Tenure Matters

“How long have you been the pastor?” a visitor asks.

“Ten years,” I reply.

They look back at me with a little uncertainty. “You’re a Methodist preacher – I’m sure they will move you soon.”

I’ve been hearing that refrain for six years. People remember the days of moving Methodist preachers every four years. The old Methodist adage was, “After four years, if the pastor is good, it’s time someone else had them. If the pastor is bad, it’s time someone else had them.”

Considering the decline of our denomination, it is clear that our churches need leaders who can manage effective change. A major ingredient in managing effective congregational change is tenure. Let me be clear – tenure without shared vision and shared values is like a pool of stagnant water – it may be there a long time, but it produces nothing. Effective leadership shares an investment of more than time – the leader shares vision and core values with the congregation. As leaders build vision and values over time, trust grows and trust is the key ingredient in the dynamic relationship required to manage change. Serious, fundamental change (described by some as “frame-bending” change) can threaten the identity of the church. Congregations will not take a chance on losing their identity with a leader who they feel is not a stakeholder. They need a leader who understands the identity of the congregation – someone who is invested in that identity. If they feel the pastor is looking ahead to the next move, why would they enter into a time of disruption? Why would a church go out on a limb while the pastor remains on the ground?

Some pastors constantly look ahead to the next appointment – they move every four years. After 20 years in ministry they say, “I have 20 years of experience.” No, they have four years of experience five times. Churches are also guilty of a “four year and out” mentality. One lay person told me, “We are a four year church – even if we like the pastor, we make a change.” Then he wonders why his church has been in decline for 20 years. Pastors and churches with four year mentalities change very little. How can preachers and congregations learn and develop through conflict if they make a change every time the going gets tough? If they part ways when things are difficult, what do they learn? If a pastor moves every four years, where do they gain the leadership skills needed to lead a church through multiple stages of development? It takes more than four years to enact substantive change.

In The Second Coming of the Church, George Barna states, “The average tenure of a pastor in Protestant churches has declined to just 4 years—even though studies consistently show that pastors experience their most productive and influential ministry in years 5 through 14.” A long term relationship (tenure), rooted in vision and values, builds trust. Trust is a required to manage substantive change. Tenure matters.

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