How Long Should a Pastor Commit to a Local Church?

At one point in the past, I posed the question on my blog of how long a pastor should remain with one church. Every now and then I look back at the most thoughtful response I received to the question (which came from an Orthodox priest) and spend some time thinking about it. He said,

I would generally suggest what is often the norm in Orthodoxy, which is that a priest remains at one Church for the entirety of his ministry. There are, of course, many exceptions to this. Interestingly in the history of Protestantism in America this was once thought the norm as well (colonial period, for example). A pastor who had served at as many as three churches was frequently considered either a failure or troubled.

The changing of pastors is often driven by careerism, disguised by all kinds of reasons. Most pastors go to other churches for more money, and so on, unless there is something wrong in which case they tend to move down.

In the case of a priest of the Orthodox Church, I don’t know why I would ever want to leave my flock anymore than I would want a family other than the one I have. I hear their confessions, baptize, marry, bury, teach, preach, grieve, rejoice, beg their forgiveness. There is an old saying from the Desert Fathers that says, ‘Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.’

Like a marriage, a pastor, I suspect, would look very differently at his church if he thought his entire life would be spent there. No running away, no moving up. Just here with these souls and any others who may come. My goal in life is to be buried from my present parish at an extreme ripe old age hopefully having been faithful and fruitful in my ministry in this place. Of course, all of these things are in the hands of God.

I think there is a lot of wisdom in this, and I find myself resonating more and more with it as time goes on. Growing up, I was part of a tradition which would see congregations get new pastors every six or seven years. I see some strengths and weaknesses in each view, and have had varying opinions on the matter over time.

As you prepare for ministry, have you thought about this? If you feel called to pastor a church, do you find yourself identifying with what the priest said above, or do you expect to serve several churches in the tenure of your ministry? What are the pros and cons of each?



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Jake Belder
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  • Great post Jake-

    I grew up in a church where the staff stayed for a long time. My Dad has been there since 1977 (in a couple of different roles). Being that I am at a seminary where many of my classmates will be “itinerant” (they are UM), I hear alot of critique about staying at a church for a long period of time.

    This comment is resounding. I wrote a paper my first year of seminary about Pastoral ministry being paralleled not to a shepard, but a patriarch, for many of these reasons that your priest friend said.

    In a world where many ministers do practice careerism, this is a alternate voice. Thanks for sharing the comment and your thoughts.

  • In the groups that I tend to find myself in most of the time, I see two extremes. On one hand, my best friend (and senior pastor) has been at only one church (CBA), and he’s been here for nearly twenty years. Another local pastor who we are friends with has served his church (AoG) for 18-19 years.

    On the other hand, the pastor who planted our church left after seven years. The pastors of my wife’s home church (GARBC) historically tend to rotate every eight years. Two other friends serve as interim pastors for three-to-five years while balancing careers as Bible college professors.

    From my circle of friends, it seems that the commitment is either “under a decade” or “life”. I presume that both of the guys who are on the “life” plan would actually call it “life, or until God calls me elsewhere” but neither seem to have that on the radar.

    I’ve been a pastor for over two years now. I’m not the senior guy, though we’ve made some changes so that I’m the full time guy, and take the larger share of the preaching schedule. How long will I commit here? This is the church I came to faith in as a high school Senior, leaving only to earn a Bible degree and to import a wife. I love this church, and I tend to gravitate towards the “life” end of the spectrum, even planning to do graduate work through an InMinistry program (such as Western or Bethel’s). Then again, I do love the concept of planting a church, so it’s possible that God may call me to that ministry (in which case, I’d plan to stay there for life, Lord willing).

  • The main caveat I see to a lifelong commitment is if theological values change. I know a young man who is in the middle of a 5-7 year commitment to a church, but his theology is changing drastically. He is really conflicted because he feels like he wants to proclaim truth, but he doesn’t want to cause division either.

    That’s not something that happens with Orthodox or RC, I’m sure. It’s one of the appealing things of belonging to a more established mainline denomination. There is much less wiggle-room for these kinds of things. Though I suppose if a Presbyterian were to become Arminian, for example, it would be time to leave too.

  • I have no experience in pastoring, but have known many and I just have one thought.

    While I think what is being criticized is frequent moving between bodies by clergy, I don’t necessarily see committing for a lifetime to one flock to be the other best alternative. I think this for two main reasons.

    First, it seems it might be possible, depending on the situation, for the church body to become more pastor-centered than Christ-centered. My old pastor, who is a little bit of a cult figure already, spoke to us who worked at the church about guarding against this. And he said the best way to prevent this was to equip and train younger pastors yourself and then move on. So, the church is not necessarily importing a new pastor, but neither are they forgetting that it is God who is our ultimate teacher, counselor, and Father. (And boy, can worshipping the worship-leader or pastor happen subtly.)

