Church Leadership: TNG

In the past 5-6 years, I have observed and been part of a growing number of conversations around the the aging of mainline churches, which seems to be mirrored by the aging of mainline clergy.  Given the fact that Boomers are swelling the ranks of the AARP this feels a bit inevitable.  After all, that generation produced its share of pastors.

Then there are the economic realities of our time.  Many older pastors who are at or around the usual age of retirement are staying in service, in no small part because they can’t afford to retire just yet.  Combine this with the shrinking numbers of churches able to extend a call to a pastor, and we are seeing a “glut” of sorts.  More new seminary grads are waiting longer for an opportunity to begin their careers.

In many articles, blogs and talks, I have heard this situation set up as if there are only two groups at play.  The older, seasoned veterans, worn out and hanging on too long and the fresh-faced, creative and energetic youngsters, ready to breathe new life into the church.  The proffered solution – help older clergy see the value of leaving to make room for their younger colleagues.

As a middle child who also is an early GenXer, my sensitivity to being overlooked has me waving my arms and shouting “Hey!!! What about me??”  I’m not a young adult any more (even by Presby standards), but I am still a couple of decades away from retiring.  And I am a candidate for ordination.

It’s hard to not take personally the conversations that reiterate the need for the 40+ set to step aside and give seats at the leadership table to a new set of voices.  Or proposals like this one that suggests that people over 45 should be discouraged from becoming clergy (and I’m not even UMC!).

In my defense, and in defense of my similarly-aged peers, I long to ask these folks – Is there really an age limit to the creativity and energy  the Holy Spirit provides?  Are we taking into account the combination of seminary training and life experience in the secular workplace gives multi-career pastors?

When I first wrote this post, I went on a bit of a rant here about how our theology of call should keep ordination from being limited by age any more than by gender or race.   And that rant-y bit is why it languished in the drafts folder until today.

This morning I was listening to the God Complex Radio episode in which Carol Howard Merritt interviewed Rick Ufford-Chase about his work with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.  It was a great conversation about many complex issues.  One of the small bits that wasn’t really at the core of their conversation was this little phrase he dropped “a new generation of people of all ages.”

Carol and co-host Derrick Weston picked up on it as well.  They talked about how exciting is was to see a desire among parishioners young and old (and in between) for the church to become all that she can be, a place where the gospel is no longer bifurcated into something we talk about and something we do.

That resonates with my experience at churches in this area.  But I want to take this one step further.  I believe that in addition to a new generation of church-goers of all ages, God is raising up a new generation of pastors of all ages.

True, there are women and men leading congregations right now who need to consider retirement or career changes.  There are also students in seminary and candidates for ordination who need someone to sit and have hard vocational discernment conversations with people who know and love them.

I am absolutely convinced we need generational diversity in the voices around the leadership table, which means welcoming the amazing young people who ought not be waiting so long for a first call (or second).

But please, let’s also talk about how we can make the table bigger, so that the next generation of visionaries, pastors, peacemakers and evangelists includes people of all ages.

As my favorite Captain of the Enterprise would say, “Make it so.”

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