Friday, April 29, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: A Hot Mess

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Young pastors in American churches are a dying breed. So says Eric Conn, and he’s got a major 2017 study in hand from the Barna Group to prove it. The number of U.S. pastors under forty is currently half what it was in 1992, while the number over sixty-five has tripled. The Barna report concludes, “It is urgent that denominations, networks and independent churches determine how to best motivate, mobilize, resource and deploy more younger pastors.”

Tom: That’s a highly debatable conclusion, but not a surprising one. What’s interesting to me, IC, is not so much Barna’s “Aging of America’s Pastors” article, but Conn’s analysis of it. As someone who’s been there, he described vocational ministry as “a hot mess”.

Extending Limited Sympathy

Immanuel Can: I’m sure it is. I’ve seen some ways that it is. And Mr. Conn’s article contains some good points. But before we get all sympathetic with his plight, or that of the “younger pastors” for whom he advocates, we should ask if anybody was supposed to be doing that job in the first place. If not, then his complaint amounts to “The job that God told nobody to do is getting too hard for younger people to do anymore.” And my response then would be, “Yeah? Well, cry me a river.”

Tom: Well, precisely. I view the Barna report as confirmation of the wisdom of New Testament church order as taught by the apostles. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find young, seminary-trained men making careers out of presiding full-time over local churches. Instead, we find groups of older men whose families are pretty much grown up doing the often unappreciated work of shepherding and feeding the people of God. Many undoubtedly did it with no regular financial compensation at all.

Following New Testament church order would eliminate many of the problems the modern “pastoral” system poses for young families, which Conn so deftly exposes. And it would share the burden, as God intended.

Careering Into Trouble

IC: Yep. Conn has the idea that “pastor” is a career. He’s objecting that it’s poorly-compensated and undervalued, so young men have no reason to choose it anymore. But think about it: the definitive difference between what the Bible calls a “true shepherd” and what it calls a “hireling” is what? It’s the fact of being hired into a career, rather than of having done the work out of care for the sheep. A “hireling” is one paid to do the job instead of doing it out of love … a careerist, if you will. And that is the very reason he forsakes the sheep in their time of need.

The moral: you cannot trust guys who regard shepherding as a career. They’re nothing but hirelings.

Tom: Now, as my mother is fond of reminding me, a man can be grossly mistaken about God’s ideal arrangement for his churches and still be at heart a committed servant of Christ. He may have been taught to interpret the New Testament by reading back into it the clerical structures that exist in our generation, or he may never have imagined things could be done any differently than they are done today. Looking at what Conn is up to currently on his website, you can see there’s a lot more to him than mere careerism, and I find him quite perceptive in his analysis.

So credit where credit is due.

IC: Oh, certainly. I’d give him credit for pointing out a bunch of things that would be important concerns for any congregation. But his general point about us needing to attract young men to the pastorate, well, that’s just nonsense. We never ought to have had a pastorate in the first place if we were behaving biblically.

Predictable Results

Tom: True. Now, I assume Conn has made these sorts of observations before, and I find it amazing that nobody has yet drawn to his attention that every complaint he voices about the difficulties of being a young pastor is thoroughly predictable given the nature of the unbiblical role he trained for, sought out and accepted, and given his age when he accepted it.

Take this one, for instance:

“The vast majority of churches a young man will pastor are quite literally dens of vipers, at worst, or immature and worldly, at best. They generally lack biblical leadership, are plagued by ten years or more worth of sins not dealt with, and have chewed through pastors like cheese through the grater.”

IC: Yes. “[T]en years or more of sins not dealt with” is not a situation some blithe young man from seminary has any chance of addressing. Fair enough. But the “lack of leadership” is often actually a symptom of a church having depended on a pastorate to provide the leadership they were unwilling to cultivate themselves — so in that case, Conn’s proposed solution IS the problem.

Sins Not Dealt With

Tom: Precisely. He rightly grasps that these undealt-with sins in the congregation are toxic to church life, and rightly grasps that it is a shepherd’s job to point them out. But what is obvious to me and does not seem so obvious to Mr. Conn is that he who pays the piper calls the tune. If you have hired a man with the idea that he will fill three platform slots a week, visit the sick, do some counseling and in general ask “How high?” when you say “Jump”, and then the very first thing your new hire does is get into the seamy underbelly of your longstanding personal business, your first instinct is going to be to find yourself a different man.

