With sweat pouring down my cheek, he 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. This is also wisdom for maintaining longevity in ministry. I find that 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, then the life span of a pastor’s tenure in one church is all too brief. *(This statistic comes from Jared C. Wilson, The Pastor’s Justification: Applying the Work of Christ in Your Life and Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 19.)
Numerous issues contribute to this problem. 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 and not the marathon that it is. Still, there is the problem of churches rifling through pastors, shuffling the deck every few years. Denominations that frequently move pastors around are not helpful to this 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 away to be with Him in eternity. In the long term, this will be best for you and your congregation.
I believe the following are best accomplished if the church’s leadership is committed to staying with the same congregation:
1) Preaching through books of the Bible (Acts 20:27; 2 Tim 4:1–5)
The proclamation of the Word is an unflinching commitment to the original meaning of the text and its application to the church. Doing this expositionally and sequentially through books of the Bible takes time to develop and deliver. It is hard to imagine preaching “the whole counsel” with the average pastoral tenure.
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. The seminary is a help not a substitute. Since this is not a position for the novice then current leaders must take the long-view toward raising-up future ministers.
3) Shepherding the flock (Acts 20:28; 2 Cor 12:15; 1 Pet 5; 1 Thess 5:14; Gal 6)
You are not above the flock but part of it. You should be there long enough to suffer and rejoice with your sheep. Faithful shepherding requires an extended commitment to encourage the faint-hearted, strengthen the weak, and restore the wayward.
4) Modeling an exemplary home life (1 Tim 3:4–5)
Ministry is modeling and your family is a great example of submission to Christ and His Word. Lead your wife and children to love the flock as one who is deeply committed, not a hireling merely passing the time until the next “big thing” comes along.
5) Protecting the flock from false teachings (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim 1:13; 2 Tim 4:3–4)
The leaders of the congregation are the guardians of the trust, nourishing the flock on sound doctrine. See to it that the congregation is balanced doctrinally and not subject to changing doctrinal trends.
6) Developing patterns of faithfulness (Acts 20:19; 1 Cor 4:16; 11:1; Phil 3:17; 1 Pet 5:6)
Your habits will become the habits of the flock. It simply takes time to cultivate faithfulness and humility in ministry. Aim to stay in one place long enough so that the people can observe and follow the patterns of your ministry (Phil 3:17). You do not have to be perfect, ambitious, captivating, or popular. However, 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 almost twelve 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. Like mowing the yard, “Put your head down; focus on the path before you. Don’t finish quick . . . finish well.”
“But what if?” you ask. Listen to the balanced 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. (See Curtis C. Thomas, Practical Wisdom for Pastors: Words of Encouragement and Counsel for a Lifetime of Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 144.)