Here I sit, nestled in an ultra-hip chair at a West Tennessee Starbucks. Over a steaming cup of bold coffee, I fire questions at Andy, a 21-year-old college student who takes pride in his rugged, half-shaved face. I pick this young man's brain because he is one who is jealous for my job; he aspires to the office of senior pastor. Not a youth pastor or children's pastor or college pastor—though each of those is a high and worthy calling. Andy is one who ultimately wants to feed and lead a local church. This guy intrigues me because his breed is becoming so scarce.
A Theology and Missions major at Union University, Andy shares his innermost thoughts with me, and I find my spirit lifted by his passion for the body of Christ, his fierce commitment to preach the Word, and his humble love for all types of people. Andy's got the goods. He is going to lead a great church in the future, and I feel burdened to do everything in my power to help him get there.
For the past four years, I have served as senior pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Jackson, Tennessee. I'm well aware that my town is unusual. Jackson is a small city with four colleges. That's right: four. Like a football stadium, our sanctuary feels the ebb and flow of the changing seasons. These college students rush in each fall and reinforce our church with a new wave of energy and optimism.
While I have grown to love all the students in our college ministry, I must confess a bias I feel in my heart toward those who aspire to the ministry. I have carved out a special place in my life for those who jot pastor on their future vocation card. What saddens me every year is that so few of those exist.
Why is there not a great host of young people in my church praying about a life in the pulpit? Why are guys such as Andy so rare? That's a question I have pondered for the past few years. This has perplexed me. After all, what could be more thrilling and fulfilling than preaching the Word of God with power and watching the Holy Spirit carry a group of people forward? What profession could catapult a person into a more meaningful position of influence?
Surely there must be some logical reasons for the shortfall of senior pastors. After several months of highly caffeinated conversations, this is what my exploration has unearthed.
Why the Preacher Population Is Shrinking
1. A Fear of Failure
There is a growing perception among college students that the church has locked into its traditional form and remains unwilling to innovate. Yet the next generation of leaders lives with a carpe diem mindset, hoping to spend their lives in ministries that make noticeable strides. Hence, the cream of the crop flees from any ministry post where creativity and fresh thinking are squelched.
For those who do sense an unshakeable call to ministry, they often look first to healthy parachurch organizations or aggressive mission agencies. At best, the five-star future preachers are staying up late with likeminded friends and sketching out the logo for their church plant. These young preachers would rather work second jobs and write sermons in their sleep than to hold a position in a church that is out of touch with culture. Most of them don't believe they could survive in the average church, so this fear drives them to seek other options.
2. A Lack of Exposure
During the past 10 years in full-time ministry, I have discovered most young people feel disconnected from the primary pastor of their church. Many students identify heartily with their youth or college pastor, but very few teenagers sense a kindred spirit with the senior leader. While the pastor hits the hospitals and preaches the funerals, other staff or lay leaders carry on the life-on-life ministry that results in heavy-hitting impact.
As a result of this model of ministry, very few young people feel compelled to consider the office of pastor. They simply haven't seen the life and everyday rewards that come with the call. Hence, they never have asked the key questions: "Would this role in the church be a good fit for me?" "Could I be successful as a preacher?"
Twenty years ago, most churches in my tradition held annual or semi-annual revivals. When the nightly sermon came to a close, the call for public response was sure to include the commitment to full-time ministry. In that era, every church considered one of its primary goals to call out the called.
As most have observed, revivalism has run its course in most churches, and there has been no new net to catch the youth who sense the tug to the ministry. Therefore, other worthy professions attract the best and the brightest. When we throw no bait, we catch no fish.
3. A Fear of a Dysfunctional Family
Let's face it. Most college-aged men are looking for a gorgeous mate more intensely than a good major. Conversations in college ministry always find their way back to the best-looking, most eligible bachelorettes. The fear of graduating single is very real, a front burner issue.
It has been my observation that most young women are scared to death by the idea of becoming a pastor's wife. The common caricature of the sweet-hearted, VBS directing, piano playing pastor's wife makes most girls want to turn and run. The average young lady feels as if she never could fit the mold. For this reason, young men who sense a call to ministry often are afraid to make that information public.
