Rotten Pastors?

Pastor                                      I am a pastor.  So, I’m writing about myself as much as all the others.  The reason I’m writing is that I’m about to enter my 8th year of ministry with this particular congregation.  And, it’s a particularly exciting time.  As I type, I’m looking forward to this 8th year more than many of the others.  I’m anticipating some real significant growth and fruit of faith.  I’m not anticipating leaving any time soon.  I like church.  But, I know that I’m part of a shrinking minority.

“They’re so stuck in their ways.”

“All they do is argue.”

“It takes FOREVER to get anything done.”

“They’ll never change.”

I used to talk that way too and churches bore the brunt of the blame in my mind as well.  But, now I’m thinking that we might need to start blaming the pastors.  O.k. maybe blame is too strong a word, but maybe we need to take another look at how pastors lead.  In particular, how long pastors stay.  It turns out that the average tenure of a pastor in America is 4 years.  Sometimes that’s by choice and other times it’s the result of the system.  Either way, that’s a problem and here’s why: it takes 6-7 years for a congregation to trust a pastor enough to change.  That’s 6 or 7 years BEFORE any significant and lasting changes are likely to happen in a church.  6 or 7 years of ministry BEFORE a congregation will believe the pastor is truly there for them and not using them as a stepping ladder.  6 or 7 years BEFORE a congregation will put their church in a pastor’s hands and follow.

No wonder churches never change.  The pastors always leave before they can.  How frustrating is that?

The truth of the matter is this: Christians, like everyone else, wrestle with a significant amount of stress and anxiety.  Most Christians, then, look to their churches to be stable, controlled places where they can find some relief.  In many minds, it’s the one place that is not supposed to change in a world that changes so much.  In many hearts, church is a refuge from the storm and that’s understandable.  It just makes change really difficult.  Pastors only contribute to the sense of uncertainty and instability and inferiority by coming and going too often and too soon.

I don’t think any pastors intend to do this.  In fact, I think that most pastors start out with a sincere interest and genuine passion to lead congregations to more fruitful pastures.  Not much happens in the first year, but that’s o.k. because “we’re just getting to know each other.”  In the second year, the pastor starts to push a little and offer new ideas while the leadership nods politely (hoping that they don’t actually have to do any of it).  In the third year, the leaders figure they should give on something and the boat starts to rock.  By the fourth year, that thing has already fallen apart and the pastor is starting to feel career pressure.

All the while, that slightly bigger church with the newly expanded sanctuary has heard about some pretty good preaching and has inquired about the pastor’s sense of call.  Who knows?  Maybe that feeling inside is spelled G-O-D and not E-G-O.  So, pastor and congregation decide to go separate ways; both of them feeling frustrated and relieved at the same time; neither of them realizing that they’re about to begin the same thing all over again.  The pastor hopes that things will be different this time without plans to do anything differently.  The congregation has tightened their grip on their church feeling a little less lovable, probably less trusting, and definitely less capable to do the things they know God wants them to do.

It turns out that congregations have trust issues and that pastors have ego issues.  That’s not a great mix.  I’m not sure what to do about it, but I know that trust has to be earned and that ministry is not about “me.”  I’m sure that congregations could be more supportive and that pastors could be less ambitious.  I’m sure that there are plenty of resources out there to help both of them.

So, this is my plea for no more “rotten” pastors.  No more pastors who leave because they think they see greener pastures out there somewhere.  It’s only an illusion.  No more pastors who believe it when someone says, “You better move on before the well runs dry.”  It won’t.  No more pastors who hide skeletons in their closet.  It’s an opportunity for reconciliation and restoration (we are Christians after all).  No more “rotten” pastors because congregations need us (as much as 20 years or more if a congregation is going to break out of old patterns to new life).

So, if you’re a pastor who is about 4 years in and thinking about the next step, don’t go.  The best years are yet to come.  And, if you’re a congregation that’s about 4 years along with that pastor you still don’t understand, hang on.  While you might not ever understand them (pastors are quite quirky after all), in the next few years you might find that you can trust them with your faith and maybe even your life.


11 thoughts on “Rotten Pastors?

