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 can personally attest to the troubles of the third year. I have not left the church but it has been very tough. All heck broke loose during my third year. I caught a staff member stealing funds and had to fire the individual which brought a certain level of chaos. I led the church to do a major outreach program that had great success in reaching our community. Unfortunately, we lost a good 50-60 people as a result of it. Why? I am still scratching my head over it, but the beginning of our decline can be traced to that outreach. We still have not recovered from the trouble of the “third year” and it is now almost year six.

    My church has a history of long tenures for pastors and I truly hope that it continues to be the case into the future. But, year three was a very turbulent time that we still haven’t seemed to get over.

  • dr. rainer,
    we met & spoke briefly at the convention last week. i had found your name tag and gave it back to you after the b21 panel. i also spoke to you about my deacon’s response to the “autopsy” book.

    upon returning to my church,i found that there is a small pocket of people”rallying the troops” to force me to do their bidding. i have had 3 conversations this week (by wednesday) of broken hearted church members coming tome warning me it’s coming.

    i am in my 13th month here, and i love the people and want to stay for 20 or more,lord willing.

    please pray for me to have wisdom, discernment, & humility as i am confronted, and that the lord would give us all broken & humble hearts that desire his glory and gospel be known in our community more than we care about winning arguments or preference battles.

    thank you
    stephen cavness
    first baptist church
    fulton ky.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you for sharing, Stephen. I appreciate you my friend, and I hurt for you. You are most definitely in my prayers.

  • I so much enjoyed and appreciated the article. I am just now about to start my fourth year at the little church I am at and was recalled with a high percentage of votes. I left the next day for a couple of weeks vacation and was bothered the whole time that I was gone as well as a couple of weeks following by the negative votes. Honestly I wanted from the bottom of my heart to just resign.

  • As I finish up my third year I’ve seen a fair amount of these scenarios play out and have worked hard to counter them. One of the things I intentioned to do early on was to get a key group of people (the elders) on board with the direction and ministries of the church, and the changes that needed to be made. During that ‘honeymoon’ phase, I laid the groundwork (knowing the third year stuff was coming). Now that I’m in it (and thankfully that it’s almost over), I have them standing united and able to say, “Were moving and making progress, we’re just slow sometimes.” They’ve been a good sounding board for both myself and the church as we continue to process and refine the direction and the future of the church together.

  • I think most pastors & leaders underestimate the time it takes to change the culture & vision of a church. The first phase of “leadershift” typically takes 2-3 years. Whether it’s a succession with no interim time or a new pastor coming in after a season with no lead pastor, it takes time for the church to develop a longer term liking and loyalty to the new guy. The second phase of “visionshift” takes 5-7 years (depending on the church). A pastor can’t lead the vision shift until he has a good amount of trust deposits in the bank. Too often, pastors want to compress this timeline…trying to do the visionshift before or simultaneously with the leadershift. Aubrey Malphurs once said, “In a church, no one really trusts you until year 5.” I’ve seen that come true time and time again. Many congregation members who have experienced short-term pastorates are thinking, “When are you going to take off for greener pastures.” My personal pastoral prayer, “Jesus, give me a long obedience in the same direction at a marathon pace instead of a sprinters pace. Amen.”

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You and Dr. Malphurs are spot on.

    • Please understand me when I say that the attitude of feeling a need to alter the culture of a congregation seems to be more of an attitude of running a business than making disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Pastors need constantly to seek wisdom from Christ and also be careful not to copy the world.

  • Greg Drummond says on

    This post was just what I needed. After 4 years in Bible college, I followed that with 3 years as a youth pastor in one church, then almost 4 years as an associate at another. After that it was 3 years in full time seminary until now. Now when I have interviews with potential churches, I am always addressing the question about the time spans.
    In reality, I just want to settle and I have always been prepared to invest for the long term wherever. My calling is a pastor. Sometimes the hardest thing about being a pastor is always being the outsider in the community and trying to break through. Unfortunately, it takes about 3 years to crack the shell of some churches, and even some pastors, before we experience genuine fellowship and communion as pastor and congregation. Patience on the part of churches and pastors is essential, I think, to crack the nut of the 3 year tenure. That, plus an understanding that we as pastors see this as a calling and not merely a job or even a career.
    I’m rambling now, but you struck a nerve yet again Thom. 🙂

  • Earl Thornton says on

    Thanks Thom for the great article.
    I’ve been a pastor for 44 years and have been through three of the “Third Year” scenarios.
    Your post has caused me to pause and analyze my three experiences of the “Third Year.” In two churches, we saw strong and consistent growth. The biggest push back was from the older berries who didn’t quite know how to feel about all the new berries coming into the congregation. They loved the growth. They loved the notoriety it gave the church in the community, but it was unsettling to them. In each of those scenarios, I “survived” the third year and lived to tell about it.
    It probably have been a little easier if I would have had your article and book back then.
    Again, thanks for an excellent article.

  • I am in my 7th year as a pastor in a small church. My second through fourth years were extremely difficult. Not until the middle of my sixth year did I feel like we were really beginning to change for the better. I agree that I have emerged stronger as a result of my difficult years and the church is becoming healthier day by day. I am glad I didn’t go with my gut and leave when things got hard. This church was/is worth fighting for. Remain true to your calling.

  • Great insight Dr. Rainer, as I have served as a youth pastor, bi-vocational pastor, senior pastor and now as Director of Missions, most of my stays have been around three years. I left a really sweet church where I served 6 1/2 years to take on associational leadership in which I am in my fourth year. The change from 3 to 3+ years of service I believe was in evaluating where we had been in three years and setting new goals and changing my practices to more include more (not just different) people in our ministries. Thanks for you blog and how it challenges!

  • Robin Foster says on

    I really appreciate the article Dr. Rainer. Great advice towards a congregational audience, but I was wondering, as a pastor, what are some things we can do when the third year let down happens?


    • Thom Rainer says on

      Robin: Surround yourself with trusted leaders in the congregation. Meet with them on a consistent basis to hear their counsel. Also, do everything you can to get the church doing outwardly focused events in the community and beyond. Finally, hang in there. The best is on the other side. Blessings.

  • I am currently in my third year as pastor. Currently, several in the church have soured to me. Many of the things you right about are head on. We are currently praying about whether we should continue at our church or not. I would greatly appreciate your prayers

  • In our fourth year at the moment, we are still recovering from year 3. It was a horrible year. I was truly surprised that things transpired as quick as they did and how malicious some of the people were. It was like someone turned a light switch on/off. Perceptional issues was what we fought all year long. Still dealing with some of it and our future is up and the air.