Five Reasons Some Long-term Pastorates Fail

November 7, 2018

Please hear me clearly: I am a strong proponent of longer-term pastorates. I love hearing about pastors passing tenure thresholds of five, ten, and fifteen years. All other things being equal, I would much rather see a pastor have long tenure in a given church than not.

But recently a member of this community challenged me. He is a longer-term pastor himself, and he candidly and transparently shared some of his struggles of serving so many years at one church. I took his admonition to heart and reviewed several long-term pastorates that did not turn out well. I saw five common themes in their struggles:

  1. The pastor can coast. Because longer-term pastors have earned the trust of members over many years, it can be tempting for them to go through the motions of ministry and leadership. They may also be weary of the ministry and, thus, have little desire or energy to lead the church to a new level.
  2. There can be too much familiarity among the staff. It is not unusual for longer-term pastors to have longer-term staff. It is possible this staff becomes too comfortable with the pastor and the pastor’s leadership. Simply stated, they no longer look at the pastor as their leader as much as they view the pastor as their friend.
  3. The pastor can stay for the wrong reasons. In some cases, the longer-term pastor hangs on for financial security or fear of finding another place of ministry. The call to ministry thus becomes a defensive call rather than a proactive vision-laden call.
  4. Church members can get too comfortable. The longer-term pastor becomes a source of routine and tradition for the members. The pastor becomes a symbol of longevity, stability, and change aversion.
  5. The pastor can stop learning. Longer-term pastors must be highly intentional to learn about the world outside their own churches. Because they have been at one church for so long, they can see their particular experiences as normative. One pastor shared with us, “After twelve years at my church, I started learning about other churches, even visiting a new church once a quarter. I was amazed to learn how much had changed in church practices that I had missed the past several years.”

For certain, longer-term pastorates have great advantages. I have written about those advantages and spoken about them on my podcasts several times. But it is possible for a longer-term pastorate to have its own challenges. It seems that those longer-term pastors who avoided these problems were highly intentional in moving in a positive direction.

I would love to hear your perspectives on pastoral tenure, and specifically on longer tenure. Let me hear from you.

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39 Comments

  • Gary Williams says on

    1. Everyone in ministry needs a friendships with those in ministry because only they can understand the burdens of serving the Lord. Iron sharpens iron. A Barnabus type person.
    2. Accountability-to keep one honest.
    3. Continue to change.
    4. Be a lifelong learner.
    5. Follow a written code of Pastoral and staff conduct.
    6. Don’t just preach but shepherd your congregation. Don’t let bigness and busyness distract you from “to love others as you love yourself.”

  • I recently heard some history of a Baptist church in a nearby (California) town. Their pastor who had begun ministering there in 1935 passed away 54 years later. A far as I know, he was the pastor till his death and apparently didn’t prepare anyone to take his place. A Sunday School teacher filled the vacuum and resisted help until a year ago when he died. Now the church is pastorless. Pray that they’ll finally be willing for another church’s help.

  • I’ve gotten as much out of the comments as I did from the article so thanks to all. I’m 19 years into pastoring the same church and from what I’ve observed I think pastoring in one place for the long haul is the best strategy. I’m soon to be 63 but our church is filling up with younger families and our children’s ministries are burgeoning. I’ve trained at this point 7 millennial generation people who can handle the word and I work them into the preaching schedule every year for about 20% of the Sundays. I have also hired all millennial age people for Worship, youth and staff pastor positions (some part time). This gives the church a much younger feel and look so that we attract people of all ages. I’m challenged by a number of the comments and points in the article and I feel as though personal prayer, study, skillset growth and team building are essentials in long tenured pastors.

  • Jonathan Hanna says on

    Lack of letting individuals to exercise their spiritual gifts (1st Cor 12:21), when there is no explicit and/or clearly implicit biblical prohibition against the spiritual gift. Namely, apologetics.

  • Rev Larry Hurley says on

    Having followed a ‘long term pastor’ I know the shadow left is very difficult to avoid.

    The denomination finally had to discipline the pastor for not following the rules and letting the new pastor be the pastor.

    In retirement, I have worshiped in churches who just closed out the term of their multi year pastor. Very difficult times followed, going through a couple of ministers even though the denomination rules for former pastors is to avoid pastoral contact with the former parish. I attend a church where most of the now senior congregation grew up with the minister. The shadow lingers .

    In retrospect I cherish the words of Former Israeli Prime Minster Gold Mier who is believed to have answered the question of when to retire, answered with ‘the day before they ask me WHEN I am going to retire.

  • Charlie Thornton says on

    After 28 years at the same church I must agree that all five reasons you present are real dangers. But they don’t have to become realities. I consider them challenges. Reminders of what I want to avoid. Thank you for bringing these issues to the surface.

