The Dangerous Third Year of Pastoral Tenure

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?

Posted on June 18, 2014

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • I am about to enter into my third year of ministry as an associate pastor next month and I am encouraged that this article was posted. I will be sure to implement the thoughts and wisdom in this article for this pivotal third-year.

  • My last pastorate was approaching ten years when the church leaders felt they wanted a change and terminated me. There was no moral failure or laxness on my part. I thought everything was fine. It left me to scramble to find another place of service but the Lord took care of us. However, He did place me in a situation going through a firestorm before I came. That firestorm continued and nearly consumed me within my first year. This happened because the group that followed the previous pastor became disenchanted with me very quickly. (I wasn’t as young or as “hip” as he was even though he made some terrible decisions). Remarkably, now completing my third year we are still here, and we are striving to rebuild what was lost. If we can survive the overcome the loss of finances created by the firestorm after some of the people left us we are poised to grow back better than ever. But it has been extremely painful to watch and to endure. I am still convinced that God still has a plan, and that He gives His grace to endure and strengthening us to overcome the fear that comes with dealing with power groups etc.

    I will say, however, that one of the many reasons we are losing our younger adults by the droves is because of this type of thing found in most traditional Southern Baptist churches. They have had enough of it, and frankly I do not blame them for leaving even though it hurts me to see it.

  • Wow, is this post timely for me! I’m now one month into my third year and can see how things are changing. I pray the Lord will keep me from looking for supposedly greener pastures now that the honeymoon is coming to end.

    Dr. Rainer, I want you to know that I truly appreciate the work that you do, and I believe this type of pastoral advice is invaluable.

    Thanks again.

  • Anonymous says on

    I’d submit (and some commenters have hinted to this as well) that many if not all of these points apply to any pastor, not just the lead/preaching/senior pastor. At the church where I serve as ministry associate, our worship pastor resigned just shy of finishing his third year. I believe that unmet/unmatched expectations were part of his decision to leave.

  • This is more of a question than a comment, but I wonder how many of these three year pastors followed a long tenured pastor? In my first church I followed a pastorate of eighteen years which basically meant I was an extended interim pastor. I was there just over three years.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Interesting question Steve, but I haven’t done that research.

    • I pastored a church in Alabama for 22 years, small community, had a full time church with wife working to make it possible for me to be full-time. Otherwise it would not have been possible. I retired from this church in April 2001 and in August of this year they called a new pastor. The transition has been very positive and he has been here as my pastor for nearly 14 years. The Church has experience great growth, new educational building, and fellowship hall and the budget has increase 400%, Sundas School has increased about 300%. I later in 2001 accepted an interim at one of our Association Churches and later they called me as pastor and I was there until April 2009 and retired basically for health reasons.
      I’m back at the Church where I was pastor for 22 years and was named Pastor Emeritus upon coming back to the Church. God is Good All The Time. I pray for my pastor and for the men who preach the Word. Thanks for you your counsel and wisdom as we studied recently your book “Engage.”

    • I followed a pastor who had been at the church for 14 years and I know that it has caused much of the consternation. Even though I inherited several messes (not the least of which was a daycare that was a ticking time bomb waiting to destroy the whole church) and quietly began fixing them, he gets all the credit still and I get the blame even though I didn’t cause the problems. Seems like he bailed at just the right time so I got to reap what he sowed. But, because he was a “life of the party” kind of guy he could do no wrong. The church literally worshiped the man and when the man left they were left with the God they didn’t know very well.

    • Leah Elrod says on

      This is a very common phenomenon – the unintentional interim following a long-term pastorate. They say it takes 7 years for a church to really let go of the style and expectations they have learned in relation to a long term pastor. This is one of the reasons we encourage churches to bring in a trained interim pastor to help work through some of those issues.

  • I appreciate the blog posts. They offer much to think about. The three to five year window also coincides with the limits of many pastors’ vision and patience. Some haven’t accomplished what they wanted to accomplish in that time. So they become discouraged and think there is nothing more they can do there. Moving on seems the only viable option.