IC: Of course. You invented the job description, you selected the guy, you hired the guy, you paid the guy, and now he not only doesn’t want to dance to your tune, but he even wants to dictate to you? Not likely.

Tom: It’s human nature, and that’s what’s bound to happen when a man accepts formal employment with a church board rather than serving voluntarily as an under-shepherd for the Chief Shepherd. It’s much more difficult to shut up a fellow brother in Christ with whom you’ve been in fellowship for 15 years when he tells you there’s something wrong with the way you are behaving, because you’re on the same level. He doesn’t work for you.

IC: Right. He’s a free agent, just like you. If he has any authority, it’s bought by the accuracy of his reference to scripture, backed by his proven character and his having already met the strictly-biblical qualifications of an elder. And because of that, if you don’t listen to him, you’ll answer for it to the Head of the Church.

First, Are You Experienced?

Tom: Further, you make a great point about experience. The New Testament envisions its pastors (or literally “shepherds”) as older men with the job of feeding and keeping watch over God’s people. We get that from Paul’s charge to the leadership of the church at Ephesus. He called the elders (literally “older men”, not a mere clerical title) and tasked them with the responsibilities of shepherding and overseeing. It’s an elder’s job to pastor, not the job of a rookie.

There’s a reason men are not called “elders” in the New Testament until their children are sufficiently grown-up that the quality of the father’s parenting may be evaluated by all. Their children are to be “faithful and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.” As it is used in the NT, debauchery usually manifests in drunkenness or sexual license. These are not charges you can level at a six- or a ten-year-old. That puts a New Testament-style pastor in the forty-ish range right from the get-go, even if they began having children in their early twenties, which is rare these days.

A man in his forties who has raised children to near-adulthood has been around. He’s not going to be fazed or put off by church politics the way a recent seminary grad might.

IC: I have not found that recent seminary grads are a fount of good information. In general, seminary has given them plenty of information they have never had enough time to live out or to apply. Often they’ve never made an actual salary, have yet to raise a family and really haven’t achieved much in the real world — and yet they’re supposed to become spiritual guides to men and women twice their age. And, of course, in order to advance its own status, the seminary has blown smoke into them by telling them they are undertaking some kind of special martyrdom and high calling. They feel “owed” the respect of Christians because they think they’ve “made sacrifices” and “dedicated their lives” in ways they think ordinary Christians never have.

Tom: That’s certainly the vibe you get off some young pastor-types.

No Country for Young Men

Conn’s second observation is this, and we’ve sort of dealt with it already:

“To put it bluntly, the church is often no place for young men and their young families. When you confront the longstanding sins of career elders and their wives, trust me, they don’t spare your wife or your kids.”

This may well be true, but the solution is to stop putting new wives and/or young kids on the front lines. Scripture does not require this of a young father, so far as I can see. In your twenties and thirties, your primary job is raising your kids to know and love the Lord, not sorting out complex longstanding problems in your local church. In fact, I’d suggest you seek out the sort of local church where the elders and the “old guard” do not exhibit those problems. By the time you are ready to take on those sorts of issues, your kids are grown up and your wife has hopefully matured along with you to be able to handle the pressure.

IC: Yes. If it’s hard on a young “pastor’s” family, then the fault is on two sides: it’s certainly partly the fault of those who take out their unhappiness on the family, sure; but even before that, it’s the fault of the “pastor” himself, for taking on a role he never should have taken, and thus putting his family in an untenable situation. He may get some excitement from thinking he’s doing something sacrificial and spiritual, but the pastor’s-wife role is notoriously no fun, and she may or may not have been sufficiently consulted. Worse still, his children are in no position to make any decisions about what’s going to happen to them, even if they had means of anticipating it.

And if that’s true, the lack of young “pastors” Conn is lamenting may even be an evidence of young men becoming laudably more sensitive to the realities into which many in the older generation more thoughtlessly precipitated their families. In other words, it could even be a good sign.

Great Expectations

Tom: One more. Conn says:

“[M]ost churches have ridiculously high expectations for the pastor and heinously low expectations for themselves. Many churches … pay atrociously low wages … pastors are often expected to work obscene hours … with little vacation or personal time.”

