Length of Tenure

(The following is not meant to be a detailed defense of the issue at hand but is offered as a push to more conversation in an area that has been largely neglected among pastors)

How long should a pastor stay at his ministry assignment? This is a question that I have spent a good amount of time thinking about. The reason is not that I’m considering a move (far from it) but that I am constantly asked by fellow pastors how long they should “hang-on” at their respective churches. Many brothers in ministry have cried on my shoulder because of weariness, burnout, and factional difficulties all of which have raised the potential for ending their tenures. I was reminded of this when I read the news report of a well-known pastor leaving his mega congregation for another very large congregation out of state. Throughout the press release this pastor never gave a concrete answer for this massive change. He talked about seeking signs from the Lord and the emotional turmoil that such a decision had caused him but he never once spoke of his decision making process in biblical or pastoral terms. So when should a pastor leave? Just how much abuse should a pastor “put-up” with before he decides to move? What if his congregation leaves him financially strung while another congregation offers a significant salary increase? What are congregational “deal-breakers” that make it impossible for his continuance? Are there legitimate reasons to leave one congregation for another when they are essentially equal in size, influence, and ministry opportunity? The questions abound and never cease multiplying.

First I should say that there is no cookie-cutter approach to answering these sorts of questions. I realize that there are significant challenges that many pastors face which makes objectivity in this area hard to discern. I do not portend to have all the answers to such specific questions. However, I want to put forward the general thesis that pastors who preach should aim for lengthy tenures in one local church. Many reasons could be offered from the pragmatic to the more doctrinal. However, I think that in order to be most effective, a preaching ministry will require elongated tenure so as to prove the nature of the call itself and to provide consistent ministry.

As to the nature of the call, there is an implicit demand on the time of the elder which necessitates a lengthy stay. I can’t help but see this in pastoral charges like those in 1 Peter 5 and 2 Timothy 4:1-2. The things that the pastor is called to be and do take time…lots of time! The common joke is that, “pastors work one hour a week.” While this is no doubt true for many hirelings throughout the land, not so with the man who has been called by God and gives himself to the ministry with complete integrity. The average tenure of a pastor in the US is three years. That’s despicable and horrific when we consider what it takes to effectively minister to God’s flock in the way that He has prescribed. I’m not suggesting that a pastor fill his schedule with programs from the denomination office or with the latest fad from the “experts”. To the contrary, I’m suggesting he immerse himself with the specifics that God has called him to in Scripture (e.g., study, preach/teach, counsel, lead/administrate, visit, pray, practice, etc.). It takes time to do these things and it takes even more time to do them with excellence. This means that every week will be full and when he enters his third year of ministry he’s not looking for an escape but he’s just getting started. We see leaders with this basic commitment as far back as Ezra who “set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). No doubt this was a great demand on Ezra’s time and it required sustained influence in and among Israel.

My thinking was challenged again on this issue from an unlikely source, the book of Hosea. In preparation for preaching through the book I was struck with the nature of Hosea’s call to ministry (Hos. 1:2) and how long it lasted (Hos.1:1). The best guesses tell us that Hosea’s ministry lasted around forty years. We could think of others like Jeremiah and Isaiah who also persevered through difficult ministries. I was struck by a comment on Hosea from the insightful pen of John Calvin. Here’s what he had to say on the length of Hosea’s ministry and it’s implications for pastoral practice:

“But when God employs our service for twenty or thirty years, we think it wearisome, especially when we have to contend with wicked men, and those who do not willingly undertake the yoke, but pertinaciously resist us; we then instantly desire to be set free, and wish to become like soldiers who have completed their time. When, therefore, we see that this Prophet persevered for so long a time, let him be to us an example of patience, so that we may not despond, though the Lord may not immediately free us from our burden” (Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 13, “Hosea” pg.38).

