What to expect if you’re a church’s first Millennial pastor

A big wave is coming towards the church. It’s the swell of retiring Boomer pastors. Most Boomer pastors are currently between the ages of 50 and 68. They won’t all retire at once, so this wave won’t crash into the church like a tsunami. However, I don’t believe the North American church is prepared to replace these pastors. My father gives a few implications of retiring Boomer pastors over at his blog:

  • There will be more pastoral vacancies than qualified candidates.
  • Few churches are giving any thought to pastoral succession.
  • There will be an abundance of qualified pastors for interim and bi-vocational positions.
  • Some Boomer pastors will stay at their current positions into their late 60s and 70s.
  • Some Boomer pastors will lead their churches to merge.

I want to focus on what will happen when these pastors are inevitably replaced — more importantly, who will replace them. A new generation of leaders — Millennials — will inherit these church positions. I’m the oldest of the Millennial generation. Most date the birth of Millennials between 1980 and 2000. I barely make the cut as a February 1980 baby, but I connect with Millennials more than any other generation.

As Millennials begin to become senior pastors, their churches will have many Gen Xers, Boomers, and Builders. Of course, the percentages will eventually shift to churches full of older Millennials, but such a shift will take decades.

I’ve been the first Millennial pastor of four churches (in Indiana, Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee). After some trials (a few) and errors (many) at my churches, here’s what I’ve discovered: We Millennials think and act quite differently than previous generations. In short, it’s a bit awkward when Millennial pastors lead in churches full of Boomers and Builders, especially the first time it occurs.

While each church is unique and within a specific context, there are generalizations across generations. Generally, what should Millennial pastors expect as they begin to lead established churches?

#1: You are more comfortable with complexity and messiness than older generations. Millennials don’t like labels. Millennials push back on categories. The Boomers did this to a degree, but we’ve taken it to an extreme. For example, even if we associate more with one political party, we don’t admit it. The upside about this generational trait is Millennial pastors are better equipped sociologically to handle complex and messy churches. The downside of this trait is older generations look at us like we’re Jell-O, and we get confused when they try to nail us to the wall. But all generations have something to add. When you combine the dogged clarity of Builders with the adaptability of Millennials, you get something beautiful in the church.

#2: You are less loyal than previous generations. Your grandfathers started working at 16, and they stayed with the company until they retired. My generation is quite the opposite. Ninety-one percent of Millennials expect to stay in a job for less than three years. The upside of this trait is flexibility. Leading while not being chained to a particular place is freeing—unbiased decisions come more easily. The downside of this trait is older generations may not trust Millennials to make these types of decisions due to a perceived lack of loyalty.

#3: You care more about vision and less about tactics. Millennials are quick to talk with grandness about the potential for change. Perhaps it’s due to us being the youngest adult generation. We still have some maturing to do. Regardless, we love big vision. But what older generations want to know is how we are going to achieve it. One of the best bridges a Millennial pastor can build to Boomers and Builders is allowing them to handle the tactics of vision. They’ve been there, done that. And, for the most part, they are better at it.

#4: You communicate differently. Very differently. So differently that you might as well speak in another language. The rotary dial generation is passing the baton to the Wikipedia generation. And Millennials need to be more courteous when communicating with older generations. While we might forgive each other for talking and swiping smart phones at the same time, Boomers and Builders believe it’s rude. If you talk with a Boomer while also checking your cell, then they will just turn on anger, tune in frustration, and drop out of listening to you.

The wave of Millennials becoming leaders in established churches is just beginning. In 10 years, major shifts will occur. Soon many churches will hire a Millennial senior pastor for the first time. Millennials, it’s on you to work with older generations, not against them. Leadership is a gift, not a right. If older generations are going to give you this gift, then treat it well.

Sam S. Rainer III serves as president of Rainer Research (rainerresearch.com), a firm dedicated to providing answers for better church health. He also is the senior pastor at Stevens Street Baptist Church in Cookeville, TN. He writes, speaks, and consults on church health issues. You can connect with Sam at @samrainer or at his blog, samrainer.wordpress.com.


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