Again, I’m not surprised it so often works out this way. The role one young man is trying to fill all by himself was actually designed by God to be filled by a number of part-timers. That impossible load he’s trying to carry was intended to be shared.

IC: Yes. Now, on the “low expectations for themselves” part, I think that’s the root of the problem. Many congregations that at one time had relied upon their members to become mature, knowledgeable and capable teachers of the Word, leaders and servants hired a “pastor” in the first place because they were already lowering their expectations of themselves, and wanted someone professional to deliver them from those duties and from the relentless challenge of growing up spiritually themselves. But another person, even a supposed professional, simply cannot do that. The dual misery of rising “pastoral” expectations combined with falling congregational and personal commitment produced a situation guaranteed to become dysfunctional.

The “pastor” was not the first problem: he was, at most, only the second. The first problem was the failure of the congregants to put in the effort to grow up as Christians themselves, and their refusal to take on their God-given responsibilities.


  1. It seems to me that one should tread carefully here. Personally, I am about at the elder stage :-( but do not necessarily feel that I have the upper hand with regard to every more youthful 'upstart.' Yes, the Bible gives us clues concerning the arrangements that we should make to ensure our standing with God and our neighbor but I think it is a bit of a stretch to assume that responsibility, even of a specific religious type, can only be excercised correctly based on age. I am of course making a comparison to the fact that highly significant responsibility in our current age was/is borne by youthful entrepreneurs of every stripe resulting in often huge (worldly and less worldly) successes. Even if those are wordly, there is no reason to assume they could not also be spiritual successes even if only as an unintended spin-off.

    I know people who felt they had a calling to the spiritual ministry early on in life and that belongs to them without my judging it as not being genuine or irrelevant or leading to incompetence on their part. Did I have such a calling or interest? No, but I had a different one nevertheless. Based on what we observe nowadays it seems that (at least worldly) youthful leadership is quite feasible and (not necessarily correctly) assumed to be preferable to that gotten from the above 50 set. Yes, the Bible provides ancient examples, but the Holy Spirit has since retired?

    1. I'm sure IC can speak for himself here, but personally I do not see any biblical difficulty at all with younger men doing regular Bible teaching in the church meetings, leading prayer groups, doing public evangelism, teaching Sunday School, doing youth work or missionary work, assisting in church administration and all manner of other helpful things within the Body of Christ. None of these are the exclusive province of elders, and "It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth."

      So I'm not suggesting all Christian men ought to sit around until their children are into their late teens. Not by any stretch.

      But the elder's role is that of a shepherd and overseer, things that require more than just time, desire and fortitude. They require the wisdom of age, experience, and years of Bible study and meditation that young men simply have not had time for yet.

      Young men have great energy and enthusiasm, but many (not all) are, relatively speaking, lacking in discernment, experience, sensitivity and other qualities very useful in counseling men and women struggling with sin and other personal problems.

    2. Yes, good thoughts, Q.

      My implication is not that young men are not fit for all kinds of spiritual work -- teaching, leading, serving, helping, providing, caretaking, showing hospitality, and so on -- in fact, for all spiritual gifts. Indeed, there is no reason why a young man cannot do many of the things an elder would also do. Rather, I would say but two things.

      Firstly, I would point out that the term "elder", while non-specific in terms of number, certainly rules out putting younger or less-mature people into a formal position of ultimate leadership. Those who are too young to have been tested and show persistent good character, or who are novices, or who have limited spiritual and life experiences, or who have not raised a family are all ruled out by scripture itself. In fact, scripture warns that hastening such people into leadership merely increases the likelihood of us destroying them through pride (1 Tim. 3:6). I think we can all see wisdom in that.

      Secondly (and admittedly, much more controversially) I would say that there is absolutely no scriptural warrant for some lone person, young or old, to be declared as the head of the local church and to start to call himself "THE pastor", nor is there any kind of model of a church ruled by a single authoritative man. There is, instead, a plurality of teachers, elders and leaders, and primary responsibility for the use of gifts and for personal spiritual maturation given not to hired specialists but to every believer. And in light of the failures of some recent clergymen, I think we can also see the wisdom in that biblical arrangement as well.

      That would be all.