Calvin is essentially saying that when we enter our 20th or even 30th year we are just getting started!!! This is alarming when we consider again that the average stay is three years. Brothers, there is no “thou shall” or “shall not” when it comes to length of tenure in ministry. However, we are called to “take heed to the ministry” we have received so “that we may fulfill it” (cf. Col. 4:17; 2 Tim. 4:5) and to reciprocate that ministry to others called to the same task (2 Tim. 2:2). This will, in most cases, take a lot more than three years…it will take a lifetime. When we come to the end of our ministries, I pray we can join with the Apostle in like manner and say to our congregations, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable…I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:20, 24). The challenges are great but the Lord who called you is greater. The same Lord who called you to your ministry will strengthen you to weather the storms of that ministry. I close with a bit of wisdom from a seasoned pastor:

“Sometimes a pastor’s ministry to a particular church does come to an end and change is better for both, but the decision should be a joint one. The entire church leadership should be involved, and if that occurs, there should be no acrimony. It should be prayed over at length, explored in every detail, and handled in an open and aboveboard manner. Both parties should genuinely agree that this is the best plan for God’s Kingdom. When that is done, I believe we can expect God to bless those changes. But to continually hire and fire pastors, and for pastors to church-hop must be displeasing to the Lord and is very disruptive to the congregations” (Curtis Thomas, Practical Wisdom for Pastors, 144).

19 responses to this post.

  1. Great post Paul.

    I would suggest reading through Lloyd=Jone’s 2 vlm biography for a real life example of this tension. Chapters 16-17 are very helpful. Chapter 17 in volume 1 is entitled, “Wales or Westminster?” Jones loved his small church so much that this decision to co-pastor at Westminster Chapel was no easy thing.

  2. Thanks Caleb. It’s been about ten years since I picked up those biographies. Thanks for the reminder. Pixley will be posting an article on Lloyd-Jones here very soon. The 25th anniv of his death is coming up.

  3. I think that last quote hit the nail on the head. Not only is it wether or not you leave, but also how you leave.

  4. Yes Paul that is a GREAT reminder and a very valid point. That issue can become difficult when the criticism is coming from some or all of your elders though. How will you agree on the manner of your departure if you can’t agree on other issues (big and small)?

  5. As a pastor’s wife. I have seen almost evrything and bottom line is
    You leave when God tells you to leave.
    Stray from His will and you are in big trouble

  6. In the SBC, the average tenure of a pastor is more like 18 months (a statistic I heard last week). It takes that long to just begin to learn who your members are. Maybe by that time you will at least have learned their names and something about them. The pastoral ministry is an investment in the lives of the church and is to be taken seriously over the course of years, maybe even decades.

    Sadly, I see many who use their current church as a stepping stone to obtain a larger church. I know of some pastors who make that a goal of ministry. I want to be faithful where God has me and trust that He will bring growth (spiritually & numerically). The larger church that I want to serve is the one I am serving now – praying that God would grant a harvest here. I have served here almost five years and am just now gaining more of a vision for how things could be by remaining faithful and fighting the battles that need to be fought.

  7. Does God give all men the same desires? What was the average tenure of ministry for the apostle Paul? I think some guys may be church planters or builders similiar to Paul. They go get something off the ground and move on. Do you think this wrong?

  8. Caleb,

    I don’t think that (church planting) is wrong. I do have a hard time seeing things from this point of view because I am not one of those guys.
    I know men who are those guys. One in particular made a huge impact on my life. I also know men who think that they are those guys but they are not. They use “Church Planting” as an excuse for being lazy in their teaching ministry and absent from church fellowship.

    That being said I do think that slmayes’ stat is sad. If we were seeing churches being planted and long term pastors installed (following the model of Paul) then I don’t think 18 months would be bad. The problem is that I don’t see that happening. Pastoral success has been redefined in the eyes of many. If you were to judge Edwards by these standards he would have been a guy who started his ministry with a bang but fizzled out at the end. He went from a large influential church to a small secluded congregation.

    Great conversation!

  9. Good questions Caleb,

    We all obviously believe in church-planting at some level because all of our churches were planted by somebody else.

    It seems that some guys who talk a lot about church planting are really planting their personalities and when one does really “well” they refuse to go plant another church. In fact one church planter sets up video venues of the church they recently planted in stead of planting more churches (sounds ironic if not self-defeating).

    The Scripture says a lot more about the office of elder than that of “church planter.” So that being said planters should be the exception and not the norm. My fear, and this was the point of my article, is that pastors move around today like they’re all church planters.

