Ages 50 to 75: The Minister’s Sweet Spot

By Brian Jones

I believe pastors don’t hit their ministry “sweet spot” until they’re in their mid-50s. And if they stay engaged and growing, that sweet spot will last into their mid- to late-70s. Anyone who has ever led a church, or been led by a pastor in a church, knows this.

Put another way, I believe a pastor’s personal ministry effectiveness, as defined both biblically and experientially, doesn’t reach its full potential until a pastor has grandkids and starts to get AARP letters in his mailbox.

You can understand my great disappointment, then, when I read my friend Kent Fillinger’s article “Better With Time?” (CHRISTIAN STANDARD, May 27, 2012*).

In examining the long-term effectiveness of senior ministers in megachurches, Fillinger wrote,

Senior ministers, especially those of large churches and megachurches, typically believe their congregation’s best days are ahead of them. But research consistently shows church growth rates diminish as the senior minister’s age and tenure increase. Many senior ministers are in denial about this, because they are fully engaged by optimism bias. This bias also helps to explain how 42 of the church leaders surveyed could describe their church’s momentum as “strong or stable” when it declined in attendance last year. The optimism bias may also explain why the phrase “preacher’s count” exists.

The age and tenure of the senior minister are bigger factors than church size when studying the correlation to growth rates. The average start date for the senior ministers in our survey of megachurches, large churches, and medium churches was 1999. The research once again confirmed that senior ministers with 8 to 10 years of tenure have the fastest-growing churches at 8.3 percent in 2011. Consistently, churches led by senior ministers with tenures of 21 to 30 years, and 31 years or more, are the slowest growing (2.4 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively, in 2011).

I know Kent Fillinger personally and have been a fan of his writing for a long time. I consider him our fellowship’s own Thom Rainer or Ed Stetzer. He’s that good.

But I believe he missed the mark in this article. Like seriously missed the mark. Like “Kent wrote this article on crystal meth while listening to nonstop Barry Manilow songs in the background” kinda missed the mark.

To insinuate that a church, especially a megachurch, stops growing because of (a) the senior minister’s age, and (b) length of tenure, is just not accurate.

Here’s why:

 

Debt-Driven Growth

Megachurches in this article grew in the first decade of their senior minister’s ministry because, under the senior minister’s leadership, each of these churches took out exorbitant loans to finance the church’s growth. Huge sanctuaries were built. Children’s ministry wings were expanded. And growth followed. Skyrocketing growth happened.

Without exception, in every case but one (that I know about), each of the churches in this survey grew in large part because they took out a massive loan to buy buildings to house people. It’s that simple.

The formula for growing a megachurch is very clear: Catalytic pastors + growing communities + available land + a strong economy + massive mortgage payments = megachurch-like growth.

 

Debt-Reduction Wisdom

At some point in every one of these ministries, the leadership had to start paying for these buildings. Ministry began to suffer under the weight of mortgage payments. Programs were curtailed. Missionaries couldn’t be supported. Initiatives had to be put on hold because they couldn’t be funded.

Finally the leaders in these churches woke up and realized, “Holy cow, guys, we’ve got to eliminate this debt.” Money previously funneled into marketing and new programs and expansion projects started to get earmarked toward paying down the debt that created the growth in the first place.

And what happens when you stop funding the things that drove your growth in the first place? You know what happens. You experience the slower growth that Fillinger documented in his research.

 

Outward-Focused Missions Emphasis

But debt explains only part of the story.

Slow church growth can also be attributed to God eviscerating the senior ministers of these churches and emptying them of their selfish ambition. The end result is a kingdom-focused senior minister instead of one focused solely on his own church’s growth.

This past fall the leaders of my church had a decision to make: spend $50,000 from our offerings on direct-mail and other outreach initiatives to help Christ’s Church of the Valley grow, or support a church planter in northeast India reach a completely unreached community.

After much prayer, we felt that God wanted us to support the church planter.

Consequently, our church did not grow by the 150- to 250-plus people it would have in the last 12 months. We are growing, certainly, but not at the rate we could have if we spent the money on “ourselves.” In the meantime, that church planter has planted three flourishing churches among completely unreached people groups.

I bring this up because this is not a decision I would have championed at year six in my tenure at our church. But I am thankfully much wiser and less selfish now.

Another article that relied on Fillinger’s statistics stated that weekend worship attendance at churches led by senior ministers in their eighth to 10th year of service “increased an average of 8.3 percent—about double the figure for years 11-20 of a minister’s tenure.”

In most of the situations of the churches Fillinger surveyed, those churches grew slower in the second decade by design.

Thank God for churches like New Life Christian Church in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. That church, led by Brett Andrews, has been one of the top three churches in our movement to fan the flames of new church planting. New Life is selfless, constantly giving away money, time, staff, and resources to spread kingdom growth.

Meanwhile, New Life itself as a church has shown respectable growth, especially in Andrews’s second decade there. Not amazing growth, but respectable growth. And if you ask Andrews, that’s OK with him. It’s not about their one singular church anyway. That’s not their focus.

While the formula for growing a megachurch is well followed, the formula for growing a kingdom-focused church is not. The latter calls for giving away members + giving away money + giving away your best staff for kingdom projects + senior ministers cultivating obscurity instead of celebrity status = the Great Commission flourishing worldwide.

 

Flawed Methodology and Analysis

The reality is there are dozens of factors that go into church stagnation, in addition to the factors just listed—size of community, availability of land to expand, zoning regulations that curtail expansion, and, of course, sin. All of this, no doubt, is in addition to the senior minister losing heart.

