By Cynthia Woolever
The general outlines of a growing church probably won’t surprise you. Representing 25% of congregations in the United States, growing churches:
- Have fewer worshipers older than 65 years of age compared to other churches.
- Attract many new worshipers, staying ahead of member departures and deaths.
- Attract more of the unchurched or first-time worshipers.
- Offer an engaging vision for the church’s future.
- Experience some conflict as the congregation deals with change.
But is what you think you know about the pastors who lead these growing congregations true?
Not young or old. One assumption is that younger pastors, under the age of 45, serve growing or soon-to-be growing churches. As the chart below shows, that’s not true. In fact, pastors of all ages lead in growing churches! The largest age group serving growing churches are those pastors who are between 51 and 60 years old.[i]
Overall, young pastors are a relatively small demographic group. Only 12% of pastors are 40 years old or younger. Yet one in four (26%) of these younger pastors serves as the senior or solo pastor in a growing church. That margin is even greater among pastors in their fifties, however, with almost one in three (30%) leading a growing church.
First-career or second-career? Historically, the traditional path to ministry meant attending seminary immediately following graduation from college, university, or Bible college. Today, though, a growing number of pastoral leaders worked in another occupation before entering ministry. About 40% of pastors currently serving local churches are classified as second-career. The sad thing is these second-career pastors are overrepresented in declining churches. Our research shows that growing and stable churches have more first-career pastors (64%) than declining congregations. Given that information, it seems that growing congregations may prefer to call a first-career pastor, if all else is equal.
A new pastor or one with longer service? Another common notion is that an exciting new pastor will make the church grow—practically overnight! While the number of years a pastor serves a church is related to numerical growth, it does not fit the above assumption. Pastors in growing churches are not new to the congregation. In fact, they have served there longer, than average, than leaders in stable churches.[ii] To help a church grow, takes time—to build trust, develop allies, reach consensus about robust strategies, and achieve results.
So do pastors get the credit for church growth? While pastoral leadership is important, it’s not the only factor in church growth. When a congregation is healthy and becoming more vital in every way, there is plenty of credit to go around. All lay or clergy, who are involved in the congregation, play a part. So pastors and members alike need to acknowledge and embrace their shared responsibility in discerning what God has called the church to be and do, to make it possible for the church to offer Christ to a new generation.
[i] The average time a pastor serves, across all denominations and faith groups, is five years. Average pastoral tenure varies by denomination.
[ii] The data included in this blog post comes from Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce, Leadership That Fits Your Church: What Kind of Pastor for What Kind of Congregation? (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2012).