Benefits of Long Term Tenures
I’ve been reading a book title “The Longview” by Parrott. When I picked it up I wasn’t sure I would read it. But then the first chapter caught my attention – “Lead as if you’ll be there forever.” Folks, 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 congregations must less grow the church. According to Barna Research, the average clergy today stays less than five years, which is up from four a decade ago. That’s just not long enough to make a difference beyond marrying and burying people.
Any study of the church landscape reveals that the vast majority of extremely strong, and often large churches, have or had a pastoral tenure of more than fifteen years. In fact according to Ellison Research the best years of service take place between year five and fourteen which most pastors miss out on due to short tenures.
My experience, both as a pastor and as full time consultant, has affirmed this research. I spent 24 years in the same church. My best ministry occurred between my seventh and twenty-fourth years. And most of the strong churches I’ve worked with over the years had long term pastors. So I am a strong proponent of long tenures. I find it sad that the vast majority of pastors in every denomination miss out on some of the most fruitful years of ministry.
However, hang on to your hats. Barna Research also shows that many long tenures are found in declining churches. So tenure, in and of itself, is not a guarantee of effective ministry.
Still, two of the most robust denominations in the U.S. have conducted studies that show a correlation between the health of a church and the length of the pastor’s tenure – Assemblies and Southern Baptist.
“The concept of pastoral longevity has had a philosophical change in the Assemblies of God since the founding of our Fellowship. This is probably true with regard to other church organizations as well. Pastoral longevity has not always been a subject of primary importance among the ministers of our Movement.” You can read more at http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/200101/0101_106_longevity.cfm
“The length of a pastor’s tenure, though, was found to have a direct correlation to the health of a church. A church’s likelihood to be healthy was much greater when the pastor had served there between five and 20 years. Bill Day, associate director of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health. You can read more http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=19542
So Why Move so Often?
Rapid pastoral turnover greatly contributes to the instability, lack of growth, and the demise of a local church. Still pastors continue to move far too quickly. The average length of stay of a Protestant pastor today is around five years. However the length varies among denominations. United Methodists move more than any other group of clergy. According to the Herald Sun The United Methodist average length is four years. To read more click here
The United Methodist context offers some insight into why pastors move so often. United Methodist clergy are among only 19% of clergy who are appointed to their churches. One would think they move so often due to the whim of the Bishop. Not so. According to every UMC denominational official I’ve talked to up to 80% of all moves are at the request of either the pastor or the personnel committee. Could it be that clergy move so often because it is just easier to move than deal with the circumstances?
Keys to Longevity?
- Lead as if you’ll be there forever. I know; Parrott already said this, but I couldn’t resist repeating it. It is such a powerful statement. Remember the frig? Put it there. Please.
- It’s a matter of the pastor having the will to persevere and the laity willing to support that effort. You can’t grow a great church with your eye always out for greener pastures. When you commit to the long haul your lay people are more likely to do the same. However, there is one issue you may find if you make the long term commitment. If the church has any strong-willed controllers, around the third or fourth year they will being to work toward the removal of the pastor because they sense they are losing control over the congregation because of the pastor’s growing influence. So be ready for that short span of real turmoil.
- You have to be a life time learner. Moving every three or four years allows a pastor to become a recycler of ideas and sermons. One of the first pastors I worked under only wrote one new sermon a month and reused old sermons the other three weeks. If you stay somewhere long term you have to be up-to-date in everything you do. What preached five years ago won’t hunt today. This means longevity requires the pastor to read and keep up with the changes going on in the world. If I have one criticism of pastors it’s that very few have books less than a year old on their book shelves.
- You must take time away for renewal. It doesn’t matter who you are, the longer you stay somewhere the easier it is to get bored and stale. This goes beyond being a life time learner. Being in the same place for twenty-four years forced me to have extended periods away from the church for personal renewal. Sure, I got fired up over the progress of the church; but the larger the church became and the longer I stayed the more difficult it was to remain fresh. No one likes a stale pastor.
- Honestly, transparency, and consistency are essential to longevity. People will cope with your mistakes, and you will make mistakes if you stay long term, if they sense you own up to them and share what you learned because of the mistakes. They will bond with you if they can see into your life and see a consistent witness to the Good News.
- Self-awareness and self-regulation are essential to keep one from abusing the power of long term relationships. My experience with consulting has taught me the longer a pastor stays at a church the more willing the laity is to follow that pastor even if he or she leads them over a cliff. I call this the 7/11 rule. After seven years the pastor and the church enter into a marriage. Trust begins to build exponentially until the eleventh year when the congregation will follow the pastor anywhere. Such news is both good and bad. It’s good if the pastor understands his or her weaknesses; it’s bad if he or she doesn’t.
- You have to have a vision for the future and a remembrance of the past. Longevity requires that you build on your own past with the church. People remember for a long time. The future is always tied to the past. We must constantly learn from the past while being able to see beyond what is and prepare the church for what is to come without throwing out the past. No one likes a jerky leader.
How Long is Too Long?
Although there is no cookie cutter answer to this question, the best I can offer is what I told the church I stayed at for 24 years – “I’ll be content to be your pastor as long as the church grows. The day it stops growing I’m gone.” I’m thankful that never happened.
So what are you going to do? Find a place you can dig in for the long haul or be like a ping pong ball and bounce from church to church? Which do you think will bring you the most satisfaction when you hang up your spurs?
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