The Life Cycle of a Pastor (Updated)

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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  • Hi Thom,
    Enjoy reading your perspectives and advice.
    I am a 32 year veteran of pastoral work. I said I would never be a a pastor since my Dad was one!
    The Lord has been good to me in allowing me to serve in this role. I have been in the same church in the northern hill of Maine for the last 23 years. Our numbers have fluctuated over the years at between 90-120 or so. The population of our town is only 486.
    I agree that all of these stages can be observed in the life cycle of pastoral ministry. In my experience, I would say that each stage lasts a little longer than you suggest. That may depend upon where you are geographically and what the culture of your area is.
    My experience, for the most part has been in rural, small town areas. live in the largest county east of the Mississippi, and our population hovers around 68,000. Our largest community is around 10,000. Change does not come very quickly here.
    The honeymoon stage for me lasted about 8 years. Then, we did enter into a period of conflict with its ensuing challenges. That period of time lasted somewhere around 13 years or so. It had to do with “the church has changed.” There were some who had been used to calling the shots who no longer were able to do that. They were few in number, but ended up leaving a couple of years ago.
    Since then, we’ve experienced growth in both a spiritual and numerical way. Some of our folks have remarked that thy now feel that we’re a more gracious and loving group. Others have said that we’re younger now than we had been. Our youth and family ministries have certainly grown. We feel that we are more biblical in our leadership structure and ministry approach. Is this that inflection point you’re talking about? It is interesting that I’ve only recently mentioned to our leaders that I have begun to think about retirement. That is probably 5-7 years away. But our trend is certainly toward growth and we are very encouraged in the Lord’s working in our fellowship.
    We are at least 23 years into the “mystery” phase! We are simply trusting that as we continue to proclaim the truth of Scripture, seek to honor the Lord by our obedience, and look to love people, that His plans for us will emerge in clarity. We have seen a widening impact in our area. People now travel to get here. We are seeing visitors each week. Our space is shrinking. More people are getting involved in active service. More, perhaps most, ministry is taking place outside the walls of our building.
    For all of this, we’re thankful. The Lord is at work, and we can clearly see that.
    Hope this is helpful. If not, delete it!
    Keep up the good work in your encouragement of pastors.
    I’m thankful for your ministry.

  • John Newland says on

    I’m in year 19. We’ve enjoyed times of growth and joy. We’ve also endured times of great strain and heartache. I’ve constantly worked to try and keep our church stable and growing. My early years saw the greatest growth. My middle years saw the greatest decline. Currently, we are in an upward trend, though it reflects small to moderate growth. Health permitting and a willing congregation, I could see me reaching 35 years of ministry at my current church. We are currently moving to expand the leadership of our church to include elders. The goal is to broaden the base of ministry that reflects a multigenerational congregation, as well as a multi-ethnic congregation, in a large city in the midwest. 2022 was one of our stronger years of growth. 2023 is proving to be challenging. However, after 19 years, I don’t get too high or too low… as long as we seem to be in harmony and our congregation is still actively seeking professions of faith and baptisms.

  • This has been so insightful over the years and I’d say spot on right now too! What is the average length of a pastor at 1 church? Old stat was 3 years but I’ve heard way less now.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Hello all. I’m on the road today, so I will respond to your comments later. Thank you.

  • Seth Pitman says on

    Thom, I believe the second stage (Challenge and Conflict) is the most crucial stage a pastor can find themselves–especially in small declining churches that may not have 4 years left. So, a pastor in that situation is under added pressure to make the changes necessary for revitalization AND be patient enough to build trust and acceptance. In most cases that I have seen, the pastors in those situation often find themselves stuck between being intentionally focused on rebuilding the church and going with the conventional timeline of building trust. If the pastor genuinely cares for the church, the pastor will “feel ” the pressure to see the church succeed and grow and that may come off as being too “pushy,” thus leading to even more conflict. So, as stated, the second stage (in my opinion) is more of a pivot point in a pastors tenure than any of the other stages. As you alluded to in the article, this stage often contributes to the 2.5-3 yr tenure avg. for pastors (which just continues the cycle that causes this particular stage to be marred with challenge and conflict). Thank you for this research and insight!