  • Winston Lott says on

    I’m a young Pastor with only 3 years in the ministry. I really like Thom’s comment about getting out to visit other churches to learn. Additionally I would say not just to learn but build relationships. The knowledge that the older Pastors hold desperately needs to be shared. Remember we all are the Body of Christ!

  • Thom,

    Thanks for addressing the question and topic that I sent in. In researching the particular issues that long-tenured pastors face (I’m approaching 15 years at my current church) I have spoken with three pastors who are all 20+ years at the same place. Your point #5 has already proven fruitful because by just speaking on the phone with some of these leaders my heart has been encouraged (knowing that I’m not alone in how I feel), challenged (by learning from these men), and inspired (to keep at it). As one pastor put it, “sometimes it would be easier to leave than to stay”. Tenure does have its challenges and continuing to learn and to surround yourself with some other godly, tenured men is a huge. Thanks again!

  • I will have pastored for 44 years as of next June, with 41 at the same church. I can see the validity of all Thom’s and most of the commentator’s points. The single best thing is to guard our John 15:4-5 connection to Christ at ALL COSTS. Chambers and all the greats say the same thing. That’s exactly where Satan will attack and try to disconnect us. He’ll use the acrostic H.A.L.T.S (Hunger-sometimes for friendship, not just food, Anger, Loneliness, Tiredness and Stress). How many of these were his strategies on Jesus in Matt. 4? Discouragement is a biggie. Lack of trusted mentors and friends who will continually hold us accountable for our John 15 connection (recall John Wesley’s classic question: “How is it with your soul?”) and continuing to grow–professionally, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally? And I speak from experience. See above tenure. Thanks loads for your ministry!

  • Following a “beloved” long-term pastor can be difficult; not just for the pastor, but for the pastor’s family as well.

  • Terryl Delaney says on

    Every point is valid. The good news is that each may be successfully addressed. Half the solution to a problem, or potential problem, is knowing the problem exists. Just as doctors, lawyers, and others have to constantly upgrade their skills, pastors should be doing the same whether they’re serving in large or small churches, or serving shorter or longer pastorates.

    A danger long term pastors face, that short term pastors normally do not, is staying too long. The congregation ages with the pastor and there are fewer and fewer young families. Long term pastors need to be especially sensitive to God’s leading regarding when the time has come for them to leave.

    I was privileged to serve over 26 years in our last church. I prepared a three year transition plan for our board. It took a year to pray over and write, the board prayed through and discussed it for a year, and it took a year to find the new pastor. By God’s grace and blessing, our church was growing between 12 to 19% throughout the year before my wife and I transitioned out. It continued to grow at an even higher rate when the godly, new, younger pastor came. To God be the glory, great things He has done.

  • I have served in three ministries who have had long-term pastors. Each time I have been a part of the transition to a new pastor. In the first ministry I was an assistant pastor (the new pastor only lasted a few months and I became the interim pastor), the second I was the new senior pastor, the third I started as an assistant pastor but became the senior pastor after only a few months. I have read that Thom is a big fan of long-term pastorates, and in a sense I am as well, but I see dangers in them as well. I don’t believe short-term pastorates of three to five years are healthy because turnover is difficult for churches. I do believe, however, that pastorates can be too long, and that wise pastors assess their ministry effectiveness on a regular basis. In my opinion, pastors who reach ten years of ministry in one pastorate need to carefully and honestly evaluate if it’s time to move. I don’t necessarily believe they have to move, but I think it’s wise to consider moving.

    I would suggest that long-term pastorates create five potential problems: 1) a familiarity among the church membership that can lead to spiritual stagnation and long-term damage to the church, 2) an entrenched church culture that makes change difficult, 3) an almost impossible situation for the subsequent senior pastor to be “successful” because of the inner turmoil the departure of the long-term pastor creates (in my current situation I am one pastor removed from the long-term pastor which is why I have been more “successful” than when I directly followed the long-term pastor). 4) personality comparisons that lead to unrealistic expectations, unwarranted criticisms, and un-accepting attitudes by some of the church members (which is always true to some degree), 5) the insatiable desire to return to the “good old days” or even ask the long-term pastor to return because the church cannot make the transition to the new pastor.

    I would also offer six things I have learned for those who follow a long-term pastor: 1) show nothing but love, honor, and respect for the pastor you’re following. When the long-term pastor in my current ministry is with us I show him respect and honor, 2) don’t be offended when church people call the long-term pastor before they call you. Don’t be upset when the long-term pastor calls you to tell you a member of your church died or is in the hospital. Some of your membership will never fully make the transition to you as pastor, but they will respect you of you respect the long-term pastor they still love, 3) honor the past, but keep the church moving forward by changing what needs to be changed, 4) expect intense opposition to new ideas, especially to things that have not changed in twenty-five years, 5) sadly, expect a large number of people to leave, including those who were most instrumental in “recruiting” you as the new pastor. Love those who leave, and embrace the new members that will come, 6) BE patient, but move forward!

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