By Jonathan Howe
Not a week goes by when I don’t hear of a pastor leaving one church headed to another. It happens. We all get that. Unfortunately, some of the names or churches mentioned are the same ones I heard just months earlier. For this post, I’ll refer to anything shorter than 6-9 months tenure as a “short pastorate.
While some circumstances do call for quick pastoral turnover, it’s hard not to wonder if some churches fire their pastor (or the pastor bails) too quickly. Regardless of which side cuts the other loose, the church and pastor are nearly always worse off as a result. The unintended consequences of short pastoral tenure take their toll on both sides.
- Members lose trust in the pastors, and pastors lose trust in churches. This seems obvious, but if a pastor leaves a church and the church feels like the pastor burned them in the process, the next pastor will find the deck stacked against them. If the pastor is the one burned, there will be a greater scrutinizing and distrust of the next church—if there is a next church.
- Your current church will wonder if it will happen to them. If you had a short pastorate at your last stop, the church you go to will inevitably wonder if the same will happen to them. Trust is hard to gain and easy to lose. Short pastorates eat up trust on both sides of the equation.
- The staff is demoralized. Regardless of where the blame for the short pastorate lies, the staff is left to pick up the pieces after a pastor leaves. They have to answer the questions, deal with more uncertainty, and try to move forward in a new normal they weren’t expecting—and one they often contributed little to.
- The vision of the church is clouded. When a new pastor comes in, a new vision and direction is usually cast. After a short pastorate, there is great uncertainty about the vision and direction of the church. Do you continue in the direction the last pastor was leading? Do you return to what it was before the short pastorate? Does someone internally rise up and cast a new vision? Those are just three options. And it’s likely that different areas of the church will gravitate to a different one. Then you have a whole new set of problems.
- Financial waste. This is the most practical consequence of a short pastorate. Financial resources are expended to find a new pastor only to turn around and spend that much or more to do it again within just a few months. It’s a wasteful use of funds. Money for ministry becomes money for mistakes.
In closing, if you’re in a situation and considering leaving your church after just a few months, I exhort you to reconsider and pray earnestly. Far too often “God told me” becomes a convenient cover for “this is hard, and I want out.” Churches, the same goes for you. Far too often “God told us” becomes a convenient cover for “we don’t want to change.”
I’ll add another one – young guys who grow up and wind up in the pastorate will assume it’s normal for a pastor to leave after a couple years and probably follow suit. It’s sort of like how kids with divorced parents have a higher probability of getting divorces themselves.
Oh. That’s a good one. It almost becomes an inherited trait in a way within the churches because that’s all the pastor knew when he was growing up. I like it.
Until the late 19th Century I think it was very rare for pastors to retire. It simply wasn’t in their mindset. If they were gifted and called by God, they felt duty-bound to serve till death (or till no longer physically able). Forsaking their calling was never an option. It wasn’t unheard of for pastorates to last 50 or 60+ years. Now retirement has become the accepted norm. People need to have the right mindset to run the race to the end. Often they now have lesser goals and decide to stop at the half-way mark, not realising that they ought to be running another lap.
Young men don’t see pastors serving till death, and they don’t see pastor’s sticking to one church for a lifetime, so they don’t have that example to be inspired by, or that pattern to follow. Few pastors who I have known have ever left their churches because they were forced out or because there were problems. In most cases the pastors left of their own accord simply because they were in the mood for a change of scenery.
I’ve never actually seen a pastor who has lasted less than nine months, but I would say one thing in its favour. Sometime problems can become apparent very early on in someone’s ministry which no length of pastorate will ever solve. Often it is better to recognise the problems early and just stop before more harm is done, for the pastor to leave quietly, leaving the church body intact and united before strife is stirred up and party divisions are formed. A pastor may soon realise that he is at loggerheads with the other elders in their vision for the churrch’s futyre, the elders may realise the pastor was deceitful about how much he was prepared to fit in with the church’s way of doing things when he accepted the pastorate, members may realise the pastor’s typical preaching isn’t up to the same standard as those sermons he preached when he was ‘preaching with a view’. If a pastor realises he doesn’t have the respect and co-operation and support of his church in the early days of his ministry when the church should still be most enthusiastic about his appointment, it would be better for him to leave sooner rather than later.
In England it is fairly common to have lengthy interim periods between pastors, often lasting years, during which times the church members are much more actively engaged and share out the responsibilities of running the churches. A new pastor often displaces many of these people and they fall back to sitting passively in the pews. It would be little trouble for the members if a new pastor left after only a short time because people could quickly get back into their old routine, knowing their own place and getting on with their own duties. If the pastor stays long enough to cause people to start leaving, the church could lose all its most active and able members, so that by the time the pastor does eventually leave, there is no one left in the church capable of running and maintaining it. It’s best to recognise early on that a shepherd isn’t suited to care for any and every flock, and it is better for a flock to remain intact under the right shepherd than be scattered and lost under the wrong shepherd.
