I am an advocate for extended pastoral tenure. The longer a pastor stays, the more effective his ministry. In fact, pastoral tenure is one of the leading indicators of a healthy church. On the December 4, 2015 edition of Rainer on Leadership, Thom Rainer observed, “We continue to see a pattern of healthy churches led by long-term pastors.” Even so, many pastors are asking, “Is it time to leave?”
I could sense the anxiety through the words of the embattled pastor. He is nearing the end of his second year as pastor of a church that is in serious decline. As he said, “I knew this was going to be difficult, but…” It’s always the but. In this case it was “But when does this stop? When do we stop losing people? When can I breathe easier?” Another pastor is nearing the end of his third year. Little issues are becoming big issues. And he is wondering if he will survive the coming conflict.
When I have the opportunity to coach a pastor who is asking if it is time to leave, I urge him to consider these five questions:
1. Do you have the confidence of your call?
When I accepted the call to ministry more than thirty years ago, one of my mentors challenged my understanding of God’s call on my life. He wasn’t being negative. And he wasn’t trying to undermine my confidence. Just the opposite. He knew that there would come a day when the confidence of my call would be the only thing that kept me in ministry. And he was right.
I got an email from a friend the other day who was asking me to reach out to another pastor whom my friend said “is a good guy in a difficult church.” After doing a bit of research on the situation, I am convinced the only way he survives is if he has the confidence of his call. The confidence of his call to ministry. And the confidence of his call to that church. When we have the confidence of God’s call, we know that he is with us.
2. Is your family negatively affected by what is happening?
Every situation is different. Every family is different. Even every family member. Several years ago I faced a fairly significant challenge to my pastoral leadership. As a result I reached out to our state convention’s expert on church minister relations. At the time my children were still at home. After a few preliminary thoughts, he asked me this question, “How is your family?” He asked the question, and he did not let me slide by with a casual response.
It’s important to know if your family is negatively affected by what is happening. As a pastor I was also a husband and father. It was my responsibility to shepherd my family as my first line of ministry in the church. And I needed to wrestle with that reality. I needed to know that they were truly okay. Spiritually healthy. Emotionally healthy. And physically healthy.
3. What is the stage of your pastoral tenure?
For a long time, I did not know that this was an actual thing. It is. In fact, there are four basic stages that cover about the first six or seven years of pastoral tenure.
The Honeymoon Stage
Whenever I moved to a new church, friends would ask how things were going. I would respond with a glowing report, and they would say, “Thank God for honeymoons. But you know they don’t last forever.” I knew they didn’t last forever, but I didn’t know there was a pattern to what happens next.
The Questioning Stage
I remember the day the honeymoon ended in my first church. I was naive. More like ignorant. Maybe even dumb. I thought my ministry there was over. And I wanted it to be over. I prayed for God to move me to another church. He didn’t. Instead, he reaffirmed my call to that church.
Looking back on that period with nearly thirty years of perspective, I laugh. But more importantly I recognize what was happening. The honeymoon stage was giving way to the questioning stage. Pastor and people alike were trying to figure out if they wanted to be committed for the long haul.
By the way, it’s not unusual to have a few people to leave during this period. My friend Cody Hale calls these “vision casualties.”
The Challenge Stage
The good news is that the questioning stage doesn’t last forever. The bad news is that it often gets worse. Somewhere around the third year of pastoral tenure is the start of what I call the challenge stage. Competing agendas emerge. People who said they wanted change realize that change will affect them. Some say change is coming too fast. Others say it isn’t coming fast enough. People challenge the pastor’s vision. They challenge his leadership.
Years three and four are often the most difficult years of pastoral tenure. And often pastors will look for greener pastures during this stage.
The Fruitful Ministry Stage
Those who persevere often find a stage of fruitful ministry beginning in about year five. That was certainly true for me in the two churches where I had longer pastoral tenure. It wasn’t quite a second honeymoon. More like a dance of pastor and people who have discovered a rhythm to life in the family of God.
I wish I could say that the fruitful ministry stage lasted forever. It usually does not. Somewhere around year seven pastor and/or people begin to develop the seven year itch. They reenter the questioning stage or maybe jump directly to the challenge stage again. But as before, those who persevere find another stage of fruitful ministry before the cycle repeats.
Understanding the stage of your pastoral tenure can help a pastor stay, especially when the answer to these last two questions is “Yes!”
4. Do you have the support of key leaders?
I am aware of a church that would be considered “chronically conflicted” where a group of key leaders pledged their support to their pastor. The honeymoon was over. And the questioning had turned to challenging his leadership and his vision for the church. The bullies came out of the shadows. But these key leaders who pledged their support were weary. They had been through this before. Many times. So when one of the most influential men in the church told his pastor, “I am done. I love you, but I can’t keep doing this,” the pastor knew it was time leave.
Every pastor needs a group of key leaders who will have his back. He needs an Aaron and a Hur to hold up his arms through the battle. Do you have the support of key leaders?
5. Do you have a coalition of support from church members?
Earlier I mentioned a challenge to my pastoral leadership where I considered the effect on my family. That challenge was the result of the seven year itch. It was a significant challenge. And it was thwarted largely because of church members. For seven years I had done the work of shepherding the flock of God. I had buried their mothers and fathers and married their sons and daughters. I had faithfully preached the word to them Sunday after Sunday. I was their pastor. I was their shepherd. And they were my sheep. Come to think of it, I still feel that way toward them a decade later.
These five questions can help a pastor to discern the answer to the question, “Is it time to leave?” At this year’s National Replant Summit at the North American Mission Board participants were encouraged to preach, pray, love and stay in order to effectively shepherd difficult churches. Pastor, leave if you must. But stay if you can.