One thing that is predictable about pastor search committees is that they all want something similar: a great preacher, an amazing administrator who loves visiting, someone who is effective with young families and senior adults, a 38 year old with 25 years experience…you get the picture. Mere mortals need not apply.
An interesting pattern is emerging in the ranks of Baptist churches I am familiar with that bears watching. Admittedly, this is not a scientific study, but primarily anecdotal. However, there seems to be something to this fact: many of the pastors called to larger pulpits over the last eighteen months are in their 50’s and even 60’s. Could it be that the old adage “better be where you want to be by 50” no longer applies?
Since the fall of 2010, these ten churches all called pastors ranging in age from 49 to 62: Central-Fountain City-Knoxville, FBC Dalton GA, FBC Frankfurt KY, FBC Midland TX, Knollwood-Winston Salem, Mountain Brook-Birmingham, Park Cities-Dallas, University-Baton Rouge, St. John’s-Charlotte, Wieuca Road-Atlanta. Of the ten, one was 49, five were in their 50’s, and four were in their 60’s. One was called as a co-pastor, the others as pastor.
Didn’t these churches want to impact and attract young adults? I hear it constantly from pulpit committees. Their inevitable desire is to find a pastor who will “help us attract young families”. Many of them think that only a young pastor (read: under 35) can attract young adults. Often, a committee will exclude from consideration anyone over the age of 50. Apparently, these churches didn’t get that memo.
Interestingly, the facts suggest that effectiveness with and appeal to young adults has little to do with the age of the pastor. Consider this list of pastors, along with their age, who seem especially popular with young adults: Rick Warren (58), Andy Stanley (53), John Piper (65), Brian McClaren (56), Bill Hybels (62), Barbara Brown Taylor (60), Louie Giglio (53), Ed Young, Jr. (50), Tim Keller (61), and John Ortberg (54). This is strictly a 50-and-over club.
Study those churches that are effective in reaching young adults, and you will quickly learn a valuable lesson: their effectiveness is much less about the age of their pastor and much more about the congregation’s genuine love of and care for those they seek to minister to. The idea that you can pay someone to do what you are not willing to sacrifice and give yourself to is a fallacy many churches fall prey to.
One of my favorite books in recent years is A Resilient Life by Gordon MacDonald. In it, MacDonald suggests that the most important and enduring work of one’s life takes place after the age of 50. Everything prior to that is preparation for the main event.
Could it be true? Are congregations awakening to the wisdom and insights that only come to those who have years of experience from which to draw? Is there a quality of leadership that is only found in those who have passed through the trials and tribulations of decades in the ministry?
As a mid-50’s professional, I confess my bias. However, there is no doubt that substantial growth and learning came to me only after years of experience. I was a much more effective minister at 55 than at 35. In fact, I probably should apologize to those who endured my sermons, leadership, and ego twenty years ago. They were a gracious and generous people, and I learned from them much of what makes for effective ministry as a result.
Thinking about pastoral leadership in congregational life in terms of age is sure to raise other questions:
-Perhaps there is a shortage of younger pastors?
-Nearly all of these were men, will congregations like these ever consider women?
-What other societal trends have happened to make mid to late career clergy more appealing?
-Does this pattern hold over a larger sample?
-Is it true in other kinds of Baptist churches or other denominations?
-We’ve known these numbers were true of top-level positions in other fields. Has ministry simply caught up with business, education, coaching, etc.?
My prayer is that pastoral search committees will be increasingly reluctant to set age boundaries of any sort when they create a profile of their next pastor. Clearly, there are character traits and spiritual gifts that know no age boundary. Just as clearly, experience is a superb teacher when it is paired with an open mind, a passion for Christ, a love of people, a willing spirit and a healthy sense of call. May that tribe increase!