How to Know When You’ve Stayed Too Long As a Pastor

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The prevailing wisdom for pastors is longer tenure is better. I believe this principle is generally true. A string of shorter tenures is usually not healthy for churches. But it is possible to stay too long. What are some of the signs?

When you become the lightning rod with every change effort. Challenging the status quo is disruptive. You should expect people to push back when significant changes are proposed. The pastor will, at times, be the focus of criticism. If you lead, you will be challenged by those who feel the impact of change. This critique is a necessary part of accountability. However, when you become the lightning rod for every change effort, the relationship of trust between pastor and church is broken.

When you give up on innovation and find deep comfort in the status quo of the past. Church should never be the place where pastors find solace in living out nostalgia. Reaching new people and generations requires an ongoing effort to innovate, communicate, and connect.

When your physical body can no longer take the demands of ministry. Our physical bodies will ultimately fail us. The typical mid-60s retirement age does not need to be a hard-and-fast rule for pastors. Many pastors have the stamina and ability to keep shepherding well into their 70s. But there is a point when the body simply cannot handle the rigors of ministry.

When apathy or anger dominates your feelings. Emotions come and go, and we all can be fickle. But something is wrong when you remain angry, day after day, week after week. The same goes for feelings of apathy. You cannot lead a church with apathy. You cannot love a church through constant anger.

When you consistently blame the congregation for lack of progress. Who is to blame? The question is largely irrelevant. The blame may lie with a recalcitrant congregation or an incapable pastor, or no one may be to blame. Sometimes, pastors are not a good match for a congregation. Assigning blame does not help anyone. The best option is a gracious exit with limited drama.

When your primary motivator is paying the bills or cruising to retirement. Leadership is a gift from followers, not a right. Every pastor must serve first and lead second. The mission of God will never be attained with an attitude of “me first.” Pastors should be paid fairly, generously even. But it’s difficult to accomplish God’s mission through the motive of economic gain.

When you believe the church cannot possibly replace you. No one says these words out loud, so only you can know if you harbor this pride in your soul. The only irreplaceable One is Christ Himself. You are not the savior of your church.

When you would rather let the church die than die trying to save it. No church should die. Ever. Perhaps a church is far gone, deep into a toxic state of disunity. Maybe a church has decades of decline or has veered far from doctrinal convictions. Would the death of these churches advance the kingdom? Would their death glorify God? No. If God can save any person, then He can save any church. If we believe in redemption for people (anyone!), we must also believe the same for churches.

Discerning God’s will can be challenging. Personally, I made a transition many years ago where I still wonder if I correctly discerned God’s call. Every season has an end date. But what is that date? Ideally, pastors should remain at their churches for long periods of time, but there are cases when it’s time to make a move. Lastly, if possible, it’s better to have another position lined up—for you and your church. Resignations into unemployment should be avoided. The smoother the transition, the better for everyone involved.