By Sam Murray
Senior Pastors currently average between five and seven years for their tenure on one church staff, based on the polls and studies that come up from a quick Google search. Sometimes Senior Pastors leave after just one or two years on the job. The fact is, it’s becoming increasingly rare for a Lead Pastor to stay at one church for more than 5 years. So what’s causing them to leave, besides the prompting of the Holy Spirit?
Each Pastor’s story is unique, but these four broad stressors can cause significant tension and often lead to a separation from a church. Most of these issues can be avoided by improvements to the interview process and communication practices.
1. Expectations were not clear
Everyone loves checking items off their to do list and achieving goals, so it is easy to get anxious when the goals are ambiguous. It is likely that Senior Pastors will wind up with more on their plate than any one person can handle if the job description is not clearly outlined from the beginning and reinforced through the day-to-day experiences. Flexibility is always going to be one of the most important expectations in any church staff role, but it cannot be the only expectation. Unclear expectations will almost always lead to burnout.
2. Expectations were clear but unrealistic
It’s common for Senior Pastors to bite off more than they can chew. It is the responsibility of the Pastor search committee, who has a great perspective on the church and the role, to communicate realistic expectations throughout the interview process. If you are on the other end of that interview process, it is your responsibility to dig into those expectations and determine how realistic they are. Are there clear long-term goals and checkpoint goals along the way to track progress?
Once on the job, staff on-boarding is essential to set someone up for success. Your staff and/or search committee must create systems to orient the new Senior Pastor with processes, culture, job responsibilities, and further expectations. It is unrealistic to expect someone to pick up on all of those intricacies without some sort of an on-ramp. Sometimes you are hiring for change, but it is still essential that the change agent is deeply familiar with the way things have been done previously in order to know how to best implement that change.
3. The change is hard and uncomfortable
Change can be hard for the church. If the new Lead Pastor was hired to be a change agent, was the church ready for the change? If a church has been without its Senior Leader, it may not initially respond well to someone being back in the role, especially someone different then what they were used to.
Be as honest with them as you expect them to be honest with you. It is tempting for everyone to put their best foot forward during interviews, but you also need to provide them with the information they need to get a realistic view of the church, role, and vision.
Change can be as hard on the Pastor as on the congregation. This is a new setting for the Pastor as well, and adapting isn’t without discomfort. We hear a lot of stories about how the cultural or geographic change was too big of a shift for a new church staff member. Often, the new hire’s spouse or family never gets plugged in or connected. Did you involve the spouse in the hiring process? Was everyone prepared and understanding of the level of change that would be experienced by both the church and the Pastor?
We hear Pastor candidates say all the time, “I can handle anything but a surprise.” The element of surprise is the most frequent reason that a new Senior Pastor would feel a need to leave around the one or two year mark. A surprise feels like a betrayal, like they were tricked into something they didn’t agree to. Was the vision they were promised different than reality? Was there conflict on the staff that was not disclosed? Was the financial climate a wreck? Did you overstate the level of autonomy the Pastor would have or misrepresent the structure of the church? None of these issues are going to scare off the right candidate for your church, but the lack of trust that will result if these are not disclosed before hire will never be repaired. Pulling a “bait and switch” is a surefire way to drive away a new church leader.
Sam Murray is a member of the Candidate Relations Team at Vanderbloemen Search Group
This article was originally published on Vanderbloemen Search Group’s Church Leadership Blog and has been republished here with permission.