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As more pastors age and retire, churches appear to be facing a succession crisis, a study says

Recent research released by Barna Group reveals a demographic trend that may not bode well for the stability of congregations. As a significant percentage of pastors near retirement, the pipeline of younger successors appears insufficient to take over their leadership responsibilities.

According to the 2022 Barna Resilient Pastor research, one-quarter of pastors said they hoped to retire within the next seven years.

In addition, the age of pastors in America has been trending upward for decades. According to the 2020 Faith Communities Today (FACT) study, the average age of religious leaders has increased from 50 in 2000 to 57 in 2020. A 2017 Barna study found that the median age of a Protestant pastor was 54 at that time — up from 44 in 1992.

“As a generation of clergy ages and prepares to step down, it is not clear that churches are prepared for the transition,” Barna reported. “If this trend goes unaddressed, the Church in the U.S. will face a real succession crisis.”

According to Ashley Ekmay, a lead researcher for Barna, one of the most significant questions arising from the study is whether pastors are exhibiting to younger people that entering the ministry is worth it. “The data seems to indicate that the answer to that question is no,” she said.

Much of that sentiment can be attributed to the fact that a rising number of pastors are considering quitting themselves — and not just to retire. “As of March 2022, 42% of pastors said that they had considered quitting full-time ministry in the last year,” Ekmay said. “That is a very jarring thing to state.”

Numerous factors seem to be contributing to pastors’ current state of mind about leaving the ministry, Ekmay said.

“There’s this collective ache among pastors,” she said. “When we asked them about burnout and whether they were considering quitting in 2022, they pointed to numerous things that were making them feel that way. Divisions in the church were a huge factor, especially from increasing polarization in America coming off George Floyd’s death, masking during COVID and Trump’s presidency.

“The pastors felt like they had to take a side, but no matter what side they picked, they were on the wrong side,” Ekmay said.

When addressing succession planning for the church, Barna found that 38% of 584 pastors surveyed personally made it a top priority to equip, nurture and identify leaders to take over their role upon retirement. However, nearly an equal number of pastors — 40% — indicated they had “thought about the need but have too many other ministry concerns.”

Whether or not they had invested in succession planning, a significant number of pastors responding to the Barna study said they anticipated difficulties in finding younger successors. As of 2022, only 16% of Protestant senior pastors were 40 or younger.

According to the survey, which was conducted in September 2022, 75% of pastors said they “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed with the statement “It is becoming harder to find mature young Christians who want to become pastors.” Nearly 35% of the respondents strongly agreed with that statement — up from 24% in 2015. More than 70% of the pastors also said they strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement “I am concerned about the quality of future Christian leaders.”

More recent pastor interviews related to Barna’s research series seem to indicate that the succession challenge may not be going away anytime soon. An additional factor seems to be emerging, suggested by the early findings of the 2023 study, which is scheduled to be released in spring 2024, Ekmay said.

“We’ve noticed that there seems to be a contagion effect,” Ekmay said. “When we asked, ‘Do you know anyone else who has quit the ministry?’ we found that those who knew someone who had left were giving more thought to leaving themselves.”

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Learning to preach is a lifelong vocation with fresh challenges to face and new opportunities for growth. Beginning to learn the preaching art is a big job, with many skills to develop in sharing God’s word with God’s people: exegeting biblical texts, discerning and framing theological themes, addressing cultural issues, acknowledging congregational dynamics, grounding contemporary relevance in Christian history, offering authentic personal witness without becoming the center of sermon attention. Each of these dimensions in sermon crafting is learned only in incremental steps and over time. Integrating them all requires effective orchestration — a skill of its own.

In introductory homiletics courses or in early attempts on their own, beginning preachers may inevitably focus on generating one sermon at a time. This practice tends to produce a series of “one-offs” — each independent of, or even in isolation from, each other. The preaching that results does justice neither to the organic evolution of parish community life nor to rich elements in the unfolding trajectory of salvation history.

What can preachers do in sermon crafting to foster in listeners a tangible sense of communal spiritual continuity? How might they develop a “Spirited” conversation that enables members, on returning to church each week, to pick up where they left off (even if they miss Sundays here and there)?

Here are some strategies we’ve sought to employ in service of that objective:

  • Rather than taking the lectionary readings assigned as disparate texts, we try to think about what precedes and follows each text and how, on a given day, they may be in intertextual interplay. We look for themes we can focus on for a month, a liturgical season, even a year.
  • We seek to be open to the Holy Spirit in the lives of our church communities, making connections with the sacred texts. This is different from eisegesis or reading something into the text.

