According to the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, there are currently around 380,000 church congregations in the United States. Christianity Today’s Rebecca Randall reports that number was higher in 2006, with approximately 414,000 congregations. From 2006 to 2012, an estimated 30,000 congregations closed.
That’s the bad news. The good news is the church still has the lowest closure rate of any institution in the country. And while 30,000 churches closed between 2006 and 2012, there are still something like 50,000 more congregations in the U.S. than there were in 1998.
Most of those 380,000 congregations are led by pastors, sometimes by large pastoral staffs. How often do these pastors leave their churches? It is difficult to be sure, since study results vary widely, but in 2011, Lifeway Research found the average pastoral stay to be 3.6 years. Other studies show the typical pastoral tenure to be between 5 and 7 years.
What this means is that churches need to find new pastoral leadership more frequently than I need to find a new car. Since pastoral leadership is important to the life and health of a church, what should a local congregation be looking for in a prospective pastor?
Most pastors have a job description. They frequently detail duties such as preaching, teaching, and visiting the sick. In recent years, many job descriptions include things like “strategic leadership and planning” and call for the pastor to be the church’s “lead visionary.”
Such things are good, but they don’t replace the fundamental requirements given by the apostles of Jesus and preserved in the Bible. A key passage comes in St. Paul’s letter to his protégé, Pastor Timothy. He lays out some of the essentials in 1 Timothy 4.
First, the pastor is to be an example for church members to imitate. Paul lists some specific areas in which Timothy should provide the pattern. The first is speech. The Bible says a great deal about speech – it is to be true, loving, gentle, interesting, free of gossip, manipulation, and deceit. How pastors preach is important, but how they speak when they’re not in the pulpit is even more important.
Furthermore, their lifestyle is to be exemplary. What is important to them? How do they spend their time? Do they value people more than money, character more than fashion? Are they hard workers? If church members all patterned their lifestyle after their pastor, would the church be a better or worse place?
The apostle specifically calls Pastor Timothy to model love. Love can be taught from the pulpit, but it is caught in personal interactions. Of all the places in the world, the church should be the place where people know they are loved. The pastor must demonstrate that.
Pastors must also be devoted to Scripture. They must love the Bible, read it privately and publicly. They should teach the Scriptures, not their own pet subjects or their thoughts on the latest news cycle. (I once heard a sermon based entirely on a news story that appeared in the previous evening’s paper.)
Another essential for the pastor is that he or she is growing as a person and as a disciple of Jesus. Pastors like to look like they are completely grown, as if they had already arrived at the optimum level of spiritual maturity. But if your pastor is already done growing, it’s time for a new pastor.
St. Paul counsels Pastor Timothy to demonstrate his growth “so that everyone may see your progress.” This leaves no room for pretending one has already arrived. The church does not need a pastor who impresses them by how far he is beyond them. A faraway leader won’t be followed.
The church should look for pastors who are obviously growing, leaders who openly admit they are fallible and imperfect but whose progress is plain to see. A pastor who has already arrived is not a leader to follow but a target to aim at, as churches throughout history have proved.
Churches must remember that even the best pastor makes mistakes, has flaws, and failings. Only Jesus is perfect. The leaders he sends are not, but still he sends them, and we must do our best to love them and grow with them.
First published by Gatehouse Media