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July 14, 2011

Tom Arthur: The year I became uncool

Something happened to me this year. I became uninteresting to mostly everyone. I turned thirty-five. Marketers no longer put me in that all important eighteen to thirty-four-year-old category. My own denomination no longer considers me part of an age group that we especially need more of (see Lovett Weems’ research on young clergy). It hit me when I recently filled out a survey with demographic questions: I had to categorize myself with fifty-year-olds rather than twenty-year-olds. That was enough to make me feel seriously uncool -- if I ever was cool to begin with.

At the same time something else happened to me this year. I became a dad. At age thirty-five my wife and I had our first son. My six-month-old and the kink I get in my back while holding him for any extended period of time is a daily challenge to my youthful vigor and any sense left that I am still young. But I’m finding that my wife and I are a stronger team at this point in our life than we ever would have been before. If we had a child early in our marriage, it’s conceivable that we just might have killed one another. With age has come some strengths.

So here I find myself straddling these two age categories: I’m part young clergy (actually at almost all of my district clergy gatherings I am still the youngest person in the room) and part old clergy, too (I am older than Jesus after all, which I have to occasionally remind myself of this fact when a parishioner complains that I’m too young to understand something). Even though thirty-five is out of the direct spotlight of everyone, it actually feels like a pretty good place to be.

I wonder if we’re not missing something by focusing too much on our need for younger clergy. I’m not saying it’s not a problem, but I’m also realizing that other demographic shifts are taking place as well. I have a hard time imagining myself leading an entire community of people with any kind of proficiency or competency in my early twenties. I’m reminded of an article I read by Christian Smith about emerging adulthood. Twenty-eight is the new eighteen. Adolescence is extending later and later into life.

The opportunity I was given during my twenties was the chance to lead part of a community as a staff member of a church under a very competent pastor who was in his forties. It was an incubation period for both my maturity and my leadership skills. If I am a competent leader today, it has less to do with seminary, current mentoring or the ordination process, and more to do with those eight years of being a staff member of a church.

I recently hired a new worship leader. Where did I find him? He was already on my staff. Just in a different area. He was hired right out of college to help with children’s ministry. He wasn’t quite ready to lead the whole thing, but over time his competencies grew, and eventually he took over the leadership of the children’s ministry. This time period acted as an incubation period for his maturity and leadership skills. When I arrived as the pastor at my current church, he was ready to take his leadership to the next level as our worship leader.

Maybe we need to focus less on getting young people to be pastors and focus more on getting young people into these kinds of leadership incubation roles in our churches. Maybe we need less focus on young clergy and more focus on young church staff members. Maybe we need less focus on eighteen to thirty-four-year-old pastors and more focus on eighteen to thirty-four-year-old youth ministers, choir directors, children’s ministry leaders, and the like. It’s not that these roles are always stepping stones rather than vocational ends in themselves, but they do give young people more opportunities to grow in maturity and leadership for the present and future church. Or maybe all this is just a ploy to make me feel less lonely as a thirty-five-year-old pastor.

Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.


As a once "young clergy" at

As a once "young clergy" at the beginning of this curiosity trend, the desire to support young clergy/staff members has grown significantly. But a major brick wall is there. Boomers aren't retiring because their retirement funds are still suffering. It will be hard to break up the leadership log jam until that situation changes.

Young clergy

I am now 41 but still the youngest person in many clergy meetings as well. I have noticed that there are few people in my age bracket serving in ministry. At our last District meeting there was one person my age and two pastors 10-15 years younger. Everyone else was 55 or older.

I think paying attention to "youngish" clergy and lay people and nurturing our leadership skills is important. When all the late 50 to 70 year old pastors and lay leaders retire, there will be a huge leadership vacuum. If we are not given the opportunity to lead now, how will be experienced enough to lead the Church later?

me too

Funny, I turn 35 this September myself, and have been in full-time ministry for 9 years, with some part-time appointments before that. I don't think 9+ years of experience is something to sneeze at, yet sometimes, at least in my current appointment, I don't think the people think of me as their real pastor because I am too young. I wonder for myself, though, before I go pointing fingers, whether or not I would attend a church with a 35 year old senior pastor if I had the choice. Probably not, I have to admit - as a young(er) person, I would still want my own pastor to be a little older and presumably wiser.

Well, learning to be uncool is no problem for me - I certainly never was in the first place!

Would I want a 35 Year Old Pastor?

