The Rarefied Air of the Long-Term Pastor



As part of my role in my denomination (they would call it a Cooperative Fellowship), I have the opportunity to interview potential candidates for Ordination into the ministry. More often than not this is a wonderful opportunity to get to know our new ministers, investigate their call and ministry, and speak some wisdom and support into their lives. During this last round of interviews a good brother in ministry and I were talking with a gal who had been involved in ministry for at least 20 years, and her husband closer to 25 years. Their Ordination mentors had both been in the ministry for close to 40 years. I and my partner had 26 and 40+ years of ministry ourselves.

As it turns out, that conversation took place in rarefied air. Later that week we sat in a room of Presbyters where the shortest term of ministry was probably close to 20 years. Also, rarefied air.

In case you did not know, if your pastor has been at your church more than 4 years, you have an anomaly on your hands. And if your pastor has been in the ministry for at least 20 years, you have a survivor on your hands. Here are some stats collected in the book, Replenish: Leading From a Healthy Soul, and taken from several sources. There are many studies that show very similar results.

  • 1,500 pastors leave the ministry permanently each month in America.
  • 80% of pastors and 85% of their spouses feel discouraged in their roles.
  • 70% of pastors do not have a close friend, confidant, or mentor.
  • Over 50% of pastors are so discouraged they would leave the ministry if they could but have no other way of making a living.
  • Over 50% of pastors’ wives feel that their husband entering ministry was the most destructive thing to ever happen to their families. .
  • 71% of pastors stated they were burned out, and they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis.
  • One out of every ten ministers will actually retire as a minister.

These are really sad statistics. The pastoral ministry is important, but it turns out to be very hard.

Having been in this vocation for a long time, I know there are many different reasons for a pastor leaving the ministry. Some churches are toxic and eat pastors for lunch. Some pastorates are in difficult places making it hard for a pastor and his family to make a living, even bi-vocationally. And so forth. I have no intention of making someone who has stepped out of the ministry feel bad about themselves – these stats represent several dear friends of mine. But I think a little reflection is in order.

For Churches

If your congregation has gone through several pastors in the last 20-30 years, you need to do some soul-searching. There is a pretty good chance the problem is you, not them. Most pastors enter a position with a loving and entrepreneurial heart. They want to see the church healthy and growing, and they want to build a good relationship with their neighbors and community. If the church has a history of choking ministry, however, it takes a lot of hard work on a pastor’s part to get past difficult people to actually minister the gospel. Many pastors get the ironic joke that the best thing that happened to their church was a handful of funerals.


Long-term pastorates are statistically the most successful pastorates. According to one study, the most effective ministries last between 11.2 and 21.6 years. And beyond simple numbers, long-term pastorates can be best for everyone involved. A pastor’s family can sink roots and build a network of friends and family. A church can get to know their pastor and their needs. There are tangible and intangible benefits when a community is built over time. In a healthy situation a church can learn how to support the ministry a pastor has been called to without becoming toxic or sycophantic. A congregation does not exist to lord over a pastor, and neither does it exist to become a “yes-man” factory treating a pastor with total leeway.

A church may need to ask some serious internal questions. Are we structured to help or hinder a pastor, their calling, and ministry? Where are the toxic components in our church? Do we need to remove someone from the board? Do we need to step into the role of helping administration issues? Are we being fair with compensation and expectations?

A healthy church can become an incredible and productive part of peoples’ lives and the health of a community. A good relationship between a pastor and the congregation is vital to that.

For Pastors

God called you to do the things God called and created you to do. You cannot control what happens in the hearts and lives of other people, and your call will not look like another’s. I have joked that if you feel bad about your ministry you are simply comparing yourself to the wrong people.

You were called to be faithful, not to control outcomes.

Each of us needs to find ways to re-center ourselves in the single relationship of I-God. God does not relate with you through the health (or lack thereof) of your congregation. We often tie our worth and effectiveness to those things, but God does not. In both “success” and “failure” we need to stay tethered to the I-God relationship and our life before our Audience of One.

Build a clear sense of your calling. On that day when I sat with a brother and interviewed Ordination candidates, we talked about the power of the call. He survived three civil wars in Africa, and maybe even more dangerous, he has survived rural pastorates. We both agreed that there was something uniquely powerful about the call itself. You may not be able to put your finger on it, but you know you were called. You know, somewhere deep down inside, that you will not be happy unless you are somehow fulfilling your call (or God changes it). Jeremiah once tried to stop but concluded his call was, “a burning fire shut up in my bones” (Jer. 20:9). More than you may know, the call itself will sustain you.

May God richly bless our pastors and churches, and the kind of influence they can have when they are strong and healthy!

2 thoughts on “The Rarefied Air of the Long-Term Pastor

Add yours

  1. I am curious how the statistics fare for bivocational ministers like myself. From my personal observations many hang on longer because the power brokers in the church can’t drive them out by threatening their salaries, but I have no studies to back up that observation.


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