Aging leadership of Christian nonprofits raises questions of succession

Leaders of America’s largest Christian organizations increasingly have something in common: They’re closer to qualifying for Medicare than graduating from college, according to a new study.

According to MinistryWatch, a North Carolina-based organization that promotes transparency and accountability across departments, 90% of leaders in the top 1,000 departments said they were over 50 in a recent survey.

About 41% said they were between 51 and 60 years old, while 47% said they were between 61 and 70 years old, and 2.6% said they were over 71 years old.

Age statistics reflect both the trends of the largest for-profit corporations and of society at large. A late 2019 Korn Ferry survey of 1,000 of the largest companies showed the average age of CEOs was 59, the oldest of all ‘C-suite’ members such as CFO, CMO or the chief technology officer.

MinistryWatch noted that the US population is also aging, with a median age of 38.8, according to research firm Statista, up from 28.1 in 1970.

“The baby boomer generation of leaders hasn’t done a great job of succession planning and mentoring,” said Ed Fry, president of Dallas-based FaithSearch Partners, an executive search firm specializing in in nonprofit hiring.

He described the aging of nonprofit leadership as a “parallel phenomenon” to the aging of corporate leaders and the aging of baby boomers.

Mr. Fry also said that many older nonprofit executives are less interested in clocking in at 65 and retiring to a golf club.

“People just don’t retire at the age they were before. From my work in executive search for faith-based organizations, serious candidates well into their 60s feel like they can work productively for another five to ten years. Well, you just didn’t see that 15 years ago,” he said.

An encouraging sign, Mr. Fry said, is that increasing racial and ethnic diversity in hiring at nonprofits may make the average age of leaders a little younger. He said organizations with younger board members tend to be more open to such hiring.

Bringing in new senior staff isn’t the only challenge for Christian nonprofits. “Finding and retaining qualified personnel” was named by 42% of executives surveyed as their “most important leadership challenge”, according to the survey.


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