    My second reason is a bit more practical, and it is simply that while this would not be the case in the ideal world, in reality, most church bodies begin to resemble the pastor in terms of passion, giftedness, etc. For example, if you have a pastor who is passionate about witnessing, it’s bound to catch on. Social justice? The same. A pastor who leans more toward intellectual preaching than motivational preaching? This will attract certain people over other. And while, again, I still don’t think this reality is cause for clergy to move frequently, I do think it is reason enough to want one’s flock to be as Christ-like as possible by bringing in fresh blood with complementary gifts and passions as yours. While this might already by possible in a larger church where there are prominent associate pastors whom are hopefully chosen wisely to complete the non-giftedness of the head pastor, my caution is directed mostly at smaller churches or churches with very charismatic leaders, where the congregation rarely gets exposure to other temperaments.

    I have been to many churches in my day, as we moved a lot growing up and I married the son of a pastor, and I am grateful for the cross-pollination that I have received as a result. Yes, there are downsides, but I think it helps me not to think, “Well, if Pastor X says so, than it must be that way.” My default is to judge anything according to the Word of God and Godly wisdom, which might serve the Church at large well today.

  • Jason, that’s a great point. Since entering the ministry here, I’ve come to a more Calvinistic view of Soteriology, and am reading a fair bit of Reformed literature. Thankfully this hasn’t created a divisive issue in our church leadership (if anything, its been something that has strengthened our unity and commitment to scripture as we work through things), but if it were a problematic thing, I can see how that would prompt one to consider leaving.

  • @ Laura, I think you make some great points. It is very easy to go from one extreme to another. The way I approach my ministry (I have thus far been an assoc. pastor/youth pastor and am currently serving as a children’s pastor) is that I am there as long as God has me there. I do not look at ministry in a time-line. I do pray that the Lord would allow me to ultimately pastor a church “for life” but am not completely set on that. I have seen God change my mind numerous times.

    I think the most important aspect of the ministry is that you are in tune to what God has for you. If you are spending time with Him alone, then you will know. Just my thoughts.

  • I like the idea of life. In my two ministry posts I’ve always approached them with a long-long term vision. Of course, we were open to there being a change in the plans, but we didn’t look or search for them.

    When I was talking to a friend who was trying to decided between two ministry options I told him, “approach your first call like it will be your last.”

    Jake, I loved the priest’s quote. Thanks for that.

  • Chad, thanks. It certainly does take on a different like when you view the calling as more the role of a father than a shepherd.

    Len, thanks for sharing. I wonder how significantly it would affect our perspective if we are concerned with the present as opposed to the future, focusing on the task we are called to right now instead of thinking where we might be in the future.

    Jason, very good point.

    Laura, I really resonate with what you are saying here. I have witnessed “pastor-worship,” if you will, on a number of occasions and it is a deeply troubling phenomenon. While I think the pastor you cite here offers some helpful advice, I also feel (from my own experience) that a pastor developing a cult following may not necessarily be a result of his tenure at a church, but a reflection of his pastoral abilities. I don’t want to say that to point any fingers, but just to say that this is the correlation I have witnessed. I think it is important that a congregation forms a close bond with its pastor, but–and maybe the distinction of shepherd and father/patriarch that Chad mentioned above is helpful here–does that close bond mean we follow the pastor around as sheep, or that we learn from the father figure who equips us and prepares us to go out into the world, as it were?

    I would be tempted to respond to your second comment along a similar vein–if I Church comes to reflect the strongest gifting of the pastor, is that indicative of a potentially problematic pastor-congregation relationship? Is the leadership of the Church not equipping the parishioners, whose gifts would be varied and diverse, to use those gifts to contribute to the full-orbed ministry of the Church?

    All that being said, I just do so to raise some questions that immediately came to mind. Take it for what it’s worth, and thanks for sharing your insights. 🙂

    Terry, that last point you make there is key.

    Ryan, also great advice there. More people need to hear that, I think. It seems to me that it’s awfully difficult to commit to something fully if you’ve already conditioned it as temporal.

  • Sadly, the perpetual churn of parish pastors exacerbates the anemia of the local church. Congregants hear a Gospel and an Epistle, and then the pastor is off to do the same somewhere else. Fuller understanding and broader application of the full revelation of scripture would undergird greater commitment, spiritual agility, and steadfastness—of course, in conjunction with the Holy Spirit. To stay in one place baptizing children, seeing them married off, and baptizing their children—that is a testimony of longevity and commitment (and ultimately kingdom orientation) that supersedes lengthy resumes of varied posts or circum vitas of broad diversity. In my work with placing pastors into ministry contexts, I tell them to have a vision no shorter than 5 years for their first call, to double each call thereafter.

Written by Jake Belder