For almost 30 years, we have tracked the tenure of pastors. Though some of the categories are the same, the time periods and the descriptions of the periods continue to evolve. We are now in a post-pandemic, post-Christian era. The changes are significant.
Of course, these cycles are generalizations. There will always be exceptions and outliers. Here is where we see the life cycle of a pastor today.
- Honeymoon: 0 to 6 months. This era is becoming shorter and shorter. When we first started reporting the life cycle of pastors, the period lasted up to three years. It is now down to 6 months. Church members are often fearful about their church’s future. They frequently call pastors with unrealistic expectations. It does not take long before many members realize that the expectations will not be met.
- Challenges and conflict: 6 months to 4 years. The honeymoon period is shorter, and the era of challenges and conflict is longer. For two decades, this difficult period of a pastor’s tenure only lasted two years. Now the pastor can expect it to last over three years. Obviously, this period is the most common era for pastors to resign or get fired.
- Acceptance and stability: Year 4 to year 7. For many years, we referred to this stage as the growth era of a pastor’s life cycle. Until the pandemic, it was common for the pastor to lead the church to growth during this time more than any other point. Today, we simply say it’s a time of acceptance and stability after a period of conflict. Growth is not as common for churches during this era as it was in years past.
- Inflection point: Year 7 to year 10. This stage becomes the defining point for a long-term pastor. It is possible for the church to have a growth stage at this point. But it is also possible for the pastor to cease leading the church toward Great Commission growth. This reality can become pronounced if the pastor is moving toward retirement. Such is the reason we call it an inflection point: the growth and health of the church moves clearly positive or clearly negative.
- Mystery: After year 10. We still don’t have sufficient data to name this stage. And any attempt to define it seems futile because we just don’t see any consistent patterns. The efficacy of a pastor’s ministry after the 10th year of tenure remains a mystery.
If you are a pastor, or if you have observed pastors closely, I welcome your perspectives. How closely aligned do these stages match what you have seen or experienced? What are some differences in your ministry?
Let me hear from you.
Posted on April 24, 2023
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 was a pastor in Iowa in the 80’s reaching 40 years of age and in the same church 8 years. I looked around in our small denomination and noticed only two pastors older than 50! One was in a church of a dozen people and one was a super CEO type leader of our largest church. Neither of those looked like career pathways for me. I ended up going back to grad school and have been a counselor ever since.
I think age a personality dynamic is overlooked in pastor retention with the modern evangelical church being able to select their own pastors they are looking for the young go-getter.
Intriguing article. The article seems to apply to existing churches that call a pastor rather than a church plant. Even so, having passed the 10 year mark on a church plant and reaching the mystery stage, I offer these thoughts: The honeymoon phase is marked by enthusiasm and dreams for the church. It tests the commitment and endurance of the pastor to the ministry. Challenges and conflicts is when reality sets in and the pastor has to take stock of what is working and what isn’t. The pastor has to work and pray harder than ever to overcome the challenges. Patience is developed during this phase. The acceptance and stability phase applies to the church plant. There are many highs and lows during this phase. The church feels like it will actually stay. Systems and activities manage to be stablized. The inflection point fits pretty well. I’d say that during this phase evangelism should now be carried out primarily by the church members as the pastor should have equipped them by this point. The mystery point would be characterized by soul searching, asking God if he should continue or move on, and upon His answer—a recommitment. Once the confirmation to stay is received, new ministries are birthed, greater commitments from church leaders are received, and the decision processes are mature. All of this results in a maturity of knowledge and faith of the body. The pastor should have equipped a fair number of members to do the work of the ministry by now. The pastor’s role becomes more of a coach, spiritual leader, and loving encourager. His life is his testimony. By now he has seen and experienced the faithfulness of God who called him.
Good overview. Thanks, Mark.
