The Lifecycle of Pastors

November 2, 2011

Almost twenty years ago, I began to note that the tenure of a pastor often follows a predictable pattern. Now, almost two decades later, I still see many of the same patterns, though I have refined the categories and time spans a bit.

I fully understand that these categories are not definitive, and there will certainly be exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, I offer this lifecycle as a guide that I hope will prove useful to both pastors and congregations alike.

Honeymoon: Years 0 to 1

The new pastor is perceived to be the answer to all the needs and the problems of the church. He is often viewed as a hero because he is not his predecessor. Though some of his faults begin to show during this period, he is often given a pass.  Expectations are high that he will be molded into the image that each congregant would like to have.

Crisis: Years 1 to 3

It is now apparent that the pastor is fully human. He has not lived up to the precise expectations of many of the members. This phase includes a number of conflicts and struggles. Indeed it is the most common time that pastors choose to leave the church or they are force terminated. This single epoch of a pastoral tenure contributes more to short tenures than any other time.

Realignment: Years 3 to 5

The number of crises begins to abate, though they do not disappear altogether. It is at this time that more and more new members come under the tenure of the new pastor. Some of the dissidents have left the church or the community. There is a realignment of loyalty and expectations of the pastor. Thus he is able to lead more effectively, and began to see some more productive years as pastor of the church.

Growth: Years 5 to 10

Not all pastors have productive and joyous ministries in this period, but many do. It is not unusual for the congregation to begin to appreciate the pastor more and to follow his leadership with greater enthusiasm. Many of the battles have already been fought; and many of the conflicts have been resolved. The pastor and the entire congregation are ready to move forward in more productive ministry for the glory of God.

Mystery: Years 10 and Beyond

There are relatively few pastors and congregations that continue their relationships beyond a period of one decade. Thus any perspective I have of long-term pastorates is inconclusive and limited. I am confident, however, that if we see more and more pastors entering their tenth year of ministry and beyond, we will see more productive and fruitful ministries in local churches across the nation.

The Quest Continues

The topic of pastoral tenure fascinates me. I see significant correlation between ministry effectiveness and longer pastoral tenure, though there are certainly exceptions to the rule. I do hope that we will do a more comprehensive and objective study of this important issue in the future.

What is your perspective of pastoral tenure?


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  • Thom Rainer says on

    Ed –
    That sounds like a fascinating project!

  • Thom
    Very interesting observation. I just passed my 20th year annviversary here at CBC in Winston OR. At this point in my life (at 55 yrs of age) I honestly think I could stay till I retire (hopefully around age 70…although Guidestone suggests maybe I can retire closer to 90!). I do know that in this small community (Winston is abiut 6,000; our ministry area about 15,000; the county in which we live is right at 100,000) I am now the longest tenured pastor of any church of any denomination. That in itself has changed the character of my ministry. I am unofficially the pastor of the town in many ways. My relationship with the church is certainly different than it was 20 yrs ago. Pastoring is radically different than it was 20 yrs ago. The technological and social changes alone have required a constant re-thinking and re-strategizing of how I spend my time and my energy. The broader context of community, city, county, and even state opportunities- not to mention regional denominational responsibilities-require me to try and guard my time for sermon preparation more carefully.
    This topic is one I’d like to explore further…but I have a luncheon to attend today; a meeting with some high school staff this afternoon; a hospital visit; a couple of phone calls, oh, and a Wednesday evening prayer mtg and choir rehearsal to prepare for, so…

  • I would live to see a similar timeline for the life cycle if a church planter

  • Thom Rainer says on

    David, Greg, Mark, and Daryl –
    Great comments. Thanks for your time.

  • Mark Gomez says on

    @ David – Actually more and more pastors are being trained in-house rather than in a seminary. Churches in large number are creating their own school of ministry or some sort of a Bible college so they can train their people in a manner that is more compatible to their ministry. I don’t think it is fair to blame the seminaries for how things have gone.
    I will say this as a defense of your position though, many of the seminaries have professors who do not pastor and some who have never pastored a church at all. This makes for limited training ability from those professors since they do not know what it takes to actually be a pastor day in and day out. My better professors are always those who have pastored or are pastoring currently.
    That said, far too many people entering ministry simply do not know the realities of ministry. I did not know about this type of life-cycle that Thom is speaking about until this year and I have been pastoring for 28 years. Too many of us have had to learn too much the hard way.

