Staying Put: The Increasing Significance (and Growing Desire) of Longer-Term Pastorates

During the 1800s frontier era of church expansion in the United States, a one-year contract to pastor a church was relatively common. If the church liked the pastor, an extension might be granted for another year but not much beyond. As America expanded westward, communities grew, and new churches popped up. Moving on after a couple of years was commonplace.

I assume most people don’t want to return to the frontier era of church methodology. Indoor plumbing, internet access, and long-tenured pastors are good to have. Even though this one-and-two-year cycle of pastors no longer happens formally, the culture of short-tenured pastors remains in many churches. But a shift is beginning to occur. Longer-tenured pastors are more critical than ever, and more of them want to stay at their churches longer.

The Life Cycle of a Pastor and the Dangerous Fourth Year

In the post-pandemic era, the life cycle of a pastor has shifted. The honeymoon phase is shorter, and the conflict phase is longer, peaking for most pastors around the fourth year. Before the pandemic, pastors could expect the pace of growth to pick up around year five, but now growth may not occur until year seven.

    • Honeymoon: First 6 Months. This phase is much shorter than before as churches are less healthy and perhaps feel more urgent.
    • Challenges and Conflict: 6 Months to 4 Years. Not every pastor will experience intense conflict during this phase, but many will have ongoing challenges.  
    • Acceptance and Stability: Year 4 to Year 7. What was once a period of growth in the past has now become a season of stability.
    • Inflection Point: Year 7 to Year 10. If growth occurs, it is now more likely to happen in the seventh year. However, the previous period of stability can also push the church into a slow decline, especially if the pastor is not leading.
    • Year 10 and Beyond. Hopefully, more pastors will stay in a church for ten years or more. This phase will likely produce steady growth for many churches, but much remains unknown.

The bottom line is pastors must stay longer to make progress at churches. What once could be done in five years now takes at least seven years.

Why Long-Term Pastor Tenure is Important

Pastor tenure is longer now than in the past, but the reason is not what most expect. A typical pastor today is approaching retirement age and is not likely to make a move. The median age of a pastor is around 60 years old. Older pastors are not themselves the problem. They bring much wisdom and experience into the profession. Frankly, the real issue is there are not enough younger pastors to replace a large group of retiring Baby Boomer pastors.

In general, most churches will benefit from long-tenured pastors. Given the choice of a new pastor every year or one that endures for twenty-five years, most congregants will—and should—choose the latter over the former. Even in denominations with an appointment system, a longer-term tenure is typically better than a shorter-term tenure. A deeper look at long-term tenure uncovers some notable themes.

There is a positive correlation between church health and long-term tenure. As a rule, healthier churches tend to have pastors with longer tenures. Conversely, less healthy churches tend to cycle through pastors quickly. It’s difficult to know the cause. Does short tenure produce unhealthiness? Or does the unhealthy church push out pastors? Though we can’t know for sure, it’s probably a combination of both.

Building solid relationships takes years, not months. People may talk about their spouse as “love at first sight,” but I’ve never heard anyone say that about a pastor. Quite frankly, in this environment of short tenures, it takes much longer to build trust within a congregation.

Every transition is jarring. Every new pastor is the “newest member” for a season. When you have a consistent stream of “new member leaders,” the culture for those who remain can become disjointed. Each new pastor brings a new vision and a new personality. Both are jarring. A church with a new direction from a new leader every few years will become desensitized to a compelling vision. Each new leader brings a new turn. When congregants turn every couple of years, they will feel like they are going in circles.

Community assimilation takes longer than church assimilation. Becoming part of the church culture is one thing. A level of built-in acceptance exists for the new pastor. Becoming part of the culture in the local community is an entirely different thing. For pastors, community assimilation can take longer than church assimilation. When the church culture is markedly different from the community culture, assimilation is even more complicated. For example, if you are pastoring a traditional church in a college town, then the “town and gown” phenomenon can be distinct. The church, community, and college cultures may all be quite separate. The pastor’s job is to connect them, and this connection can take a considerable amount of time.