6-9 months is a pretty low threshold. All of those consequences are still present with any tenure less than 2 (maybe 3) years, at least at the senior pastor level.
Fair point. Anecdotally, I’ve seen more of the shorter variety happening recently. But yes. All of these still present in those in the 2 year range for sure.
Regarding number five, I would note that there is also a motivation toward shorter pastorates in the financial gain perceived by small, and especially rural congregations. Some have gone through so many first-timers and retirees, with significant gaps between pastorates, that they fall into a pattern of hiring full-time pastors beyond their means in hopes that increased giving will result. When that does not occur, they see the financial sense in going with pulpit supply from various sources, building up their bank balances until they feel they can “try again” to get a pastor who can generate enough additional income for the church to remain “breaking even” financially. All of the other damage, of course, applies. But the expectations of being the pastor who “saves” a church from their self-inflicted cycle is not only damaging to a pastor, but very tempting to accept such a position based on the prideful assumption that “I will be the one to fix this.”
Great point. Hadn’t thought about the dynamic of “saving up to afford the pastor” routine.
One thing I have seen in a couple of cases is the filling of the power vacuum. Without a clear leader who is there for a while, people who probably shouldn’t be filling the void tend to gravitate towards the position. When you have this a few times back to back, it becomes incredibly difficult for any pastor to gain any traction coming in.
How can a pastor following either a string of short term pastors or even after a dynasty pastor work through the process of establishing leadership so they don’t become just the next short term pastor in the line?
Oh man. That’s a good question.
Both cases you are talking about involve a lack of confidence in the new pastor. There are many options to take to do a reset of the field, and they both relate to the stability of the congregation financially and personally.
Financially: Is the income enough for a sustainable congregation?
Personally: Is the leadership of the church composed of mature Christians?
How does one develop leadership in the short term? Personal interactions with key leaders. Faithful execution of the work of the shepherd among the flock. Questions, encouragement, praise where appropriate, and leading key people to question the status quo (Talk to me about the worship service…).
Financially, if the budget is in trouble then your time is already short. But if the finances can sustain the church for two years then you have time to become trusted, inject a new vision into the Body, and set the leadership for the next growth curve.
Building trust among people in either case is a hard road for action oriented people. It takes a lot of coffee, hours of listening, prayer, and external support to weather the habits of the past that control a group.
Our Lord is faithful. Follow that truth and navigate carefully.
Jonathan, your points are great, and probably apply to pastorates of 2/3 years or less, also. We all have our anecdotal stories and experiences, but your points in general are spot on. I have been blessed to serve with long term pastors (40+ years, 20+ years and 10+ years). All churches were healthy and confident in their mission and vision. Stable, visionary leadership is a good thing! Long-term pastorates also lead to long term staff members as long as the pastor casts a clear vision and leads in a strong way. I thank God for the pastors with whom I have served and my current pastor (we have served together for over 21 years).
I have been placed as an interim pastor in a congregation where the previous pastor left after ten months, and the pastor prior left after seven years, but admits a great conflict. I am working on just hearing stories from congregation members and trying to be a non-anxious presence for healing before they look at calling a new pastor. I see #2, 3, 4 and a bit of 1, with tha congregation also losing trust in themselves.
Any suggestions on how I can help them in this interim period so they are well-prepared to call a permanent pastor when the time is right?
I have longed to stay for many years where I have been pastor. 6 & 8 years are my longest tenure. God has taken me to small struggling churches that need stability, leadership and focus on evangelism. I have resigned to the fact that this is my calling and God has blessed everywhere He has taken me. Ive loved each church and found it difficult to leave when I knew it was time.
There is also a situation where the short-tenured pastor was perhaps (too) nice to a particular group of people in the congregation who are at the bottom of the pecking order. Those “lesser” people may view his/her being run off to be the result of the pastor being good to them and the powerful people exerting their influence. The powerful people use it as a reminder to the next pastor to pay close attention to whom he/she talks and spends time with.
Mark, sounds like some church members need to get saved and follow Jesus, not in word but in deed.
I’m just stating reality. We all know there is an unofficial power structure in every church.
Absolutely. That said, being aware of that reality doesn’t make it biblical or healthy. Cabals need to be prayerfully (always) and peacefully (if possible) broken for the sake of the church, it’s health and mission. If done well, they don’t even know it’s happening.
I’m only 5’8. Does “short pastoral tenure” apply to me?
I am 5’3″. I laughed out loud at this comment. Thanks!
What about those power hungry pastors who merely want to control the church for personal gain? When these pastors are thwarted it becomes an “us vs them” scenario. And we all know when that happens everyone loses.
We just lost our senior pastor less than a month into his 4th year, and an associate pastor less than 2 years into his position for this very reason. The pastor never had a kind or good word for any staff member or board member. If something was wrong it was “their fault”.
Shifting blame seldom works. Even when there is blame to go around, a pastor who constantly shifts blame comes across as petty.
This goes with # 1 but Steve Parr has done some recent research shared in his book “Why They Stay.” He shows that short pastorates may also impact the next generation profoundly. Young adults who had good relationships with their pastors as children and students are much more likely to stay active in church when they are young adults.
