In this essay, Thom Rainer describes a parish phenomenon that is all too common among pastors: the three year tenure. I grew up in a tradition – Methodism – that had institutionalized a four year rotational schedule for its ministers. While short tenures have some benefits, they do not allow for the development of the kind of relationships and trust that should exist between Orthodox priests and the people they serve. One of my mentors suggests that it takes at least ten years for people to trust their priest. Mercenary and lame-duck pastors provide the bare minimum a parish requires: services, sacraments, and even education; but they cannot nurture the kind of “we are One as God is One” community that Christ desires for us and for our salvation. It is true that some parishes seem to thrive despite having itinerant, short-term pastors; however it still does long term damage to the parishes’ spirit and the instinctive ecclesiology of their members. I especially appreciate the author’s advice to 1) keep the parish focused on the outside (e.g. evangelism and community outreach/service) and 2) take care of the pastor’s family (i.e. if matushka ain’t happy – no one is happy!).
Pastors generally don’t stay long at churches. The average tenure is between three and four years. But, as our research has shown consistently, longer tenure is needed for church health. Longer tenure does not guarantee church health, but a series of short-term pastorates is typically unhealthy.
Why is the tenure so short? The answers are many.
Uncovering the Mystery of the Third Year
At least part of the answer to the question above can be found by analyzing the third year of a pastor’s tenure. When I wrote Breakout Churches several years ago, I did just that. My book was primarily about long-tenured pastors who see sustained church health after a period of decline.
But in that study to find longer-tenured pastors, I discovered that the largest numbers of pastors were leaving their churches in the third year of their ministry at that specific church. The finding both intrigued me and concerned me. I began to interview those pastors to ask them why they left.
The Reasons for the Third Year Departure
Though I found no singular reason for the third year departure, I heard a number of common themes:
- The honeymoon was over from the church’s perspective. The church began seeing the imperfections in the pastor’s ministry. Many brought concerns about those imperfections to the pastor.
- The honeymoon was over from the pastor’s perspective. Some of the promises made by those who first sought the pastor were unfulfilled. Some of the pastors indeed felt they were misled.
- When a new pastor arrives, most church members have their own expectations of the pastor. But it is impossible to meet everyone’s expectations. By the third year, some of the members become disillusioned and dissatisfied.
- Typically by the third year, the church has a number of new members who arrived under the present pastor’s tenure. Similarly, some of the members who preceded the pastor have died or moved away. The new members seem great in number to existing members. Some are threatened by these changes.
- In any longer term relationship, that which seems quaint and charming can become irritating and frustrating. The pastor’s quirks thus become the pastor’s faults.
- All relationships have seasons. None of them can remain on an emotional “high.”
Possible Ways to Address the Third Year
Here are a few ways to address that dangerous third year of a pastor’s ministry. None are a panacea; but some may be helpful.
- Have an awareness of the possibility of a third year letdown. It is not unusual, and you are not alone.
- Be prepared for the down season to last a while. The dropout rates for pastors in years four and five were pretty high as well.
- Surround the pastor with prayer. Be intentional about praying for the pastor’s emotional, physical, and spiritual strength during this season.
- Keep the church outwardly focused as much as possible. Church members who are focused inwardly tend to be more critical and dissatisfied.
- Be aware that pastors who make it through these seasons are usually stronger on the other side. Their churches are as well.
- Church members need to be highly intentional about encouraging the pastor and the pastor’s family. While they always need encouragement, they really need it during this season.
The third year of pastoral tenure does not necessarily have to be dangerous; but it is many times.