By John Crotts
How long should a pastor serve the same church? The Bible doesn’t answer that question. The average length of service for pastors in Protestant churches in America is down to about 4 years. For that to be a true average, think about how many pastors must serve far less than four years. There are plenty of situations and circumstances where a short-term ministry is completely legitimate, such as the Apostle Paul’s short ministries in various places in the Book of Acts.
Certain pastoral blessings happen best in shorter times. An interim pastor, for example, can be greatly used of the Lord to bring needed health and stability to a church during a difficult time of transition, saying important things that an outsider can express easier than an insider.
Although there are true blessings for pastors that serve four years or less, there are other blessings that really begin to accumulate after five years.
The number one qualification for serving as a pastor is to be above reproach according to 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:5. This means a man has to have a faithful track record among the people that he serves to even be qualified to be a leader in the church. While there are certainly benefits in checking the background references of a new pastor, it will take time before a congregation experiences his character, and can personally affirm it.
The Bible always assumes leaders will serve in the context of their community. The vast majority of qualifications for ministry in those sections of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are about character qualifications like humility, discipline, and not being greedy. The man’s family is also up for examination. How has he led his wife and children? Are his children faithful and respectful? Paul even mentions the man’s reputation with outsiders in the community. The way a man treats those in town that he does business with will say a lot about the kind of man he is.
When a man only serves for a few years in a place before moving on misses out on doing ministry out of the overflow of godly life lived out before a congregation.
A man who lives among the same people for decades will have an entire gallery of character sketches that have been drawn for the church and community to observe. While no pastor is perfect, all pastors are called to make visible spiritual progress. “Practice these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Tim 4:15). Even when pastors fail, they can provide a good example of repentance and forgiveness.
The Christian life is caught as much as it is taught.
A proven pastor shows people how to live rather than just preaching about it from the pulpit. Example is huge in the Bible. Paul says to the Philippians: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:9).
The longer a church has her pastor the more example there is to follow. It is one thing for a pastor to prove that the Christian life can be lived for two years in a row, it is another thing to prove that it can be lived for ten, fifteen, or thirty years in a row. It is one thing to show a group of Christians that you can be a young married man with no kids and manage to pray and study the Bible and seek to live it out, it is another to do that with multiple children at different stages of life. Can a man live for Jesus after his kids all leave home? Can a man serve the Lord even as he gets close to retirement age? A church with a long-term godly minister will get to watch an example of all of these things in flesh and blood.
A man who stays at a church a long time serves the church in good times and bad.
Most churches have these waves. If a man only comes along when things seem to be on the upswing and then leaves as the hard times begin, the church will probably develop wrong ideas about both the man and the church. There are great benefits for a church to have a leader that endures the hardships with them. That pastor might not look like the super successful spiritual leader if he hangs around through the hard times as well as the good times, but the reality of his life and ministry will stamp the lives of those in that church in a profound way.
Individual spiritual journeys also have ups and downs. When a man shepherds the same flock with other godly leaders, he walks through the highs and lows with people. Since the Holy Spirit is working to make all Christians more like Jesus, the real Christians will come back around when they backslide. It would be sad to see the hardships of people and not get to experience the joys of restoration. Over many years, a faithful pastor sees it all.
Finally, pastors that serve in the same church for many years are personally invested in the church. While it seems nice for a new pastor to say he is part of the family, instead of just an outsider hired to do a job, it takes time for those words of commitment and connection to become reality. After enough time everyone will say it is our church family. We are seeking to serve the Lord together.
When a man just passes through church after church for two years at a time, can he even remember what it is like to personally belong to a church family?
Being a pastor brings many blessings. When God allows and strengthens a man to serve the same church for a long time, those blessings multiply. Always remember to pray for your pastor. Always be the kind of church member that encourages your pastor through good times and difficult times, all for a long time.
John Crotts is Senior Pastor of Faith Bible Church in Sharpsburg, Georgia. He has three theological degrees and is the author of several books, which you can view here. He is married to Lynn and they have four children.