This article was jointly written between myself and Dave Gemmell, Associate Director at the North American Division Ministerial Department.
Do you remember the housing bubble burst back in 2008? For years, it was relatively easy to buy a new or used home, sell it in a few years, and make a considerable profit. That is, however, until a series of events led to one the largest drops of home values in American history.
As a result, in many states there were people who owed more on their mortgage than the actual value of the house they lived in. New home sales practically came to a halt, and if it wasn’t for a government bailout to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, there is a good chance the US economy would have collapsed.
The most amazing aspect about this event was that it was totally preventable. Financial experts had long warned about the impending correction of the market but few people took actual steps to address it. In 2008, before the burst, the Secretary of Treasury called the housing bubble “the most significant risk to our economy.” 
Currently, in North America, the pastoral workforce of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is experiencing a similar bubble. This bubble is in the form of an impending demographic gap in the workforce. To set the scene, on January 1, 2011, the oldest members of the Baby Boomer generation celebrated their 65th birthday.
That day, and every day until though December of 2031, 10,000 baby boomers began qualifying for retirement per DAY! Let that sink in for a second.
The aging of this huge cohort of Americans will dramatically change the composition of the country. This bubble will affect the pastoral workforce in the North American Division in the United States and Canada in two major areas:
Here are some numbers for you. Then we’ll put them into perspective.
- 270 – Number of new pastors needed every year to replace pastors who are eligible to retire
- 135 – Number of new pastors hired every year
- 131 – Number of current class of M. Div Students (Fall 2015)
- 100 – Percentage of M. Div students who receive scholarships from the North American Division (NAD)
- 25 – Percentage of M. Div students who are fully sponsored
- 5.7 – Millions of dollars that the NAD gives in support of the M. Div program
The service records of our current congregational pastors tell us that the median age of a pastor in the NAD is 51. That means half are older than 51, and half are younger. However, the median age of the US population is 36. This is due, by and large, to the Millennials.
Millennials, already the largest generation in the United States with an estimated population of 74 million, are the minority within the pastoral workforce. Baby Boomers are the second largest population at 62 million. However, while Millennials comprise about 25% of the US population, they make up only about 8% of our pastorate. This creates a challenge as non-Millennial pastors (and churches) try to reach out cross-generationally to one of the largest generations in the history of North America.
Imagine the total amount of pastors in North America like a bucket with water. The water line in this bucket is the total amount of active pastors. Yet, this bucket has holes in it which constantly depletes the water available. Pastors transition out of pastoral ministry from these holes because of a variety of reasons like a change in profession, retirement, or death.
One way of addressing this is by increasing the hiring of gifted, spiritual, and effective Millennial men and women to help reach this untapped demographic. This idea is easier said than done.
There is currently no clearly-defined way people sensing the call of God enter and grow through ministry. The traditional route used to be that a young adult would enter into a Theology program at one of our Adventist higher education institutions, graduate, do a couple of years in a church as a district pastor or an associate, go to Seminary, return to their conference for a few more years, be ordained or commissioned, and go on to have a fruitful ministry, retiring around their mid-60s. This traditional route has been difficult to replicate because of a variety of factors:
- People chose to answer the call of God at various points in their lives. In some cases, people may consider themselves too old to go back to college.
- There are different requirements and teaching standards when it comes to the undergraduate education our Theology majors receive.
- There is currently no agreed-upon hiring practice among the Conferences (in some cases, you get a job because of your connections, not because of your competence).
- There is no standard for the consideration of individuals to be ordinated or commissioned.
- Although many other professions have set accreditation renewal requirements (such as continuing education to keep their skills sharp), pastors do not.
In addition to the 3,200 parish pastors, there are additional non-parish clergy in a variety of positions ranging from administration, education, departmental work, and chaplaincy. Most of these positions are drawn from the ranks of existing parish pastors. If we add the non-parish clergy to the retirement projection, we have a backlog of 450 clergy who are eligible, but haven’t retired yet (180 current administrators on top of the 270 pastoral clergy).
The average age of administrators across the North American Division is also slightly higher than that of the local pastor. The latest data reported from seven of the nine North American Division unions regarding the ages of five positional leaders at Union and Conference levels—president, executive secretary, treasurer, ministerial secretary, and youth director—revealed an overall median age of 55.5 years.
The Youth Directors of NAD conferences and unions are a little better, with a median age of 48.3 years (only one such leader is under 30 years old).
Statistically, therefore, the leadership and makeup of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America is made up primarily of Baby Boomers, with younger Builders making up administrative leadership and Generation Xers following behind. There is currently no data to indicate how many Millennials are in any sort of leadership positions.
The need to inject new blood into our denomination is more pronounced when we consider what has been called the “graying” of Adventism.
Anecdotal evidence across the board still seems to suggest that our church is surviving by the energy and resources of more established generations. But if this graying trend continues, what is going to happen to the church when these generations fade into the sunset?
Preparing for the Bubble
According to service records, the church currently retires about 50 pastors a year. Currently, the NAD has a backlog of 250 pastors who are eligible for retirement, but haven’t done so yet. If we look forward ten years to 2025, we’ll see that every year, we’ll have about 100 more pastors eligible for retirement than currently retire right now. Of course, just because they are eligible for retirement, doesn’t mean that a pastor will retire. The value of retirement investments and life circumstances means that no one knows precisely when these pastors will retire.
While there are several possibilities available to address this problem, the ministerial department at the North American Division has taken the following steps:
- Develop the “Core Qualities of an Effective Pastor”, which is a comprehensive list of qualities that serve as benchmarks for professional growth. Categories include leadership, worship, discipleship, management, relational skills, and scholarship. All of these competencies are built on the foundation of character. The complete list of core qualities can be found at the end of this article.
- Have meetings with representatives of all of the religion departments in the NAD educational institutions in order to streamline undergraduate theology programs.
- Host meetings with major stakeholders from the SDA Theological Seminary, as well as with Division, Union and Conference leaders regarding reworking the M. Div program in order to develop a unified core of undergraduate curriculum benchmarks which can be contextualized according to what the school may need.
- Development of “Pathways”, which is a program that seeks to provide a complete pastoral development pathway from call through retirement.
- Launch AdventistLearningCommunity.com, which is a ministerial and educational platform designed to strengthen formal education, enable the sharing of resources, streamline ministerial training, and the dissemination of information to the extended Adventist community and beyond. This was officially launched at the NAD CALLED Convention in June of 2015.
A portion that needs development is increasing the pipeline of young men and women entering the ministry. How can individual churches help developing young adults hear and answer the call of God into ministry (either vocational or in other fields)? One of the next stages needs to be working on the learning experience at the congregation leading up to ordination.
The NAD will be working heavily with ministerial directors over the next couple of years to discover the best practices in this area, and possibly develop a model template that Conferences can utilize.
Either way, local churches, Conferences, and Unions around the Division need to start thinking about how they intend to address the impending leadership bubble on the horizon. The future doesn’t need to surprise us; the statistics are already available.
If you are a local pastor or a lay-leader reading this, ask yourselves, who are the young people in your life that you are investing in today? In a world that sends us so many mixed messages, how can we help young people discern the voice of God in their lives?
What are your thoughts about all of this? Share them below.
 Statistics of Adventist pastors are as of 2014, unless otherwise specified.
 David Beckworsth, S. Joseph Kidder, “Reflections on the future of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America: Trends and challenges (part 1 of 2)”. Ministry Magazine (December 2010), https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2010/12/reflections-on-the-future-of-north-american-seventh-day-adventism.html.