They want what all of their friends want—to fall in love, stay in love, and raise a quiver of kids into full-blown followers of Jesus Christ. The pulpit seems to be a dangerous place for the man who wants to be fully present and fully engaged with his family. Therefore, it seems more doable to dive into a less pressurized position of ministry and avoid the pitfalls of being the preacher.
If John Maxwell is right, and "everything rises and falls on leadership," then even our healthiest churches are in big trouble without strong, capable leaders rising up through the ranks. What can we do to find the next Timothy, to raise up the next generation of preachers? While we can't eliminate all of the perceived dangers that come with the call, I do want to propose two practical ideas that could yield huge returns with time.
1. Ask God to send a young, teachable Timothy to you.
I mentioned Andy in the opening paragraph of this piece. I'm happy to report that Andy has become a valued team member in my office. He hangs out five to 10 hours a week, babysits my kids when we're in a pinch, and has his own set of keys to the church.
Andy doesn't make a dime, but he takes on every little assignment I hand to him and follows through with precision. Between services on Sunday morning (we have three), Andy is invited into my private prayer room where I rest and recharge. In those in-between moments, he is a fly on the wall while I banter with our worship pastor and tinker with the worship order.
Sometimes my mood is up; other times I feel down; sometimes I sit in silence and quiet my heart. Andy knows his boundaries and takes it all in. He walks with me at strategic times throughout the week. What would hinder you from taking on an Andy? If God brought a person such as him along, would you carve out a piece of your life for six months to a year?
2. Create a way to push young people to the front lines of ministry.
Two years ago, I preached to our college students from Luke 9:57-62. The theme of that passage is commitment. Three different would-be disciples approach Christ on His journey to Jerusalem; all three find good reason to remain uncommitted. That night I preached heartily and called for a specific response. "I'm looking for a handful of students who will commit to five hours a week in frontline ministry," I said.
From there, I outlined the concept of a semester missionary program called "FulFill," which would strategically place college students in key roles of servant leadership throughout our church. I committed myself to interview each of them personally and to work with our staff in assigning them. Even though I desired to place each student in the ministry of his or her choosing, I reserved the right to position them where the Lord led. To my surprise, this risk seemed to increase their interest.
My eyes welled up with tears that night when 60 students signed on. The following semester, each of them showed up faithfully and proved their worth. In those 15 weeks, I encouraged our staff to do more than simply shove them in a corner of service, but also to invest in their lives intentionally through lunches, emails, and text messaging. The goal for the program was reciprocal growth—the church would be blessed with an army of willing volunteers while the students were blessed with the coaching and encouragement of a staff member.
One additional layer to FulFill, which proved to be valuable, was a weekly leadership forum. I met with these 60 students every Wednesday night in a private room from 4:30 to 5:30. The sole purpose of the meeting was for me to share insider talk. I tried to be as transparent as possible about my personal life, covering topics such as communicating with my wife, what I read to my children at bedtime, what goes through my head in making major church decisions, fears and insecurities I face as a leader, how I budget my time, etc.
On one particular Wednesday, the Spirit led me to lay down my armor and discuss a very personal problem I was facing with my family. I asked them to pray for me and with me on that matter. In those vulnerable moments, a real bond was formed. I was learning how to treat these students as friends, and this called to mind what Jesus said to His budding leaders: "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends" (John 15:15). The relationship between Christ and His core leaders became increasingly personal. We would be wise to take note of that.
While the whole group seemed to benefit from the weekly leadership forum, this hour also afforded me the opportunity to seek out the Timothys—to consider how and if I could catalyze their growth or pour courage into their hearts.
The Bottom Line
More than likely, the task of preaching always will be risky and never will be the most popular of professions. It is likely the church will continue to battle a shortage of top-level leaders, as does every other organization I know. However, as we work together to raise up well-equipped, courageous pastors, we build a solid foundation for the future church.
It was D. Elton Trueblood who said, "A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he never will sit." May God grant us wisdom as we sow seeds for the next generation.