For years, churches across the USA have prayed that more young people would explore careers in ministry as a wave of Baby Boomer pastors prepares to retire. Now it seems their prayers are being answered.
For the past 10 years, the estimated median age of candidates for master of divinity degrees has fallen steadily, from 34.14 in 1999 to 32.19 in 2009, according to an analysis by the Center for the Study of Theological Education (CSTE) at Auburn Seminary. That marks a reversal: From 1989 to 1999, the estimated median age had climbed steadily from 31.4 to 34.14.
Denominations hail this new pattern as a positive sign now, as churches increasingly depend on aging leaders and struggle to attract parishioners under age 30.
“A pastor usually attracts persons 10 years above and below their own age range,” says Gail Ford Smith, director of the Center for Clergy Excellence at the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. “If you have a 27-year-old starting a new worship service, they’re going to attract people ages (17) to 37. That really does appeal to us if we’re trying to reach mission fields of those who’ve not yet been connected to God through Jesus Christ.”
Reversing a Trend
Filling seminary halls with people in their 20s is hardly new. In the 1950s and early ’60s, most students were fresh out of college. But the 1980s and ’90s increasingly brought more men and women who had spent two or three decades in business or raising families. For churches, a young-adult face in the pulpit became a rarity.