There I was, 19 years old. One of “my youth” just had their custodial (grand)parent pass away. I walked into a house full of mourners. I tried to say some polite, pastoral things over the sound of conversation and joke-telling and crying. They politely nodded and listened, but not really. It was a cultural thing – be nice and patronize the young “pastor.” Suddenly, the Senior Pastor walked into the home. He had been at his pulpit for 27 years (and now, 42). The family knew them because he married them. He buried them. He counseled them. He was there in crisis, there in celebration, there in between. When he walked in, the mourning crowd stoop up (even the unchurched, who must have recognized him from funerals, hospital visits, Baccalaureate services and such). They took their hats off. They shut their mouths. They listened to his words. And, his words genuinely comforted them. A few minutes later, he and I left. I asked him, “Brother Jerry, what was THAT?” He knew the context of my question, looked down at me and said, “Son, when you marry and burry a family three generations deep, then you are their pastor.”
A 2011 study by WideWay Christian Resources indicated that the average pastor tenure was 3.6 years. In 2007, Trevin Wax claimed on the The G̶o̶s̶p̶e̶l̶ ̶Coalition ™ website that studies show that number to be between 5-7 years. Actual hard statistics on pastoral tenure length seem to be in short supply, and where presented, vary widely. Opinions on the “right” tenure length also vary greatly.
I’m in my longest tenure to date – going on 8 years (it seems like 9 in my head, but the calendar probably doesn’t lie). It feels longer because in my ministry field (an oil boom town), I’ve seen the congregation “turn over” at least three, if not four times during that period – with only a handful remaining from my earliest days in Montana. It was a small church to begin with, and some of that early group died, some moved out of state, and a couple left during the early days when we adopted an elder-led government and began Reforming the church. Usually, a pastor won’t see that kind of turnover in even a 40 year tenure, but that’s the nature of ministry in a highly transient area. I’ve survived two painful attempted coup d’é·tats in that time, the gaining and losing of numerous associate staff as they’ve gone off to new opportunities, seen church plants succeed and fail, ministries come and go, and a multitude of people who refer to me still as “pastor” even though they’ve moved off across the country. I feel like an old, bearded Father Time, watching the ebb and flow of a local congregation flow in and out through triumphs and defeats, heartbreaks and celebrations, strife and fellowship, redemption and loss. At 34, I’ve been at this pulpit longer than all but two church families have been in the pew. I wouldn’t recognize myself without this church and many have said they wouldn’t recognize this church without me – we seem tied together in way like maybe what God intended pastors and churches to feel about one another.
The church has grown and is often full on Sunday morning, some Sundays more full than others, and there’s always something God is doing amongst us that we can praise Him for and simultaneously something to worry about and pray for. Regardless of how time goes on and nickels and noses, bucks and bottoms fluctuate with time and seasons, it strikes me more and more how many blessings I would be losing out on if I had flown the white flag of surrender each time someone suggested I walk the pastoral plank or received a phone call from a pulpit committee to ask if I would consider “new opportunities.” As I see my pastor-brothers come and go in this community and beyond, I can’t help but feel sorry for the blessings that they will miss when they head for greener pastures, a bigger salary, or head back to the secular field in what is sometimes an amazing, fiery crash of burnout.
Blessings that you will lose out on without a long tenure:
- You will miss seeing the prodigals come home. Brothers, it does happen. Do you know the joy when a bruised and battered sheep comes back bleating through the door? It is joy unspeakable to see them return. How many have you temporarily lost since you began your pastorate? Will you let the next pastor receive the blessing when some of them return?
- You will miss knowing what it’s like to dedicate a child to the Lord, baptize them, watch them grow up, pray for them in their teenage years, and marry them to their spouse. You miss out on being a lifetime pastor.
- You will miss out on the flock seeing your bruises and scars from years of lashing and abuse you receive from wolves and poor-intentioned church members, who know you’ve endured such suffering for them because of you genuinely love them.
- Your congregation misses out on receiving the fruit of their labor – a sanctified pastor. Pastors, you feel like you’ve invested in your church members. But please understand – they have invested also in you. The congregation has had to put up your over-zealousness, lack of wisdom, bull-headedness, poor decisions, imperfections – especially in your younger years in the ministry. They have helped God beat those things out of you. When you move on somewhere else, another congregation reaps the reward of their patience towards you.
