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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Pastor's Tenure

Depending on which reports you read, it is said that the average tenure for a pastor in America is about three (3) years. It's a widely discussed statistic in church and ministry circles. Even denominations wring their hands over it.

Another alarming pattern is the number of pastors who leave the ministry. In fact, the statistics here seem a bit horrifying. Let's take a look:

80% of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter full time ministry will leave the ministry (as a profession) within their first five (5) years.

About 1,600 ministers are fired or forced to resign from their posts every month in the U.S. More often than not, they've not done anything specifically wrong.

Only 1 out of 10 ministers today will actually retire from that profession. The rest will be one of the above statistics - and never finish the race they started.

Now lest you think that I'm taking pot shots at ministers, I'll just go ahead and confess that I'm in the above statistic. I belong to the ranks of people who felt called by God to be a full-time pastor ... and then flamed-out after serving on staff for a few years at a couple of churches. I wasn't fired or forced to resign. I left of my own free will - but nonetheless felt like a failure. I was devastated.

Several months later I consulted a trusted elder in our church (who is also a dear friend) and sincerely asked what I had done wrong or what I could have done more right. His answer? "Nothing. You did nothing wrong." Of course, that offered little solace at the time. But in time it has begun to make more sense.

My own experience, plus much observation, has taught me that a pastor doesn't have to do anything wrong to see his ministry go down in flames. It isn't necessarily a mark on his ability or his faithfulness to his calling from God. It also doesn't have to be a judgment on the people he was trying to pastor. Despite how it feels or how it looks, the whole phenomenon should not be a surprise to us.

So here's the deal. Jesus said that a prophet is never accepted in his home town. Basically the people tend not to respect a prophet that they know. So it seems that it takes about three years for the people to know the pastor - including his faults and flaws and weaknesses. If it is a growing and healthy church, the people will demand a turnover. Unfortunately the pastor gets caught in that dynamic.

But what of the pastors who are the exceptions. I think there are one of two things going on. First, if the pastor has long tenure with the same church, he or she has been able to reinvent themselves over and over again (like maybe every three years). Of course, the other option is that the church is dying. (And that is another alarming statistic in America.) Dying churches usually don't kick out their pastor.

So here's the deal for the new pastor in the church.

  1. Reinvent yourself every three years or so.
  2. Get kicked out of the church in about three years, on average.
  3. Pastor a dying church.

Now when you are considering ministry as a profession, for yourself or someone else, do you know these dynamics are facing you or someone you care about? If you're already in ministry, have you become aware of these truths? Are you prepared to face them?

America is gasping for effective church leadership. We need church leaders who will go the distance, stay in the race, and of course stay in the ministry. Churches are dying all around us. People are dying all around us.

So let those of us who feel God's call count the cost and enter the race with eyes wide open. Let us be sold out enough to stick with it when the going gets difficult. And most importantly, let us not be deceived by the circumstances. If God called you to ministry, His call on your life is not revocable.

The only question is, when one assignment comes to a close, "Where will God send me next?"

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