I have been at Mercy for over 37 years. 28 as an assistant pastor. Almost 10 as a lead pastor. I have stayed here because God lead me here and keeps me here. Every year has had a battle, and rather than run from the battle I stayed and fought them. They have all been hard. But God has always provided some faithful men and women that fought with me. Every church has the same battles. Leadership and growing. They are the same everywhere so to God be the glory we have just fought through them all. Next year Satan will start a new attack. We will put on our Armour of faith, claim the victory, and go fight. Now that I am closer to 70 than 60 I trust the younger leaders and fight with them. We celebrate with them and keep our hearts close together every day.
I am halfway through year 3 of my present call, having started in the fall of 2020 in the midst of COVID.
In previous churches, I had a honeymoon period of almost a year, and in one case, it lasted almost two. This time around, that honeymoon period lasted a couple of months, if I even had one at all. Some of it had to do with COVID related things like masking, live streaming worship, what programs to resume and which ones to keep suspended or just not resume at all, and some wanting a letter from me to their employer or other place of volunteering that objected to the COVID vaccine, among other things.
I am curious how many other pastors who accepted new ministries during COVID restrictions in 2020 and into 2021 are finding they had little to no honeymoon period and went directly into conflict. It will be interesting to see how many of us in that situation will be leaving either by our own decision, or by being asked to leave, before the end of their third or fourth year.
As an independent Baptist I have been in F-T ministry for 48 years. I’ve ministered in over 500 churches. Here are a few observations I have witnessed (certainly there are exceptions): Many churches past, and way beyond the 10 year mark stabilize and fall into a ministry routine, mostly positive, but lacking the passion and “fire” of earlier years. Pastors have grown older and have competing interests (grandchildren, preaching out, etc.). They are at a point in life where they are able to take extended mission trips, vacations, conferences which in earlier years they often passed on. Staff members help keep the “ship” on course, but the visionary focus is not as intense as in earlier years.
Thanks for those observations, Charles.
Thank you for you blog today is very interesting, especially as our times are changing rapidly. Especially as we face world conflict that will continue to affect our life more and more.
When you say in your blog today “The Life Cycle of a Pastor”, are you referring to full time pastors? If so, what are your thoughts on what has been called “bi-vocational” pastors life cycle?
The lifecycle applies to both bi-vocational pastors and pastors who are compensated full time.
Hello Thom. Your recent data in Life cycles of a Pastor are pretty spot on post Co-vid. I am winding down my 5th year and we have had a mixture of honeymoon and conflict and growth during these years as senior Pastor. Our situation is a bit of a outlier. I came into my senior Pastor role after being associate pastor for 3 years but also having my family and i be apart of our church since 2003. They knew me and my family pretty well when they called me to be senior. That did not stop the honeymoon phase nor the conflict stage from happening, pretty much from the beginning but more importantly it did not stop the Lord’s hand of growth in our church either. When i took over we were losing members at a high rate unfortunately because of issues in the life of senior Pastor. But the heart of this church and the Faithfulness of the Lord has allowed us to today be a thriving and growing church. Our focus has always been the Word and evangelism. And that is what we have focused on in these last 4 1/2 years. The results are we have gone from a average attendance on Sunday mornings of 60 to a weekly Sunday average of 240. The majority of additions (70 %) have been salvations. We have a strong nucleus of young adults with children and a healthy middle aged and senior group. We have bucked the trend or timeline for growth that you stated above, but i believe it is just the faithfulness of the Lord whenever a people turn back to faithfulness, He responds. As i get into the 6 to 7 year period (The Lord willing) i pray that growth continues to happen thru the same heart we have for the Lord and for the lost and our community. Your ministry has been a big help and guide for me and our 2 pastors on staff. Your article was right in that the “honeymoon” phase was shorter but it seems to me that the “honeymoon and conflict and growth” phases hit us all at once, and Thanks be to Our Lord Jesus, He navigated us to this point. Blessing on you and your ministry.
That’s a great and descriptive story, Joe. I am encouraged by it, and I know our leaders will be too.
