With sweat pouring down my cheek, my father said to me: “Put your head down; focus on the path before you. Don’t look to the right or the left. Take your time. Don’t finish quick, but finish well.”
This is how my dad taught me to mow the lawn. His advice is also relevant to the pastorate, especially maintaining longevity in ministry. It is rare for pastors to stay in one church for long, much less to stay in one place until their ministry is complete.
Half the ministers beginning their pastorate will not survive five years. They will self-destruct or be chewed up before the ink on their seminary degree is dry. I’ve also heard that the average tenure in a church is less than three years. If these statistics are even close to the reality, then the lifespan of the average pastorate in one church is all too brief.
Numerous issues contribute to short-term pastorates. Some pastors flight around from one church to another, never settling anywhere for long. They are like migratory birds; they change locations with the seasons. These pastors tend to treat ministry like a sprint (or a stepping stone) and not the marathon it is. On the other hand, there are also churches that rifle through pastors, shuffling the deck every few years. Additionally, some denominations frequently move their ministers from place to place, a practice that is not helpful to the problem either.
Pastor, as far as it depends on you, stay at your church for the long term. Don’t give up. Be patient, loving, and faithful to the Word. If possible, stay at your church until the Lord plucks you to be with Him in eternity. In the end, this will be best for you and your congregation.
I believe the following are best accomplished when the pastor is committed to staying with the same congregation:
1) Preaching through books of the Bible (Acts 20:27; 2 Tim 4:1–5)
Faithful exposition is in short supply. The proclamation of the Word requires an unflinching commitment to explain the original meaning of the text and its application to the church. Preaching expositionally and sequentially through books of the Bible takes time, and preaching the “whole counsel of God” is simply not possible when the pastor stays only a few short years.
2) Training the next generation of leaders (2 Tim 2:2)
It is the church’s responsibility to recognize and train the next generation of leaders. Though a seminary education is invaluable, such should be viewed as a supplement and not a substitute for training within the local church. Therefore, it is incumbent upon current pastors and elders to take the long view toward cultivating future leaders from among their own congregation. Pastors must own the responsibility to train men in their church for ministry, equipping them for the task while affirming their character and ability.
3) Shepherding the flock (Acts 20:28; 2 Cor 12:15; 1 Pet 5; 1 Thess 5:14; Gal 6)
Faithful shepherding requires an extended commitment to encourage the faint-hearted, strengthen the weak, and restore the wayward. A lengthy tenure helps to develop the trust of the sheep. After all, pastors are not above the flock but part of it. Those who remain with their sheep long enough to suffer and rejoice with them will reap the fruit of their enduring efforts.
4) Modeling an exemplary home life (1 Tim 3:4–5)
Ministry is modeling, and the faithful pastor’s family is an exemplar of submission to Christ and His Word. With that in mind, lead your wife and children to love the flock as one who is deeply committed to the church, not a hireling merely passing the time until the next “big thing” comes along. An enduring commitment is also a blessing to your wife and children as they put down roots of ministry in one place without having to start over every few years.
5) Protecting the flock from false teaching (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim 1:13; 2 Tim 4:3–4; Titus 1:9)
Pastors are called to be guardians of the trust, nourishing the flock on sound doctrine and keeping them away from error and unhealthy trends. Longevity allows the pastor to develop the trust necessary to effectively guide and guard his people. Over time, he is able to establish a balanced track record of exhorting the faithful and refuting the harmful. Furthermore, his consistent and loving proclamation of Scripture through the years provides a powerful buffer against errant teachings that seek to gain a foothold.
6) Developing patterns of faithfulness (Acts 20:19; 1 Cor 4:16; 11:1; Phil 3:17; 1 Pet 5:6)
There is something to be said for steady faithfulness. The habits modeled by those in spiritual leadership set a pattern for people in the church to follow (Luke 6:40). But it takes time to cultivate faithfulness and humility in ministry. When you stay in the same place for a long time, the congregation can observe and follow the patterns of your ministry (Phil 3:17). Of course, that does not mean you have to be perfect, brilliant, or famous. It simply means you must be faithful.
How long should you stay at your church? I’m not suggesting that everyone be like Laban Ainsworth who pastored the same church for seventy-six years (longest on record in America). However, just one third of his tenure would be a vast improvement in today’s climate of leadership hopping.
Pastor, stay long enough to say with Paul: “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable” (Acts 20:20). How many of us can say we’ve given our churches everything within just a few years? I have been with my congregation thirteen years and in some ways I feel like we are just getting started. There are many more sermons to preach, sheep to guide, and leaders to train. As my father counseled me: “Put your head down; focus on the path before you. Don’t finish quick . . . finish well!”
“But what if?” you ask. Consider the wisdom of one 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 C. Thomas, Practical Wisdom for Pastors, 144).