In fact, the same flawed methodology used to show that a pastor’s age/tenure causes slow church growth could be used to help us avoid Bible colleges that produce leaders that produce slow-growing churches:

“In our survey, Lincoln grads tend to lead the most sluggish churches in their second decades. Of the two Lincoln grads leading churches of more than 2,000, their churches displayed the slowest growth. One must ask if Lincoln is a desired location for pastoral preparation. This warrants further study.”

What’s next? Attributing slow church growth to balding pastors or pastors without MDiv degrees? Carry out the logic.

Attributing church stagnation to one singular factor (or two factors) is horribly flawed.

 

Scary Implications

What’s most troubling to me about arguing that slow church growth can be attributed to a senior minister’s age and tenure is what happens “out there” in our churches. Imagine what might happen . . .

Instead of looking beyond their churches and supporting kingdom ministries outside of their local contexts, pastors will spend that money on another direct-mail campaign, staff member, or new wing on the children’s building—all to keep growing.

Elders will start thinking about looking for a new pastor at year seven. Pastors will think the answer to their own personal quest for meaning will be found in moving more frequently, not less.

People like Howard Brammer and Charles Cook will cut their ministries shorter, leaving churches 10 times less healthy for people like Aaron Brockett and Ben Cachiaras to build on.

And the kingdom will suffer, grossly.

As I said previously, I believe pastors don’t hit their ministry “sweet spot” until they’re in their mid-50s. And if they stay engaged and keep growing, that sweet spot will last into their mid- to late-70s. Anyone who has ever led a church, or been led by a pastor in a church, knows this.

Ministers who put in the time and personal growth to make it to this coveted “sweet spot” are wiser, kinder, and more focused on future generations of leaders than their younger counterparts.

Which is why, given the choice, I’m pretty sure most people would rather attend a church led by one of these pastors, than one whose church’s name appears at the top of a church growth survey.

________

 

*Find the article online at http://christianstandard.com/2012/06/better-with-time.

 

Brian Jones is in year 13 serving as founding senior pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley in Royersford, Pennsylvania. Before he withers away into utter irrelevance and obscurity, you can connect with him at www.BrianJones.com.

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6 Comments

  1. January 4, 2013 at 9:12 am

    “Correlation does not imply causation.” That may be the biggest caveat in all of behavioral science. But all such studies rely on moving from the correlation of data points to hypothesizing about causation.

    See, for instance, the recently publicized article in the Journal of the American Medical Association asserting that being moderately overweight correlates with longer life more so than being within the ideal range of body weight does. No one is sure why, and no one is willing to say that my paunch is a sign of good health. That’s wise, but the study remains provocative.

    Brian, your notes about patterns of growth related to debt and construction are very interesting. But I remain curious whether Kent is on to something that we need to think about: maybe after a decade, leaders end up in a rut.

    And it’s very, very hard to recognize one’s own being-in-a-rut.

    (Full disclosure: All said by the guy who’s in his mid-fifties and changing ministry jobs.)

  2. Al Forthman
    January 4, 2013 at 9:47 am

    Brian shows uncommon wisdom and depth of analysis here, and provides a timely warning against overly simplistic analyses like Brother Kent’s (who I am sure is a fine and Godly man – just mistaken in the conclusions of his study).

  3. David
    January 4, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    Interesting observations and statistics. Scripture tells us that growth is a matter of the good seed finding soil which is ready to receive the seed. In our culture today we often find that the “seeker group” (age 25-35) seems more receptive to the younger minister, he is deemed as “more relevant” or “more in tune” with the younger adults.

    I think in most instances two things are true about ministries. First, a powerful minister with an outgoing and engaging persona will likely be successful in growing a church. Second, growth and health of a church is as much due to a strong core group of members, whose behaviors, compassion, and commitment to Christ is evident to all whom they come in contact with. Perhaps those of us who preach and lead get too much credit for growth and too much blame for lack of growth.

  4. January 8, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Thanks for this thoughtful and reasoned response to what I thought was one of the most poorly reasoned and potentially destructive articles I’ve read in the Standard. I’m 43 right now, and it is my hope that I will be a more effective minister ten years from now. After 20 years in ministry, I am just now beginning to understand what ministry is.

  5. Curt Nordhielm
    January 15, 2013 at 10:54 am

    Thanks for some great insight. It is the last three paragraphs that I wish to respond to. When I left my previous ministry at the age of 60 I thought I would have no trouble finding a preaching ministry. I did not even get a serious interview. I was told many times I was too old. They wanted someone who would attract younger couples.

    I ended up at Boise Bible College where the students love the older faculty members (those 55 and above). Everything I have read about the Millennial generation is that they long for the wisdom of those who have a lot of life experience. That seems to be true in my new ministry.

    I am also in an intentional interim at a small church. I have been told by many people of all ages that they are grateful for my experience and direction as they try to create a new vision and hope for this struggling church. Even though I am 60 I believe I have at least 10 more years of effective ministry with a wealth of experience guided by Scripture. The title of your article rings true in my life.

    Curt Nordhielm
    Boise Bible College

  6. Bob Mink
    January 15, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    As a 61 year old pastor in his 29th year at the same church I appreciated Brian Jones’s observations in his recent article “Ages 50 to 75: The Minister’s Sweet Spot.” I remember when I read the article by Kent Killinger last year Brian refers to and how disturbing it was to me. While still strong and doing a lot of good ministry, our church was not growing like it had in previous years—especially during our first decade. And I thought some of the things Brian mentions those in my situation might think. I’m not saying I am not concerned about leading our church to greater numerical growth, but having read this article I do feel better about things as well as my age and tenure. Keep giving us things to read that cause us to think and challenge our thinking.

    Bob Mink

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