  1. Peter, thank you for this outstanding post. It has given me plenty to ponder as I am just at the beginning of my ministry career. I love your final sentiments: while you might not understand them… you might find that you can trust them. I am wondering if the “short term” pastor/congregation relationship is reflective of a larger societal sickness? High divorce rates, all too easily strained or severed familial ties, short term friendships that serve a purpose for a time but don’t last when tested by inconvenience or changes proximity. I know for me I spent much of my life (and the first couple of years of my marriage) thinking that the most important thing in any kind of relationship was to be “understood.” Well this pastor is indeed quite a quirky character. And that expectation set me up for a lot of disappointments. But I am slowly learning things like trust and continued acceptance and perseverance in the face of parties not understanding each other is what has contributed to my strongest relational bods. I pray for the grace to remember these insights when I am 4 years into serving a congregation.

  2. Peter, this post is spot on! My husband and I are about to celebrate 6 years as co-pastors in our first call. I think that it is important for pastors to stick it out through the doldrums of years three and four (provided the church gives them the opportunity to do so). I think it might be even more important for a clergy couple to give it more than four years because added into the mix (especially for a rookie clergy couple) is trying to figure out how to minister together as a team.

    It wasn’t until after year four that my husband and/or I felt as though people trusted us enough to share important life struggles – mental health concerns, dark secrets from family past that are having consequences in the future, more “private” health concerns – and these days where there is more trust means more opportunities for ministry. And with these opportunities comes more trust, and this trust gives way to change. Attendance at our church has become more stable, we’re even adding some new people, and people worry less when we go on vacation that we will come back and announce we’re leaving (that’s another story in itself!).

    We’ve learned the history of our church, seen where they’ve been burned by previous pastors or church members and how that makes them more resistant to trying certain things. But, we live in a culture that promotes “living your dream,” so when parish ministry doesn’t feel like a dream, it feels like we’re supposed to go and find the dream. Truthfully, my experience has been that year 1 (for us) was panic as we tried to figure out how to be co-pastors, co-parents, and new pastors in general. Year 2 was disillusionment as we realized that all we had been taught in seminary about co-pastoring might not actually work in our context…or at all! Year 3 was intentionally digging out of the burn out hole, building support networks, leaning on people, taking time to heal and discern. Year 4 was “Hey…this might not be so bad.” And now year 6 looks to be full of promise. I *never* thought I’d say that with how rough things were at times. But, we’re here and the future is bright.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Nicely said, Peter . . . and Wayne and April. I wonder, based on all that you say (and about to finish year 13 myself) what we should/could be doing in our covenant communities to help our sisters and brothers get to years 7 and 8. There is growing impatience out there, and a growing tendency among congregations not to let things settle in even until year 4. We also have classes who provide support to get ministry up and running for the first three to five years, which means that support is pulled away just as the rubber hits the road.

    I firmly believe what we say in the installation liturgy: that the minister has been called by God’s Church and therefore by God” to that ministry. I think God puts ministers and congregations together for a reason, even–maybe especially–when everyone hasn’t paid such good attention to the search process. This means we have a responsibility, which we often resist, to stay together until we learn from each other what God wants us to learn. How can the rest of us, sisters and brothers called together as the classis, provide such help and support and even discipline to make sure that happens, rather than just rubber-stamping the fear and short-sightedness?

    1. This is an excellent question. In my classis, I’ve made a practice of initiating a relationship with new pastors – especially people who are in their first calls. I try to make a contact right away, and then more intentionally invite the pastor (and his/her family) over to my house at the two year mark. I want to walk through the difficulties of years 2-4 with them (if that pastor wants to do so), and help them unpack what they’ve experienced. So far this has been a very fruitful practice. 🙂

  4. Peter,

    Great post. I agree… sort of 🙂

    Here’s why: I think maybe there’s a larger problem here than merely rotten pastors (or rotten churches, for that matter). In the RCA at least (I can’t speak for other denominations, but I imagine it’s true more broadly), the relationship between congregations and pastors often starts out all-but-doomed due to bad break-ups, mistrust, lack of classical support and oversight, pastoral-educational-debt (and congregational stinginess), a mismatch between ministerial education and congregational desires, vastly differing job-expectations on both sides, and perhaps more than all of those: poorly managed interim-periods. I’ve seen them all – my guess is you have too.

    I wonder if the reason so many pastorates end so early is similar to the reason so many marriages end after 3 or 4 years: the dating, engagement, and marriage are often (unintentionally?) dishonest and the parties involved are making decisions based on relatively insignificant desires.

