An article by ARDA (the Association of Religious Data Archives) reports the difficulty older seminarians have of being hired in pastoral positions, and being decently compensated if they happen to land a pastoral position.
Local churches seem to prefer to hire younger men (and younger women, as the case may be in some denominations). This makes some sense. Young men in their late twenties or early thirties are starting a career that can last thirty to forty years. Older seminarians can anticipate a pastoral career spanning perhaps little more than a decade. Denominations and local churches both see the same efficiency: Investing in young men means a longer-term payoff relative to investing in older men who have shorter career horizons.
There are, to be sure, exceptional young men. Paul writes to Timothy not to let any one look down on his youth. Similarly, Ignatius of Antioch cautioned the Magnesian church against treating their bishop too familiarly on account of his youth.
But, we need to be cautious against substituting the exception for the norm.
Indeed, in today’s youth-obsessed culture, Paul and Ignatius might think it more appropriate to caution churches against looking down on a pastoral candidate’s “agedness” rather than caution them not to look down on his “youthfulness.”
It seems apparent that, early on, pastors formed, or at least were part of, the body of elders in the churches. For example, in Acts, Paul called the “elders” from Ephesus to speak to them at Miletus. He admonishes them as “overseers” or “bishops” who shepherd the church of God. Similarly, in writing to Timothy, Paul speaks of “elders” who rule well, especially those who “work hard at teaching and preaching.”
So pastors are elders.
Without intending to be too pedantic, and with a nod at exceptional cases, it seems that we should normally expect “elders” to be, well, . . . elderly.
By this I don’t mean that church governance be limited to those sixty-five years old or older. In the Bible the term refers to mature men. Probably those who are at least forty years old. Perhaps ordinarily referring to those who are at least fifty years old or older. It makes sense for churches to be lead by those who have been around the track a few times and who have substantial experience dealing with the tests of everyday life.
Sometimes there is no substitute for experience, no matter how much we may want the opposite to be true. This is no different in spiritual mattersor perhaps, it’s even more true in spiritual matters than elsewhere. As the author of Hebrews put it, solid food is for the mature, “who through practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”
Without despising the exceptional younger person, it would seem that most pastors should be at least middle-aged. Most will become pastors when they are elders in actuality and not merely in name. The focus on youth and the possibility of a long career inverts what should be the normal expectation.
Further, an obsession with recruiting young men into the pastorate doesn’t do any favors for most of them. While there will be exceptional cases, I dare say that we rationalize more exceptions than there are in reality. No matter the doctrinal and pastoral training, most young men aren’t ready to be placed in full-orbed pastoral vocations when they do not have the practical wisdom, the experience, of several decades of raising a family and working with others within and without the church. A little bit of age would have done Rehoboam, and Israel, a world of good.
It is little surprise that so many pastors report burnout, or have symptoms of burnout. The emotional, intellectual, and spiritual demands are incredibly high. The Church short-changes herself, her people, and her pastors by routinely pursuing and preferring the young rather than the old for the pastorate.
James R. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. His previous articles can be found here.