Without a doubt, one of the greatest needs we have in the American church is to turn around declining churches. In June 2017 Thom Rainer released new data which suggests that 65% of Southern Baptist Churches are either in plateau or decline. On one hand this is much better than the often used data of 80% which I have heard for many years, but on the other hand 6.5 out of 10 churches are not growing. While part of me feels relieved that the percentage is better than I previously thought, the reality is that we have a majority of churches that are in need of revitalization. I am not writing this article to discuss the reasons why we still have an issue with declining churches, rather I want to focus on one issue that I believe may be the biggest of all. Almost all church revitalization experts say that churches that break out of the decline do so, on average, in the sixth to seventh year of the pastor’s tenure. I can emphatically say that my own experience as a pastor echoes the reality of that statement. My most fruitful years were between my sixth and eighth year of tenure in my last church.
This creates an issue for most churches. While the average pastoral tenure has increased from 3.6 to 6 years since 1996, we still have a majority of pastors who leave a church at the most crucial stage for revitalization. There are a myriad of reasons why pastors leave churches at this stage, but the reality is that turning around a declining church is difficult and takes years, not months. I have studied church health and church growth since finishing my doctoral work on the subject in 2008. I have read countless books and articles, listened to hundreds of podcasts, but mostly I have sat and talked with hundreds of pastors and denominational leaders about the subject. I often hear and read of the same issues and most are methodological in nature, but I rarely hear of the critical element of pastoral tenure. It has been widely publicized that the third year of a tenure is when many pastors will begin looking for greener pastures. This is likely due to the reality that the honeymoon period is over and the opposition to change galvanizes. Every pastor who leads a church to revitalization will experience hardships, long days, gut wrenching meetings and nasty emails. Unfortunately, this is simply a reality. My encouragement to pastors is often, stick it out, stay in the word, stay focused, love people and lead strong. We must see a continual increase in pastoral tenures if we want to see lasting revitalization and the strengthening of churches across North America. Too many times pastors leave a church right at the point of breakthrough. Are there certain elements that lead to longer pastoral tenures? I believe there are certain elements based on conversations with long tenured pastors who have led churches to better days. Here they are:
Don’t soak or sour on negative criticism. 100% of pastors who lead their church to revitalize will hear and experience negative criticism, guaranteed. It is easier said than done, but effective long term pastors have a short term memory in regards to destructive unwarranted criticism. Don’t let a small minority of people or a person discourage God’s direction for His church.
Take regular sabbaticals. I recognize that not all pastors get sabbaticals, but they should. If Jesus often withdrew from the crowds so should you. I am not suggesting that pastors take a month every year, but some time away is critical. This should be outside of the regular vacation days allotted by the church. A true sabbatical is not a vacation, it is a time dedicated to prayer, vision and study. Samford’s Center for Congregational Resources offers paid sabbaticals to pastors and you should probably check it out.
Surround yourself with staff who are strong where you are weak. I cannot overstate the importance of surrounding yourself with a strong team of staff and volunteers. Especially in areas where you know you lack effectiveness. No pastor is great at every area of leadership, so as you hire staff, find people who can make up for your deficiencies. Many pastors work hardest in areas they are not naturally gifted and often to no avail. They are left feeling inadequate and exhausted. A gifted staff member can shore up the cracks in your pastoral leadership.
Don’t stop learning. Work into your schedule regular seminars, disciple making huddles, online courses, conferences. One consistent theme I hear from long tenured effective pastors is their appetite to learn and grow. One of the glaring weaknesses of the church is that clergy are not required to take part in professional development. The weekly grind of the pastorate is so heavy that many pastors will simply neglect personal and professional growth opportunities. Taking part in continuing education can be thrilling and edifying for both the pastor and the churches they serve. I would suggest you look into the professional development opportunities offered through the Ministry Training Institute!
Form deep relationships with other pastors and stay connected to networks of support. There are many pastors who spend the majority of their time in their office studying, visiting church members and handling administration issues. While all of this is critical and important, if pastors aren’t intentional in developing relationship outside of the church they will become isolated and lonely. Pastoral burnout, depression and even suicide are all connected to the loneliness pastors feel through isolation and lack of friendships. I strongly suggest that every pastor should nurture strong relationships with other pastors and especially networks of pastors. No one understands your struggles like another pastor.
Don’t neglect your spiritual disciplines. It is hard to feed your flock if you are not rightly feeding yourself. A pastor who has a deep meaningful relationship with Christ will have sustaining power to stay the course. It is impossible to lead your congregation toward growth if you are not leading yourself toward the same goal.
Never stop casting a compelling vision for the church. Every pastor who spends adequate time with God will receive a Spirit-led burden, passion and vision for the work of Christ in that congregation. The initial vision during the honeymoon phase can be exhilarating to a pastor, but the excitement can wane as the years go by. Every 5 years a pastor ought to share a fresh and compelling vision for the church. Once shared the pastor should often and regularly remind the congregation of the importance of the Spirit given vision. Share it with passion and excitement because both are contagious and will give lasting benefits.
It is my prayer that pastoral tenures will continue to increase in length for the sake the work of Christ and the effective work of His church in the days to come.