    I’m only on my second pastorate. The first was 10 years long (and, I think, went well and ended at the right time for both us and the congregation); I’m beginning year 4 at the second (of course, I have no clue how long it will go.) It took me the first year to realize that they weren’t what I thought they were; it took me the second year to realize that they weren’t what THEY think they are (and, to be honest, I may not be entirely what I’ve thought I am), and another year to be able to think substantively about what can be done about the realizations of the first two years.

    Grace and peace,

    1. Just as a side note: none of that is a criticism of my current context… just observations I’ve made over the past decade and a half. 🙂

  5. Nicely said Peter. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m beginning my 5th year at the same place and can’t imagine being any place else and anticipate being with them for quite some time. We’ve grown together in some pretty incredible ways and are now beginning to experience the fruit of our journey together. I realize sometimes the “fit” between a pastor and congregation isn’t always ideal, which is why discernment during the call process if crucial. I can’t help but wonder if our seminaries and those walking with seminarians in the midst of their internships could provide more guidance in this area. It really is not about “securing a job,” even though the reality of paying student loans and needing to support oneself or family does exist.

    April, what a wonderful practice you’ve started. How helpful this must be for pastors and their families. Although I’ve discovered ways of connecting with other clergy in my area, I’ve found it somewhat difficult to connect with the pastors in my own classis since I’m serving a church outside of the RCA and am classified as a specialized minister.

  6. Peter,

    How do you determine the difference between the anxiety that is “supposed to be” present during year four, and anxiety over the fact that it simply may not be working? I’m not serving in a pastoral context, but as I think back to my internship–which was fantastic–I was serving a church without a pastor who had previously been there about seven years and had inflicted great damage in the process.

    On a side note (but related), although you didn’t mean to, this post makes me feel increasingly discouraged about being part of the church. It’s all so incredibly difficult, and I haven’t even been called yet! How much worse is it going to be when I am (if ever)? I really wonder sometimes if this is all worth it.

    I can understand why my sister has turned her back on her faith. I sometimes want to leave the church too, and I serve it! And it has been good to me! Forgive me for voicing these things out loud, I know I’ve broken some sort of taboo. Forgive me also, Lord.

  7. I want to echo some of what I’ve read from Tim and Jill, too. It is vital that classical bodies find a way to support their ministers. The only way to discern the difference between anxiety that is genuine based on it being time to move on and the anxiety of wanting to go somewhere better is discernment. And discernment is super difficult – if not impossible – when someone is reeling under educational debt, is feeling isolated and alone with no support system, has found it unsafe when he/she opened up to another pastor about struggles…only to have those struggles blabbed around to everyone under the sun. The RCA is small and spread far across the US (and elsewhere). We need to network and help each other.

    I also think seminaries should offer more practical training on clergy finances, taxes, indebtedness, etc. Those things can cause a tremendous amount of stress, and it would be greatly helpful to have a leg up on those things when entering ministry!

  8. My reply has been deleted twice. Here’s a 10 point summary:

    1.) Some pastors stay too long.
    2.) Time doesn’t produce change, but change does require time.
    3.) Seminaries, classes, and the denomination have a role to play in shaping an expectation of 10 year (at least) terms.
    4.) Debt is a serious issue. At the same time I feel like it’s the pastors job to set an example when it comes to materialism and consumerism and simple living and downward mobility (I’m horrible at this by the way). On the other hand, they shouldn’t have to live below the poverty line.
    5.) There’s a difference between “iron sharpens iron” and “scratching and clawing.” Both hurt. One benefits.
    6.) Sometimes pastors can change too.
    7.) Ministry is hard, but doesn’t have to be as discouraging if we expect it to be hard.
    8.) Jesus was crucified by good, religious people so pastors ought to expect at least a little resistance.
    9.) Years 3-5 seem especially hard, but more than one pastor has mentioned how that are in a good place with their congregation. I’d dare say that I’m encouraged.
    10.) Fight the good fight. The church is worth it.

  9. tangent (but touches on some things said in the comments)

    I think people should stop lionizing authenticity as it creates two classes of people. One class are the people whose authenticity won’t get them in trouble (generally people who don’t have mental problems and/or a bad upbringing. The other class is people whose authenticity would get them scorned or even shunned or fired. This class includes people with mental illnesses and other things that, if known, would do serious destruction to them socially.

    I’m obviously far out in the second camp. I don’t even attempt to engage people who don’t have some sort of mental illness because they are closed.

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