Is there an optimum length of ministry?

In the late 1970s, with the help of Alan Wilkinson, I conducted a detailed questionnaire survey of over 350 Baptist churches in England. At the time I was testing out some of the assumptions of Peter Wagner, at the time one of America’s leading church growth consultants.

One of the questions I was keen to research was the optimal length of ministry in one church. In his book Your Church Can Grow, Wagner declared: “Pastors of growing churches are generally characterised by longevity in ministry” – and by this he meant long serving within one church. This was confirmed in our British survey. We discovered that, as a general rule, it was not until a minister had served for 5-10 years in his church that you could expect to see growth.

Other North American surveys have come up with similar statistics. According to Lyle Schaller, the productive years of a given pastorate begin around years 4,5,6. He says it takes that long to earn your right to lead by proving that you are a servant. Lynn Anderson thinks it takes a little longer before pastors see a reward for their labours:

In the first two years you can do nothing wrong. In the second two years you can do nothing right. In the 5th or sixth years either you leave or the people who think you can do nothing right, leave. Or you change, or they change, or you both change. Productive ministry emerges somewhere in the seventh year or beyond.

But – and this is the key question for this blog. Does there come a stage when a minister has stayed too long? In our survey Alan Wilkinson and I discovered that – as a general rule – churches ceased to grow after a minister had stayed more than 15 years. However, if a minister stayed for more than 25 years, then almost in most cases the church would be still growing – although honesty compels me to admit that at that point our statistical base was too small to make this a significant finding!

Peter Brierley in a recent paper for Future First readers, published in April 2013, comes up with the following conclusions:

  1. Leaders staying less than 6 years are the most likely to see their congregations decline
  2. Leaders staying for between 7 and 13 years are those mostly likely to see their congregation grow, and this would appear to be true whatever the size of their church
  3. Leaders staying longer than 15-17 years are also likely to see their congregation decline (or decline again after growth)
  4. These comments assume that the purpose of church leadership is to see an increasing number of people in the congregation
  5. Those responsible for larger churches (in excess of 350 people) are likely on average to serve longer than those serving in smaller churches
  6. There are many brilliant exceptions in churches where leaders have served for more than 20, 30, or even 40 years or more with great success [for example, Spurgeon stayed 38 years at the Metropolitan Tabernacle; and John Stott stayed 25 years at All Soul’s]
  7. There is some evidence to suggest, thought, that when a leader serves for 20 or more years, the succession plans need to be very carefully worked out, if the good work done is not to be undone.

Inevitably, I reflect on my own experience of ministering first in Altrincham, and then here in Chelmsford. I stayed in Altrincham for 13 years, and during that time the church quadrupled in size from 83 members to over 300 members. By the time I finish in March 2014 I will have been minister of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford, for 21 years. But here the statistics are more complex. When I came to Chelmsford in 1993 the membership stood at 400 – however, this figure was unrealistic for the membership roll had not been revised for a while. At that stage the church was in strong decline – so much so that after seven years of ministry the membership was down to 250 members. However, we persevered, so that as at April 2013 point the membership stands at 372, with currently a further eight people requesting membership.

I confess I have found long-term ministry both a rewarding and fulfilling ministry. It’s a wonderful privilege, for instance, to be involved in families over a period of time and to see those children brought for a service of dedication later confess their own faith in baptism; and then at a later stage to be involved in their marriage and even in the dedication of their children.

However, if my own experience is anything to go by, there are constant temptations to move on. The moment, for instance, we began to experience significant church growth at Altrincham, that moment the invitations to other churches poured in. Yet had we moved at an early stage, the probability is that the structures for growth I had sought to put in would have collapsed like a pack of cards with the result that growth would have been short-lived. As it is, although with a new pastor the church took a slightly different direction, the basic structures remained and the church continued to experience growth. One of the costs of growth is therefore a willingness to stick at it – however tempting the offers from other churches might be. This has certainly also been true of my ministry here in Chelmsford. It is precisely because I have been committed to pastoral longevity, that we have seen fruit – fruit, which God willing, will remain.

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