How to Know When You’ve Stayed Too Long as a Pastor

The prevailing wisdom for pastors is longer tenure is better. I believe this principle is generally true. A string of shorter tenures is usually not healthy for churches. But it is possible to stay too long. What are some of the signs?

When you become the lightning rod with every change effort. Challenging the status quo is disruptive. You should expect people to push back when significant changes are proposed. The pastor will, at times, be the focus of criticism. If you lead, you will be challenged by those who feel the impact of change. This critique is a necessary part of accountability. However, when you become the lightning rod for every change effort, the relationship of trust between pastor and church is broken.

When you give up on innovation and find deep comfort in the status quo of the past. Church should never be the place where pastors find solace in living out nostalgia. Reaching new people and generations requires an ongoing effort to innovate, communicate, and connect.

When your physical body can no longer take the demands of ministry. Our physical bodies will ultimately fail us. The typical mid-60s retirement age does not need to be a hard-and-fast rule for pastors. Many pastors have the stamina and ability to keep shepherding well into their 70s. But there is a point when the body simply cannot handle the rigors of ministry.

When apathy or anger dominates your feelings. Emotions come and go, and we all can be fickle. But something is wrong when you remain angry, day after day, week after week. The same goes for feelings of apathy. You cannot lead a church with apathy. You cannot love a church through constant anger.

When you consistently blame the congregation for lack of progress. Who is to blame? The question is largely irrelevant. The blame may lie with a recalcitrant congregation or an incapable pastor, or no one may be to blame. Sometimes, pastors are not a good match for a congregation. Assigning blame does not help anyone. The best option is a gracious exit with limited drama.

When your primary motivator is paying the bills or cruising to retirement. Leadership is a gift from followers, not a right. Every pastor must serve first and lead second. The mission of God will never be attained with an attitude of “me first.” Pastors should be paid fairly, generously even. But it’s difficult to accomplish God’s mission through the motive of economic gain.

When you believe the church cannot possibly replace you. No one says these words out loud, so only you can know if you harbor this pride in your soul. The only irreplaceable One is Christ Himself. You are not the savior of your church.

When you would rather let the church die than die trying to save it. No church should die. Ever. Perhaps a church is far gone, deep into a toxic state of disunity. Maybe a church has decades of decline or has veered far from doctrinal convictions. Would the death of these churches advance the kingdom? Would their death glorify God? No. If God can save any person, then He can save any church. If we believe in redemption for people (anyone!), we must also believe the same for churches.

Discerning God’s will can be challenging. Personally, I made a transition many years ago where I still wonder if I correctly discerned God’s call. Every season has an end date. But what is that date? Ideally, pastors should remain at their churches for long periods of time, but there are cases when it’s time to make a move. Lastly, if possible, it’s better to have another position lined up—for you and your church. Resignations into unemployment should be avoided. The smoother the transition, the better for everyone involved.

Posted on April 29, 2024

As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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  • Pastor T. says on

    Good morning, this article is very profound, as I have started to become a bit angry at the congregation. Church growth is little to none, and there is zero youth and zero men. I’ve become angry at my predecessor, because of the way he shaped the congregation to not learn about Christ and live a Christ centered life, but to concentrate on “fund-raisers” and being entertained. I am in my mid-60s and have a lot of pastoring left in me; however, I feel after nearly 7 years, it is time for me to move on.

  • I’m planning to retire end of August 2024 (I’ll reach my full retirement age of 66y/8m in September, and my wife will turn 65 that month). At that time I will have been here right at 8 years.

    Things are going well; we have recovered well from both Covid and disaffiliation from the United Methodist Church (and have joined the Global Methodist Church). Worship attendance has returned almost to pre-Covid levels to around 150 AWA. We are reaching new young families, but also attracting some older people who left church years ago. Over the next 4-5 months, we will have six new babies (Lord willing).

    Why would I retire? Because I’m both the senior pastor and the lead person for our worship team (a position we have recruited for but not filled for several years – in a rural ag. community of around 5,000). So I’m tired from keeping a lot of balls in the air, and I realize that if I don’t step away, I may eventually become that apathetic pastor who no longer gives everything. And I don’t want to derail the momentum this congregation currently has. So the church’s leadership is working with conference leadership to find their next pastor; hopefully someone who can bring fresh energy, vision and leadership to a vital, fruitful congregation.

    Thanks for this article – it affirms to me that I’m making the right retirement decision for the right reasons, and the church will be best served by new pastoral leadership as they move into their next chapter of ministry.

  • Bob Myers says on

    A lot of wisdom in your post, as usual, Sam.

    Regrettably, none of my tenures were more than eight years. But most of my positions were as an associate. Upon reflection, I think only one of my changes was unwise. But even in that, God was able to redeem my foolishness.

    I would add to your list for associate pastors: I think it is imperative to leave if you cannot get on the same page as the senior/lead pastor. And in your departure, do not disparage the senior leader, though you will be very tempted to do so.

    Lessons learned the hard way.

    • Sam Rainer says on

      Bob, thank you for the additional point. You always have good stuff to share.

    • Andrew Doubleday says on

      My observation is that being an associate pastor can be a distinct calling, and requires a special grace – one where ego is subjugated to the call of God with a desire to most effectively serve the Church and its leadership. I have rarely seen it done really well – the desire in most of us to be top-dog is all too strong.

  • William A. Secrest says on

    Your lightning rod point is confusing. Flush that out for me. Is your point that every time a pastor has an idea it is immediately dissected by the leadership in the church? No pastor I have ever met gets total buy-in for an idea especially when it means that someone is going to have serve or lose their perceived power. If am wrong, please correct me.

    • Sam Rainer says on

      Thanks for asking the question. You’re right, I could have been clearer. Sometimes short posts/points need to be a couple sentences longer! What I wanted to communicate was how, in certain situations, pastors can cause so much conflict that they become the source. I don’t see this in many situations, but it does happen. Most pastors desire to minimize conflict as they lead through change. But some maximize conflict.