Life of a Pastor

Life of a Pastor November 28, 2011

A little while I back I posted a link to Thom Rainer’s proposed sketch of the “life of a pastor” and a pastor-friend of mine wrote me an insightful, substantive letter. I’ve delayed this until today for a simple reason: it’s Monday, it’s the first week of Advent when pastors can often feel like they’ve about had enough — and lots of new sermons to prepare and Christmas services … and, well, I thought today was a good day for pastors to think about the “life cycle of a pastor.”

Questions: Pastors, what were your major transitions? What got your through? Were you prepared for this in seminary?

I found Rainer’s timeline for pastor’s interesting.  I wonder what data he is using, or if it is personal observation.  There’s actually a fair bit of research on this, and the time lines I’ve seen are a bit different and more complex.

In time lines I’ve seen, the crisis comes at years 4-7, and it’s personal in nature.  Am I really called to this?  Do I have what it takes?  I think everyone I know well enough to know that graduated with me from seminary had a crisis of this sort in this time frame–folks like X, Y, Z and others.  I’ll never forget Matt’s words as he considered quitting the pastorate–“I’d just like to enjoy a little success again,” he said.  I knew exactly what he meant, because I was feeling the exact same thing (even though in many ways I was very successful–just didn’t match the models I was using or the scale I was used to).  Maybe because I have a pretty high pain tolerance, I made it to year 8.

If one makes it through this, then I think years  8 to 12 are probably years of growth, or maybe more specifically years of healing towards the end of growth.  Then in the studies I’ve seen (I forget the specifics and sources–maybe Alban Institute?) somewhere between years 10 and 14 you can expect a major pastoral crisis, different from the personal crisis earlier.  This will generally be parish related, and congregational in nature.

A lot of times at about this point a pastor will again be losing confidence in himself.  He may well wonder what if any real fruit has come from his ministry–and from what I’ve read, mega pastors are not exempt from this and in some way perhaps particularly vulnerable to it.  The really interesting thing is that if a pastor makes it through this crisis, people’s confidence in him will actually grow.  So he is in a structural position to do his best work, but personally may lose the will to do so.  There can be a fundamental disconnect, and a loss of both vitality and effectiveness.

I’m not sure what it looks like after that.   I do know that right now I face probably my second biggest crisis of calling.  Am I called to pastor a church larger than 400?  The more I read about what it takes to do so, I’m not sure why anyone would want to (ie, bigger churches take a lot more money to run, so the “sr. pastor”–I think Jesus would hate that name–has to focus on hob knobbing with a very specific set of moneyed folks which now by his success he most naturally relates too…  I’ve heard it from one megapastor after another for years now and it just feels so… icky.  So un-Christlike.  IMHO).  But I’m in a position where I need to do that or move on, and my dear wife doesn’t want to move on, and having just built a big building with more debt than I’d like I can’t really leave because the ensuing instability could sink the congregation.

So I guess the process probably repeats itself, which would make a lot of sense.

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  • phil_style

    “bigger churches take a lot more money to run, so the “sr. pastor”–I think Jesus would hate that name–has to focus on hob knobbing with a very specific set of moneyed folks which now by his success he most naturally relates too… I’ve heard it from one megapastor after another for years now and it just feels so… icky”

    This sort of statement should be promulgated!
    The mega-church phenomena undoubtedly forces the prioritisation of a Pastors time away from individual needs (the 1 from the 99) to corporate needs (which 1 person will have the most impact on the 99).

    Has anyone done any research into the application of Dunbar’s number in the church environment?

