By Scott McConnell
Lifeway Research conducted a landmark research study in 2015 sponsored by the North American Mission Board and Dr. Richard Dockins identifying 12 key drivers of pastors continuing to serve as a senior pastor.
It is easy to read social media posts and articles that talk about pastor attrition as if leaving the pastorate is inevitable or is outside anyone’s control. The reality is pastors and congregations can improve the odds of a pastor staying in the pastorate through practical preventative measures.
The following 12 practices were identified by comparing current pastors with former pastors who had left the pastorate before retirement age. We analyzed which questions most strongly predict whether a pastor continues to serve as a senior pastor. The impact of each of these practices is measured while holding all other significant variables fixed.
6 Things Pastors Can Personally Address
1. Courses on interpersonal skills
Pastors who have “taken courses on interpersonal skills” are nearly five times more likely to remain in the pastorate. The church is made up of people, and maintaining unity is a priority Jesus gave His followers. Yet, disagreements and conflict naturally arise.Pastors who have “taken courses on interpersonal skills” are nearly five times more likely to remain in the pastorate, according to Lifeway Research. Click To Tweet
Pastors who are skilled at dealing with different types of people, helping dispel conflict, and not taking disagreements personally are much more prepared to thrive in ministry long term.
2. Sharing struggles with your spouse
Pastors who openly share their struggles with their spouse each month are five and a half times more likely to remain in the pastorate.
This practice is actually very common for pastors. But the few pastors who cannot say they have this supportive relationship with their spouse have a huge void that other confidants don’t appear to be able to fill as effectively.
3. Sharing struggles with a Bible study group
Pastors who openly share their struggles with a Bible study group in their church at least once a month are more than three times as likely to remain in the pastorate.
Only about a third of pastors are in a Bible study group that helps carry their burdens. But when pastors can embed themselves in a small group, it has a sizable, positive impact.
4. Pastor’s marriage
A one unit increase in the level of agreement (from somewhat agree to strongly agree, for instance) that “my spouse is very satisfied with my marriage today” corresponds with pastors being more than twice as likely to remain in the pastorate.The more a pastor feels their spouse is very satisfied with their marriage the more likely they are to remain in the pastorate, according to Lifeway Research. Click To Tweet
Keeping their marriage relationship strong is vital to maintaining the pastor’s own strength long term.
5. Protecting time with family
A one unit increase in level of agreement that a pastor “consistently protects [their] time with [their] family” corresponds, on average, to being more than twice as likely to remain in the pastorate. The family is a pastor’s most vital form of support. Three of the six practices pastors can personally implement directly involve their families.
6. Ministry humility
Proverbs 16:18 says “Pride comes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall” (CSB). This is true in both life and ministry. Pastors maintain a biblical posture by focusing on what God is doing and avoiding giving themselves credit. All ministry leaders desire to do their work faithfully and see progress. But even a subtle shift in a pastor’s mind toward thinking something about them led to that progress rather than God’s work in them can be destructive. That identity is not sustainable because it’s something only God can do.The more a pastor believes “the church would not have achieved the progress it has without me," the less likely they are to remain in the pastorate, according to Lifeway Research. Click To Tweet
In this study of pastors, a one unit increase in level of agreement (from somewhat agree to strongly agree, for instance) that “the church would not have achieved the progress it has without me” corresponds to being over three times less likely to remain in pastorate.
6 things churches can specifically address:
1. List of counselors to refer people to
Pastors in churches that have a list of counselors to refer people to are, on average, four and a half times more likely to remain in the pastorate. People have issues. Pastors are often the first person a churchgoer turns to for counsel when the issues in their life get unmanageable.
Often the help they need is beyond the pastor’s own training or skills. Other times there are just too many members needing this help at one time. Referring those in need to other experts in marriage counseling, mental health, financial guidance, and other needs typically serves the one in need better and lightens the pastor’s load. Doing so is another indicator of a pastor’s humility showing they don’t personally have to do all the work of the ministry.
2. Plan for sabbaticals
Pastors in churches that have “a plan for the pastor to periodically receive a sabbatical” are, on average, over two and a half times more likely to remain in the pastorate. There are many times when a pastor’s life or the church’s reality is bleak. But when a pastor can look ahead and see signs of hope that can sustain them and the church, they can be encouraged to remain faithful to God’s calling in their lives.When a pastor can look ahead and see signs of hope that can sustain them and the church, they can be encouraged to remain faithful to God’s calling in their lives. — @smcconn Click To Tweet
In the same way the promise of our eternal rest in heaven gives us hope, a sabbatical rest can also provide hope to pastors even a year or two before its time arrives. When the time comes, it can rejuvenate a pastor for their next season of ministry.
3. A document communicating expectations of the pastor
Pastors in churches that have “a document that clearly communicates the church’s expectations of the pastor” are, on average, more than three times as likely to remain in the pastorate.
Imagine if individual members could add expectations of their pastor on a whim. When multiplied across a congregation, this possibility is inherently unrealistic. Few things are more discouraging than going to work each day to a “no-win” situation. This kind of document provides definition to the role and represents a mutual understanding of expectations.
4. A process for church discipline
Pastors in churches that have “a process for church discipline” are, on average, more than four times as likely to remain in the pastorate. Church discipline can refer to a wide range of sins or accusations of sin. Even if sin is biblically addressed, someone could still question who was involved or how it came about.
Having a defined process should reduce such conflict over logistics. When the accusations are toward the pastor, it should provide protection and due process. And when sin within the congregation is dealt with biblically, it allows the body of believers to function as God designed.
5. Limit unrealistic expectations of the pastor
A one unit increase in a pastor’s level of agreement (from somewhat agree to strongly agree, for instance) that “my church has unrealistic expectations of me” corresponds, on average, to that pastor being nearly half as likely to remain in the pastorate.An increase in a pastor’s level of agreement that “my church has unrealistic expectations of me” corresponds, on average, to that pastor being nearly half as likely to remain in the pastorate. Click To Tweet
Unrealistic expectations can include people looking to the pastor to miraculously right every wrong in the church or simply wanting them to do every task of ministry. Both types of expectation are based on error and need to be addressed. Church leaders should constantly be protecting the church from scope creep in of the expectations of the pastor.
6. Regularly encourage the pastor’s family
A one unit increase in level of agreement that “my congregation regularly provides my family with genuine encouragement” corresponds, on average, to being twice as likely to remain in the pastorate.
Encouragement is not something extra that is nice to occasionally receive. It restores the spirit of a pastor and their family. This is an easy and practical way anyone in the congregation can invest in the pastor’s long-term service in ministry.
Scott is the executive director of Lifeway Research.