  • Daryl Cornett says on

    I’m currently in my fourth year as pastor of FBC Hazard, Ky. I came in on the heels of a bad situation so I can completely affirm the proverbial “honeymoon” year. However, we have managed to steer clear of any major controversy or dissention to this point. I think much of that is because I have intentionally not made dramatic changes. We have changed in places where it was needed, but it was slow and methodical. We are seeing new blood infused into the body now and that is beginning to make a positive difference. Your observations are pretty spot on. Actually, the greatest fear folks here have had is that I would leave at the end of three years. Many acutally voiced that concern to me. I’ve had others reluctant to join the church because they thought I wouldn’t proabably be around much longer. I’m afraid we’ve created a conditioned response and expectation that is harmful to our ministry because the door to the pastor’s office is a revolving door. Thanks for all your good work.

  • Mark Gomez says on

    I have been struggling with these issues now for a few years seeing myself losing some ground after 16 years in the church I am pastoring right now. I have spent a lot of time in self-examination, examining the ministry here, and looking for some pattern. I came across a brother who has been in the ministry longer than myself and we discussed the realities that you have put into words. He and I used different words, and saw some different elements but not that different. Many denominations avoid the downturn that comes at 5-10 years by moving their pastors. I do not know if this on purpose or is only a natural consequence of moving their people. This older brother told me of a book he had read decades ago that spoke of how a pastor must reinvent himself and his ministry every 5-6 years or they will become irrelevant in the city they are ministering in. Quite insightful. I wish someone would have told me this a long time ago.
    I have only known a few men who have successfully made it to over thirty years in one pastorate, I have known more in pastorates that were 10-20 years, and a good number at 10 years.
    I have been a pastor since 1983 and have labored in three states and have done many other activities along the way. Now that I have these new insights, I think I would like to write a book on this, but I am pretty busy with reinventing myself and my ministry.

  • I’d suggest that after 10+ years of ministry, it’s reinvention/revolution.
    I am a Children’s pastor approaching 20 years at my current church. The senior pastor is also approaching 20 years at the church.
    Not only is the congregation very different than when we started, so is the culture. We’ve seen the rise of cell phones, social media, and the computer. September 11 and the current national financial crisis have also changed the culture.
    Communication is more visual and immediate. Attention spans are shorter.
    We’ve had to reinvent and revolutionize how we’ve done ministry to remain relevant to a new generation that has risen up around us.
    It’s easy for pastors who have been in their ministries for a long time to recycle messages without updating. To settle into the traditions that got them there rather than push for growth.
    Surviving past the 10th year requires that we grow & change and not sit back on our laurels.
    Just my two cents…

  • Thom:
    My prespective? Most are ill equiped to what awaits them. Seminary does a fine job in teaching pastors in the finer points of understanding the Bible, how to present the Gospel, etc. But does not prepare these (mostly) men for the many pitfalls that lay before them in the day to day operation of a church organization.
    Are we as partioners expecting too much out of our leaders? To an extent yes. But I think the blame really falls to the Seminary system and their lack of preparation of the called.

  • volfan007 says on

    Thanks, Dr. Rainer, for your response. I’ve been at the Church I currently Pastor for about 5 1/2 years now. So, I guess they’re a lot like me….that’s humbling.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    David –
    I think there is much truth to that saying. I believe that much of the change is related to the new members who have joined during the pastor’s tenure. Many will join the church because of something they like about the pastor. After five years in many churches, over half of the attendees will have joined in the current pastor’s tenure. Thus the identity of a majority of the congregants is tied to the current pastor.
    Thanks for your comments and for dropping by.

  • volfan007 says on

    Dr. Rainer,
    You hit the nail squarely on the head with this post. I’ve seen the same things you mention happen time and time again….with me…and with other Pastors. It’s strange how this seems to happen this way, although there are rare, very rare, situations where all of this is by-passed.
    What do you think about the old saying that I hear a lot of people say, which goes “after a Pastor has been at a church for 5 years, then the church begins to be more like him and his beliefs, mission, personality, passion, etc.?”

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