Why Church Planters Should Stay for the Long Haul

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“Pastoral tenure” is not usually on the urgent concerns list of church planters. In most cases, new church planters are simply hoping and praying that their church will still be around in five years. But if/when the new congregation survives those first critical years, the matter of pastoral longevity should be an increasingly important concern; particularly if you want to see the church grow from a “single cell” into a “multi-cell” organism.

Over my 40 years of study in church health and growth I have seen an undeniable relationship between pastoral tenure and church growth. Put simply: a frequent change in pastors (less than four years) seems to negate all of the other complicated ingredients that go into a church’s “growth mix.”

Some years ago a study by the New Orleans Baptist Seminary found a startling relationship in their denomination between the length of time pastors had been in their churches, and the growth or decline of those churches. Their finding? Approximately 3/4 of their growing churches were being led by pastors who had been in their church more than four years, while 2/3 of their declining churches were being led by pastors who had been in their church less than four years. Their conclusion (with which I agree): Long-term pastorates do not guarantee that a church will grow, but short-term pastorates essentially guarantee that a church will not grow.

I was curious about pastoral longevity in the Wesleyan Church, of which I am a part. I recently called the 25 largest churches in the denomination to find out: 1) When the church was founded, 2) How long the present senior/lead pastor has been at the church, and 3) How long the previous senior/lead pastor had been at the church. What’s your guess?

Senior pastors in the 25 largest Wesleyan churches have been serving in their position for an average of 17.8 years! The previous pastors of these same churches had been there an average of 15.2 years. And 4 of the churches are being led by their founding pastors, who have been there an average of 18.2 years.

What To Do About It

If you are a pastor, personally and publicly commit to staying in your church for least seven years. You may get an itch to leave sooner. But if you stay into the sixth or seventh year, you will likely begin to experience unsurpassed effectiveness and fruitfulness. Once you get past year seven there’s a good chance you’ll want to stay much longer.

I agree with Roger Parrot, who says: Lead as if you’ll be there forever! Imagine that the organization and position you are in right now is what God wants you to do for the rest of your professional life. In response to that statement, noted church consultant Bill Easum says: This is one of the most important sentences a protestant clergy can read. Print it out and post it on your frig. Why? Because most of us don’t stay put long enough to overcome a congregation’s lethargy, much less grow the church. 

But…

If you’re thinking, “Well, that’s good advice for most pastors, but…” don’t let these excuses masquerade as reasons to move:

  • More money. Human nature is always dissatisfied, however much we make.
  • Conflict. Another characteristic of human nature: conflict is anywhere there are people.
  • You’re getting stale. Commit to being a life-time learner. It will keep you and your church in touch with today’s issues.
  • Greener pastures. See Philippians 4:12.
  • Boredom. To quote Rick Warren, “It’s not about you.”
  • Burn-out. Whether you have reached that point or not, take time to retreat and renew. Burn-out follows pastors if not addressed!
  • An exploratory call. We all like to be liked. But just because a church is calling doesn’t mean God is.
  • Too much pressure. So your next church will be without pressure? If your motivation to move is to avoid pressure, see the response above.

I believe there is a relationship between the three following statistics:

  1. A pastor’s most productive time usually begins in years 5, 6, and 7;
  2. The average pastoral tenure in Protestant churches is 3.6 years;
  3. Nearly 85% of today’s churches are not growing.

It’s sad that the vast majority of pastors miss potentially their most enjoyable—and fruitful—years of ministry. Remember the Apostle Paul’s wise counsel: So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith (Gal. 6:9-10 The Message).

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