One of the most frequent calls I get in my church consulting role is from pastors in new positions and within their first year they are in serious trouble. The board, congregation, key families (or any combination of the above) are becoming critical or even hostile. They are seemingly in danger of becoming a pastoral casualty. Problems in churches are unavoidable, but in 25 years of consulting I’ve identified some particular Do’s and Don’ts that some of my readers here might find helpful.
Graduation Season is upon us and across the country a new crop of seminary graduates is about to depart the classroom and enter into some sort of ministry. One of the “urban myths” about new seminary graduates is that they tend to have “short and problematic” pastorates, especially in their first church. The survey data doesn’t substantiate that. In the United States senior pastors currently enjoy a tenure of about 2.3 years. Here are the results for one seminary’s graduates (who are senior or preaching pastors):
- One year or less: 58%
- Two to Five Years: 56%
- Five to Ten Years: 67%
- More than Ten Years: 19%
This means that roughly 43% of this seminary’s graduates have been in the same church for more than five years. In comparison to national averages that is really exceptional. Nearly 67% of their graduates also followed a stable pastor who had served for five years or more.
But, that still means that 57% of their grads stayed at their church for less than five years, and the overwhelming majority of those entered an unstable situation where the previous pastor had served less than five years. Even a good church and a good pastor do not necessarily make for a good ministerial marriage; but a desperate church taking on an equally desperate candidate is almost certain to fail. Regardless of the stability of the previous pastor and that ministry, often new men fail because of what they did or didn’t do in their first year at a church.
What to Do:
- Learn everything you can about the history of the church. Who started it? Why was it started? What is their heritage? What are their traditions?
- Learn everything you can about the neighborhood demographics and trends.
- Learn who your key leaders are in the church. Understand the difference between “paper” leaders and “real” leaders. They may not always be the same.
- If there are former pastors in your congregation find out who they are and why they are no longer in full time ministry. Get to know them very well.
- Prioritize the essential areas to address in terms of change or emphasis shift, do the research, and understand the history of why something is being done the way it is.
- Thoroughly learn all of the ministries in the church. Observe them all in action if possible.
- Preach in a manner that people get to know you and your preaching style gradually. If the church is used to a 30-minute sermon don’t start at 50 minutes.
What Not to Do:
- Avoid, if possible, doing anything major on anything. Research shows that a pastor who has to undertake a major change or major problem in a church in their first year 70% of the time they will leave that ministry within two years.
- This doesn’t mean not to take head on major issues of discipline or other problems just to save yourself, but if that happens understand you may be, in reality, simply an interim pastor (and if you leave the church in a better position, that’s not a bad thing).
- Don’t preach a long series through a difficult book of the Bible. Let the people get used to you and your preaching style with shorter series or book studies.
- Don’t even suggest or even hint that you are going to seek to change the church polity or leadership model or the doctrinal statement.
- Don’t bash or say unkind things about former pastors or people who have left the church.
- Note: reaching out to people who have recently left the church before you arrived may seem like a good thing to do, but don’t. Remember the old saying, “be careful what you wish for.” Reaching out to folks who have left is akin to reclaiming problems that are not yours.
- Remember the difference between your personal preferences and biblical imperatives and make sure the biblical imperative really is biblical and imperative.
- Do not make promises about any current staff you may inherit, to anyone.
Planning for Your Future: Making Ministry Model Decisions Now to Avoid Future Disaster
Churches (and thusly their pastors) often fail by running into a wall or falling off a cliff. These issues are almost always avoidable with prior planning or having a ministry philosophy for the church that answers various contingencies. Remember not planning is a plan, it just happens to be a really bad plan.
Planning Issue #1: Church Growth
- Who is more spiritual?
- Church Planting vs. Continued Enlargement: neither is more or less biblical, neither is more or less spiritual, neither is more or less effective. BUT, a church needs to pick one path or another and plan for it.
- Absent a plan a church will often go through repeated periods of growth, problems related to dealing with growth, decline, new pastor, growth, and so on. One church that comes to mind has gone through this cycle at least three times and seems doomed to a fourth.
- Growth benchmarks for any church.
- There are benchmark numbers that a church must consider (for both facilities and staff) which are fairly simple: 100, 250, 500, 750, 1,000.
