Forgive the pun, but here's how to make the 'graying of the pulpit' sound like old news

While serving as religion editor for The Oklahoman, I wrote a series 15 years ago on the "graying of the pulpit."

My 2001 stories cited a potential crisis for Christian denominations facing "a shortage of pastors as the boom generation of clergy who entered the ministry in the 1950s retires in great numbers over the next decade."

Fast-forward to this week and a front-page Houston Chronicle story similarly focused on aging clergy:

Newly ordained, the Rev. Romonica Malone-Wardley hit town in 2007 eager to save and nurture souls. Her first posting was as associate pastor at a southwest-side church, where she joined an energetic, innovative team ministering to a classically diverse Houston congregation. But beneath the godly high of a worthy mission and great job was one troubling worry.
It came as she met her colleagues in the United Methodist Church’s Texas Annual Conference, the Houston-based assembly of more than 600 Southeast Texas churches, and it was undeniable.
“Wow!” she thought, “We’re really old.”
The onetime small-town Baptist-turned-Methodist clergywoman had stumbled onto one of Christianity’s most daunting 21st-century challenges: the inexorable aging of its ministers.
When Malone-Wardley arrived, just over 3 percent of the conference’s ordained pastors were younger than 35. Nationally in her denomination — America’s largest mainstream Protestant group — more than half of ordained ministers now are 55 or older. Among Southern Baptists — the biggest evangelical Protestant group — half of senior pastors are 55 or older and fully 20 percent are on the gray side of 65. Among Catholic priests, the median age is 59 — up 14 years in just over four decades.
Like their pastors, American congregations are getting older as well, with a Pew Research Center study finding a direct correlation between age and affiliation with a religious group. All but 11 percent of Americans ages 70 to 87 are affiliated; more than a third of those ages 19 to 25 are not.

Before I make my point about this story, a quick nitpick: The United Methodist Church isn't America's largest mainstream Protestant group. The correct word there would be mainline. It's a common mistake.

OK, moving on: Regular GetReligion readers know I am a fan of the Houston Chronicle's religion reporting and particularly its talented Godbeat pro, Allan Turner. I subscribe to the Houston newspaper and read it most every day. About once a week, I seem to lament that another big Texas paper — The Dallas Morning Newsinexplicably dropped the Godbeat.

But I wasn't totally enamored by this specific Chronicle story. No, I'm not saying that since I — along with many other religion writers — covered aging clergy a long time ago that it can't ever be written about again. (I assume a number of readers have slept since then.)

However, this piece did feel — at least to me — a bit outdated.

Here's how: The story focuses on denominations. It quotes Methodists, Catholics and Southern Baptists. It defines the young vs. old pastor question in terms of how it relates to those groups.

But the Chronicle neglects major trends in American Christianity — including the rapid rise of non-denominational churches and the explosive growth of megachurches. 

As my GetReligion colleague Julia Duin noted in an email, "EVERY independent church plant out there has young pastors." That would seem to be an important factor to include in a story on aging clergy. Right?

Church image via

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