A few years ago, I was meeting with a family on a Sunday morning to prepare for a baptism. The entire family—parents, children, and a few extended family members—gathered in my office. I introduced myself, led the family in prayer, then explained how we’d do the baptism. After we’d discussed everything, I asked if anyone had any questions.
Grandma raised her hand and asked: “So, when is the pastor coming?” She figured there was no possible way I could be the pastor; I was too young.
I’d like to say her question didn’t bother me, but that’s not entirely true. At the very least, I haven’t forgotten that interaction. It caused me to question my validity and ability as a young pastor. Am I too young for this? Am I fully prepared to do all that is required of me in the pastoral ministry? Do I possess any substantive wisdom if I have no gray hair and only two of my four wisdom teeth have come through?
Keep Everything the Same
Young pastors sometimes encounter a strange form of ageism. People gaze at them with a curious mix of suspicion and hesitancy, intrigue and hopeful excitement.
This ageism, however, has benefits. Some expect that you have fresh ideas for engaging people in great ways. People think we possess some sort of cheat codes for ministry success known only to the secret society of young pastors: press up, down, left, right in succession to unlock hidden evangelism tools. The assumption is that we, by virtue of our age, have proprietary information about church revitalization we learned in seminary.
Pastors younger than 40 often serve churches with split expectations. Congregations and parishioners, denominations and institutions have charged young clergy with a dual task: stay the course and fix the church.
Young pastors are expected to preserve the past. Many people want them to continue with the time-honored conventions of Christendom. There is a well-defined image many people have for how a pastor is supposed to look and act. In most cases, this image of a pastor is derived far more from tradition than Scripture. Young pastors are expected to maintain the paradigms and practices of the past; just look, act, and think like the pastors before you and nobody will get hurt.
But Change Everything
In addition to preserving the past, young pastors are expected to revitalize the church. People often heap all kinds of hopeful words onto young pastors: “We love the energy you bring!” Or: “It’s so nice having a young family around. . . . You can help us engage the millennial generation.” These compliments, while certainly genuine, reveal a subtle restlessness within the pews. Many congregations long for energy, vibrancy, and youthfulness because they are utterly lacking in energy, vibrancy, and youthfulness.
Congregations want new leaders with new perspectives. And they want old leaders maintaining old routines. Sifting through these split expectations is challenging. As young pastors, we often end up overemphasizing one of these at the expense of the other.
Many young pastors have an impossible task: stay the course and fix the church.
We sometimes follow the age-old conventions and patterns set by previous pastors so closely that we never consider new perspectives or paradigms: This is how it was done before me, so this is how I am going to do it now. This is the safer pole to move toward. If the previous pastors led the congregation reasonably well and didn’t blow everything up, then most people will be quietly content if you just keep everything the same.
We sometimes accept the invitation to repair the church and utterly neglect anything that came before us: Everything that has been done before is broken and needs to be completely reinvented. This is clearly the more exhilarating pole to move toward. It allows young pastors to embark on new adventures, try new things, and see what new fruit comes from it all. And it often results in a mess of new mistakes, new enemies, new problems, and needing to find a new job.
I’m in the no-man’s land between being a young and a not-so-young pastor. I graduated from seminary seven years ago and have been serving the same congregation ever since. I still get jokes about being a peach-fuzzed pastor; they’re far less frequent, though, than when I first began.
As I reflect on my time as a young pastor, here are three lines of encouragement I’d give young pastors.
1. Seek Wisdom
You don’t know it all. You will never know it all. Accurately assessing your own limited knowledge and gifts is essential to survival. Seek wisdom from God’s Word. Learn from the truths of Scripture. And seek wisdom from godly people who are older than you. This includes wise pastors and wise laypeople. These individuals have wrestled wisdom out of life. Rely on them. Listen to them: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5).
2. Have Courage
Recognizing your limited experience and need for wisdom is important. But it’s also important to have courage. Despite your lack of liver spots, have the courage to lead God’s people. If they have called you to be pastor, then be their pastor regardless of your age or inexperience. Be bold and brave in your pastoral leadership. Your age doesn’t disqualify you from leading the saints of God. “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
3. Guard the Gospel
Timothy, a young pastor serving the early church in Ephesus, was charged with a clear task and purpose for ministry: “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith” (1 Tim. 6:20–21).
Preach Christ crucified. Proclaim the gospel. Set an example in faith and love. Trust in God’s power. It’s true for old pastors; it’s true for young pastors; it’s true for all pastors.
Difficult, but Doable
Being a pastor is hard work. It can be even harder when you can’t grow a beard and people constantly confuse you with a student in the youth group.
Yet these struggles need not boondoggle your ministry. It’s possible to minister with maturity and wisdom—even as a young pastor.