. Some are “well experienced.” Some tuck their shirt tails in, or even, gasp, still wear ties! Too many churches seem to assume that when a musical minister reaches a certain age, he can no longer lead relevant music. Age is not the deciding factor here. Ageism was not among the many issues with which the New Testament Church struggled. It should not be an issue in today’s church, even for music ministers.

    1. Bob Myers says:

      John,
      You’re absolutely right. I began to hear the ageism stuff around age 50 and it was very hurtful, especially coming from a colleague on staff. I finally got fed up with it and transitioned to senior pastor at age 57. But because of my age and lack of experience in the position, only smaller churches would consider me and that even with a good deal of ageism. Of course the culture difference in church size is significant and that has required learning and adapting new skills, which us older folks are certainly capable of doing.
      Just very weary of ageism (frankly, the stress of it makes me eager to retire at 70, six years from now) and I’m very grateful that Sam had the prophetic courage to post this.

  7. Connie says:

    I agree 100%. I also think this is a problem that is even happening with some Congregations and ministry volunteers.
    We just need to be reminded in the Bible when David was chosen, we are reminded, God does not look upon a man as we do. He looks upon the heart.

  8. Bruce says:

    So true. As a 68 year old Pastor on Staff of a large church I started feeling marginalized about 7 years ago by just not being included in places where decisions were made. Visibility is lessened and small bonuses are given instead of raises. When full-time staff leaves, their ministry is broken up into small part-time jobs or added to the job of other already over-worked employees that the lead Pastor wants to leave. Very sad. My only salvation is that I love what I’m Called to do and the people in the congregation love me.

    1. Ron says:

      Bruce, you have found the key to survival in this modern approach to ministry. Love God, love people, and they in turn will love you. Our ministry may not look like what it once did, but that doesn’t mean it is any less effective.

  9. Ron says:

    As someone who has given the last 42 years of his life in service to our Lord,I understand all too well the sting of being rejected because of my age. Being told “we’re looking for someone younger” is as blatant as it gets. What really breaks my heart however is being forced to the sidelines and watching young ministers make so many serious mistakes,when all they need to do is ask advice of one who’s already been there.

  10. Allen says:

    Well said. I have “retired” from my non-church job and had been told by the church I have been serving in for over a decade that there was a position for me, there is, but not for pay. There is an unstated bias towards those in their early 30’s. Ageism is a problem, I am unable to make it even to an interview in applying for a church or non-church job. Highly qualified, but over 60. We forget Moses and Joshua were both called at 80. John wrote Revelation after being exiled and he was probably over 80. The Lord will work it out, but as you stated, those who should not being doing this, are.

  11. Jud Waldrop says:

    Great article. I have experienced this in searching for a ministry position. I’d like to think God was leading and the positions were not for me. Several times I have been interviewed by search committees and told they are looking for someone with experience, but later I discover they called a young pastor without experience. I am 56 with 26 years as a pastor. I want to believe I still have much to offer.

    1. Ron says:

      No doubt Jud that you still have much to offer. I am almost 64 and still have a lot of gas left in the tank as well. As a matter of fact, I feel better positioned to lead now than at any other time in my ministry. I forsee a time when the church will once again cherish those who have helped pave the way, and I pray you are right in the middle of it.

      1. Russ says:

        Thanks, Ron. You and I walk in the same shoes, we are the same age, and I, too, feel like I have a lot of “gas left in the tank.” I think and hope I have learned a few things in the 33 years I have been a pastor that will equip me for the next phase of life and ministry. Retirement is not in my plans, but I do try, in the back of my mind, to somehow prepare for the day I will be traded in for a “new model.” Thanks for your encouraging words.

  12. Tony Jones says:

    Could it be that we’re seeing so many mega churchpastor burnoutd because there are no experienced staff members who have the wisdom and integrity to hold these “celebrities” accountable

    1. Ron says:

      Excellent point Tony.

    2. Allen says:

      Tony- really good point. As in business, there are also huge egos involved and in many cases, a lack of willingness to be accountable to anyone. It is all about “my” ministry and not that of the church. That too leads to burnout as well as not delegating anything, the wisdom has been kicked to the curb in favor of someone who will not rock the boat if they see something.

