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?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • I’m United Methodist and like a member of the military or a corporate officer, serve where I am sent.
    I see three sorts of churches:
    1) Dying churches that need a hospice chaplain as their pastor.
    2) Maintenance churches that want someone to lead according to their established patterns and priorities.
    3) Growth oriented congregations that understand outreach, spiritual growth, mission and service.
    I felt called to the third sort of church when I entered ministry and began seminary. I seem to have been appointed to a series of small, troubled churches to bring peace. This is an important calling and I know I’ve made a difference in several places.
    My denominational supervisors have encouraged me not to do too many radical things though, and supported resistant local church leadership when I tried. My service has included only the first and second sort of congregations. At times I feel ground up, disillusioned and damaged, formed into a maintenance pastor.
    With health challenges in my family we are a one-income home. I’m selfish enough to want a personal income that will let me put more into my retirement fund. I’d also like a congregation with enough people to put together a trip to the Holy Land, form a mission team of a half dozen people or have a viable youth group like so many of my colleagues.
    I’m 57 and have at most about 10 more years of ministry ahead, perhaps one more appointment. Younger pastors are being appointed to larger congregations though, probably to prepare them for leadership when so many of my generation retire.
    I’m nearing the end of my third graduate degree, something I thought might make a difference. The difference seems to be that education loans will follow me into retirement.
    Brian McLaren has an interesting take on this issue. I’m inclined to agree with him.

  • Wow, that sounds very scary to me. Churches that have relied on returning Baby Boomers and stealing sheep from smaller churches for growth, now teaching a new generation of “leaders” to do the same thing.
    I believe the law of diminishing returns is going to come into effect very soon.

  • 7 years of full time ministry in the smallest incorporated town in TN. Your timeline is right on the money so far.

  • On year 12 as a UMC Elder on the same charge (20 years in ministry). We’ve come to a transformation stage. We know each other well, have moved through conflict, largely successfully, know each others strengths and weaknesses well and are learning to balance each other, creating fruitful ministry, adding new members now several times a year.
    I’ve rolled this around in my mind for years. This will be a controversial statement, but I’ve come to believe that itineracy plays more toward more troubled pastors, who bail out after 3-5 years of ministry in one place, just to be moved to another. Almost like the man or woman who has been married 6-7 times and believes there is “no one that’s good out there.” I took part in a recent conversation where a church member (not at my assignment) made the comment “we’ll, our pastor will only be here a few more years, we just have to put up with it till then.” I know I’m stepping on toes, but I believe there’s alot of truth there.
    And granted, there are plenty of Clergy Killer churches out there that grind pastors up and leave them wounded and despondent…

  • I think the timeline sounds like it rings true… but should we expect Sr. Pastors to #1 be fully trained for every church they get to & #2 stay indefinitely?
    Before I went into ministry full-time, I worked for some major national companies, none of them hired a CEO or even middle-managers without some level of success. None of them, either, saw it as any business school’s responsibility to equip their leaders.
    In my experience, less than half the managers in corporations have business degrees, and those who do rely more on their experience than their education.
    Managers are trying to do more, be more, and succeed. Why would we expect anything different from pastors? Shouldn’t we expect a pastor to want to go to a new church, or one that will pay him more? Doesn’t that then make more room for new pastors?
    Training (in any career) comes mostly on-the-job and the most effective way to advance in any industry is to change firms.
    I don’t think pastors should stay very long at their first few churches, if he’s worth it, a church should pay him well (1Tim 5), and allow him to reinvent himself in his position every years or so.
    It’s not seminary’s job to teach anyone how to do everything, hire good people who can adapt and be successful and education won’t matter. The reason your church doesn’t is because you try to keep your pastor humble by paying him basically nothing.
    Look at the average salary for corporation CEOs with the level of education you require for your pastor and pay them AT LEAST that (though 1Tim 5 tells us they are worth more).
    Average total compensation for founding CEOs is $286,000
    Average total comp for non-founding CEOs is $339,000
    We are cheap, so we don’t get “the best” – 2-3 years of third-tier schooling won’t fix that. If, on the other hand, a church’s board of directors (or whatever they call their equivalent) would hire a candidate with a clear description of goals and what the church must accomplish under his leadership (whatever targets are used, giving revenue, attendance, etc…) and have at least quarterly reviews in which they pastor would be fired or put on a 90 day notice if he didn’t hit his marks, churches would be more successful.
    Church is serious business, it’s not “oh well, I couldn’t make it in the ‘real world’ so many I can preach”
    At least that’s what I think most SBC churches would benefit from.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Al and John –
    I really appreciate your personal stories related to the lifecycle. Very helpful!
    Jim –
    Love the acronym.
    Kevin –
    I have not done the research on church planters.

  • Dr. Rainer,
    This is very interesting. I see the truth in this for pastors joining established churches.
    Have you observed a lifecycle for church planters?
    Thanks for your continued research and support for pastors!

  • Hi Dr. Rainer,
    I am in my 12th year of being the pastor in one church. I must have missed the “Growth Years” you wrote about. Our church has had five failed pastorates from its inception in the 1960’s, and I am pastor number six. The previous five all left with marriage trouble of some kind. There are pressures that come with a “hurt church” that compound the normal situations a pastor faces. I think your timeline might look a little different in these cases. It might be that it takes a longer time to see the growth years, and the pastor of such a church is more at risk for leaving before the growth years arrive.
    If one wants to define “growth” as the personal growth of the pastor, then I can say years seven through 12 have been a period of tremendous personal and spiritual growth for me. I think one of the greatest contributions I have made to this church is to provide them with a long-term, stable, pastorate from someone with a stable marriage and home life.
    Thanks for the article!

  • Al O'Quinn says on

    Dr. Rainer,
    I am in my 22nd year at BBC in McDonough, Georgia.
    You have presented very real and truthful information. Our greatest period of growth was in years 6-14. I was honored to be given an award from you at SBTS for serving a healthy church. Our baptism ratio was 15-1. We failed to provide needed space for growth and we hit the wall.
    In my 22nd year we just completed a new facility to enhance SS growth. I am in uncharted waters but still feel the Lord’s call to BBC. Our prayer ministry has been key to my tenure.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Steve –
    You make me tired 🙂
    John –
    Thanks for the input and kind words.

  • This timeline follows my current church to the “T”. I’ve been here 7 years now and every stage we hit almost to the day. I have been on church staff now for nearly 27 years and things don’t seem to get any better. I agree that we must always be looking to grow because ministry is not done the same as it was when I started. The Gospel hasn’t changed, but how we share that Gospel has.
    Thanks for Lifeway’s help in our ‘big fight’ after my first year. Seminaries have changed greatly in preparing ministers. It was only about content in the 20 years ago but now it is as much about what to do with the content as the content itself.