Why It Takes Five to Seven Years to Become the Pastor of a Church

You are the new pastor of the church. Expectations are high on your part and on the members’ part. Perhaps you celebrate with some type of installation service.

You are ready to lead and move the church forward. After all, you are the pastor. Right?


In most established churches, there is a prolonged period before the church members as a whole will truly embrace you as pastor. When that time comes, most pastors enjoy their greatest and most joyous years of ministry.

But the majority of pastors never make it to year five, much less year seven. So why does it take five to seven years to be embraced as the pastor of most established churches? Here are seven common reasons.

  1. It takes a long time to break into established relationship patterns. Many of the members have been around for decades. They have their friends, family members, and relationship groups. Pastors will not meaningfully enter into many of those relationships for several years.
  2. You are creating new ways of doing things. You may not think you are a major change agent, but your presence as the pastor changes things significantly. You lead differently. You preach differently. Your family is different. The church has to adjust to all the changes you bring before they begin to embrace you fully as pastor.
  3. Most relationships do not establish fully until they go through one or two major conflicts. The first year or two are your honeymoon years. The church thinks you are absolutely great. Then you do something, lead something, or change something that goes counter to their expectations. Conflict ensues. You are no longer the best. So you have two years of honeymoon, one to two years of conflict, and one to two years to get on the other side of conflict. Then you become the pastor in five to seven years.
  4. The church is accustomed to short-term pastorates. Many churches rarely see a pastor make it to the fifth, sixth, or seventh year. They never fully accept the pastor, because they don’t believe the leader will make it past the first major conflict.
  5. Previous pastors wounded some church members. There are many reasons for this reality, some understandable and some not. In either case, a previous pastor hurt some church members, and the members take several years to accept a new pastor and learn to trust again.
  6. Trust is cumulative, not immediate. This reality is especially true in established churches. Regardless of how the ministry unfolds, it simply takes time before church members are willing to say with conviction, “That is my pastor.”

I know. I wish we could snap our fingers and enjoy immediate trust. But, in most churches, it just is not going to happen quickly. It will take five to seven years.

Are you willing to stick around to enjoy the fruit of a long-term pastorate?

Posted on August 21, 2017

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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  • Interesting. The first Sunday of September will be my 5 year anniversary as pastor of our church. The church I pastor is a multisite (probably better described as a network church since I do my own preaching). I served as Kids Pastor for 18 years at the “main” church before being asked by my boss and pastor to take this position as pastor of a church revitalization/multisite. The church had had a pastor with a very public moral failure, followed by three or four pastors who had 1 to 2 year stays with lots of turmoil, so bad that the denomination was planning to close the church, until my pastor offered to take it on as multisite..
    Thom, how does the timeline apply in my situation? I can see how I’ve been going through the steps you outline. We have seen tremendous growth from less than 25 in attendance to close to about 275. Judging by the spirit of excitement and sense of community within the church, it feels as though we are on the cusp of a real growth breakthrough.
    I really appreciate your materials and books. I’ve especially found the book “Essential Church” a valuable resource. In fact, I quoted from the book yesterday as I preached on “Strong Faith Builds Strong Families”. “Simple Church” has been a real help as we have grown, not to take on too many or too much, but to focus on what we do well.
    Any recommendations on resources for where we are now?

    • David –

      On October 5, Jonathan and I start a second podcast, “Revitalize and Replant.” I think you will find the information highly relevant to where you are now.

  • anonymous says on

    Great post and insightful reminders. I wonder how to handle this when the church you are called to might not have 7 years of life left in it (meaning they called because they knew they were already very small and on the path of a “dieing church”) … so the expectations and needs are high and the urgency to turn the ship sooner than later is also there…. it is a hard balance when you know what to do but the “changes” are just to much in addition to the changes you mention above … how in the world to you balance that?

  • I translated this post for portuguese and posted in my blog. I’m a presbyterian pastor of Brazil. God bless you. I have your permission?

    It’s here http://www.bitly.com/5a7pastor

  • While I agree with you on all counts as to why it takes so long for most pastors to actually become the pastor, I disagree with being okay with it. As widely stated and confirmed, there are more declining established churches than growing, many of which will not live another five years. I cannot find anywhere in the Bible where Paul tells pastors to simply tread water for five years and then get to work. Nor to a church to test the pastor for that time period before you follow him. However, if you try to do anything of consequence before then, be prepared to pay the price. It is my opinion this is one of the major reasons churches are dying. They refuse to follow leadership and instead defer to preferences, personal relationships, and the past.
    I am the pastor of such a church and have been here just under three years. The church was in dire need of revitalization or go under. In spite of the problems, God blessed us with many salvations, baptisms, and additions. A year ago it came to a head and things became increasingly ugly. By God’s grace we are now coming out of it. The church is still here and ministry is exciting again. However, it is much like the Israelites who went into the Promised Land, a completely different group of people.
    Accepting this five year holding pattern does more damage than good, to the church and to the pastor’s ability to ever truly lead. How many people could be reached in that amount of time? I am trying to let the past year remain in the past. But I and my family have paid a terrible price that has definitely left a scar.