    I once heard an older pastor comment on the impatience of many younger pastors that they overestimate what can be accomplished in a couple of years and underestimate what can be accomplished in five, ten, or fifteen years. I have seen it and have been guilty of it myself.

    The three to five year window is also about the place where topical preaching runs out of steam. For a couple of years, topical sermons can be fresh and energetic, but they start to get tired and repetitive after that. It is hard to sustain a long-term ministry of one-off topical sermons.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Well said, Jeff. Thank you.

    • Hey Bro. Jeff,

      Your comment about topical sermons is an excellent point. I must admit I’ve had thoughts like “If I go somewhere else I can use all of my sermons that I’ve prepared over the last couple years.”

      I pray the Lord will keep us preachers continuing to dig for fertile ground in the Word of God.

    • Craig Giddens says on

      It seems more pastors are preaching through books of the Bible (which is much needed) or doing a combination of topical sermons and Bible book series.

  • Mickey Willard says on

    I am now finishing my 6th year at my current ministry. This church has the distinction of sending out the very first missionary due to the first Lottie Moon offerings. Until my 4th year here that is all the missions involvement this congregation has been involved in other than giving money. After a teaching trip to the Ukraine in my third yearI was able to lead some (4) to a missions trip to an economically depressed area in another state. After research I found out our county is more depressed (20.7% below poverty rate). We began a food and clothing giveaway only to be shut down after the controlling family became upset because of the “wrong” kind of people coming into “our” building. No matter how hard I have tried to keep the congregation outwardly focused it seems as though they become more inwardly focused. I have turned in my resignation and will be leaving at the end of August waiting for the Lord to lead me to my next ministry. The sad thing though is that about 20%+ of the active members will be going elsewhere also. They have told me that they are tired of having to butt heads with this one particular family. Some of these folks that are leaving have grown up in this local church and are now in their 40’s! (even related to the ruling family). I have served in other ministries for more years than this ministry (7+ in one and 10+ in another). I know it may sound like I am complaining but I am really frustrated with the fact that one family (mother and daughter in particular) have such control over a congregation. Thom, I don’t know if you have written on such a topic but I sure would be interested in how to handle such a situation.

    • Hi, I read your comment with a great deal of interest because it appeared to be such a parallel to my experience. Especially the part about the mother and daughter having such power over the congregation. That was the same exact thing that happened to me in a little church in Idaho.

      I’m afraid I didn’t handle it very well, and it’s relatively recent that I have even healed from the wounds of battle. And yet, I can empathize with you and say that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I too, have no idea what the answer may be, and feel as others here may feel that Seminary is rather short-sighted in their preparation of the student/pastor in this area.

      I am in total agreement with Phil Ellenberg who said, “We need help with leadership training….I know other pastors who are facing very difficult situations and are ill-equipped in leadership skills to aid them in their ministry. I feel we need an ongoing leadership training/network both in pastoral leadership and organizational leadership” And yet I have not seen Seminaries moving much in that direction. Why is that?

      Anyway, even though I don’t have any real insight or a wealth of great advice, just know that there are many like us out there, and I for one will pray for God’s peace, and guidance in the days ahead. God bless you.

      • Dani Veenstra says on

        I am currently studying for Licensed ministry and took a wonderful class on Church Administration. I recommend the books we were assigned. The weekend course covered the aspects of Church leadership that most seminary classes do not. Hope this is helpful.

        The Church Leader’s MBA by Mark Smith and David W. Wright
        How the way we talk can change the way we work by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey
        Church Administration by Robert H. Welch
        Leadership on the Line by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Mickey –

      I am so sorry for your challenges. I will indeed write on this issue in the future. My prayers for you, friend.

  • Sharon Neff says on

    This is interesting as my husband was the 7th pastor on a row to leave/be forced out of a particular church during the 3rd year. It seems they could love a pastor for two years, then the “power” group would start their attack. In our case, a subversive staff member became the darling of that group. He could do no wrong, my husband could do no right. There was little support from the rest of the congregation, who just threw up their hands and said it happened again and were not willing to see and deal with this ongoing problem.
    I agree that pastors should be more prepared in seminary for church administration situations. And this third year thing is fascinating.

