When Long-term Pastorates Fail
Please hear me clearly: I am a strong proponent of longer-term pastorates. I love hearing about pastors passing tenure thresholds of five, ten, and fifteen years. All other things being equal, I would much rather see a pastor have long tenure in a given church than not.
But recently a member of this community challenged me. He is a longer-term pastor himself, and he candidly and transparently shared some of his struggles of serving so many years at one church. I took his admonition to heart and reviewed several long-term pastorates that did not turn out well. I saw five common themes in their struggles:
- The pastor can coast. Because longer-term pastors have earned the trust of members over many years, it can be tempting for them to go through the motions of ministry and leadership. They may also be weary of the ministry and, thus, have little desire or energy to lead the church to a new level.
- There can be too much familiarity among the staff. It is not unusual for longer-term pastors to have longer-term staff. It is possible this staff becomes too comfortable with the pastor and the pastor’s leadership. Simply stated, they no longer look at the pastor as their leader as much as they view the pastor as their friend.
- The pastor can stay for the wrong reasons. In some cases, the longer-term pastor hangs on for financial security or fear of finding another place of ministry. The call to ministry thus becomes a defensive call rather than a proactive vision-laden call.
- Church members can get too comfortable. The longer-term pastor becomes a source of routine and tradition for the members. The pastor becomes a symbol of longevity, stability, and change aversion.
- The pastor can stop learning. Longer-term pastors must be highly intentional to learn about the world outside their own churches. Because they have been at one church for so long, they can see their particular experiences as normative. One pastor shared with us, “After twelve years at my church, I started learning about other churches, even visiting a new church once a quarter. I was amazed to learn how much had changed in church practices that I had missed the past several years.”
For certain, longer-term pastorates have great advantages. I have written about those advantages and spoken about them on my podcasts several times. But it is possible for a longer-term pastorate to have its own challenges. It seems that those longer-term pastors who avoided these problems were highly intentional in moving in a positive direction.
I would love to hear your perspectives on pastoral tenure, and specifically on longer tenure.
This article was originally published at ThomRainer.com on November 7. Thom S. Rainer serves as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and seven grandchildren. Dr. Rainer can be found on Twitter @ThomRainer and at facebook.com/Thom.S.Rainer
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