    • Les Ferguson says on

      I think, while it is important to realize it takes time to work into being fully recognized as pastor it is also incumbent to be ushering in needed change. From my context, while it took me years to be completely trusted and viewed as pastor the acceptance only came after showing commitment to the Parish. There were some things and some levels of trust that came quickly and others that didn’t. But that didn’t change my desire to lead change. Part of the wisdom of “it takes time” is sometimes it does but there are incremental steps that can be taken that may speed up the process.

    • I respect your viewpoint, but there’s another side to the proverbial coin. Pastors sometimes cause unnecessary conflict and even destroy churches because they tried to do too much too quickly. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I do advise you to check your motives. There’s a very fine line between zeal and impatience. The latter is not of God.

  • Mark Mitchell says on

    There are many small churches that have had pastors for more than 5 years that are just as dead as any other church. The old theory that if you are patient enough and wait long enough you will become the pastor and they will follow you is problematic.

    1. Many of the practices in many of these churches are unbiblical.
    2. Many of the power brokers in many of these churches are mean spirited and failure to rain that in lends to the idea that the pastor supports it. Reigning it in starts a conflict in the church where people leave.
    3. Voting on a pastor (which suggests you believe God called him) and then not seeing him as pastor is a direct failure to trust God. If you have doubts God called him then do not vote for him.

    This post is very idealistic but often fails when rubber meets the road.

  • I love the wisdom that is imparted through your site. Keep it up. I have worked my whole ministry basically as an interim pastor. Only once have I stayed more than five years. Do you have any wisdom on this subject?

  • Joe Pastor says on

    Good article. Regardless of the exact timetable, the principles of the article are right on target. In the final analysis, prayer, patience, and tenure reap rewards. I am in my 14th year as senior pastor of this church, and getting to this point has been very painful at times, including a “coup attempt” by one of the other ministers on staff which brought about a loss of 20% of our congregation. Even so, the last 7 years have been far more fruitful than the first 7 years. Thank God for His sustaining power! There are been times I’ve felt hurt enough and angry enough to quit…but by God’s grace I didn’t. It is absolutely worth going through such pain to get to the other side!

  • joseph life kimani says on

    Great wisdom; am in Africa Kenya…am a starter still under authority hoping soon enough to start Shepherdhood…GOD Willing;thanks for insight in dairy basis blessing to you for a good work

  • I have seen this all too often in our denomination. In my experience as the pastor of the same congregation for over 28 years, I have watched young pastors arrive at their appointment, only to watch them walk away in less than 5 years. Receiving the appointment to pastor is not the same as developing a pastoral (shepherd) heart for the people they serve. Regarding #3 in your talking points, over 28 years ago, my first Sunday as pastor, my piano player left the church. Why? When I asked for my wife to come and play instead of her (This was a habit since my wife had always played for me during the prayer time). She got mad and never came back. Much has changed but I learned not to ask for my “honey” to come to the piano that very day. I have many stories of conflict and conflict resolution from my twenty-eight years of experience. Over the years, I willingly made changes in my life,not for the piano player who left, but to ensure that I could love a small congregation of people through a tough transitions. Sometimes it worked, sometimes, not so good! Dr. Rainer, young pastors could really learn something from this article. I hope and pray they take it to heart.

  • I am curious as I transitioned to Lead Pastor after serving church in other areas for 13 years. Do the points of this post ring true for pastors new to the role but not the church?

  • Paul Limato says on

    Hi Thom,
    Thank you for your insights outlined in this article. Having been the pastor of our church for the past 20 years, my wife & I experienced almost exactly the scenario you described. Our folk had been accustomed to having a pastor stay from 2-5 years while the pastor attended seminary. That arrangement held sway for the majority of the church’s 158 year history.
    When we were interviewed by the pulpit committee, I told them that we were committed to stay there until I died or they decided I was no longer wanted or needed. Apparently, they originally didn’t believe that we would stay. It took nearly 6 or 7 years, but once we moved past that time period our folk really opened up and the ministry began to flourish.
    I believe that, in our situation at least, that the folk were not willing to trust and commit to following our leadership and invest their spiritual energy if they thought that my wife & I would be leaving within 2-5 years.
    We are so grateful to God for the 20 years of ministry that we’ve had with the best folk that any pastor could hope to have. The first Sunday of this month we began our 21st year of serving the folk of our church family. We’re excited to see what God has yet for us to do in the time ahead of us.

  • In my case, I realized after year 5 that my church was dying. After reading Autopsy of a Deceased Church, I brought this book to my deacons and asked them to read it. We had every symptom listed, but they disagreed and said we had none of the symptoms. I spent year 6 trying to lead them to change (and life). It was utterly rejected, as was I. I realized after much prayerful consideration that we were in fact lifeless and they were ok with that. God gave me my release, and through His direction I resigned and planted a new church. I am approaching the 1 year anniversary of my church plant and although it has not been easy (still isn’t), I have never felt the freedom top preach and lead like I do now. Thank you for your articles, they are very much appreciated.