    I would also agree with the other Paul that some planters use such a method as an excuse for various reasons. Some guys are so abrasive that no existing church wants them or they have been run-off from many churches and now find themselves in the “church-planting” arena.

    So no I don’t think church-planting is wrong. But I’m not sure the Apostle Paul should be a one-for-one model for today’s church planters. These are good questions all of which I hope “planters” will take more seriously than it appears they have.

  10. Paul,

    I agree. Much of this falls under the wisdom category: When to move, when to stay. I’ve enjoyed the conversations.

  11. Paul,

    Question for you, is this a worldwide phenomenon or is unique to the American culture? My perception has always been that this phenomenon is, in part, due to the Capitalist Ecclesiology practiced by many American churches. You know, where the board of directors/deacons hires a CEO/pastor only to get rid of him a few years later when the company/church takes a small down turn. Interestingly, the average tenure of an American CEO is about three years.

  12. Bob,

    I think you’re probably right. However, more “Western” nations seem to have the same problem. Great Britain, NZ, and Austrialia have similar problems with keeping pastors. I’m not sure about more Eastern Eur. or Asian churches. I have not encountered this with the Russians as much although the Western influence is being felt there.

    Since most American church fads seem to be exported over time, this is probably not good news for other nations.

  13. I think you would find this tidbit interesting.

    In college, our professors kept on telling us that the average teacher lasts only 3 years at the job.

    I would be afraid to try to make a lot of connections between the Teaching profession and Preaching, but I do think it is significant.

    My idea is that working with people is hard! And we as humans want to see immediate change in people, and when we don’t see that, (either as teachers, or preachers, or what have you) we get discouraged. We are conditioned to want immediate results.

    The Bible doesn’t promise that.


  14. stoking the fire:

    Great insight

  15. Great post and I agree. I would highly suggest reading Frost & Hirsch’s “The Shaping of Things to Come.”

    They address many of the “church plant” concerns and deal with some of the issues you brought up in your post.

    I think it’s my favorite book outside of the Scriptures (even more than Calvin’s commentaries which I adore)

  16. […] Attention lady preachers!  What’s up girls? It seems some of them liked our post from way back on “length of tenure in pastoral ministry”. However their comments reveal that we are a little narrow-minded due to our female exclusion. That whole “husband of one wife” thing just keeps getting in the way. Seriously though sisters, we believe women have a rich heritage and role to fulfill in Christ’s church but taking the text of Scripture at face value we have to conclude that leadership of the pastoral office is for men only. The only way around the text is to explain it away and God has not given us such freedom to change what He has said even if that means political incorrectness or cultural backwardness on our part. […]

  17. Posted by Tim on August 13, 2007 at 8:34 pm

    Thanks for the post.
    I’ve been thinking and talking about this issue since Timmy Brister posted a similar thought (http://timmybrister.com/2007/07/19/to-be-a-misfit-in-a-world-of-impermanence/#comment-10158)
    I am an intern pastor in Québec, Canada, but I grew up in France.
    I must say that there is a difference between North America and other places. One big difference that changes the situation is that in many countries (regions) there isn’t much churches to offer a better situation or a nicer congregations.
    When the country is in great need of pastors, they don’t play around using them for a while to eventually “thank” them later. It is not a rule, but a pattern I’ve observed. In Québec, the church is quite young, and a short tenure is the example we started with. I think we really need to straighten our vision on that matter.
    Thanks again for the great reminder.

  18. Thank you Tim and for your thoughts.

  19. Posted by Ronald Kendrick on December 8, 2011 at 1:22 am

    I am a pastor who is in my 2nd pastorate. In my first pastorate, I stayed for at 4 years and knew when my season was complete at my first church. Every pastor is not called to certain churches for a long period of time. I am now in my second pastorate. Yes, I have just completed my 4th year. Shepherding God’s people is not easy, especially if you are doing it God’s way. According to scripture, the Apostle Paul did not have it easy either. Yes, sometimes, I find myself getting frustrated and there are times I ask the Lord is my time completed. Note only God knows when your tenure is completed. Keep in mind that the bible states in the last days how the church would be. Remember, as pastors, we are to feed the flock and oversee it. God does the rest. When time come, and one is in tune with the Holy Spirit, God will reveal when one’s season is completed.

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