Our instant society is killing our patience. The great strengths of our technological advances comes with a great weakness. Sure, we can instantly communicate with hundreds or thousands of people and be reached at any time, but lost is the virtue of perseverance.
This plays into our approach to church ministry as well. There is a built-in expectation of instant growth and success, particularly in young pastors. We all know stories about the new church planter or pastor whose new ministry brought an immediate surge of growth, throwing them into the spotlight. We admire the men like Matt Chandler who stepped in and saw his little Baptist church in Texas grow from a hundred and something to 10,000+ by adding over a thousand people a year. Something within us keeps telling us that this could be me. We hope and lust for this. We think this will be us. Young guys actually have thoughts like “This church is me away from greatness. I’m the answer. They aren’t growing, but wait until I show up.” The problem is you, the answer is me.
And then after a couple years if the church or ministry doesn’t explode with growth we are tempted to move on. Clearly the problem is the church not me.
While we admire these examples of instant growth and tend to hope for the same for us, they are actually an anomaly. The actual data tells a different story about the normal pattern for growth. Research has shown the connection between pastoral longevity and growth. In one study, approximately 3/4 of growing churches were being led by pastors who had been in their church more than four years, while 2/3 of their declining churches were being led by pastors who had been in their church less than four years. Their conclusion was “Long-term pastorates do not guarantee that a church will grow. But short-term pastorates essentially guarantee that a church will not grow.”
Additionally, research shows that the most productive time in a pastor’s ministry is in years 5-7, and yet the average pastoral tenure in protestant churches is less than 4 years. Together these stats are troubling. Most of us are quitting too soon.
There are days and seasons when the work is tough and the grass sure looks greener elsewhere. But we need to recognize that there are seasons in ministry. There are tough seasons and great seasons. Seasons of sowing and seasons of reaping.
I’ve been through some difficult seasons. I’ve encountered gossip, angry confrontations, and people leaving the church. In those times, thoughts of quitting and walking away definitely entered my mind, but by the grace of God I stayed, and hung in there when it was hard.
I know I’m not alone and that other pastors have faced far worse. This is ministry. There are seasons when people have nothing but undying appreciation for you and seasons when a revolt is brewing.
Right now, nearing the end of my fifth year, I’m enjoying the best season of my pastoral ministry. We’re seeing growth and health. The vision we cast five years ago is coming to fruition. We have much to celebrate and be thankful for. These are really good days. But we would never have got here if I had quit when it was hard. There are still problems and challenges, but in all it’s a good season. I pray it would continue.
Both statistics and experience tells me that if you are in a tough season, take heart, better seasons are coming. Persevere my friends, it will get better.
God Gave the Growth
In I Corinthians Paul needs to confront the divisions that were emerging as people admired and followed different Christian leaders (“I follow Paul”, “I follow Apollos”). Paul uses a farming analogy to show the foolishness of all this type of talk: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (I Cor 3.6-7). Paul has a role. Apollos has a role. Everyone has their role to play, but its Gods role to grow the church. So keep doing your role, keep doing the right things, even if the fruit isn’t there yet. Even in hard seasons keep planting, keep sowing, keep watering. Don’t quit too soon. Don’t stop doing the right things, but instead “fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim 4:5).
Pastoral ministry has always been hard work. I know that some people make it look easy. It’s not. The normal call of a pastor is to faithfully persevere in ministry through great days and tough days. As Paul tells Timothy, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops” (2 Tim 2.3-6).
Work hard. Persevere. Stay the course. Good days are coming.
When to Transition
Now this is not to say that it’s never the right time to transition. There are a number of good reasons why the timing may be right for a change. Fresh starts can be good for churches and for pastors. I’m not at all saying to never move on. There is a time to change. Discerning when is probably the topic for a different post. But what I am pointing out that is more often than not pastors quit too soon. The job gets too difficult, the grass looks greener elsewhere, and they give up before the better days arrive.
On good days and bad days, whether the gospel is bearing much fruit, or whether we’re just picking rocks out of the soil, we are called to faithfully do our part recognizing that God gives the growth. Plant. Water. Work hard. Be faithful. Trust God. And don’t quit too soon.
This post was originally written for Grounded in the Gospel.