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.