  13. Stan Pylant says:

    As John Cotton mentioned earlier ageism is rampant, though really only one of many challenges facing ministers of music in churches today. When I became 60 I was blatenly told it is time for a change and that they would be looking for a 40 year old. But the Lord did provide for me and I’m very much enjoying a part time position leading music in another church; rather an “early retirement” job! I do find it interesting that this previous church could not find a 40 year old for their position. They hired another 60 year old as their minister of music, who is now retiring for health reasons and the church is forming another search committee…

    1. John Cotten says:

      Ageism is not Biblical, yet rampant, especially among ministers whose primary tool is music. There are many factors for a personnel or search committee to consider. A minister or candidate’s age should not be in the top 30 or so. Keep first things first, and avoid letting the world’s corporate standards become our own.

  14. Allen says:

    Something to remember, what we are talking about is actual a violation of law in many jurisdictions. Ageism is not simply a discussion point, but also a very real risk management issue for churches and congregations as well.

    1. Stan Pylant says:

      Yes, a good point pastors & church leadership committees should be reminded of – though how many dismissed or realigned aged ministers are really going to consider bringing a lawsuit against a church …? I believe most of us leave it to the Lord.

      1. Allen says:

        Stan, agreed. But even Paul reached a point where he finally asserted his legal rights. I have 70+ applications out since August and not one interview. Too qualified, not what we are looking for, etc. This is very real and very wrong.

  15. Lee Brewer says:

    Ageism sometimes may be the result of declining diligence and increasing complacency. We had a brilliant Lead Pastor called at 69 who was an incredible builder-grower-teacher. He retired at 74 due to health, but We would have kept him till God called him. That was 15 yrs ago. As an 80 yr old church business administrator, I realize that I am transparent to some younger visitors. It just makes me persevere to remain a current value as a co-leader of our Gen Z youth, leader in security design, mode financial and attendance analyzer, successful cost reduction programs, HR department manager, rental tenant relations, insurance analysis, and building compound and vehicle supervision. I attend 2-4 webinars/week in my field. But the Gen Zers have proven to be the most fun part of my church life.

  16. Jonathan says:

    I think aging well is critical to navigating a changing church environment. As we age, we need to be more flexible when it comes to changing seats on the bus. I’ve watched many of my colleagues who want to continue to lead and teach at the same levels. It’s essential to move to mentoring and supporting roles. It’s also important that as we age we remain nimble enough to embrace change – technology, the way we do things etc. We want to put wind in the sail and not be an anchor.

    I have had the privilege of leading multi-generational teams and they are great!

    1. Ron says:

      You make some valid points Jonathan. Being flexible is always an admirable and necessary quality to have. And at any age I might add.
      Mentoring and supporting roles are an absolute necessity in the church, but there must be a willingness to be taught as well. Far too many ministers today(of all ages)have the mindset that “it’s my way or the highway”, an attitude not found in scripture.
      One thing that we rarely hear these days is the need for ministers of all ages and experience levels to re-commit themselves to becoming more servant-minded instead of adopting the latest business model as their method of operation. If we would do so, I believe ageism would not be nearly as prevalent as it is currently.

  17. Ray Schwartz says:

    Great article … though painful to read. I was put out to pasture at 57 – once you are on the ‘outside’ the odds of you getting back in are slim to none. I have applied so often for a myriad of positions the last six years – I have now given up on pastoral positions and have turned to a non-profit organization . Thank you for well written article.

    1. Ron says:

      I’m sorry that you’ve been “put out to pasture” at such a young age Ray. I love that you have found a new avenue at the non-profit, something that a lot more older ministers might want to look into. It is very sad that so many of us are being forced out, but I have found God faithful to still use me,albeit in different ways. I’m sure in your new position there is a ministry there with your name on it!

