The Dangerous Third Year of Pastoral Tenure

June 18, 2014

Pastors generally don’t stay long at churches. The average tenure is between three and four years. But, as our research has shown consistently, longer tenure is needed for church health. Longer tenure does not guarantee church health, but a series of short-term pastorates is typically unhealthy.

Why is the tenure so short? The answers are many.

Uncovering the Mystery of the Third Year

At least part of the answer to the question above can be found by analyzing the third year of a pastor’s tenure. When I wrote Breakout Churches several years ago, I did just that. My book was primarily about long-tenured pastors who see sustained church health after a period of decline.

But in that study to find longer-tenured pastors, I discovered that the largest numbers of pastors were leaving their churches in the third year of their ministry at that specific church. The finding both intrigued me and concerned me. I began to interview those pastors to ask them why they left.

The Reasons for the Third Year Departure

Though I found no singular reason for the third year departure, I heard a number of common themes:

  • The honeymoon was over from the church’s perspective. The church began seeing the imperfections in the pastor’s ministry. Many brought concerns about those imperfections to the pastor.
  • The honeymoon was over from the pastor’s perspective. Some of the promises made by those who first sought the pastor were unfulfilled. Some of the pastors indeed felt they were misled.
  • When a new pastor arrives, most church members have their own expectations of the pastor. But it is impossible to meet everyone’s expectations. By the third year, some of the members become disillusioned and dissatisfied.
  • Typically by the third year, the church has a number of new members who arrived under the present pastor’s tenure. Similarly, some of the members who preceded the pastor have died or moved away. The new members seem great in number to existing members. Some are threatened by these changes.
  • In any longer term relationship, that which seems quaint and charming can become irritating and frustrating. The pastor’s quirks thus become the pastor’s faults.
  • All relationships have seasons. None of them can remain on an emotional “high.”

Possible Ways to Address the Third Year

Here are a few ways to address that dangerous third year of a pastor’s ministry. None are a panacea; but some may be helpful.

  • Have an awareness of the possibility of a third year letdown. It is not unusual, and you are not alone.
  • Be prepared for the down season to last a while. The dropout rates for pastors in years four and five were pretty high as well.
  • Surround the pastor with prayer. Be intentional about praying for the pastor’s emotional, physical, and spiritual strength during this season.
  • Keep the church outwardly focused as much as possible. Church members who are focused inwardly tend to be more critical and dissatisfied.
  • Be aware that pastors who make it through these seasons are usually stronger on the other side. Their churches are as well.
  • Church members need to be highly intentional about encouraging the pastor and the pastor’s family. While they always need encouragement, they really need it during this season.

The third year of pastoral tenure does not necessarily have to be dangerous; but it is many times.

What are your observations about pastoral tenure? What insights do you have?

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93 Comments

  • I can’t say “AMEN” enough here! We could all say, “Wanna see my scars?” I’ve been privileged to pastor only 2 churches in 34 years as a Sr. Pastor. Tom has awesome insight and I’ve taken it to heart. It has also motivated me to write a book, (almost finished) “Emotional Survival for Pastors.” My heart aches when I see pastors fall victims to the emotional trauma arising from an honorable career and then sometimes seeing them crash and burn in moral failings. I’m hoping to add to what Tom writes and what seminaries don’t teach. Don’t bail, pastor friend! http://www.pastorjohn.net (blog)

  • Leah Elrod says on

    So interesting to read this article and all of the responses. I have had two calls end in the 3-4 year period. I could feel changes in the pastor-parish relationship happening but did not know how to address them. Part of it was the honeymoon wearing off – returning to lethargy that was there before the excitement of a new pastor, realizing pastor and congregation were not everything we imagined one another to be, and in both cases financial challenges though for different reasons.
    One of those separations was very hurtful. I felt strongly called to that church, a cross-cultural congregation. About two and a half years in, one elder began coercing other elders to turn against me (I found out later). We brought in denominational officials to see if we could work things through, but trying to talk with session was like talking to a wall. There was no room for conversation. I felt shut out. The experience sent me into a dark night of the soul – with big questions like “What is a call? If God called me here why did this fail? What is church? How do I understand God in this situation?” Thankfully I have emerged from that dark night and am rebuilding a relationship with God and church.
    I recently read an article about the need for churches to be aware of their history as they call a new pastor. Churches tend to assume to assume that their next pastor will automatically have the same strengths as the previous pastor and so wind up looking for a pastor who can address the areas that were not so strong. I think this contributes to the third year tension in expectations of the pastor.
    I appreciate the guidance of surrounding oneself with trusted leaders, helping the church focus outward, and the need for more leadership training/ a leadership coach. I will remember that for the future!

  • Such simple truth. When I began in ministry right out of college, I was called to be an associate pastor (worship and youth). Within the first year, all the pastors had left and I was the only one left. The “job” nearly ate me alive by my third year and I sought another position. We called a senior pastor and I was visiting a church in view of a call. However, after meeting with a mentor, I realized I couldn’t just run because I was upset, so I stuck it out and now I’ve been here over 12 years and the church has nearly tripled in size. It was a tough period, but the church made it through and both the church and myself came out stronger on the other side.

  • Today marks day 1 of my 3rd year pastoring my church. I have recently began experiencing the exact things you speak about in this article and have been beating myself up thinking that this is a “me” problem whenever it’s really a common problem that appears to kill most ministers. Thank you for publishing articles like this and books like I am a Church Member. I greatly respect your work as well as the input given in many comments. I am hoping to face these issues head on through love and compassion and now have the exact ability to do that because of this article.
    Thank you!

  • Andrew Davis says on

    Very insightful and encouraging article. I always appreciate your perspective. I’m entering my 6th year as senior pastor and we saw a lot of these challenges in year 3. We did experience a season of reduced attendance and even a general lack of energy. My greatest struggle was not with my people. Mine was with myself. I felt I was an unmitigated failure and held myself to a standard that was impossible to fulfill. I preached faithfulness as a greater metric than numbers but couldn’t apply that personally. My fleeting desires to throw in the towel was not nearly so directed at my people as at my own perceived shortcomings. It helped to have a wife, some faithful members and a few preacher friends that were unflagging in their prayers and encouragement. Articles like yours, Bro. Rainer are a great blessing as well. It’s a relief to know we’re not alone in the struggle. Keep up the great work. God bless.

  • Douglas Flather says on

    Great article. Thanks for your work. Do you know of any “real” research that’s been done on the average tenure of worship leader/pastors?

    Thanks in advance!
    – Doug

  • My dangerous years usually come during the 4th and 5th year. I entered my current declining church (United Methodist) with the church viewing me as their savior who could bring them out of their conflict. When it did not happen (I’m still going to work on it during my 6th year) many leaders turned on me. Ive been a pastor for 33 years and these declining churches are getting more difficult as time goes on.

    Jeff Taylor

  • I am amazed that even as pretty as I am, some people just don’t like me. 🙂

    These are great words. I haven’t noticed these as much in our church plant, but we also lose well over 30% of our worship attendance each year (due to the military). It would be interesting to see if there is a significant difference in church plants and a more established church in this third year phenomenon.

    And, if you’re reading, you transitioning established church guys (especially bi-vocational ones) are Kingdom heroes. And mine.

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