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Reflections: Where have all the pastors gone?

Many things are different in today’s church. Research shows we took a hit during COVID-19, just as other organizations did. Some who weren’t core members, but on the sidelines, haven’t come back. On average churches have between 60 and 80% of our pre-COVID attendance. But hope springs eternal. We trust these wandering sheep will come back to the fold and find welcome.

Another perplexing trend is the pastor shortage. I think we saw some of this pre-pandemic.  The church I served in Perry County while working at Judson College searched 18 months for my replacement. I assumed there were many bi-vocational ministers available in the area, but apparently not.

I attended a seminar lately at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions facility in Prattville. A leader told us we had 554 Alabama Baptist churches currently without pastors, and this number represents 17% of our churches. Research shows many pastors retired during the pandemic. But this really doesn’t explain why we don’t have more and younger pastors-in-training coming along.

I remember as a teenager we had two or three “preacher boys” in our congregation committed to church ministry. I recall other local churches did, too. No one seems to have an explanation for the current lack of recruits. (My denomination is primarily staffed by male pastors, but I realize females serve in other churches more regularly.)

Another trend we’ve seen is the aging of pastors. The average age in America today is 38, and the average pastor is age 60. I’ve known pastors in their late 70s and 80s, including the late, great Charles Stanley.

Though we’ve seen a number of retirements in recent years, other pastors have “stuck it out” for various reasons. Some say they feel commitment and don’t want to leave their churches without leadership during this time of regrowth. Most pastors find great fulfilment in their ministries and don’t have overpowering reasons to leave unless health issues surface.

Baptist pastors often joke that they move for one of two reasons: the “pull” of the Lord, or the “push” of the people!

A friend involved in multi-denominational ministry told me, sadly, that some pastors “can’t afford to retire.”

Churches can help in this time of change by encouraging their young people to consider a call to ministry as a worthy vocation. And of course, we’ve seen those other than young people commit to ministry. A local community college reported their median student age is 28. This shows it’s not just recent high schoolers who study for new careers.

Congregations should offer service opportunities to members considering future ministry. This will not only give them valuable experience, but also be an investment in God’s work tomorrow.

“Reflections” is a weekly faith column written by Michael J. Brooks, pastor of the Siluria Baptist Church in Alabaster. The church’s website is siluriabaptist.com.

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