    We don’t decide, for example, “Well, it’s the pledge campaign season, so we need to throw stewardship in somehow,” or try to tie in how to raise money for a new air conditioning unit when the Old Testament reading is Nathan confronting David about Bathsheba. Instead, as we prayerfully consider the collection of the day’s readings and seek themes, we pray about what’s going on in the life of our church — individual instances and broader patterns.

  • We try to be aware of, and open to, the Spirit in the lives of individual parishioners. We try to avoid finding a story to “plug in” to a sermon for that Sunday. Rather, we pay attention to how an encounter with a community member or an event in our own lives or the life of a parishioner might beautifully illuminate a text. Of course, when telling someone else’s story, especially if recognizable to others in the congregation, we need to have received their consent.
  • Some teachers of preaching advise against reading old sermons because it could constrict fresh vision. We find, however, that such rereading can have the opposite effect — sending us in a different direction entirely or deepening a dimension that was implicit in the sermon preached before. With multiple lectionary texts, every Sunday offers many thematic variations and angles of approach.

    Reading old sermons can be especially helpful when difficult pericopes arise. Some of us were taught that if one of the readings is difficult (such as Jesus talking about divorce), we “must” preach on that, because it is what people will hear and wonder about. When preaching to the same people for a decade or more, however, that would mean never preaching from other readings for that Sunday or other themes present in the collection.

    When we are with people long term, we can be open to what the Spirit nudges us toward, acknowledging when that does not engage the difficult text and perhaps letting people know that a previous sermon on that text is available for those who want or need it. Copies or recordings of such sermons can be made available for later reference.

  • Weaving in the developing story of the parish — especially when viewed in light of an unfolding issue in the ministry of Jesus, an Old Testament drama, or an early church issue wrestled with in Acts or the Letters of Paul — can bring together broad connections rather than simply making a point.

    It can convey the sense of spiritual growth as a process both extended and communal, whether it’s the struggle with a building program, the investment in a local food bank or tutoring ministry, the progress of a Christian education program, or a socially/politically challenging local issue in which the parish has a stake.

  • We find it often appropriate and helpful to briefly reference previous sermons and to point ahead to what forthcoming sermons will be addressing — all aspects of a story in process.
  • Being candid about our own vulnerabilities and challenges as well as pressing but unresolved issues in parish life can serve as an invitation to reflect on the physical and emotional layers of experiential problems and theological principles. When done with care, such preaching can reframe what may feel insurmountable when faced alone as occasions for mutual insight, support and resolutions, however partial or temporary those may be.

While most preachers know that it is inappropriate and ineffective to preach at their congregations, not all preachers know that they are not so much to preach to but rather with and for their congregations.

Professor Fred Craddock often reminded his fellow preachers that good preaching does not tell listeners what they want to hear; it enables people to say what they most deeply need to say. When strategies like those listed above are regularly worked into the sermon preparation process, listeners will experience preaching they hear as a window on their shared world, as a voice that resonates with and validates their own individual and communal voices.

Preaching becomes not so much a series of points to ponder as a set of reference points for shared spiritual journey — an invitation to participate in continuing Spirited conversation.

Preaching during a war can be a difficult task. Should every sermon mention an ongoing conflict? What does a preacher do about the inevitable backlash?

The dean of Duke Chapel and preaching professor Luke Powery reminds preachers that the sermon is only one aspect of formation in the context of a church.

Preachers don’t have to be the authority on a tense political situation and ongoing war. Instead, their sermons can be one part of their congregants’ formation. They might bring in outside experts or enlist other church members with expertise to help guide and form a congregation in responding to political events.

Above all, Powery says, preachers should seek to humanize the conflict, reminding congregants through preaching of the impact of the incarnation on how we empathize and understand a destructive war and suffering.

Powery spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi after preaching a sermon in Duke Chapel in early November. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: What are some things that you’re thinking through when planning to preach in the context of this conflict?

Luke A. Powery: First, I would say there are many different approaches to what one is preaching in relation to world events. Also, the second thing I want to say is that the sermon is just one piece of the larger liturgical event.

Everything does not reside in a sermon. There are other, let’s say, symbols and signs and messages and prayers, other words that function.

I think both of those items are important. Because as it relates to the current crisis in the Middle East, or any other crisis, I think when we’re planning, as those who are preparing a service and music and all of that, we’re also keeping in mind, “Well, how might we at least acknowledge this in prayers of the people?”

