Research among Protestant churches show clergy tenure is relatively brief on the average. Hard data is difficult to find, but there’s general agreement that 6-7 years is a common point at which clergy make a move.
The time a pastor serves a congregation does contain common stages. Researcher Thom Rainer1 has studied the phenomenon of pastoral tenure. He’s convinced there are distinct stages with clear characteristics, even while the years he designates for each stage are not precise.
Rainer names the stages and offers the “why” behind each stage.
Year 1: Honeymoon. Both pastor and church have a blank slate and they enter the relationship hoping and believing the best about each other. Perhaps the pastor was weary of the previous pastorate, and perhaps the church was happy to replace their former pastor. For a season, neither can do wrong in the other’s eyes. That season does not usually last long.
Years 2 and 3: Conflicts and Challenges. No pastor is perfect. No church is perfect. Each party discovers the imperfections after a few months. Like a newlywed couple, they began to have their differences after a while. The spiritual health of both the pastor and the church will likely determine the severity of the conflicts and challenges.
Years 4 and 5. Crossroads, Part 1. This period is one of the most critical in the relationship. If the conflict was severe, the pastor will likely leave or be forced out. Indeed, these years are the most common years when a pastor leaves a church. On the other hand, if the pastor and the church manage their relationship well, they can often look forward to some of the best years ahead.
Years 6 to 10: Fruit and Harvest. The research is not complete, but it’s more than anecdotal. A church is likely to experience some of its best years, by almost any metrics, during this period of a pastor’s tenure. Indeed, in interviews with both pastors and members, this theme repeated. Both parties have worked through the tough times. They now trust each other and love each other more deeply.
Years 11 and beyond: Crossroads, Part 2. During the earlier crossroads era at year 4 or 5, the pastor decides to stay or leave. Or the congregations may make the decision. During this relatively rare tenure beyond ten years, the pastor will go down one of two paths: 1) be reinvigorated as a leader and ready to tackle new challenges and cast new visions; or 2) be resistant to the surrounding changes and then become complacent. It remains challenging to understand why pastors go down one path versus the other.
Pastoral tenure matters. It is far too short in many churches. I do think it is critical for us to understand tenure, because the health of the church is directly impacted by it.
Mustard Seed Consulting can provide your church evidence-based discernment for any stage of pastoral tenure. We are ready with proven tools and expertise to help pastors and leaders understand key dynamics and realities to promote longer tenure and healthier ministries.
Contact us today to learn how we can help your church.
1Thom S. Rainer, factsandtrends.net May 31, 2019