Three to four years. According to research by Thom Rainer, that is how long, on average, a pastor stays at a church. And since that figure is an average, that means there are great numbers of pastors whose tenure is two years or less. In the small and country church setting, it is common for churches to have gone decades without having had any pastor stay for more than a few years. The blame for this problem is often laid on the stereotype of grumpy, stuck-in-their-ways church members who constantly run off pastors.
Stereotypes usually have a basis in truth, and there are certainly churches dominated by members with entrenched self-serving attitudes that quickly turn against a pastor who tries to introduce change. But I believe these attitudes are just as much a result of short pastoral tenures as they are a cause of them. Here are five reasons that short-term pastorates cause damage to small churches.
The job a pastor is called to do takes longer than a few years to accomplish. You can’t microwave a Thanksgiving turkey just because you want to serve dinner in twenty minutes. Some jobs take longer than others. When I accepted the position at my current church, I knew the task to which I was called would take at least 5-10 years. Still, the temptation to get things done quickly remains, and I certainly made my mistakes. A pastor who fails to take a patient, long-term view often tears down traditions (often getting torn down himself), trying to quickly construct new practices that are like flimsy buildings with no foundation.
Relationships are the foundation of leadership, and relationships take time. My church has members who were baptized in this church in the 1930s. There are people all over Stephens who have lived here all their lives. While it is true that every church belongs to the Lord, it is also their church and it is their town. There is a lot to learn, and I am still just scratching the surface after five years. Pastors who come full of answers rather than questions often develop relationships based on who will help them meet their preconceived goals, rather than really getting to know the congregation and town. People who resist these changes are often hastily judged as obstinate curmudgeons. Resentment can easily build on both sides. And when the pastor then heads off to the next church, his “friends” can be left feeling used and his “enemies” become even more resolute in their resistance to the next guy.
The ultimate result of this cycle is mistrust. This issue is at the core of how serial change in pastoral leadership damages churches. If I have been a member of a church for 40 years, why should I let someone who is going to only be here a couple of years come in and make a bunch of changes I don’t like? The longer a church has been without a long-term pastor, the longer it will probably take to rebuild that trust between pastor and his people. If it is a young pastor trying to guide an older congregation, it may take even longer. Real change requires people to buy in. If there is no trust, a belligerent church will not buy in, outright refusing to make changes. A more amicable church shows false buy-in, just going along, letting the pastor “do his thing” until he leaves.
Pastor-driven change is false change. A pastor of a small church has to wear many hats and take on diverse responsibilities. The temptation is to take on every job you want done that no one else is willing to do. This is a mistake I have made and which I find myself repeating. But if every change I make or new ministry I have begun immediately collapses at my departure, then no real change has taken place. Sometimes even new converts or members can be the same way, falling away as soon as the pastor leaves. Time is needed to assimilate new members into the church as a whole, to train leaders in new ministries, and for changes to take root in the culture of the church.
This damage compounds with repetition. Thom Rainer’s research shows that the third year is a common year for conflict to arise and for pastors to leave. The problem with leaving during this time of conflict is that the church never learns to work through conflict to resolution. The result is either that the church declines rapidly during times of pastoral transition or the conflict lies dormant until the next pastor comes and it reignites. Now experience tells church members that a new pastor brings conflict and that he will not stay to lead the church through the mess he created. And the cycle of mistrust grows.
There are legitimate reasons to leave a church after a couple of years, but to reclaim small-town America with the gospel, we need people who will hear God’s call to commit to the long haul. The attitude of a young minister “cutting his teeth” or “getting a couple of years of experience and moving up” wounds both the church and the pastor. In fact, with churches all over the country closing their doors, this wound is proving to be fatal.