  • Good morning my friend,
    First of all, let me thank you for your consistent encouragement and support for pastors. You are going far in combating the isolation one can feel on the “front line.”
    I have served a number of churches through Bible college and Ministry. A few short-term assignments, One two year, one five year, and presently twenty-five years in my current church. A few observations:
    1. People are still people; problems still arise, and resolve is often tested.
    2. Our most difficult period was in year 17.
    3. Our most productive and rewarding period seems to be now.
    We are making a come-back following covid. There is a constant stream of new faces in our congregation. At the same time, there seems to be a growing hunger among our guest for a genuine relationship and experience with the Lord.
    The pastor must stay Refreshed in the Lord, fed by the Word, and challenged by other preachers.
    Revival must touch the life of the pastor first, and when it does, it will have an impact on the congregation.
    When you know you are where God wants you to be, it is worth Standing Your Ground,

  • I appreciate this life cycle study so that we can gain perspective. I am a pastor and speak often with other pastors. I also watch and identify church growth models that impact pastoral tenure which I think is an underlying ascept that greatly affect each stage you listed. I respect the thought and info provided for each stage in which makes me want to drill down into the details on which church growth models negatively impact the length of a pastors tenure. I think there are some important lessons that can be gained from reviewing models and its relation to pastoral tenure. Our church has an adopted a model that has led to steady positive growth in several areas since its inception. I am not sure how enthusiastic I would be if our church was not seeing growth and impacting lives for Christ. I have been pastoring for 15 years, started from scratch, planted the church and now I am in a phase where besides preaching, I set vision, train others to maintain culture, teach and develop leaders and ministers who serve the community and congregation. A model of participation, training and delegation has been a key foundation to my tenure and the progress that stabilizes my tenure.

  • Rev. Nadia Stropich says on

    Hi Tom,
    I was wondering, did you find that having a transitional pastor (a pastor who specializes in the transition process of an organization and culture) changes these statistics? I’m going to start my D.Min in Organizational Leadership and I would love to see the raw data if available.
    Rev. Nadia Stropich

  • Barry Carroll says on

    Of course, if churches had a Spiritual Gift operation, in contrast to the business model operations nearly all practice, your graphics and findings would be much different,

  • As a pastor with 40+ years experience, and having just completed my seventh year at my current church, this list completely resonates with me and my experiences. I am now 67 years old. I came to this church 7 years ago, invited to “revitalize” it. Things were progressing well – then covid hit. We are located just outside NYC, so all of the details of it were magnified. Now “almost” beyond covid (some of my parishioners are still wearing masks every week) we are just now beginning to see growth. We are not back to where we were prior to covid, but things are far more positive than before. My plan is to step aside from full-time pastoring in three years, and have announced my intentions. We are now strategizing to move the church forward in health and growth as we approach the time of my transition from leadership.

  • Greg Corbin says on

    As one who remembers your previous version of this life cycle, the changes are stark. However, I largely agree with your assessment. I speak as a senior pastor who will celebrate ten years at this church in October – ten years with COVID thrown in! So, I feel that I bring some valuable perspective to the table. Here are my thoughts…
    First, the parts of your assessment that are most “spot on” involve the first two cycles. The “honeymoon” cycle increasingly ends after the pastor gets his books moved into his new office. People are dissatisfied almost from day one now. The “challenges and conflict” cycle is most definitely longer now. Does it ever truly end? Should the first cycle actually be named “challenges and conflict” with no “honeymoon” in there? In truth, that is the realistic scenario for the overwhelming majority of incoming pastors.
    Second, I would add those pastors who are able to stay at the same church for 8+ years and reach a place of stability and trust with the congregation should make sure they understand the necessity of change and refreshing yourself. If you stay at a church for ten years, it won’t be the same church you started with. One pastor who stayed 30 years at the same church told me he had actually pastored three different churches for ten years each. He said he got a new church every ten years! The pastor must lead the church he has right now, not the church he had ten years ago. This fact must be taken into account when evaluating reaching the community and responding to cultural challenges.
    Around the ten-year mark, the pastor should evaluate everything and make sure his leadership and vision aren’t getting stale. Use the ten-year mark as a launching pad for fresh energy and vision in your leadership. That is what I am trying to do personally. Thanks for the opportunity to weigh in!

  • Interesting information. I will be celebratin my 15th year as Senior Pastor of my church later this year. I would love to see data on successful long term pastorates and what they look like and how they continue to thrive. Disappointed there is not more info. If I can help, let me know.

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