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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  • Charlotte says on

    You express what I have been saying for some time now. I am the daughter of a small town Southern preacher and during my growing up years, we moved just about every three years. When I became the preacher (something my fundamentalist father never would have imagined!) I yearned for a long term relationship with a congregation just because I had never experienced it before. Sure enough at 3 years and 4 months, things started to become uncomfortable; out of the blue, it seemed I couldn’t please anybody. I sought counsel from minister mentors, church leadership and I talked openly about our choices to work at our relationship and go deeper or give up on each other and start over (as if there is the perfect match somewhere out there.) Nothing worked. We made it to almost 5 but the last years were full of tension. I figure the long timer insiders watched their own power become diluted with newcomers and new thinkers until the discomfort was unbearable. Witholding contributions was much easier than working through our challenges. I’ve been gone six months now and I’m not sure I will ever go back to a traditional local congregation.

  • Michael Munro says on

    I’m now in the 14th year of my cure. The 3rd year was indeed perilous. Lay leaders found that they were no longer in complete control. I was also accused of being possessed by spirits (not a common accusation made by Episcopalians). The culture of the congregations had begun to shift. There were upheavals in the national church which caused problems locally. Yada, yada. You ride them out.

    I was most interested in seeking a new cure after year 7. That’s about when you run out of trick and must either run through them again, learn new ones, or share them with a new congregation. The really BIG reason I wanted change is that I started burying people I now considered friends, not just parishioners.

    I expect to be here 20 years when I retire. We have the opportunity to become durably healthy and reclaim our place as the gem of the diocese.

  • As I begin my third year this month, thanks for a thought provoking blog! A couple of comments:

    First, one area I think has been left out is spiritual warfare. Things are going exceptionally well for us right now, and I have begun encouraging my leadership to be aware and careful because I truly believe that Satan will be stirred by a church that is stirred. We don’t need to be afraid or see a boogeyman in every corner, but we do need to redouble our prayers!

    Second, I wonder about the relationship between the third year principle and the 7 year principle. I was taught in seminary that I pastor does not start hitting on all cylinders until the 7th year. I didn’t believe it then, but I do now. Do you think there is a relationship (beyond merely “hanging in there”)?

    Thanks again.

  • I am leaving after 6 years. By the 3rd year, I began to have ultimatums thrown at me by one “controlling” board member who also has a position of some authority in local govt. [even to the extent that she informed me that she was the one I needed to stay in good with]. I don’t take ultimatums lightly and continued to minister as from the start. Her following in the church began to wane. As a result, she quit attending and also quit supporting financially, which was significant. Before long she was joined by the 2 remaining ,of her ilk and the financial bite began to erode the financial stability of the church. Now the church is unable to sustain itself. As I prepare to leave, I am doing all I can to encourage the “Faithful Remnant” to remain faithful and work hard at reconciliation and rebuilding. From my standpoint, a pastor cannot be effective, being controlled and dictated to. The issues most often have to do with the silliest matters of methodology or something dealing with “change”. Maybe a new pastor (if they can afford one, can serve them under those conditions but when the old school would rather see the church fold than be a part of consensus,m it will be very difficult.

  • Dave Stewart says on

    I am currently beginning my sixth appointment year at my current church. The sad thing about this is that in the 125 year history of the church, I am the first ever to do so. In the earlier days of the church, the pastors moved more frequently across the board. In the latter years, the moves have become because the pastors desired more money (one told me this personally; another told me this by research done in our Conference Journal salary section and the marks left behind.) It think that it is too easy to leave for the wrong reasons and to not fight through the difficult times, but, that is where the growth as a pastor and as a congregation comes from. I have learned that in the difficult times (personally and professionally) is where I learn to live out my trust in God, not just talk about my trust in God.

  • Thanks for the article. I am just finishing my third year, a very challenging one. Two things, one which you addressed; By the third year it was apparent that the direction the search committee said they wanted the church to go was not the direction that many really wanted. Secondly, unique maybe to my personal situation, I came back to lead a church that I had served as an Assistant 15 years prior. I’ve realized that they called the pastor who left 15 years ago, not the pastor I am today. I have grown and maybe changed in those years, and at that time was an Assistant to another man’s vision. After a couple of years, the congregation has made the same realization and many preferred the old me! I guess those combinations made the third year a bit of a disillusioning time for both pastor and congregation. Thankfully we appear to have turned the corner and are looking ahead with optimism.

  • I am closing out my fourth year, and I have watched some of this take place.

    The first year we grew at a good and steady pace, and while the second year showed little growth in attendance, we did increase in five of our ministries with more workers and added two new Children’s ministries as well as fixed some sound and video issues in the church.

    Our first mission trip, and the first one for the church in the 2000s, was being planned for this year but had to be scraped due to no fault of our own as it was on the other side it was canceled.

    During the later part of the second year, we had to handle two big moral issues, one within leadership and one with a couple wanting to be in leadership, in the church and the backwards slide started into what you list states. Some bickering among people and some old trouble makers from years past started to rise up here and there.

    During the third year, most of what your list states was happening. This fourth year has been a “hang on” year of trying to shore up some areas that were hurt last year.

    Sadly, though, unless God does a great work, I will need to be out of here shortly after my fourth anniversary due to budget deficits. The finance committee was in tears as they told me and some of them had to walk out and come back a little while later. It was a sad time to say the least this past Tuesday.

    The one area, no matter the growth, no matter what has been accomplished, that has not changed in this church is in the area of giving. Simply put it has never increased even while we were growing.

    I have often thought that if I could be here for seven years, or so we would really be on a good track for growth and service for the Lord. Without the Lord desiring this and doing a great work, my ministry is closing out here and they will look for a part time pastor. If God so leads me to be that man, I will be. And if not, I await His next placement of where ever He sends me.

  • Thom,
    Finishing my third year at the end of the summer of my first pastorate (I’ve previously served in youth ministry positions). This article brought sighs, and ah-ha’s! Thank you for your encouragement that my recent observations and feelings are not isolated to my location. I am so thankful for how God uses you in the ministry of so many, thankful for your obedience. Covet your prayers as I will pray for you and God’s continued work through LifeWay. Keep bragging on Jesus.

  • I am in year 4 and I have seen a spirit of complacency descend like never before on the Church. The lack of commitment and general apathy are overwhelming. I have thought about moving on to another church but deep down I believe a turn around is possibe. Thanks for this article. It has helped me to see things clearer. Keepe in your prayers.

  • James Callender says on

    I love this post and think that much wisdom has been imparted. I am in my 26th year at my church and I will never forget that third year and the feelings of inadequacy. The key to getting through that time was the support of key leaders in the church and fellow ministers who prayed for me. They helped me to apply the biblical principle of praying for those who despitfully use you. One pastor said something to me that I will never forget and it helped me not to take things so personal. He said, “Jim, if someone has a problem with you, they do have a problem”.

    Once that sunk in and I started looking at folks who all had their own issues and we’re not intentionally evil, I began a huge ministry of encouragement. Year 3 blues can be overcome. I am living proof. I pray we can all watch the babies we dedicate grow in The Lord and graduate from high school and even college. Blessings!