Great question. It leaves me pondering it myself. I think it all depends on who that pastor was. My wife and I lived in a new monastic community while in seminary. The house was owned by a couple who was younger than we were. We always felt that despite their age, we were sitting at their feet learning much more wisdom than we were imparting. On the other hand, I don't know many people quite like them. So I'd have to say my answer is, "It depends." The question does help give some perspective to those who might be struggling with a younger pastor. I know I had several people tell me about a year into my first appointment, "I wasn't sure I could learn much from someone so young." It would be easy to point the finger at such a statement, but your question reminds me to not be too quick to judge. Thanks!

Young Clergy

At a workshop I attended not long ago, the presenter claimed that for all pastors the people you will have problems with are folks your parents' age. Because they have very fallible children your age, it will be hard not to look at a similarly aged pastor the same way. The folks our grandparents age, on the other hand, will - like grandparents - think everything we do is golden. I'm not sure of this myself. I'm 28, serving my first appointment and no particular group has given me any significant problems. But a lot has to do with how one carries themselves, I think. If we "take authority" as we are charged at ordination, and preach, lead, and pray with it, I think the folks will be there. In the military, enlisted soldiers have to routinely follow younger officers, and it works. But I think our churches do need to see that people under 50 can take leadership roles. In my context, anyone under 30 is still "the youth," which is interesting.

Tom, Thanks for the


Thanks for the thoughtful response; you're right, of course, it can't be "one-size-fits-all" situations - there are many variables in determining where we might choose to attend if we were free to make that choice - children's programing, overall church size, worship style, and of course, the pastor. Within the "pastor factor" are all kinds of things - theological persuasion, preaching, personality and, yes, age.

I find Drew's comment interesting too, only because in my experience its been a mixed bag of the demographics of problem causers in the church - I've seen it caused by young, old and in-between. My age has rarely been an asset, even with young adult laypeople.

young preacher

I have nearly reached three score and ten, the biblical limit and was referred to a neurologist for a problem. I sat and waited and saw one of the doctors with a distinguished brow and white bear and thought, "that's my doctor." Instead, my doctor was fresh faced young man in his first month of service. But he spent a long time with me, he was thorough, he was kind, he explained things very well, I felt like doing a little dance on the way out. I'd love a twenty-something preacher like that.

Clergy Age Trends

Thanks to the reference to the Lewis Center's annual clergy age trends report. The 2011 report, which will come out in September, will confirm some of the other responders' observations. The older group of elders, 55-72, continues to grow, now 52% of all active elders. The middle-age group (35-54) shrank to 43%, down from 65% as recently as 2000. And the under-35 group increased slightly but still hovers between 5 and 6%.

young clergy

Amen to your blog. I am a second career pastor and I am 46. With our constant emphasis on youth, youth, youth... I sometimes feel old and not quite desirable, like second best. It is a good thing to be concerned about youth, but please don't forget the rest of you and make us feel like second-class citizen. We have a lot to contribute and we are not dead yet!

Too Old?

When I was 24 and the youngest Elder in the Conference I was told," Just wait your time will come, you need to season for awhile". 25 years later I'm being told,"Sorry, your too old now, we need young clergy in leadership".

Elder young Elder older

Plenty of good thoughts filled with much concern and wisdom. Yet hearing commnents makes me believe the pastorate is viewed more as a career than a calling. And I mean that not specifically for any age pastor. Older Elders speak as if younger have to pay their dues. Younger Elders feel the older need to make space for them. Having only been in the ministry 40 years, I have observed Elders of all ages as effective and ineffective and it had little to do with their age. We all have to keep listening to God and listening to the culture in which we live, finding God's direction in how to respond to God's call wherever we are placed and whatever age we are. It is so important now as it was in Early Testiment times for each generation to respond to God's call, working with many other generations of Elders. I pray my two children who are in ministry will only immulate one characteristic of their father and that is a constant seeking of God's will and I pray everything else will be different and far more effective than this Elder on the other end.

Calling or Career

Hey John,
Thanks for keeping us focused on the calling. I absolutely agree that calling has everything to do with being a pastor. I hope that my original blog did not imply otherwise, though I can see how it could be taken that way. At the same time I wonder how "career" and "calling" intersect. When I began working as a staff person at a church, I sure didn't see myself fulfilling a calling. I was just looking for a good job. If I had gotten asked during the interview if I was called to this job, I would have had to say "no" if I was being honest. I just wanted a meaningful and good job, and I didn't expect to stick around all that long. And yet God used that "job" to introduce me to my calling. I'm a called pastor now because I began working at a church for a job. Now as I look back I see God's prevenient grace all over that job. Thank you, God!

How do you characterize 'not too old?'

