In my mind at the moment the spin isn't a particular twist on the news, a way to slant what is happening in the world in a more favorable direction. My wife has said for years I have a tendency to turn things my way. Most of her pastor wife friends nod knowingly when considering their husbands as well. But, that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about the revolving doors of church offices across America. While the church struggles to find some traction in this slippery world, the office doors are spinning off their hinges.
Want to do some stats? There's plenty of numbers about the entrance and exit ramps of church ministry. Several very reputable research groups conduct statistical studies about pastoral and ministerial longevity, the rigors of serving in a local church, and why so many people leave the ministry all together. The Barna Group gathers accurate data, as well as the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute for Christian Leadership Development, a very good web site @ expastors.com, as well as through the research organizations of our own denomination. The Thom Rainer and Ed Stetzer sites usually provide very accurate and dependable data. You know how to find them all.
finishperiod.com doesn't do research, other than asking my wife's opinion about my work every day. So, I am very grateful for the excellent statistics developed by people with a mind for those things. One thing is clear after reviewing pages of that data: pastoral turnover usually happens before a pastor finds traction in his church assignment. Thom Rainer estimates that most pastors leave their current church position before the conclusion of their third year. A Barna Group study indicates that pastors find their greatest effectiveness in ministry during their fifth to fourteenth year. If that is true, effectiveness beginning at the five year mark, then most pastors are leaving before they have become fully functional in their mission setting.
So, how can pastoral tenure be lengthened? Well, in my work as Director of Pastoral Ministries at the South Carolina Baptist Convention, the best solutions for these dilemmas were actions taken up front, when the call to the church was issued. It's
a complicated and delicate process that involves many elements. But, before final decisions there are five strategies I've recommended before one agrees to move to a new church---
1. Consult the assistant holy spirit. Please forgive me if this sounds
presumptive or irreverent, it is not intended that way. Answering a call to a
church is a vitally spiritual process that requires deep prayer, good listening
skills, and an ability to discern God's leading in these decisions. However,
forty-two years ago, before I ever considered ministry, God brought Harriet
as my parner for life. So, I refer to her as the asssistant Holy Spirit. She is my
greatest advisor and always brings important clarity to church decisions. She
would go with me anywhere. But, before saying yes to a congregation I always
want to hear her insights and thoughts. Listen up.
It's a side-bar, but Harriet and I are wired so differently. Her personal strengths
and mine are poles apart except where our "belief" theme is shared. This
means she brings things to our decisions that I cannot. Her deliberative and
analytical strengths gap my weaknesses in these areas. So, her assessments go
deep, and her thoughts are always a valuable part of every decision we make.
2. Get up close and personal with someone. You should have accountability
partners or colleagues who know you top to bottom. Get their honest input
before you make a decision. And, I do mean honest.
3. Look at the double-sided coin. No, don't flip a coin. It's more important than
that. No, look at two sides of the coin. For me they are clear: I will never pastor a
church I would not join, and I would never join a church I would not pastor. Yes, I
know we're all superman and can shape things to suit us! But, a lot of mistakes are
made when we fail to take an honest look at the situation in front of us.
4. Ask, are you running from something or to something? Here is a real
dilemma for many of us. We often make poor decisions about a new place
because of the necessity of leaving an old one. It's easy for me to say this
because I've never been under pressure to leave a ministry. There have been a
few close calls but we were always able to press on. Running from something
or to something, however, are important directional signs. I mean, the grass
usually isn't greener.
5. Do a gut check. God speaks clearly. When he speaks we know it is him. He
gives his servants the spiritual insight to discern his will in these important
decisions. In history he has spoken through the Spirit in all things, through the
Word, in prayer, through the church, and through our life circumstances. Often
he guided the great leaders of history through a sense he created in them. Pay
attention to all of the ways he speaks. But, don't overlook the gut check.
Church dynamics and the spinning office doors aren't one dimensional, and these five simple suggestions for pastors making moves won't settle the disturbing demographics so characteristic of the church today. They may, however, help deal with a few of the front end questions, those that are often overlooked in heat of the moment.
There were only four moves in my thirty-five years of pastoral ministry. Each involved leaving a great situation for one that wasn't so great at the time. Each involved a cut in pay and therefore a change of circumstances. In each move I prayed for God to re-arrange the stars and spell out what direction I was to take or to give me a sign of what he wanted me to do. He was faithful too. There were no burning bushes or re-arrangement of the heavenlies. He spoke to us in those five ways mentioned above.
There were many other opportunities too, doors that opened, others that closed. Those five steps above helped us to discern which ones to genuinely consider and which ones to by-pass.
And, the spin stopped with them. We are grateful.