One of the most well known findings of church growth relates to the tenure of lead pastors.  Generally, the principle states that longer pastoral tenures are healthier than shorter ones.

Lyle Schaller was the first person to point out that, while long tenures do not guarantee a church will grow, short tenures almost always guarantee a church will not grow.  More specifically, church growth research demonstrates that pastors reach their most fruitful time around year six or seven.  Thus, if a pastor leaves before that time, the church is not likely to be growing.

However, one of the little known facts of church growth is that pastors can stay too long.  Long pastoral tenure can actually hurt the growth of a church.  Generally, the first twenty years of a pastor’s tenure is quite healthy, but it is very rare for a pastor to lead a church through a third decade and beyond with vitality and growth.

I have had the opportunity to interview numerous pastors with long tenures of twenty-five years or more in the same church.  A short summery of those interviews can be stated as “The first ten years were great; the second ten years were good; I should have left in year twenty!”  

Pastoral leadership goes through a natural cycle.  When a pastor first arrives at a church, he goes through a learning curve gaining knowledge and experience about the ministry.  Soon a new vision emerges into fresh programming and ministry initiatives that propel the church forward for one or two decades.  Then, after two decades of change, a pastor gradually loses a sense of vision, while becoming adverse to risk and change.  As the pastor loses vision and a willingness to adapt to change, the church slowly loses ground.

The causes of this normal cycle are many, but research shows that some of the following factors are in play.

First, pastors come to a church with vision for a better future.  No pastor accepts a call or appointment without some ray of hope for improving the ministry.  This usually translates into an exciting beginning, which can propel a church forward in effective ministry for a decade or more, depending on the size of the vision.  However, most pastors see their original vision fulfilled in ten to twenty years, at which point they begin to coast in ministry rather than taking the risk of establishing a new vision for the future.

Second, pastors learn from people inside and outside of the church in the early years of their tenure.  Basically, pastors are more attuned to the needs of people outside the church in the early years of ministry, which leads to new programs and ministries being designed with the non-churched person in view.  However, in the latter stages of their tenure, most pastors turn inward, focusing more and more on relationships with those already in the church.  As pastors become entrenched, they listen to their internal members more and become less connected to voices outside the church.  Over time less and less ministry is directed to the non-churched and the church turns ever more inward.

Third, pastors are less attached to the status quo in the early years of their tenure.  They favor focusing on practices that cause growth in the church over maintaining the existing condition of ministry.  This allows them to respond to the needs of people outside the church in the process of developing ministry direction.  However, as pastors become more invested the church ministry, the less willing they are to rock the ministry boat.  Their attachment to the current state of affairs makes them less responsive to new innovations.

Fourth, pastors focus on strategic thinking in their early tenures.  They develop plans and goals to move the church to a healthier place.  However, as tenure increases, pastors think less about change strategies and try to motivate worshipers to support a failing course of action.

Fifth, pastors come to a church with a briefcase full of ideas.  Prior training and experience provide pastors with a wealth of ideas to use in ministry.  New pastors bring fresh insights and practices to old churches.  However, in the late stages of their tenures, pastors often run out of ideas.  They increasingly fall back on the same ideas that used to work but now no longer provide the energy they once did.

The ministry cycles of a long tenure leads to several implications.

First, pastors must reinvent themselves every ten years.  Observation reveals the truth that most pastors have a vision that is good for around ten years.  In the best cases a pastor’s early insights and strategic view may propel a church forward for up to twenty years, but gradually the ministry loses energy.  Even the best pastor needs to retool at least once every ten years.  Continuing education, regular reading, and attending conferences are all ways that pastors can help to reenergize their ministries.

Second, church boards should be watchful for signs the pastor and ministry are running down.  Most pastors and church ministries gradually move into inactivity and stagnation.  Boards should be aware that long tenured pastors may be skilled at relationships but less skilled at strategic thinking that keeps the church growing and going.  Church leaders can help by requiring sabbatical leaves every six to seven years, expecting pastors to participate in continuing educational opportunities, and requiring pastors to submit annual reports and plans of action for the next five years.

Third, both pastors and church boards ought to bolster their efforts as they enter the third decade of a pastor’s tenure.  Recognizing the that the third decade of a pastor’s ministry is often a difficult one, it is fitting that church leaders become assertive in designing a deliberate strategy for church growth for that decade of ministry.  To do less is to allow the church, and pastor, to relax into a state of comfortable fruitlessness.

Have you stayed too long in your church?  How have you reinvented yourself over the last decade?  What are your plans to develop a new vision for yourself and the church you serve for the next ten years?