A ministry friend recently worked with the Slingshot Group, a church staffing firm, to find a new ministry, and they told him he was one of 19,000 candidates they were helping. I imagine this represents people from a multitude of denominations and backgrounds, as well as those seeking a variety of church ministry roles.
Either way, it’s clear there’s a sizable number of people currently in ministry who are looking for something different or somewhere new to serve. But what does the future “preacher pipeline” look like based on who’s leading our Christian churches today?
A Long-Term Look at Lead Ministers’ Ages
A comparison of our annual church research from 2005, 2010, 2015, and 2020 showed that the average age of lead ministers in churches of all sizes has remained consistent over the last 15 years.
For example, lead ministers of megachurches (average weekly attendance of 2,000 or more) were between 50 to 52 years old on average during that time span. Ministers of emerging megachurches (averaging 1,000 to 1,999 weekly) were between 49 to 51 years old, on average. Lead ministers in large churches (500–999) from 2010 to 2020 were 50 years old, and those leading medium churches (250–499) were on average 48 years old.
The age disparity in small (averaging 100–249) and very small (99 or fewer) churches was more apparent though we only started including them in our annual survey in 2017. The age range for lead ministers in small churches was 50 to 52 over the past four years, while in very small churches it was 51 to 58 years.
The Rest of the Story
On the surface, the age consistency seems to be positive news, but when you dive deeper to look at the overall percentage of older preachers, the alarm bells start to ring. Our 2020 church survey showed 60 percent of the 410 lead ministers surveyed were 50 years of age or older. This includes 28 percent who were over the age of 60, and among those folks, 15 percent were 65 or older (considered retirement age in many other careers).
Looking back just a few years to 2017, data shows that the situation, we dare say, has worsened. That year, just over half (52 percent) of the 426 lead ministers surveyed were over the age of 50; in 2020, we remind you, it was 60 percent. Likewise, in 2017, 21 percent of the lead ministers were over the age of 60; last year, it was 28 percent.
Ramifications and Repercussions
This means 115 of the lead ministers surveyed last year will most likely be finished preaching and retired in the next five years or less, and churches will need to hire new lead ministers to replace them. The 245 lead pastors over the age of 50 last year will likely retire from full-time preaching ministry within the next 15 to 20 years.
If you extrapolate those numbers to better reflect the realities across Restoration Movement churches, the concern intensifies. For decades now, people have estimated 5,000 independent Christian churches and churches of Christ, but no one knows the actual number.
If you use 5,000 churches as a baseline, then the 410 churches in our last survey represent about 8 percent of the total number. From that, we can project that more than 1,000 lead ministers in our churches might retire in the next five years, and approximately 2,000 additional lead ministers could retire in the next 20 years. Stated another way, given that 60 percent of our churches last year had a lead minister over the age of 50, we can assume that 3,000 churches will need to replace a retiring lead minister over the next 15 to 20 years.
That’s a bunch of pulpits to fill moving forward. Granted, many churches have multiple associate ministers on staff. But oftentimes, these associates are specialists who fill niche roles and don’t have the desire, training, or skill set to preach or be a lead minister.
A Preacher-Pipeline Plan
Twelve years ago, I asked Bob Russell, longtime lead pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, “What are some things that in hindsight you would do differently today in ministry?” His response surprised me.
“The first thing I would change is that I would start a preacher development group for junior high boys,” he said. “I always thought about it a lot, but I never got around to doing it because I never put it on my schedule. I always thought if I would schedule it, I could meet with them once a month, take them to lunch, and talk to them about sermon preparation. I’ve always felt if I had done this, then I could have recruited a lot more preachers. It used to be that we recruited ministers through Christian service camp, but now we need to recruit preachers differently.”
I wonder what the “preacher pipeline” would look like today if we had lead pastors who scheduled time each month to lead a group of middle school or high school boys from their church to talk to them about the blessings of church ministry and how to prepare a Bible message.
It’s impossible to predict the future, but here are some possibilities for what might happen over the next several years in light of the statistics I’ve shared.
It’s possible we may see the rise of more “preaching elders,” as the apostle Paul described in the New Testament. Maybe we will see the return of itinerant preachers who travel and preach in multiple churches in the same county or region. Maybe more small churches will be absorbed by larger churches, and thus become “video venues” where the preaching is broadcast from another campus. Maybe more church mergers will take place and we’ll see a renewed focus on a unity movement in our churches. Maybe more churches will close their doors due to a lack of available leadership and a dwindling number of aging members. Or maybe we will see a renewed emphasis on raising up a new generation of preachers equipped to serve the local church.
Time will tell what the future holds, but you and your church could help shape the future based on what you choose to do today!