Pastoral Longevity and Church Growth

by Charles Arn

Several years ago a study by the largest denomination in the U.S. found a startling relationship between the length of time pastors had been in their churches and the growth or decline of those churches. Their finding? Approximately three-fourths of their growing churches were being led by pastors who had been in their church more than 4 years, while two-thirds of their declining churches were being led by pastors who had been in their church less than 4 years. Their conclusion (with which I agree): While long-term pastorates do not guarantee that a church will grow, short-term pastorates essentially guarantee that a church will not grow.

So, why do pastors leave their churches? Here are the results of a study where pastors were asked that question.1

Percent of Total Responses
Desire to serve in a different type of community or area of the country
27 percent
Getting promoted to a higher position
20 percent
Wanting to pastor a larger church
16 percent
Leaving to start a new church
15 percent
Being transferred by my denomination
15 percent
Being called by God to another church
12 percent
Better pay and/or benefits
11 percent
Fired or asked to leave
10 percent
Switching to a different denomination
9 percent
Wanted to pastor a smaller church
4 percent
Church closed
2 percent
Other (family needs, job frustration, new challenge, etc.)
18 percent

(Respondents were allowed to identify more than one reason.)

There is an unmistakable relationship between pastoral tenure and church growth. While some nongrowing churches have long-term pastorates, it is almost unheard of to find a growing church with high pastoral turnover. Frequent change of pastors seems to neutralize all the other complex ingredients that go into a church's growth mix.

What To Do About It

If you are a pastor, personally and publicly commit to staying for at least 7 years. You may get an itch to move after 3 or 4 years, but if you stay into the 6th or 7th year, you will begin to experience unsurpassed effectiveness and fruitfulness. Once you get past year 7 there's a good chance you will want to stay much longer. I agree with Roger Parrot, who says: “Lead as if you'll be there forever. Imagine that the organization and position you are in right now is what God wants you to do for the rest of your professional life.”2

I was curious about pastoral longevity in the Wesleyan church. A more comprehensive and correlational study needs to be done, but I called the 25 largest churches in this denomination to find out: 1) When the church was founded; 2) How long the present senior/lead pastor has been at the church; and 3) How long the previous senior/lead pastor had been at the church. What's your guess?

Senior pastors in the 25 largest Wesleyan churches have been serving in their position for an average of 17.8 years. The previous pastors of these same churches had been there an average of 15.2 years. And the founding pastors — who have been there an average of 18.2 years — are still leading four of the churches.

Of course, it may be demotivating to imagine being in a church where you see no likelihood of enhanced ministry or influence. But why not have faith that there is sufficient opportunity for ministry in that church and community … and your task is to tap into it? Don't fall for the myth that greater ministry is somewhere else. When you plan to stay where you are for the next 20 years, you will approach your ministry with a commitment that will be unshaken by the winds of change, challenge, and time.

But …

If you're thinking, Well, that's good advice for most pastors, but … don't let these excuses masqueradeas reasons to move:

  • More money. Human nature is always dissatisfied, whatever we make.
  • Conflict. Another characteristic of human nature — conflict is anywhere there are people.
  • You're getting stale. Commit to being a lifetime learner. It will keep you and your church in touch with today's issues.
  • Greener pastures. See Philippians 4:12.

  • Boredom. To quote Rick Warren, “It's not about you.”
  • Burnout. Whether you have reached that point or not, take time to retreat and renew.

  • An exploratory call. We all like to be liked. But just because a church is calling doesn't mean God is.

  • You're out of sermons. If that's your reason, you're just lazy and shouldn't be in the ministry at all.

  • Too much pressure. So your next church will be without pressure? And, if your motivation to move is to avoid pressure, see the response to “Boredom” above.

If you are a lay church leader, the next time you look for a new pastor make intended longevity a criteria. If you are a denominational leader, encourage pastors to remain faithful rather than abandon their church in difficult times.

I believe there is a relationship between the three following facts:

  1. A pastor's most productive time usually begins in years 5, 6, and 7;

  2. The average pastoral tenure in Protestant churches is less than 4 years;
  3. Nearly 85 percent of today's churches are plateaued or in decline.

It's sad that the vast majority of pastors miss out on potentially the most fruitful — and enjoyable — times of ministry. Remember the apostle Paul's counsel: “So let's not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don't give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith” (Galatians 6:9,10, The Message).

Charles Arn, visiting professor of outreach at Wesley Seminary, Indiana Wesleyan University



2. Roger Parrot, Lasting Strategies for Rising Leaders (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook Publishers, 2009), 19.