Why short-term pastorates hurt local churches

As the year nears a close, I am also entering into my 7th year as the pastor of my church. In many ways, it feels like I have been here for an eternity. But, even more so, I feel like I am just getting started. I want to be at Blue Ridge for a very long time, so long as it is the Lord’s will; not just for own sake but for the sake of our church’s long-term health, because short-term pastorates hurt churches.

I am not saying that pastors should always stay long term. Sometimes God calls them to another work. In many cases, pastors are treated so poorly, I don’t blame them for leaving. In other cases, congregations are justified in asking the pastor to leave.

But, no matter the reason, short term pastorates can be (not always) detrimental to a church’s health.

Here are five reason why.

  1. The church has to start all over. When a pastor leaves a congregation, that church basically hits the reset button. Actually, they hit the pause button until they find their next pastor, and then when he does get there, they hit the reset button. New pastors have to get to know everyone; both in the church and the community. They have to get to know the ministry and the way things are done. This takes time, and every time a pastor leaves, the church basically has to start over.
  2. Churches lose members when pastors leave. It’s just inevitable. When I first started pastoring at Blue Ridge, if I remember correctly, I think about 12 people left before I even started. Once the pastor preached his last sermon, those folks didn’t come back. Then once I got settled in, another dozen or so left. Yes, I am just that charming! Honestly, I didn’t take it personally. Well, maybe I did then, but I don’t today. Time heals all wounds. My point is: when a pastor leaves, many people in the congregation leave as well, and it can be hard for a church to recover from that.
  3. Churches begin not to trust and follow pastors. When churches see a 4-5 or more pastors in 15-20 years, they begin to see a pattern. Pastor Joe comes in and he’s on fire to make an impact on the community and the church. He has all kinds of ideas. All the while, the church sits backs and just waits for the inevitable. “Conflict will soon come” they think. “He’ll get frustrated and leave.” Or, “He’ll find something better. They always do.” Congregations don’t fully trust their pastor; at the very least, they never really buy into him, because they’ve seen a revolving door of pastors over the years. Their mentality is, “we were here when you came, we’ll be here when you leave!”
  4. There is no consistent vision. Multiple pastors mean multiple visions—theologically, missiologically and ecclesiologically. That is to say, every pastor is going to have his idea of how a church should be taught, led to do missions, and how to do church in general. And when there is no consistency, a church suffers.
  5. It’s a bad witness to the world. When a church constantly shuffles through pastors it sends a message to the world, and it isn’t a good one. I recently heard a story about a new pastor. One day he went to the grocery store and introduced himself to the clerk as the new pastor at such and such church. She responded, “Oh, I am sorry!” Her response told him everything he needed to know about the church’s reputation in the community.

I have two closing words of encouragement. First, to my brother pastors: Do everything you can to stay for the long term. Fight the temptation to search for other churches, and work as hard as you can cultivate a fruitful and joyful ministry. Long term ministry will be a blessing. Secondly, to the members of our churches: Treat your pastors well! Be kind to them. Pray for them. Encourage them. Love their families, and pay them well! May God bless us with pastors and churches that go the distance together.