  • This is my first sr. pastor position after serving in two other churches for a combined 17 years. I am about to finish my third year at the church that the Lord had allowed me to lead. For me, this has been the best year as far as my pastorate here, not so much in terms of church growth, but in acceptance as me as the pastor. The church I serve is over 150 years old and the average stay for the pastor here has been 2.7 years. They have had 55 pastors in their history including me. Things were good in the beginning (during the honeymoon) of my tenure and got tough during my second year. My expectations did not meet the church’s expectations. We were not in the same place. I thought and prayed about leaving, but the Lord did not move. I learned a valuable lesson then. In general when a pastor, particularly a first time pastor, comes on board, he needs to meet the church where they are and bring them along and not expect the church to rise up and meet him where he is in his vision for the church. Since that lesson and second year things have gotten better and the congregation seems to have put more trust and faith in me as their pastor. I feel like I have gained credibility with them by sticking it out. My advice to anyone going through a rough time, particularly if it’s early in your tenure, is to watch and pray. Don’t leave too soon. Fruit may be right around the corner. Today we are planning our first ever overseas mission trip. In the 152 years this church has existed they have never had a real missional emphasis. I find it a blessing and honor to be able to lead this church to this new place of ministry for them. If that is what I was brought here for, Praise the Lord. If I had left during that second year, this church would not be taking steps today to be global in their outreach. I look forward to how we will continue to grow together now instead of looking to leave. This third year for us has been a breakthrough year. Praise the Lord, and God bless.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Good counsel Brett. Thank you.

    • Brett, I’m in my third year in this pastorate as well and it also has been our best year, in terms of growth and fellowship in love. All chuches are different obviously, and this one had suffered through 5 pastors or interims over a 10 year period, with an average tenure of exactly 2 years apiece. They really needed to believe someone was going to stick with them. In this 3rd year we have been embraced and they know I am their pastor, and I’m not looking to move.

      In both my pastorates, my most difficult year has been the first year. In the first church it was totally family run, and 6 months in we needed to deal with some immorality issues in the church. One of the people, who was also teaching in the church, was living with someone(7years). She also was a member of this family. That year was a crucible as the family took after me with vengeance. An amazing thing happened though, the church stood with me as I diligently showed them through scripture why this must be try to correct in love. You never want to lose people, but sometimes Jesus does need to prune the vine. After a year of constant conflict, about 1/2 of the family left the church. The rest still raised Cain, but they had no power. God eventually moved us in his timing. That church was smaller when we left, but it was healthier. I spke to some there yesterday and under a new pastor, who I like a lot(have done several funerals together there), they are now growing again, The family members who left have not returned.

      Here we saw God move in tremendous ways the first year. When I arrived we had 40 people, most seniors, 2 teens and 2 children. The neighborhood we serve has changed drastically over the last 20 years and is now 85% minorities. The search committee who called me told me their biggest need was to find a way to reach the community, which is what convinced me God was calling us, as I’d never seen such a dense mission field. 6 months in we were running 30-40 children, all minorities on Wed-Sun nights and our Sunday morning worship attendance had doubled. It was amazing, but then a few started to sow discord, including 3 members of the search committee who called me. Turns our they really were not ready for that kind of change. It hurt us, the Spirit was snuffed out, but they eventually left and we began the road back. We’ve have finally begun seeing fruit again this year.

      We don’t have much money, are lacking workers big time(praying Luke 10:2 vigilently), our music is lacking, our programs are limited. But I can say quite surely we have a loving, caring, generous congregation now, and people see that and have been responding. God can work with that!