For me, if I’m thinking specifically about a sermon, I don’t feel pressure, per se, to mention the current crisis in every single sermon, though some people may want to hear every week about it.

I think our primary goal as preachers is to preach the gospel. So how do you relate whatever the lectionary text is for that Sunday, whatever you choose, to the lives of the people there in light of the larger world context? Obviously, the crisis in Israel and Gaza, Ukraine, Russia, you name it, you can go down the list — it’s on people’s minds. They’re getting it through social media and TV.

There might be a time when I reference it more specifically, but it’s often in relation to human suffering, and also lament.

The expression of lament that is almost like, “Here we go again.” We’re in this human struggle that we’ve seen before, wars and rumors of wars. And so to me, every time you prepare to preach, you practice discernment. You’re discerning through prayer and engagement with people and the community, “What should I be saying?” or, “How should I say it?”

I think that’s the ongoing process. I don’t think there’s one way to come at it. Even the sermon I preached this past Sunday, from Amos, which says, “Let justice roll down like a river” — well, I didn’t mention specifics of the conflict.

Yet somebody could take away implications from Amos, in relation to the conflict, or in relation to anything else going on in the world, this call to a life — forget about your songs and your rituals and your festivals and all of that; what God wants is justice and righteousness. But you can develop that in many different ways.

The human suffering, God in the midst of human suffering, is key to me. Whether it’s children, mothers, fathers, the destruction of human life is what is lamentable in this. That’s where the question is — where do you find hope in all of this, or is there hope, really? But it’s one long lament. One long lament.

F&L: So trying to humanize it might cut across some of the politicization of the conflict to focus on the human loss?

LAP: It’s a long, long history, and then there are different dimensions, too — political history, social history, religious history and all of that. I think, really, you need scholars to bring their expertise to bear on the history and where we are today. But I think, as a preacher, it is key that we remember, out of the Christian tradition, God became human.

So it’s the turn to the human and humanizing the conflict, even before any categories of what your ethnic, religious or gender identity is. Any act of violence means saying another human being doesn’t matter.

Where’s the human in this? Because once you start thinking in categories — ethnic, political, whatever it might be — then people just become objects. Objects are a category to crush, control, curse. They’re not my brother or sister or sibling.

F&L: What about when preachers stand for what they believe is the human response to a conflict and then get pushback from congregants? What should they do?

LAP: Well, I’ve found it helpful to actually sit down with somebody, to create a space for listening and let people air what they need to air. Secondly, don’t take it personally. Not everything is personal. The third thing I would say is in preaching, there are going to be the cheers and the jeers — from the same sermon. Some people will love it, and others won’t.

I think that’s just par for the course. So it takes courage to stand up there to preach. It takes courage and wisdom and patience to pastor.

If somebody has an issue with something you said or did, create a space where you can sit down with them and have a conversation. Really listen, because maybe even as the leader, there’s something for you to learn when you hear from a different perspective. I think there’s an opportunity there for growth.

What I have often found is it creates a deeper connection with the person. Whether you agree with one another at the end or not, there is a coming together. Because you’ve actually slowed down and listened and allowed the other person to come to voice their concern or their perspective or whatever it is, and that goes a very long way.

F&L: How do you think a preacher can help congregants sift through all the information on the conflict?

LAP: I think it’s a whole ecology of a faith community that would have to be at play there. Not just a sermon, but the whole life of adult education. Yes, sermons, but everything that happens in a church could feed into that question.

The gospel is political now, meaning that it has to do with the world, but the church is also not a political think tank.

Yes, you want people of faith to be thoughtful, so maybe there are opportunities to bring in scholars or other experts, and that may not be the pastor. Everything’s not on the preacher or the pastor. Are there people in the congregation that are equipped? Maybe there can be panel discussions.

Where do you create the spaces for conversation, group conversations and learning opportunities? That’s really what I’m getting at. Are there educational opportunities? Small groups or a book group? A book that could illuminate, a well-researched book, etc., that could help people have a fuller understanding and then have a conversation around that? What are the learning or educational opportunities in a faith community, a church or whatever that might be?

I think that is a pathway to help further reflection. It’s not just the social media, whatever, a tweet or something on Facebook, or just what’s on TV, news media. I think there are pockets of conversation and learning that can happen.

While various denominations have established policies regarding women’s roles, the number of women serving in religious leadership capacities has surged in recent decades.