I was a pastor at a church that is 116 years old. In the history of the church, the longest tenured pastor was there 10 years, from 1980-1990. Reading their history I discovered that there were 4 years in which multiple pastors served in the same calendar year. The average term was 13 months. With such a vacuum, the church became a deacon led church, because that is the only stability they knew. I was there for 6 years (I’m now #2 on the list of longest termed pastors). They are a dying church, unfortunately they did not have a high opinion of me when I walked them through Dr. Rainer’s book, “Autopsies of a Deceased Church.” We had every symptom, they believed we had none. After trying several attempts to cast the vision God had given me, they began to reject me as they did not welcome any change. I knew their reputation before I took the pastorate, but I was young and eager to take on my first church. I believe the problem on some, not all, but some of these short tenures is that potential pastors do not ask enough questions up front. I left after the Lord gave me permission to resign and I’ve since planted a new church which just celebrated it’s 1 year anniversary. I can guarantee you that if there is a next time for me to take on a new pastorate at an established church, I will be older, wiser and ask more questions on the front side.
Good observation about asking questions. In such a church it often becomes a question of embedding ideas into the deacons’ minds until it comes out their mouths in public. But, sometimes they never get it.
God bless your new church plant. May it ever be fresh!
I think one of the most unnoticed consequences is the church’s lack of willingness/ability to submit to leadership and many pastor’s unwillingness to lead. Pastor’s are often seen as short term employees or even consultants who come in do a job and then go when it is no longer convenient for one or both of thw parties. This kind of mentality is destructive to the shepherding role that the bible gives to the elders of a church. Elders that are under a long-term covenant to grow with, lead and correct the church.
#1 is so true. It has gotten to the point that my wife and I really don’t trust churches which is not a good thing at all.
Not many of us get through the ministry without scars. But healing occurs when we learn from our mistakes, create healthy boundaries and learn to recognize the signs of dysfunction in churches before we accept their call. I was terribly beaten up in my first pastorate and went on to (unsuccessfully) plant a church. My next church was healthier (and I was too). But I kept expecting them to become like my first church. I will never forget the day a deacon asked me, “When are you going to realize that we aren’t that church?”
Short term leadership–Both clergy and laity is not good for a local Body of Christ. We need steady hands on both levels.
All of us have been called and gifted by God. Called in the sense that God has a task or tasks for us to do in His Kingdom. Gifted in the sense that God has given each of us the necessary gift or gifts in order to do the assigned task or tasks.
There is a hungry flock who really want to hear God’s life changing Word. We need to tell them.
We need to stand strong against the secular forces of this world.
I spent 8 years in my first church. I am closing in on the end of my 2nd year in my second church. It has been tough in my new pastorate. I have learned that lies and rumors were spread about me between the time I was called and my arrival at the church. The well was poisoned before I preached my first sermon. A lot of people left. A lot of hurtful, false words were spread. If I would have left like I wanted to, it would have confirmed every lie spoken against my character. I trusted in God and stuck it out. Now people are finally learning that I am not like the false chararicture that was spread. When pastors leave churches in the hard times, it simple confirms all the negative preconceptions that people have already built up about 21st century pastors.
That’s a great reminder, Shawn
After 5 and a half years at a church, the last year there, I was pressured out. I made no moral or major mistake. The place was controlled by a few key families. They treated me badly the last year. The common people supported me and if it had been brought to a vote, they would not have had the votes to remove me. But I was tired of dealing with the unregenerate, difficult, overly critical people in leadership positions who wanted “feel good preaching.” After being pressured out, I walked away. I am in another pastorate now. But #1 is very true for me. I find it very hard, right now, to put any degree of trust in people. I am sure I am not alone. But, nevertheless, with God’s help and guidance, i will do my best to make a difference the time that I am here. Churches, who want “feel good preaching,” quickly spit out pastors, and also quietly don’t really want to grow, are very difficult places to be. One more bad experience and I might leave pastoral ministry all together, but I know, in my heart, I am truly called. Pastors, who are at good churches that have had fairly long pastoral tenures, are very blessed. Many places are badly unhealthy and no pastor can ever change that. I had a 70+ year old man tell me, who had been a pastor in the past, “I don’t know that I could be a pastor today.” Perpetually short pastoral tenures are not good for a church. The “hireling mentality” is far too prevalent in many churches today. “We hired you. You’re our employee.” Pastors should be seen as spiritual leaders and should be allowed to lead some over time: not as dictators, but as people trying to see the Kingdom advanced in local communities. Churches have to be willing to allow pastors to lead and be supportive and encouraging over time. Toxic places don’t do it. Simple as that.
I’m just turning 49 and my intention is to retire at the church that I started at just 2 years ago. It helps that this church is in the city that both my wife and I grew up in. Plus this will bring us to our church’s 200th anniversary. Most of all, it gives me a good long timeline to plan for strategic and intentional ministry.