Several years ago, a study by the largest denomination in the United States 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 3/4 of their growing churches were being led by pastors who had been in their church more than four years, while 2/3 of their declining churches were being led by pastors who had been in their church less than four 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:

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

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

There is an unmistakable relationship between pastoral tenure and church growth. While some non-growing churches have long-term pastorates, it is almost impossible to find a growing church with high pastoral turnover. Frequent change of pastors seems to neutralize the other factors that contribute to a church's growth.

What to Do About It

If you are a pastor, personally and publicly commit to staying for at least seven years. You may get an itch to move after three or four, but if you stay into the sixth or seventh year, you will begin to experience unsurpassed effectiveness and fruitfulness. Once you get past year seven, there's a good chance you'll 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" (Lasting Strategies for Rising Leaders, David C. Cook, 2009, p. 19).

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 your current church and community have sufficient opportunity for ministry … and your task is to tap into it? Don't fall for the myth that greater ministry exists 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 not be shaken 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 masquerade as reasons to move:

  • More money. Human nature is always dissatisfied, whatever we make.
  • Conflict. Another characteristic of human nature—conflict exists wherever there are people.
  • You're getting stale. Commit to being a life-time 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, that doesn't mean God is, too.
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