According to research conducted by theologian Eileen Campbell-Reed, 20.7% of American clergy were women as of 2016 — up from 2.3% in 1960.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which represents 4 million members, reported in 2022 that 40% of its pastors were women. In the Assemblies of God, 27.6% of its ministers currently are women.

The Rev. Dr. Kamilah Hall Sharp, who is affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), exemplifies a growing trend among women embracing roles as congregational leaders. Even as some question whether — and how — they should lead, women like Hall Sharp are pursuing alternative pathways to their religious calling.

Hall Sharp, along with the Rev. Dr. Irie Lynne Session, co-founded The Gathering, a womanist church in Dallas. The two ordained ministers planted the church in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, after determining that they could fill a void by bringing to the forefront Black women’s voices. On its website, The Gathering describes its context this way: “As more preachers, pastors and ministers of the word intentionally do the deeper exegetical work of interrogating the sacred biblical texts to raise up the muted voices of women, the theological landscape for womanism continues to expand.”

“We obviously still see women who are having to fight to be in spaces and to be affirmed in spaces,” said Hall Sharp, who also is the director of the Doctor of Ministry in Public Ministry Program at Chicago Theological Seminary. “But I also see a trend in which women are welcomed and starting to create their own tables. My church is an example of creating your own table — within a denominational setting.”

Hall Sharp, a former practicing attorney, pursued a theological degree because she felt a call to ministry. After earning her master of divinity at Memphis Theological Seminary, she moved to Texas to pursue a doctorate in biblical interpretation with a focus in Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School.

Despite her credentials, she encountered roadblocks. “In Texas, there aren’t a lot of spaces for women,” Hall Sharp said. “I struggled with finding a church home for a while.”

As a result, Hall Sharp and Session started brainstorming about creating a new space where people could experience womanist preaching. “It eventually evolved into a church. Because we’re both ordained in Disciples of Christ, it became a new church of Disciples of Christ.”

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Kamilah Hall Sharp (left) and Irie Lynne Session (middle) serve communion.

The two didn’t initially consider planting a church. “As it is for a lot of women, we started the church out of necessity,” said Hall Sharp, who co-authored the book “The Gathering, A Womanist Church: Origins, Stories, Sermons and Litanies.”

“We didn’t have support from our denomination to start the church. And even when we did get financial support, it wasn’t a lot,” she said.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which has ordained women since the 1880s, recently appointed the Rev. Teresa Hord Owens to a second term as general minister and president in the United States and Canada — the first person of color and second woman to lead the denomination — but women continue to have fewer opportunities than men, Hall Sharp said.

In her experience, she said, women are typically assigned to or hired at churches that aren’t able to pay as much. “As a result, they’re never able to really be a full-time pastor,” Hall Sharp said. “So many women in ministry have to have other jobs, because they typically don’t get the churches with all the resources.”

Hall Sharp’s experience highlights a common theme of continued inequity among women taking on leadership roles, according to Campbell-Reed, a visiting associate professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and co-director of the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project.

“Many women are doing great, but there’s still controversy and conflict everywhere they go,” Campbell-Reed said. “We still have inequities in pay and disparities about where women can start and the extent to which they can grow. They’re still more likely to get associate roles or roles in very small churches.”

Rabbi Dr. Rachel Mikva, a professor of Jewish studies and the senior faculty fellow of the InterReligious Institute at Chicago Theological Seminary, has observed similar patterns in rabbinic roles. She noted that women are leading two of the major rabbinic seminaries. In 2020, Jewish Theological Seminary appointed Shuly Rubin Schwartz as its new chancellor — the first woman to hold the role since its founding in 1886 — and Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld became president of Hebrew College in 2018.

Those types of developments obviously have been helped by women’s movements across the United States, Mikva said. “However, it’s not without bumps. Women have been moving into rabbinic positions, but not every community was immediately ready to hire a woman to be the rabbi,” she said.

While planting The Gathering was challenging, Hall Sharp said, the rewards were worth it. She said one of the major benefits was providing other women a platform to develop. “It’s difficult to create new spaces, because you don’t necessarily get the financial support that you see others getting,” she said. “But it’s been very rewarding, because people have found a place where they can feel whole; they can come as their complete selves.”

Hall Sharp envisions a future in which women are embraced in their roles as leaders. “I hope to see more women be OK with who they are, to be able to walk authentically, and to see more spaces where they are affirmed and appreciated and their leadership is respected,” she said.