5 Ways to Last 20 Years in the Same Church
Updated: Aug 4
In January, I began my twenty-fourth year as founding and current pastor of my church here in northwest Houston.
Statistics reveal that lasting this long in one church is rare. Thom Rainer and George Barna state that a pastor’s average tenure in a local church is about four years. Rainer adds that while longer tenure does not guarantee church health (just lasting a long time is not enough), there is a strong correlation between the length of time a pastor stays in a church and the church’s degree of health. Likewise, churches with a series of short-term pastorates are typically unhealthy and “essentially guarantee” that a church will struggle.
Also, while I have not found any research to support this claim, I would guess that not only are churches healthier with longer-term pastorates, but those pastors that stay are generally healthier too. This has been my own experience.
Let me start with some disclaimers:
1. I’m a normal guy. I have a wife of 29 years and three kids. We’ve had struggles in our marriage and I haven’t been the perfect father.
2. I could probably be categorized as the average evangelical pastor. My church runs 500-550 in total attendance. We did not “start with five families and grow to 5,000 in five years” as you might hear high-lighted at a church growth conference. While we did start with five families, it seems God had other plans for me.
3. I am a recovering achievement-addict and I still have insecurities to overcome. Yet, I’ve learned the hard way to define myself most as a child of God. I know there are better teachers and leaders than me out there, and I’ve come to appreciate and celebrate them in the kingdom. We need them and their churches.
4. We’re a healthy church. Not perfect, but healthy. We give our energies to reaching the lost, local and global missions, making authentic disciples, deepening Christian community, pointing people to joyful service, inspiring true worship, leading with integrity, and praying in desperate need of Jesus. I can honestly say that we’re doing our very best in pursuit of all these imperatives and each year we see positive results. Just as any other church, we’ve had our share of conflict and turnover. Thankfully, as compared to years ago, we’ve arrived at the point where these do not threaten the life and unity of our body.
So, within this context, allow me to share with you some things that I have personally learned or had to learn that have enabled me to make it 20 years. I hope these are encouraging to you no matter where you are in your journey.
I think many in ministry feel they are more teachable and moldable than they actually are. Godly confidence is a good thing, but assuredness can easily turn into arrogance and rigidity. At this point, one feels a personal stake in always being right.
Along with the birth of a vision comes the need for the development of the leader who receives it. I underestimated this. Through the pain of unmet hopes and conflict, God challenged my assumptions of openness, broke me of my stubbornness, and taught me to be authentically open to Him and to others in order to grow both in competence and character. Over time, I learned to listen to Him in my circumstances. I also became more willing to listen to those in my ministry who cared for me, who were competent, and who were committed to our church. Those who possess these three traits are the ones I pay attention to. Being influenced by others and being patient in getting what I wanted became a form of ongoing faith in God for me.
Know Your Identity
I was raised in an unchurched, alcoholic, and chaotic family. Christ saved me and changed me at age 17. While I acknowledged the void within me produced by the home in which I was raised, I was oblivious to how it drove my Christian life as a spouse, a parent, and a leader. Without knowing it, the unhealthy need I felt for achievement before Christ lingered into my Christian journey and fueled my leadership in ministry.
Church leadership has a way of challenging our sense of self and adequacy. That’s partly because we compare ourselves to other leaders— their “success” and their gifts. In the process, we undermine the person God made us to be. Or, better said, we undermine the God who made us the person we are. What you believe about yourself ultimately reveals what you believe about the God who made you.
My insecurities were exposed by ministry, but also were brought to a place of healing through ministry. In time and with some help, I began to learn about who I truly was in Christ, how I had been unfaithful to that identity, the false assumptions that I had about success in ministry, and what being an authentic leader means.
I learned to define myself by ultimately and only one thing: that I am child of God. On my worst day, I am still a child of God. This means I am never alone, never without potential, never beyond grace, never not growing, and never needing to achieve in order to prove myself. This focus allows me to accept the measure God has given me, and to celebrate the greater measure God has given others for the sake of the Kingdom.