- Buildings and stuff are important.
- The church facilities and all that goes with them are actually important. A church needs to pay attention to these issues.
- The “church that meets in the school” statistically has a life span of only 7–10 years (and after five years if the church has no plan to acquire its own facility a church will typically begin to see plateau and key people, especially those with young families will start leaving).
- A church may also be in a location that will ultimately doom their growth. Location and facilities are important.
- Churches, for whatever reason, typically will stop growing once they begin to reach 75-80% of their sanctuary capacity.
Planning Issue #2: Church Staff
- What do you need?
- Not every church needs the same type of pastoral and support staff in the same order. Again, facilities and personnel are often intertwined. Often a church cannot add needed staff because there is no place for them to work.
- Who do you need?
- A church MUST build staff, both support and pastoral, to work around the strengths and weaknesses of their senior pastor. Churches often sputter or fail when they have a lot of pastoral staff who have the same skill set.
- Remember: There are different types of senior pastors; they have different skill sets and different abilities. Some well-known, successful pastors are really terrible at important aspects of church ministry. They NEED the proper support to be successful.
- Most of us will do what we enjoy doing and are good at and will not spend time on doing things we don’t like, no matter how important those things are.
- A church is usually best served by operating on the principle of “strength based leadership.” However, you cannot avoid necessary things, even if no one is good at doing them.
- When do you need them?
- Generally a church must add pastoral and support staff as it grows and hits certain benchmarks. For ease of discussion, typical growth marks are 100, 250, 500, 750, and 1000.
- Every church will be slightly different, if they are unsure how to proceed, getting outside consulting assistance is a very good idea.
Planning Issue #3: Church Transitions
- Transitioning ministries.
- Typically any church will benefit from having an interim pastor between full-time senior pastors.
- Statistically, if a pastor follows someone who has had a ministry of more than 20 years, unless there is an interim pastor (ideally for about a year) then the next pastor will last for less than five years (often unhappy years). This drops to about three years if the retiring pastor stays at the church.
- There have been notable exceptions (J. Vernon McGee had a long ministry after Louis Talbot’s long ministry at the Church of the Open Door and W. A. Criswell had a long ministry at First Baptist of Dallas after the long tenure of George W. Truitt) but eventually it catches up (in both of these cases there were significant struggles in both churches after the retirements of McGee and Criswell).
- Transitioning staff and leadership
- A Senior Pastor, regardless of structure or polity, needs to be able craft his own staff. If he doesn’t or can’t the church is likely to struggle. As I noted above, never make unconditional promises about staff before you arrive. It is my personal view that the staff works for the senior pastor. I advise candidates to be very careful going into a situation where their ability to change the staff is limited.
- Transitioning staff is always difficult. Typically it is better to do what must be done quickly; however, it is important that it been done “decently and in order.”
- Transitioning Yourself
- It is often difficult to know when it’s time to move on. Generally, you will know. Warren Wiersbe, in his autobiography Be Myself (Victor Books, 1994), has a helpful discussion of his experience in this area.
- The biggest problem with pastors is NOT knowing when to retire (see the above note on Transitioning Ministries). There is simply no hard and fast rule (For instance in my opinion McGee retired too early and Criswell retired too late).
- When you follow a pastor who has had a long and successful ministry it is a near statistical certainty that if he remains in the church “as just a member” or “pastor emeritus” you will experience significant struggles and probably a short tenure.
Naturally many will offer ancedotal illustrations of how the above points don’t apply. “We never had any plans and the Lord carried us through” or “We’ve been meeting in a school for 15 years and things are going great.” I’ve heard all of these “exceptions” and generally when I dig into it a little I discover there is more to the story. Obviously fidelity to biblical principles and reliance on the power of the Lord are foundational to any successful ministry. But trusting things to serendipity on one hand or making Pharisaical requirements on the other are simply recipes for disaster, discouragement, and even defeat. Plan, pray and perform is a formulae more likely to allow you and your ministry to raise the averages in the right direction.
 I have often heard men that have left (or worse split) a church say things like, “the people wouldn’t obey the Word” or “weren’t willing to submit to the Word.” I have personally investigated that type of claim well over a dozen times and have never found it to be the foundational reason for a failed pastorate.