Remember, a new pastor is not a silver bullet to church growth. One person alone cannot change the direction of the church. Over a long tenure, however, a pastor can equip many people to shape the church’s culture to focus more on the Great Commission.

Posted on December 27, 2023

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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  • William A. Secrest says on

    This might be harder to write but I think an article about how to know when you have stayed too long might be appropriate. I have been serving in my current church for 15 years. I pastor in Indiana and was recently contacted by a church in Kansas. The pastor that had retired from that church had served there for 50 years. The consultant I spoke with said that the church had grown old with the pastor. I said no to the church in Kansas because I felt called to stay in my current church for the very reasons that you outlined in this article.

  • I’ve been a pastor for 28 years. I served 11 years at my first church, and I’m going on 17 years at my second church.

  • Thank you for your insights to the ministry. I’m not a pastor but I serve as a deacon and have had short term positions in my younger days. It is sad to see that churches which once had a passion for the gospel now do not experience growth as a result from neighborhood outreach. Older people who once endeavored to reach souls long longer have the desire. I purchase gospel tracts and try but it’s a lonely task. I’m 75 years old but still have the desire to reach souls. Thank you again for sharing .

  • Greg Snell says on

    Hello Sam, my wife and I came out of retirement to assume the role of solo pastor in our small town baptist church in Wyoming. You are right on with relationships and assimilation. Wyoming is a tough mission field. We are 4 months into our 4th year and recently baptized a young couple (Christmas eve), the first young family since we got here. It is refreshing to see the young faces with children among the white hair. It is God who builds His church. We have considered moving, but I really think we need to stay. I don’t know if your numbers are correct, but you have articulated the issues well. Thank you for a great article. Blessings in your work for the Kingdom.

  • Sam,
    thanks for the article. As a rural pastor in the same slowly growing church for 14.5yrs, I agree with the things you pointed out, but I also want to mention a potentially detrimental aspect of long term pastorates. Something I have noticed over the years, is that if you have someone who is not a good pastor/preacher (or not a good fit) and they are determined to stick it out at a church for the sake of being a “long term pastor”, they can literally dwindle the church down to almost nothing. When things come to a head, the pastor can leave and go to something different, leaving the Church on life support.
    I’ve seen this happen too many times, and I’m just about the same age as you. This general observation is loaded with lots of factors unique to each church and minister, but in the situations I am familiar with, the pastor should have moved on much earlier than he did, instead of continuing to kill the church.

    • Sam Rainer says on

      You are exactly right! I’ve seen such situations. Long-term tenure alone is not the answer. Fit is important too. Good additional thought.

  • I always enjoy your posts, Sam. Always insightful and enlightening. I have a few thoughts:

    When there is high pastoral turnover in a local church not only do the people “feel like they are going in circles,” but lay leadership can become entrenched and resistant to new pastoral leadership fostering a vicious circle of turnover and congregational vertigo. It takes a lot of courage, patience, and persistence to break that cycle for an incoming pastor. In my last church, my predecessor was successful in breaking that cycle, but it came at a significant cost to his health.

    Secondly, I wonder if the value of a longer tenure might be related to a generational change in values. This is speculation on my part and likely related to my own perspective. As a Boomer, I was told that I could do just about anything I wanted. Being rather driven and ambitious, all of my tenures were under ten years in a variety of roles: music teacher, worship pastor, ministry professor, senior pastor, and now, hospice chaplain. I was always pursuing my dream or running from a dysfunctional environment. I can justify each of my moves, but it has come with a cost. While I’ve had a rewarding career with many fulfilling roles and moments, I have no long-term relationships. I wonder, however, if Millennials and younger generations aren’t motivated differently given the different social realities that they face. And I think that may be a very good thing, leading to longer tenures.

    Thanks again!

    • Sam Rainer says on

      Bob, you always have great insights. Thank you for commenting! These two points are excellent, and I believe you’ve hit the nail on the head.