  • John W Frye

    I read Rainer’s “cycle” and was not impressed. Something in me recoils at charting pastoral paths. With your pastor-friend, I agree that the pastoral life is more complex and much more local. I was pastor of one (independent) church for 24 years and while some of the dynamics Rainer mentions came into play, they were not so time-predictable. My tenure there ended quite turbulently and I suffered a “dark night of the soul” for over a year. Vocationally it was the worst and the best thing that happened to me. I am now pastor of a smaller, denominational church and I have the wonderful opportunity to compare and contrast the bigger, multiple staff, attractional church to a smaller, one paid staff, community-oriented church. One thing called pastors must get over quickly is the idea that size, money, and notoriety matter to God. One of my daughters graduated with a mechanical engineering degree and her first salary for a major jet engine corporation was more than I was making after 18 years in ministry. “Not greedy for gain” has to be engraved in our souls. Also, I have come to revel in particularity. It is idiotic (either pride-producing or despair-producing) for pastors to compare their church with others. Comparing churches verges on vocational adultery. Pastors are called into particular communities, a locale in which to love God and love others and participate with the present, operative Spirit in seeing the kingdom come. Howbeit in fits and starts, the kingdom comes. That pearl is priceless.

  • Rick

    John #2-

    Thanks for sharing how you were impacted.

    “One thing called pastors must get over quickly is the idea that size, money, and notoriety matter to God.”

    But do you think that is what they are thinking? Some may be, but I wonder if it is more subtle. They are furthering the gospel, promoting the Kingdom, gaining new disciples for Christ, etc…

    I think they justify things by seeing “size” as a fruit of those efforts. “Money” is seen as the tool (neither good nor evil) God allows to be used. “Noteriety” is just a by-product of the church impacting an area, and can be used for promoting the Kingdom. I think that is how they are approaching ministry with those things in mind.

    However, too many are sucked into the negative aspects of size, money, and noteriety, but they never saw it coming (or paid attention to the warning signs).

  • John W Frye

    Rick #3,
    It may be that many see size, money and notoriety as you suggest. Yet, the subtle shift to these things as aims rather than by-products has to be honestly faced. We all have an uncanny ability to deny these dynamics as aims especially when the main accomplices are the people of the congregation who want these things, too.

  • Given what I have read about various pastors from the past (Edwards, Spurgeon, Ryle, Simeon, Lloyd-Jones, et al.) no clean pattern seems to emerge.

    Also, there is a need to look at how long is the actual tenure of the pastor. Varying patterns would surely emerge depending on whether someone stayed fifteen or fifty years in the same church.

  • Dan

    As a pastor who has been in one place for going on 14 years, I’m the “mystery” category. I’m truly stumped that Rainer doesn’t have enough information on 10 plus years. I thought there were many of us out there… at least more than there used to be.

  • While I am not always fond of this approach to charting the “career path” of pastors, as a church planting pastor in year 3, I know that I am on the bubble of sustainability. It has my attention.

  • Major transition at around 8 years, as we moved from startup into a building and went from “pioneering” to “settling”. I’m wired for pioneering and startups. Was able to find enough new internal startups to stay engaged to around years 12 to 15. We’ve been in another major transition the last several years of leadership succession and releasing me to broader ministry, while rooted here. Not an easy transition. This is year 18.

    I think we would all say that we’re glad we broke the “you gotta leave to make a transition” mold. On the other hand, it’s complicated to stay but transition into new roles, and make room for emerging younger leadership. And we’re not a mega with a huge budget so smart use of the money is a major issue.

    And no, nothing in seminary prepared any of us for this!

  • jacob z

    I am about to finish my first semester in seminary and my first 6 months in youth ministry.

    I have already hit my crisis! It’s just too much for me, so I’m cutting back my hours both at school and at work. I’m afraid so much of what I have been doing has been based on pleasing people and using my flesh to do it.

    Seminary feels largely a place to learn knowledge where I have to connect the dots myself so I am very glad to be ministering to youth at the same time.

    I have a very helpful pastoral staff and wife that are helping me greatly.

    I’m not sure it’s quite as quantifiable as these articles, but that’s my journey here at the beginning.

  • scotmcknight

    Jacob Z, thanks for your honesty.

  • Does this apply to women pastors? I notice Rainier only refers to male pastors.

  • phil_style

    @Casey (#10), I noticed that too….

  • Rick in IL

    I often return to a scene in the play “A Man for all Seasons”, where Thomas More is trying to help a young, ambitious, anxious-to-rise Richard Rich. More offers him a teaching position. “You’d be a fine teacher”. Rich spits back at him “And if I was, who would know it?” More responds “You. Your students. Your friends. And God. Not a bad audience”.