It’s amazing how we can spiritualize needs for outcomes. How God’s mission for the church can be used to justify selfish ambition even without us knowing it. There was a time when I strove in ministry for external measures of success. I came to realize that these were more about me than the Kingdom. What many leaders call “driven” is in reality fleshly strife, which is different from hard work and passion. The subtle distinction between us being driven, as many leaders are, and passionately expressing ourselves, as all leaders should do, is crucial. Now, thankfully, on most days I possess passionate faithfulness toward being effective and define success as given my best effort toward the right things with the right motives. After that, I believe I can trust God with the results.
But as we all know, the sense of faithfulness that provides rest for outcome-motivated leaders can also be an excuse for leaders to be lazy – to not learn, grow, or be effective. So whether obsessively driven, or whether justifying a lack of effort and development, leaders must be in touch with their motivations about faithfulness. Not using it to spiritualize strife, and not using it to excuse ineffectiveness.
For me (the outcome-driven type), having learned not to despise having a small church allows me now, though we are larger, to not primarily define myself in this way. Numbers are an indicator of health, but are only one indicator among many. Now, we can handle more in number as God has given and work with passion without it affecting our sense of identity. More than proving who I am, I am simply expressing who I am. This focus is eminently healthy for me.
Develop a Hard Shell, Maintain a Soft Heart
Conflict within ministry requires secure emotional boundaries on the part of the leader. Early on, I did not possess those boundaries. I mistakenly associated conflict with personal threat, professional failure, or the fear of being proven wrong or inadequate. As a result, conflict often generated in me defeatism and self-condemnation.
There was no way I could survive without a new perspective. I had to find a way to erect emotional boundaries when conflict occurred—boundaries that protected my heart from vulnerability and threat—while at the same time maintaining the ability to lower those boundaries so that I could give, serve, and love others freely, and not become altogether disenchanted and cynical of people. This inherently meant that I had to keep conflict “out there”—i.e., outside of myself emotionally. I had to develop the strength of viewing it objectively, and cultivate an inner security that allowed me, on most days, to remain dispassionate when it occurred.
In time, I began to listen to the opinions of others without being dependent upon those opinions; to walk through and learn from mistakes without condemning myself as a failure; to respect people without fearing them; to allow conflict to refine my rationale in decision-making without becoming fickle and indecisive; and to learn that I may love others while at the same time protecting my heart from hurtful, dysfunctional people. This resulted in my ability to stand stronger in the face of disagreement and simply outlast the naysayers, while at the same time generally see people compassionately.
In short, I needed to become tougher. Not meaner, but tougher. Thank God that has occurred.
Simply Don't Quit
The health and stability our church enjoys now is gratifying. There’s no doubt these result at least in part due to my tenure as pastor. Yet, there’s not one single reason I could identify for lasting 20 years in the same church. Looking back, I see a mystical mixture of explanations. Some are really not all that spiritual, nor do they reflect any nobility on my part. Practically speaking, the intense busyness of the work has caused the years to pass quickly. Also, in honesty, despite having opportunities to leave over the years, even at two of my lowest moments in ministry when I wanted out, God seemed to withhold viable places to go. I look back now with gratitude that in His Providence He did not answer my prayers for escape.
One possible reason for making it this long flows from a kind of stubbornness in my spirit. This has been a force for both good and bad. There were good decisions I made that helped. Other reasons for lasting these years were in spite of me. They can only be assigned to God’s amazing mercy and the core of loving, faithful people in our church who also did not quit. They forgave me when I messed up and continue to give me the benefit of the doubt as their pastor-leader. Possibly all reasons stated form a confluence of things that had to fit together in some God-sovereign way.
I can say with certainty that all of the things I’ve described could not have been developed in the short-term. Not at least for me. They took time and a process that allowed these forces to come full-circle — through the pain of personal growth, through the healing that comes after the pain, and all the way through the perspective gained in hindsight beyond the healing.
And the unnerving and exciting thing is this: God’s still got more to do.
1 ^ http://thomrainer.com/2014/09/ten-traits-pastors-healthy-long-term-tenure/and https://www.barna.org/barna-update/leadership/323-report-examines-the-state-of-mainline-protestant-churches#.VgVcoaKNA-c
2 ^ http://thomrainer.com/2014/06/dangerous-third-year-pastoral-tenure/