Do Clergy People Age Like Fine Wine?

Clery Performance v Years of Service

In last week’s blog I speculated on how productivity varies over the thirty odd year career of the average clergy person. Let us be blunt; the United Methodist church, and other mainline denominations, are moving towards a system that reduces professional productivity down to one factor, the capacity to add members or grow a church (sometimes called ‘metrics’). Elsewhere I have cautioned that we need to read this as an institutional concern, which may have little correlation to God’s calling on a particular pastor’s life or the God-given vocation of the church that they are serving.


Like the Church Lifecycle that I drew last week, the Pastoral Lifecycle that I have drawn here is without statistical support. Considering the fact that the average United Methodist clergy person has been providing a negative membership gain for the denomination for the last thirty years, what curve would you draw? Take an incoming class of probationary members, say the class of 1979 (mine). Which part of their careers are they most likely to have been in negative territory?

I only draw this out to say that any policy which seeks to replace aging workers with young ones will have these difficulties:

  1. Most clergy become workaholics and our attitude about the above curve may be accentuating this psychological problem. The seminary graduate enters the field expecting to rack up double digit membership gains. Each time they have to submit a negative statistical report or confess that their church is falling behind on apportionments, they feel the denomination’s lash upon their back. Soon they realize that certain intractable problems and location issues prevent this particular church from growing. The only way to get a better appointment is to work harder. What they rarely do is settle in and accept the bottom half of their learning curve. They don’t seek for the core understandings and deeper insights which will help their current congregation become healthier and their total career be more fruitful.
  2. As workaholics, many clergy become depressed in midlife when their statistical values drop again. What made them productive in their thirties, no longer works. Depressed people tend to be risk adverse. They reject social media as a ‘time waster,’ failing to realize that we are in the community building business. More significantly, the denominational system with its mythical career ladder doesn’t encourage older clergy to do the work where they may be most fruitful. Mature, wise, leaders are needed to help legacy (or hospice) congregations transition into an appropriate state of closure. Other transitional leaders are needed to provide healing for congregations in conflict or some other form of collective trauma. 
  3. Given the current climate, healthy clergy with thirty years of experience, will exit gracefully and transition into productive midlife in another field. Unhealthy ones will stay and demand continued increases in salary. The denomination may lack the resources to transition through the period when the newly recruited young pastors are in training and the unhealthy clergy are failing to exit. We may be digging both negative valleys of the productivity curve deeper.

The unintended consequence of policies that focus on clergy age is that adaptive and well rounded pastors will consider their church work to be a short term career. Sports teams that focus on having young players lose their talented ones when they become free agents. There is a reason why the fifth command is the only one with a blessing (Deuteronomy 5:16). Those who intend to live long in the field of church service, choose a denomination that isn’t abandoning their elders on an ice floe.