When my generation trained for ministry in the late sixties, the average age of a ministerial student at theological college was about 24. A few older students had left a career after perhaps a few years, or had been among the last young people required to do national service. The rest of us came either straight from school at 18 or straight from school via a first degree. The situation today is very different. The average age of entry to the ministry is now around 40. Those are now the ‘younger pastors’ and there are some frightening statistics about what that means in practice.
A shortage of younger men
In the Presbyterian Church of Wales, there are now only 39 full-time ministers. Just two of these are 40 years of age or under, while 19 are 60 plus. The two Baptist denominations in Wales (the BU of Wales and the BU of Great Britain) have between them well over 300 churches in Wales. Many are now so small that they cannot afford a full-time pastor, though the English-language ones are faring better, with over half of them receiving full-time ministry. However, many of those people are in their fifties and sixties. In the Church in Wales the situation is better. There are some 44 clergy aged 40 or under, but 105 who are over 60 (with the age of retirement set at 70).
Statistics are harder to find for ‘independent’ churches for which no national body exists to collect information, but anecdotal evidence suggests that there is only a ‘somewhat higher’ proportion of people entering ministry under the age of 40. There is, without doubt then, a shortage of younger ministers across the board, although the situation seems to be a little more encouraging in ‘specialist’ ministries such as chaplaincies or evangelism roles. I shall explore this from two points of view: the need of the churches and the experience of a first pastorate for pastors with a growing family.
Encourage the young
Most churches, when seeking a new minister, have an ideal of someone around 40 years old with a manageable sized family, whose children will bolster the youth work and whose partner will share the pastoral work, informally at least. Who, then, needs a pastor with only school and college behind them? The answer is both no-one and everyone, because it is the Church as a whole that needs leaders who will give a lifetime to study and ministry, so that they in turn can give to the wider church profound theological knowledge and wisdom. And, of course, there is a great difference between a 40 year old beginner and someone who comes to a church with 15 or 20 years of experience. Why don’t we encourage younger people to consider the ministry? We don’t hesitate to encourage teenagers to consider medicine as a career, with all the responsibilities that will eventually entail for them, so why do so with the ministry?
One reason, perhaps, is that we feel it will take more time to identify their gifts and calling. That’s a fair point but do churches allow teenagers to explore their gifts? I thank God personally for a pastor who took the risk of letting me start preaching when I was only 15. Another reason may be that we want to see stability and maturity in people before we recognise in them a calling to church leadership and ministry. My response is that we should look for the signs rather than the accomplishments. They will usually be there to see by the time someone is 17 or 18 years old. Of course, many young people only realise later that God is calling them to ministry and that is good as well, but let it not be because the Church of God discouraged them in the first place! I wonder as well if we parents would prefer our children to get ‘a good job’ – or perhaps we know only too well the challenges of church leadership and want to spare our children rather than offer them to God. The gifts required for ministry could take people into a number of good careers, but if the best go elsewhere, what does that mean for the standard of ministry in our churches? We need younger pastors!
Challenges of ministry
We turn now to the challenges of ministry for younger pastors who come to the ministry from another career. I take for granted that we all recognise the need for a spiritual discipline so here the focus will be on less noticed issues.
First, ministry will generally involve a severe drop in salary. Certainly, when I became involved in Higher Education in my 30s and then returned to local ministry, my salary halved. Things you take for granted become luxuries – perhaps owning your own home or taking holidays in the sun – or even smaller things. When my wife and I had four small children, for example, our ‘luxury’ was that once or twice a month when the children had gone to sleep we would share a take-away meal for one between us because we couldn’t afford the price of two. God will provide, of course, but churches grieve the Holy Spirit and hinder the work of the gospel when they leave God to do it by himself! The pastor has to pay the same bills as we do, remember, and there are special demands in ministry that outside it people often fail to recognise. £500 a year for books is not excessive, for example. Working constantly with people is exceedingly draining and the holiday we consider indulgent for ourselves may be vital for a worn-down pastor. But the pastor’s pay is another issue!
A second challenge for younger pastors is inexperience of the work. Leadership requires wisdom and new pastors will probably struggle to give wise leadership, or to preach helpfully, or to handle pastoral difficulties. Get a mentor is my advice! You don’t surrender your authority just by asking someone else their opinion. Most first pastorates are undermined by making mistakes that could easily have been avoided by consulting someone more experienced. (Mine was, anyway, and I have long regretted my lack of teachability at the time.) There is much to be said for arranging to meet someone once a month or so for a year, to review decision-making and progress. After that, people may feel able to ‘go solo’, or they may find a change of advisor helpful, or the relationship may develop into something long-term. Personally, I have a small group of fellow leaders with whom I have met once or twice a year for many years for very open discussions of our ministries with no respect for our reputations.
One more area worth considering is the need for continual study. To sustain an able and thoughtful ministry requires deep theological and biblical reflection all the time. A good church will encourage its pastor to take one full day a week for private study apart from pulpit preparation. The demands of ministry are such that it will often get squeezed but the permission to do it is important. Another grace that churches can offer is a sabbatical – a frequent arrangement is one week in each year and three months paid sabbatical leave every seven years of ministry. In addition, a pastor benefits greatly from having the facility to attend two conferences a year at the church’s expense. That might be the annual assembly of the denomination plus its ministers’ conference.
If all this sounds too much to bear, the final word should be that the work of the ministry is a huge privilege and great joy when we experience God at work – and often most so through our weaknesses and failings. To know that we help fellow believers is humbling. To help people come to faith is to walk on air. To share the ministry of God to the world gives our work an incomparable and eternal purpose that will never fade!