The Disappearance of Young Pastors

United Church - NarthexLast week I saw a link to Kate Shellnutt’s article, “Only 1 in 7 Pastors is Under 40” appear on my social feeds a few times before I clicked through to read it and to learn about the latest research on the topic.

The research was conducted by the Barna Group and Pepperdine University. It included 14,000 pastors. Findings include:

Average Age of Protestant Senior Pastors

  • 2017: 54
  • 1992: 44

Young Senior Pastors 

  • 2017: Only 1 in 7 is under age 40

Getting Personal

This topic is of interest to me as a student of modern American Christianity, and as someone who has served in pastoral ministry exclusively while under the age of 40.

My last two roles were as Interim or Transitional Senior Pastor in congregations affiliated with the United Church of Christ.  According to their 2016 statistical profile, I was atypical.  That report shows that (p.16) for the year 2015 just 7.8% of pastors or co-pastors were under age 40.

So What?

The statistics are worth repeating:

  • Just 1 in 7 Protestant Senior Pastors are under age 40
  • Less than 1 in 12 United Church of Christ Pastors or Co-Pastors are under age 40*

This is happening at a time when

  • Mainline Protestant Christians are as old as they have ever been: the median age for most denominations is mid to late 50s.
  • Americans are getting older and older. The median age of all Americans is now 37.8 (2015) compared to 32.9 in 1990 and to 29.5 in 1960.

I invite you to reflect on these statistics and to answer some or all of the following questions

  • Is there anything wrong with 1 in 7 Senior or Lead Pastors in the US being under age 40?  Explain.
  • When you were under age 40 would you have been more or less likely to join a congregation led by a minister under age 40? Why?
  • Are there specific stages in the life(cycle) of a congregation when that body might be more likely than at other stages to benefit from a pastor under age 40?


*I was unable to locate the specific number of UCC pastors serving as Senior Pastor in a recent year.  While I recognize that the 1 in 12 statistic is not a direct comparison to the statistic for all Protestants, it is adequate to build a case that in the UCC very few pastors serving local congregations are under age 40 and among that group not all serve in Senior Pastor positions.


  1. Great questions. I would add, “To what extent or how is the accelerating loss of parishioners at age 18 (up to 80%) to Pew’s “nones” category related to the decline of senior pastors under the age of 40?

  2. Terry, great point! This shift certainly is a factor.

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