- You will miss seeing discipline work. Often times, it takes years. The first time someone comes and says, “You were right. Thank you for trying to spare me the consequences of my sin,” and repents in full and is restored to the body, you will understand why discipline ought to be done. Most pastors never stick around long enough to see it.
- You will not be stretched, and therefore, not sanctified in your ministerial gifts. An evangelist needs only 5 sermons. He can repeat them over and over again until they are polished perfection. Sadly, some pastors don’t need much more, given their tenure. When you’re three years in and run out of things to talk about, you realize you must dig deep into the Text and do something besides regurgitate what you already know.
As stated above, there’s a wide variety of opinions regarding how long a pastor “ought” to stay around. Reasons to keep your tenure brief (I didn’t say good reasons) include pastors typically only having a “vision” that lasts about 10 years and establishing a new vision is difficult, pastors begin by focusing on needs outside the church (which leads to new outreach ministries and subsequent growth) but then get to know the congregation and begin to focus on their needs [insert scary music here] and it makes them less responsive to new innovations, they run out of ideas and have no new fresh insights [source link]. These reasons, I would categorize (in my professional opinion), somewhere between poppycock and balderdash.
All of the above reasons for a limited pastoral tenure are constructs of a presupposition that the pastor is an organizational leader whose purpose is to grow the organization, much like a CEO is to boost the bottom line of a Fortune 500 corporation. Foreign to this presupposition is the notion of shepherding a unique group of people through life’s challenges, celebrations, heartaches, victories and struggles. Foreign to this presupposition is the notion of a life calling to a specific group of people, living together as an organic body, serving them as a loyal and faithful elder through reproof, rebuke and exhortation as we see in the Holy Scriptures.
As you transition from your 1-3 year “pastoral honeymoon” when everyone thinks you’re great and your uniqueness hasn’t started rubbing them raw yet to being a “long-termer” who will have to face occasional insurrections, hostile accusations, and maybe a few pitchforks and torches, your perspective on pastoral ministry really will change. When you realize you’re there for the long game, your priorities align accordingly.
Ways that long-term pastors think differently:
- You are much less prone to think of things pragmatically or even practically, and instead focus on setting good precedents. You resist “easy way out” solutions to problems (or problem people). I’ve struggled with getting colleagues and co-laborers to always think in terms of precedent-setting. Those not settled in for the long-haul tend to think, “This is an easy solution. Let’s do it this way.” I think, “That’s easy to say when it’s doubtful you’ll be here five or ten years from now and I have to live with the precedent we are setting.”
- You are more likely to be bold in your leadership and church discipline, realizing you’ll (by God’s grace) be here to see it carried through to completion by the Holy Spirit, and eventually lead to repentance. A short-timer would often rather not go through the hassle, content with the instant gratification of appeasing sin rather than the long-term payoff of correcting it.
- You are less likely to jump on bandwagons and more likely to use discernment. If you’re going to be somewhere else in a year or two, find something with a short fuse and light it. It will go bang, as most things with fuses do, and you can make an exist while the crowd is still applauding. The long-termer is much less likely to buy out a theater for War Room and convince everyone to renovate their prayer closet if they know the fad will be over in two years and he doesn’t want everyone saying, “Well…that was stupid.” The long-termer looks for the fundamentals and foundational spiritual disciplines for sustained spiritual growth and not trendy marketing strategies.
- You are less likely to make mistakes in putting others in leadership. A short-timer is super interested in “building a team,” often putting the wrong people in charge and facing the terrible consequences. A long-timer has a “wait and see” and “trust but verify” approach with church leadership. The long-term leader also wants to build a leadership team, but because he’s vested in the long term, is going to make sure they’re the right people.
- You are much more interested in quality of discipleship. The thought crosses your mind, as a long-termer, that if a child you’ve dedicated to the Lord graduates high school and doesn’t know something doctrinally important, that’s kinda your fault (and the parents, obviously). Their ignorance cannot be blamed on some other pastor. It’s on you. This makes you incredibly dedicated to educate thoroughly, because they are a product of your (and their parents) labor exclusively.
Hang in there, brothers. Grip the pulpit tight. Don’t let go unless you have to. Be the faithful steward.