In 1914, as the Episcopal Church wrestled with creating a pension system for clergy, Bishop William Lawrence argued that caring for aging ministers was a moral responsibility and essential to the future of the church.
The choice, he said, was often between having clergy hanging on to pastorates rather than depend on charity or providing pensions “which will place the clergy and their dependants in a position of far greater buoyancy, cheer, and dignity; which will enable men of weakening powers to give place to those younger and stronger; which will keep our parishes manned with vigor.”
Today, nearly a century after his article in the Harvard Theological Review, the religious community faces a renewed challenge in a continuing recession to meet the needs of older clergy while making room for younger leaders.
Like their secular counterparts, many clergy who devoted their attention to less temporal matters than financial planning now find themselves amid shrinking church budgets and a poor economy being forced to work beyond traditional retirement ages.
It is an especially critical issue in smaller churches that still do not set aside money for clergy retirement. In a 2008 study of Church of Christ clergy in Texas, just a quarter of respondents said they had plans to fully retire.
But it is also a burden for larger, mainline Protestant denominations. As memberships shrink and many older clergy find it financially untenable to retire, even fewer younger clergy are able to find work.
In the United Methodist Church, the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, the percentage of elders younger than 35 fell precipitously from 25 percent in 1956 to 5 percent in 2010.
The optimists’ perspective of the coming retirement crunch facing U.S. churches is that many older clergy will have the income to leave full-time positions, but the health and sense of vocation to serve smaller rural and urban churches unable to afford full-time clergy.
The pessimists’ perspective is that many spiritual leaders, financially ill-prepared for retirement, will stay on in pastorates as long as they can, exacerbating the clergy age gap and impeding efforts for denominational revitalization.
There is evidence to support both viewpoints. What is not in dispute, however, is that clergy are getting older.
Rethinking job guarantees
The percentage of people in congregations led by someone age 50 or younger declined from 49 percent in 1998 to 42 percent in 2007, what researchers for the National Congregations Study called “a remarkable change in only nine years.”
The clergy age gap is particularly noticeable in mainline churches. From 1998 to 2006-2007, the average age of clergy in white, mainline Protestant denominations increased from 48 to 57, the congregations study found.
In The United Methodist Church, the median age of elders is 55, up from 50 in 2000 and 45 in 1973, according to a report from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. In 2010, for the first time ever, more than half of active United Methodist elders were in the age group 55 to 72.
Thus, the challenges facing many churches are even greater than those facing other sectors of society adjusting to our graying baby boom population. The first wave of U.S. boomers turned 65 this year. In 2010, according to the census, there were more than 16 million U.S. citizens between the ages of 60-64, an increase of around 60 percent since 1990.
In recent years, denominations have stepped up efforts to both provide financial planning for clergy and to assist them in the difficult transition to retirement.
And some churches are considering even stronger measures to ease out clergy they no longer consider productive.
The United Methodist Church, for instance, is expected to consider at its 2012 General Conference whether it can continue to offer guaranteed jobs for elders.
‘Can’t afford to’
But not all clergy are able to retire.
Many churches do not set aside funds for clergy to retire. Eighty-seven percent of mainline Protestant pastoral leaders reported in a 2001 survey that their congregations contributed to their pensions, but just 28 percent of clergy from historic black denominations reported similar assistance.
A survey of Korean pastors in Southern California revealed that only three of 10 pastors reported receiving retirement help.
“It is amazing that only a small number of churches consider their pastors retirement seriously and provide help into their golden years,” Gyoungsin Park and Ilene Smith-Bezijan of Azusa Pacific University wrote in a 2009 article on “Pastors’ Retirement: Crisis Beyond the Shrinking of Social Security” in the Journal of Religion, Spirituality and Aging.
In the 2008 study of Church of Christ clergy in Texas, 27 percent of respondents said they had no plans to retire.
“The money is not there to do so,” “Can’t afford to, bad financial planning and four kids” and “Medical expenses are too high” were among the reasons given. Researchers James Knapp and Jennifer Hicks of Southeastern Oklahoma State University and Charles Pruett of Abilene Christian University reported the findings in the Journal of Religion, Spirituality and Aging.
Even among denominations providing clergy pensions, there is concern about financially unprepared clergy being able to retire, particularly as a troubled economy threatens their savings.
“I hear lots of ministers who say, ‘I’m getting close to that age. I’ve really lost my zeal for it, but I’m not able to retire financially’,” said the Rev. Marcia Myers, director of the Office of Vocation for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
But she also takes encouragement from many people who entered ministry as a second career who are still full of enthusiasm. And she takes heart in the experiences of older clergy who are helping to keep smaller urban and rural churches open and vital by serving them on a part-time or interim basis.
So how can churches struggling themselves in an uncertain economy assure financial security for older pastors while making room for younger clergy?
It will not be easy, as Lawrence pointed out in his 1914 essay. Then, as now, the church, along with businesses and state and federal governments, finds itself facing this crisis in part because of a lack of attention to the financial, demographic, political and moral dimensions that have made this a difficult issue to confront.
The challenge can no longer be avoided.
“The conditions of modern life and the demands for efficiency are pressing the question of salaried workers and wage earners. Salaries and wages are not large enough to enable them to lay up sufficient money for old age,” Lawrence said before issuing a challenge to the church that resonates today: “The need is great; the practical difficulties are great; we shall gain nothing by blinking at them.”
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