6 Ways for Older Pastors to Stay in the Game

April 11, 2017

Nobody likes to talk about it, but ageism is a significant problem in the church. The same battle women clergy have faced to gain respectability and access to employment is now being fought by men over 50.

A 57-year-old pastor with a record of significant growth was dropped from consideration by a search committee who reported that “the congregation expressed its wish for a youngish pastor with children still at home in order to draw people of the same age and life-stage.” He never made it to the first interview.

One church official confided that, in some circles, mature pastors are being encouraged to re-career rather than seek a new appointment.

Young pastors attract young families, so the thinking goes. They have more energy, fresher ideas, and are more likely to help the church grow.

Ironically, church may be the one institution where maturity is a handicap.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

The Bible is filled with stories of great leaders who were well beyond their salad days. Perhaps the best example is Caleb, who, as a young man, spied out the Promised Land along with Joshua.

Forty-five years later when the Israelites divided up the land, Caleb was first in line. Although the conquest would be hard work and dangerous, Caleb was good to go.

He said, “I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the Lord promised me that day” (Joshua 14:11–12).

Pastors who have that attitude—and ability—will always be in demand, regardless of age.

The real problem here is age discrimination, not your age, and that needs to be addressed at an institutional level. But for now, here are some things you can do to be taken seriously regardless of age.

1. Stay Fit and Active

If we’re honest, we’ll have to admit that the stereotype of older pastors (and older people) has some validity. Some of us are a bit tired, lacking in energy, and short on creativity. A few are are watching the clock until retirement.

Counteract that perception by keeping fit and active. A 60-year-old who watches his weight and bikes four times a week is likely to look—and actually be—more energetic than a younger person who doesn’t.

Show people that you, like Caleb, are just as rough and ready now as you were then.

2. Dress for the Current Decade

The 90s ended a long time ago. Your style doesn’t have to be trendy, but it should be within a few years of being current.

Throw out your bulky sweaters, threadbare khakis, white sneakers, and anything with pleats and cuffs. If you wear ties, buy a new one. Get a haircut.

Remember the old adage, Dress for the job you want, not the one you have. Look sharp, and you’ll feel sharp too.

3. Don’t Advertise Your Age

Don’t lie, of course, but don’t wave your age around like red flag. Omit graduation dates from your résumé. List your pastoral record for the last 10 to 15 years only. You can fill in the blanks at an interview.

Let the “Wow!” on your résumé come from your abilities, not your age.

4. Report Achievements, not Time Served

A pastor with 30 years’ experience has 30 advantages over a recent grad. However, talking “back in the day” can make you seem stuck in the past. Let people know this isn’t your first rodeo, but cast your experience in terms of accomplishments.

Don’t say, “I’ve been a pastor for 30 years.” Say, “I’ve helped three congregations navigate significant change.”

5. Talk Up Your Passion

Every church wants to grow, reach people, advance the kingdom. They are convinced that only a younger pastor will have the passion and vision to do that.

Prove them wrong. Share your desire to tell people about Jesus or mobilize the church or reach into your community. Let people see the fire in your heart.

6. Be the Grown Up in the Room

Search committees can be heavily influenced by church trends, the success of nearby congregations, or the difficulties of their recent past.

But you’re they guy whose been around the block. You know how to take the long view. You’ve seen fads come and go, and you know what works. You’ve weathered storms, and you don’t get pulled off center by a little tension.

Wisdom. Maturity. Patience. Longevity. These are tremendous assets, and you’ve earned them the hard way. Don’t apologize for that.

Demonstrate your pastoral wisdom by gently guiding others to see what’s best, what’s biblical, and what will help them thrive in the long run.

They’ll love you for it.

If you are a pastor over 50, the next 15 years of your ministry can be the most productive and impactful of your career. But the first person to believe that must be you.

Attack your next assignment with the same passion you had for your first, and you’ll continue to find meaningful service in the highest calling on earth.

Lawrence W. Wilson

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I blog about Christian faith and ministry. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.