About the “Know your community” Resource tool
It is good to know that these resources are available. Thanks.
Just wondering: what is the source of your data used in the analysis? And, do you use the Missioninsite or Gloo software to generate your reports?
For prayer (the other resource) the churches in Columbia, SC came together last year an began to pray collectively for our city. A number of SBC and other churches joined up through the PrayCola.org initiative. which in turn came together through the Americaprays.org effort. Pastor Brian Alarid of New Mexico came out and spoke a city wide Pastors lunch, and our church-based, yet collective, prayers grew from there.
Our Know Your Community report does not use the software of either MissionInsite or Gloo. We build our own reports using the GIS mapping software from ESRI, one of the most powerful mapping and spatial analytics technology available.
This seems very accurate. The honeymoon phase may have been a bit longer but I am now getting ready to complete my 6th year as the pastor and we are seeing incredible growth. When I came the average attendance was 50-60. On Easter we broke an attendance record with over 140. We are consistently at 110 now and beginning to build a new facility.
Hi Thom: Thank you so much for this article and for all you do to encourage and educate pastors. You do not know me this side of Heaven, but you were a huge blessing to me during the pandemic as I attended several of your webinars. I grew up in a pastor’s home and my Dad pastored the church I was raised in for 40 years and the church grew from a membership of 30 in 1966 to a membership of 1500 in 2005 when he stepped into a pastor emeritus role at the age of 70 for my brother who became the church’s next pastor for the next “season”. At this time I was called in 2007 to be the Lead Pastor of a Baptist church in Irving, Texas. I inherited a church with many problems and a dysfunctional congregation. It was tough! We moved from Houston to DFW and I uprooted my wife and 3 young sons to an area they were not familiar with to start over. I lead the church for 10 years in Irving, and then we relocated to Fort Worth and began a new journey as a rebranded transplanted new church (2nd Mile Church of Fort Worth). The church in Irving was in a very unattractive unsafe area with a lot of crime around the area and we could not grow and due to the history of splits and church problems the property had become scorched earth. I led the church through a 4 year plan of relocation by having a multi-site ministry for 3 1/2 years having 2 services in 2 different locations. An early service at a active movie theater in Hurst, Texas and the regular 11:00 AM service at the church in Irving. We then left the movie theater and secured a wedding venue and flip-flopped the service times making the Irving service at the church the early service and the late service at the wedding venue in Hurst which was closer to the western part of the metroplex. The church in Irving had hit rock-bottom and so with a series of business meetings and with the help of your book “Who Moved My Pulpit” I lead the church into selling the property in Irving (we were debt-free) and we sold the property to a Christian school and we were “homeless” for six months after that, only being able to meet in the wedding venue and holding staff meetings every morning at Chick Fil-A. A church in Fort Worth lost its pastor to a sudden (in the pulpit) massive heart attack and the 15 remaining members (all senior adult age) were going to walk away from the church and give the $3 million worth of property including the building to the bank. Through a pastor friend of mine, they reached out to me and offered to sign the deed of the property over to us if (and here’s the catch) we would pay off the $49,000 that they owed. Yes, we had $1.3 million in the bank from the sell of teh church in Irving and we purchesed an existing building for $49.000. Building was in need of remodeling and a new A/C unit and new roof, but God had given us that money and we used it spending around $800,000 to completely renovate the church. 6 months later after the construction we remodeled as 2nd Mile Church of Fort Worth and this is all to the glory of God! Now thanks to the Lord and His goodness, I am still here and leading this church and in my 16th year here in Dallas/Fort Worth. This article means a lot to me. Thank you so much and thank you for your books. They’ve truly helped my ministry.
God bless you!!
Todd Dunn – 2nd Mile Church, Fort Worth, Texas
Thank you for your kind words. It’s pastors like you who are my heroes of the faith. Thank you for your faithfulness and perseverance.