  18. Mitch Fisher says:

    This is a great article and I appreciate your honesty and willingness to address it. I have been frustrated on both ends of this discussion. I have been told I’m too young and try again when I have more experience…to which I wanted to yell out…How do I get experience if no one wants an even younger pastor?…I am now a Director of Missions and hear too often that Brother So-in-So is too old…not able to relate to the younger generation…This also does not add up for me as I believe being relevant is intentional, not generational…However that being said I constantly remind myself to stay relevant, keep talking to and listening to people of all generations, (I am 58 for the record), and thank God for each day I get to do what I do…Keep up the good work and again…A Great Article…Thank You

  19. Jimmie Nettles says:

    Wonderfully refreshing article. My personal experience has been exactly what the article has pointed out. I am pushing 60 and for the first time in my career I am out of a church looking for my next music staff position. It has been a long road and I have learned a lot. But, I feel more confident in my abilities than ever and yet have been profiled by churches and companies. For instance, I filled out profiles by Vanderbloemen and Slingshot only to be told that I don’t fit their profile, but that they would keep mine on file if ever a church was looking for my particular type. It is really quite humorous because I still don’t know what that “my profile” is…. I recently had a conversation with a church who was looking for a senior pastor that they had contracted one of the above companies to help them find their next leader. The company immediately started sending a list of their approved candidates without getting input from the church it was trying to assist. That company was let go and the church sought help in another direction. So the situation described in the article is very real. Churches and staff all want the same thing: to see the church grow and be used in the process to help the church achieve its God given purpose. Age should not be the main determining factor in a hire or should I say CALL. I am looking forward to retirement and I will know when that time comes. But right now I have work to do. I pray that churches use wisdom in their searches and not cultural media archetypes. Moses did his best work as an old man. Come to think of it, he wasn’t even called until he was 40. Abraham was 75ish when he left Haran with his wife Sarah and was 100 when Isaac was born. But I digress. I will wait for my grandchildren through my children. Hallelujah.

  20. Barb says:

    The flip side of this is that if you’re older you have to look at your younger counterparts and consider whether some of your skills need to be updated. You need to consider particularly whether your technical skill set needs work because use of technology in ministry is here to stay. Older workers in industry saw an era where “Microsoft Office” was a skill. Now seeing that on a resume is a sign that you haven’t updated your resume in a long time. I’m an older software engineer (and part time nursery manager). I have to keep my technical skills current to stay employed. It’s a given. But I meet people in ministry who don’t understand that they have the same requirement to keep skills current. People want to access their churches online as well as in person. A pastor who doesn’t embrace this is a pastor who is limiting his reach into his community. It isn’t ageism for a church to consider whether he’s as qualified as a similar candidate who has kept his skill set current.

    1. Ron says:

      I agree with you Barb, as long as the playing field is level. I’m not Microsoft Certified but can hold my own with most that are half my age. To keep my skills up I learned how to design and create websites. Now I am learning how to create my very 1st app.
      Where I have heartburn is when I have the necessary skill sets to do the job, yet when a church sees that you have 40 years of experience they automatically drop you from consideration.
      Truth be told, many my age cannot keep up the fast pace that someone half our age keeps, but neither do they know what I know. Seems to me there ought to be a place for both.

  21. Joseph says:

    I’m a 49 year old worship leader that was just told this week that I’m being replaced because we need younger people leading. These are the young people who lead beside me now. I’m grateful to have youth leadership with me but I still have a lot of ministry left in me. This Ageism is real and it’s idolatry. I’ve given my entire “career” to leading worship and have no other way to support my family. This week has been the deepest pain I’ve experienced in ministry coming from my what I love the most, my church and my pastor. And the saddest part is that they believe this is doing God’s work. Being more hip and relevant.

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      I’m so sorry to read this, Joseph.

    2. Rom says:

      Joseph I am very sorry you are being forced out of the position that God has called you to. So many of us have experienced this that it seems like it’s become an epidemic. This is no consolation to someone such as yourself whose livelihood depends upon being permitted to use your ministry gifts, but keeping a good heart and a positive attitude will go a long way in your search for your next position.

    3. Bob Myers says:

      Joseph, I empathize. I really do. Praying for you right now. God will be with you in the journey ahead, though I know it will not be easy. Know that there are many, as evidenced by this post and replies, who have been in your shoes.

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