Last year I accepted my first position as a senior pastor. When the votes were counted, I was 33 years old. Well, I was a few weeks away from being 34. But that's beside the point. I was young. And to add to it, the church I had just been called to was overwhelmingly populated with people old enough to be my (grand)parents. So the comments of "Look how young he is" were unavoidable. And they were right. In my head I could rationalize why I wasn't as young as I was perceived: I'd been in ministry nearly a decade, had gone as far as possible in seminary, and was noticing some graying in my hair.
But when Barna released their findings on the state of pastors in 2017, it showed the reality of where I'm at: There aren't a lot of guys in this spot who are my age. I knew that in my head, I'd done my doctoral thesis on the development of Millennials for pastoral ministry, and I found that the overwhelming number of senior pastors in SBC churches were Baby Boomers (born 1945-1965), and that at the time Millennials were only roughly 11% (that figure has dipped a bit, down to 10% according to the most recent Compensation Study profile).
Wow. That's all I can say. It's incredibly humbling to be trusted at a young age with the responsibility that comes with being a pastor. When I look at the data and I see how the demographics shake out, it's such a blessing to be trusted by a church to shepherd and lead them. Can I offer a few words to my fellow Millennials, to those serving as older pastors, and to the churches looking for a young pastor?
1. Guys, be patient. It's really hard to deal with the frustration of serving out of your gift set and desire. A lot of Millennials who are serving in second-chair positions have a desire to move into those lead roles. That's a good desire. But be patient. Learn as much as you can, even if it's what not to do. That's valuable. Develop your tough skin now. Lean on your growing faith.
2. Mentor us. The saddest thing about my doctoral thesis (and the follow-up research projects I did afterwards) was that for many younger leaders on a church staff, they were not being mentored or developed to be leaders. The overwhelming response to the question "What is your current pastor doing to develop you as a leader?" was "Nothing." If you've got a younger guy on your ministry team and he's got a desire to go into leadership, shepherd him. Mentor him. Take him along for hospital visits. Let him in vision-casting meetings. Give him regular preaching opportunities.
3. Churches, be patient with us. With age comes experience, and with experience comes wisdom. When age is working against you, experience and wisdom follow suit. If your church has a younger pastor, work with him, love him, and be patient as he navigates decisions and channels he's never had to before. Remember, the beloved predecessor was once a green 30-something too.
4. Younger guys, hang around people older than you. I see the conference lineups. I know the podcasts. We love guys who are similar to us. They're accessible, they speak our language, and they share our pop culture. But they don't have what the older pastors in your area do: wisdom and experience. One of the downfalls of modern youth ministry was the creation of the peer-culture. The same thing happens when ex youth pastors serving in lead roles constantly spend time around other ex youth pastors serving in lead roles.
5. Believe in us. Too often younger leaders in a church are serving alongside veteran leaders, and with their youth and inexperience they struggle to fully understand and buy into their calling. When God calls someone to pastoral ministry, He always does it in community. It's never in a vacuum. So when you affirm and build into and invest in a younger leader, you're doing something incredible to further the work God's doing in them. If you dismiss them, don't listen to them, or are unwilling to acknowledge their gifts, don't be surprised if they get discouraged and walk away.
6. Churches, thank you. When I did my doctoral thesis, I was working on the assumption that there would be a generational gap as Boomers move into retirement and Millennials move into lead pastor roles. What I wasn't prepared for was the data that showed Boomers are staying longer and staying older. The "talent pool" wasn't as tilted towards Millennials as I'd expected it would be. So for the churches out there who took the risk and were willing to go with a younger leader over someone who'd proven themselves with experience, thank you. I'm so grateful Emmanuel brought me in, the experience has been overwhelming. Thank you churches for embracing the radical differences Millennials have from previous generations, and in doing so show your love for "the next generation."
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.