There's a saying that inside every person over 50 is an 18 year-old wondering what the heck happened to all those years? As an almost 63 y.o. pastor I deal with lots of folks younger than me who swear they'll never stoop to texting to reach the young folks. I said that too -- 5 years ago, but now I text a dozen or more times a day. I deal with early Boomers who insist the church should be debt-free, but side with the X-ers and Y-ers that credit is OK. I usually preach 15-minute sermons in open-collar shirts, Dockers and Reeboks (although I usually wear a suit to serve Communion) and my congregational average age is under 40. All this is in traditional worship services (okay, with 1/3 contemporary songs) in rural churches, and I'm in my 6th year with a 5-year+ average. The fact is, age isn't the problem, but 'thinking old' is. What today's churches need are pastors of whatever age who can with gentleness and confidence, lead them into the 21st-century while still making a 2,000 y.o. Gospel relevant. And remember, John Wesley said that 'a sour Christianity is the devil's own religion,' so smile while you're getting older doing it.

Being "Uncool"

I agree on the need to nurture potential leadership abilities and spiritual wisdom of our younger adults, including at least some of our younger pastors, through local church volunteer and "junior" staff positions which will help them prepare for greater responsibilities later. With the passing of the years, I have deepened in terms of my sense of vocation, and also grown in grace in other ways. In retrospect, I see more clearly how early opportunities to serve on larger church staffs were helpful to me. I also recognize how valuable it would have been for me to be paired with a concerned, supervising older "mentor" pastor during the time I struggled with the pastoral challenges of a rural charge.

I will also note that many of us "boomers" had to wait for people 20-30 years ahead of us to move out of upper echelon jobs before we were thought "mature" enough to move into positions some of these older ministers had begun to hold when they were relatively young. By the time the positions opened up, not every capable person in our immense age cohort could move into one of the new opportunities suddenly available. Moreover, many of us had moved beyond "cool" to dangerously close to "past prime", especially in comparison to the "up and comers" about ten years younger than we were. Yep, some good pastors were "passed over"

Also, don't blame us if we are not ready to retire yet. It's not just a matter of pension funds that have tanked. Many of us are in far better health than our parents were at our age. Could it be that our denomination is missing an opportunity to place us in "mentor" roles for members of the new cohort of young adults just now emerging?


Thank you for this post. And the responses are great too. At 43 ordained since 34, I felt many of the emotions and had many of the experiences named here. I am also of the monastic trend and know that age does not guarantee wisdom or inexperience or energy level. I know pastors in their 80's who are very hip and have more energy than some of our young adults in the church and the wisdom to go along with it. I think we all need to start acknowledging the gifts we all bring from our different experiences and let the yeast multiply by allowing youngish and young clergy to lead at the conference levels and bring our insight to the larger denominational mix. I also agree with bringing on younger staffers (this is how I was mentored) and particularly for some women and women of color. Unfortunately we still live in a gender and race biased society and this kind of mentoring is essential to opening up leadership opportunities for everyone. Since we are a complete package our age and our minds are also tied to our spirits and as we are led by God's Spirit who goes where she will - I believe if we stop trying so hard to control things our leadership will organically begin to reflect our communities and thus will follow our congregations reinvesting in our leadership which will be an exciting development for all of us Jesus followers.

Incubating Leadership

I want to focus on your point about building up new leaders in the church. This is a tremendous need for the church whether we are talking about volunteers or staff. Unfortunately, most congregations cannot afford to bring additional persons on staff even if those persons are called. In the mean time, there are many persons of all ages who have a passion for some form of ministry but lack the confidence or a few other learnable skills to engage in that ministry.

I keep bouncing around in my head the basic outline for how we can support each other in finding our place in ministry. There are elements we can use from our Wesleyan tradition, but the key thing is to observe those we are in covenant with, praising their accomplishments, providing constructive recommendations and encouraging them to keep growing. We can do better.

Thank you, Tom, for your words of encouragement.

I also worked on staff at a

I also worked on staff at a church for 8 years under a very competant Senior Pastor. My leadership skills and maturity was developed over that time. During that time I began feeling the nudges into Pastoral ministry and at the age of 41 have become a Local Pastor. I agree wholeheartedly that I would not have been ready to lead a whole community in my younger years. I also think you are right on target with your suggestions of involving our younger people on staff, to help develop those leadership skills.

Not a Pro, but...

Well my friend, welcome to the uncool side. I am in my mid-50's, so I've been uncool for some time. However, I am starting to get a measure of respect for old-school cool. What goes around comes around. However, in its desperate pursuit of someone, anyone to refresh its image, the UMC will soon heave you overboard, with the rest of us in middle age. You are coming into the prime of your ministry, your skills are reaching a peak, your effectiveness has never been better, and you'll find you are no longer wanted. Needed, yes. Wanted, no. Good luck, and enjoy the ride.

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