The Lifecycle of Pastors

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?


Posted on November 2, 2011

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  • Steve Johnson says on

    I’m a bit late weighing in on this thread. I’ve been at my relatively small, rural Baptist church for 18 years. Reinvention is a fact of life.
    I’m also working on pastoral tenure as a DMin project. Any resources out there you guys would recommend?

  • Jesus modeled his church after the Greek “ekklesia” (“summoned assembly” or town hall), not the “theatron” (“place of viewing” or theatre). The former, not the latter, represents the church in the New Testament. Yet the latter, not the former, resembles most churches today.

  • How you assess the term of service for a pastor depends upon how you define a pastor.
    (1) Is he an itinerant church-planter/cultivator like the apostles, prophets and evangelists of Eph. 4?
    (2) Or is he part of a team of pastors, who are home-grown elders, serving as fellow-members of God’s royal priesthood?
    Much also depends on your model of the church. More thoughts here:

  • Con R. Howertn says on

    Hebrews 13.17 should clear this up for you. The call to the pastorate is a very heavy, weighty call. I believer there are hundreds, if not thousands of people in the Pastorste who are not called by God. They will be given grace from our loving Heavenly Father, but they are not Spiritually or emotionally equipped to carry the weight. God will use them, but like all of us, He uses us best when we are in His perfect will. I will give an account for the souls God sends to the Church family I Pastor. I take that very seriously. Understanding our role allows us to enjoy and rejoice to the fullest in those times of victory in people’s lives, it also means that we will be hurt and devastated when we see people walk away from Jesus. I lose sleep, I weep, I pray, etc for the people of our Church. Maybe God has not called you to Pastor, praise the Lord, just do what He has called you to do. But don’t judge those who have a different calling or who do things differently than you. God will bless your faithfulness to His will, just keep serving, and try to be a help and a blessing to your Pastor and other Pastors when you get a chance, God will bles you for that as well.

  • Con R. Howerton says on

    I appreciate the article very much. God has allowed me to Pastor for over 10 years. It has been wonderful and heart rending, joyous and painful and through it all God has grown me and by Hid grace, grown the Church. I read a book some time ago and the man said this about the Pastorate:
    “success is measured in decades not decisions…”.
    The statement bothered me 10 years ago. Now that I am seeing third generation salvations, I understand. My only advice to young Pastors: trust God and stick it out. He will bless. A wise, wise man said something profound:
    “God calls us to a people…”. If your heart is for the work and not the people you will never last. If your heart is for the people, He will bless your work.

  • I have been with one congregation now for 18 years. In my opinion, intentional growth, both personally and pastorally is a real key to staying with one church for a long time. That kind of growth leads to appropriate and timely reinvention.

  • @ Joe,
    Absolutely. The first-generation church is exploring new things, willing to take risks and experiment, enter uncharted territory. Within a dozen years there is an established pattern of operations, order of worship, structural hierarchy and the beginnings of traditions (…let me who you how WE do things).
    Most of the growth-oriented congregations are either in the first generation with spiritual DNA for growth (See Len Sweet) or have reinvented themselves.
    Check out the things you find on google under church life cycle.
    It’s a whole different experience leading an established church, particularly when following a long-term pastor or one who has fought with the congregation. Both experiences have the new pastor at a “power disadvantage” in their new position. Both argue for the use of trained, intentional interim pastors who can help with healing and visioning and not get sucked into the vortex of emotions that are so detrimental to the pastorate.

  • Do you see there is a difference in this cycle with those who start a church rather than those who take the pastorate of an existing church?

  • Greg Gamble says on

    Im 55, was converted when I was a 17 yr old drug dealer, and have never been to church. But, my family and I are fervent christians, busy in kingdom work of all kinds, loving each other and our enemies, and have been asked many times to start a church, or lead a groups etc. My wife and I agree that doing that would destroy our effectiveness, outreach, internal harmony and ultimately, confuse those who look to us as models as to who is really in charge and where the power comes from to live the busy and purpose filled life we have. Several ministers we know and have known, and other leaders as well, all seem to have some burden of responsibility they carry for others, that waters down their own dynamic ability to impact people and get them to rise up and follow them in their sacrificial living. Im not qualified to help in your dilema of leadership, but if you will pardon the mild rebuke, it seems to me that many of you cant see the trees because the forest is in the way. Why do you think you are, or even can be responsible for others brothers and sisters, if they wont be responsible for themselves? Seems like a kind of spiritual welfare program to me, that hands out without throwing down the gauntlet and challenging christians to obey Jesus because they love Him and the brethren. Leaders are proven by their followers copying them in their motives and actions. If followers wont follow, and become leaders in their own situations, quit banging your head against a wall and get behind them and push. Step down as leader, become one of them who seeks the wisdom of God among the whole congregation, show them by example from below the way Jesus did, how to bring God into our lives and world, by personally walking in His love and power, and never letting anyone else’s ignorance, disobedience or opposition stop us from being personally responsible to God, the brethren, our family and neighbors and ourselves.Give it a year, and you will see a divide come between those who start to see that christian life is personal and together life in Jesus, or its nothing, but there is no in between. At years end, if no one or only a few core people have followed you, well then from what I read here, you wont have anything different than you already do, other than you might have fleshed out a few good men, or a solid core of previously comfortable pew dwellers. God wasnt being humorous when He called us sheep, and He didnt exclude those of us who have grown in Christ to be effective and skilled communicators and destroyers of the devils works. He is the Shepherd, and in the big scheme of things, we are only older and maybe wiser sheep, who get hurt, and can burn out. Pls brothers, dont waste your oil. Blessing on you all dear brothers, as you seek from sincere hearts to please God. I pray for you as I see you give your lives daily for Him and His people. He is recording your good works from a pure conscience. Greg Gamble (Ontario Canada)

  • I just began my fifteenth year here.

  • Dr. Rainer,
    I wish you could have visited my dad’s church in upstate New York. He was there for 18 years…that place was like a circus!
    I appreciate this blog

  • It’s almost scary how spot on this is with my current ministry. Almost to my sixth anniversary, and am seeing the exact changes you described.