  • Unfortunately I am in my 5th church as pastor (not including one as assoc pastor for 3 yrs) and my longest time of service has been four (4) years. I pastor in SC which has the highest forced termination rate of all the states. Now i speak from one who has had to endure a forced termination (I did not turn the church around in 18 months). In our state, 9 of the top 10 reasons had to do with leadership style and relating to the congregation (the 10th reason had to do with some sort of moral failure). We need help with leadership training. I would not trade my theological training for anything (SEBTS) and all but dissertation in the D. Min. but the leadership training has been woefully short. the “Church management and admin” class was a 2 hour class. I know other pastors who are facing very difficult situations and are ill-equipped in leadership skills to aid them in their ministry. I feel we need an ongoing leadership training/network both in pastoral leadership and organizational leadership

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Totally agree Phil.

    • Come to the north Phil! There is a great need for pastors in our northern SBC churches, and the atmosphere is completely different. We work here to disciple, mainly because many in our churches up here didn’t grow up in church, or didn’t grow up Baptist. I’ve served in the south, love those people down there, and hope the Lord never sends me back. I’m on the Wisconsin/IL border after serving in PA previously. Best times of my ministry.

    • Amen. I went through a very difficult time as I realized my deficiencies of leadership and how they was partly to blame for some of the setbacks. But I was even more disappointed when I reached out to be trained in this area. There are very few “denominational” resources that are available and when you find them they are more geared to get you in line with the status quo than actually teaching leadership principles. It felt like “they” were more concerned about keeping me in line with the denomination than helping me lead my church. I had to reach out to other resources and there are lots of leadership conferences, books, etc. however the best thing that happened was I sought out a leadership coach. At the time I was doing online seminary classes to finish up my masters degree. In my case, I had to make a choice. Finish up my masters degree which was basically a theological refresher course of my undergraduate Pastoral ministry degree or focus on leadership. I chose leadership and the two years I spend with a leadership coach rivals in importance and value my theological studies. I was able to spend 2 years being coached on leadership. I am still growing and learning. The leadership coaching allowed me to gain a whole new perspective on leading people and most of all leading my own life. Just because someone knows the bible, has a calling and has a degree doesn’t mean they are capable to lead people. There needs to be a clarion call to provide more leadership training in our seminaries by people who have successfully, not “theoretically” lead other people. In my case it was a humbling and eye opening experience to find out how weak this area of my life was. I went through all kinds of emotions too. Everything from resentment, because I had been trained in the area of leadership and joy because I saw how much my leadership abilities improved. When I did move on from the church I was serving, the leadership coaching and training paid off tremendously.

  • The third year challenge is not unique to church. It is a reality in any new startup or leadership change. The first year is a busy year doing what must be done and “settling in”. It goes by rapidly and is usually pretty exciting. The second year is spent attempting to fulfill what you envisioned as you accepted the position or started the organization. The third year billboards the reality that it isn’t going to be as easy as you thought and a lot of the stuff you thought would work didn’t.

    At this point an individual has three choices. 1. Give what you did last year a second chance and dig in to try and make your agenda work. (This renewed energy may gain you one to two more years.) 2. Re-evaluate your strategy and huddle your core leaders to develop a different vision-based strategy. (This engagement of the church leaders in staying focused on the mission and vision while being flexible and creative with strategy will probably be something new for the church.) 3. Ease your disillusionment and frustration by seeking greener pasture. (Which, by the way, will more than likely produce the same scenario.)

    I find that there are significant breakthrough opportunities in ministry and the third year is one of them. View the third year as the year to refocus, refine and refresh strategy and learn a humble dependence on the Lord. Allow and expect strategic failures during the second year. (Everyone should be permitted to fail in a healthy organization.) During the second year you are still learning the culture and DNA of the area and church. Many of the people will be in a watch and see mode rather than a join and engage mode. The third year gives you the opportunity to be vulnerable, address strategic failures and to recruit and engage strategic leadership within the Body. Take the lessons you learned on the honeymoon period and determine how WE (the pastor and the church) can make this ministry marriage work and become fruitful for the sake of God’s children and the Kingdom.

    Three-year-pastorships may be the biggest reason for stalled and declining churches. Just some thoughts from my experience.

  • Thanks for the post. As I enter my third year, I can see some of these things starting to take shape. It was good to see this reminder to be on the look out for certain attitudes or actions (including my own). Your blog is a major help to this still new pastor.

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