7 Indications that a Pastor of a Declining Church Has Stayed Too Long

Some time ago, I posted,Ten Factors that Help Long-Term Pastors Stay at Their Church.” Since that time, I’ve also worked with declining churches whose pastors have, in my opinion, stayed too long in their current place of service. Here are some of the clues that move my thinking in that direction: 

  1. The church is in continual decline, and the pastor always blames the congregation. I know there are many troubled churches–and decline cannot be attributed to only one cause–but long-term pastors leading churches into decline must take some responsibility for the problem. 
  2. The pastor no longer has vision for the church; he lives in survival mode. Everything is about paying the next bill and getting through next Sunday. Any sense of future life is long gone. 
  3. If anyone would offer the pastor a new job, he’d likely take it. He might even be looking, but few churches want to interview a leader whose church is in constant decline. If they do talk with him and he blames the church, they have even more reason to discontinue the process. 
  4. The church has lost any sense of passion for what they do. Often, a church in a state of decline follows the lead of the long-term pastor into pessimism and hopelessness.  Nobody takes needed steps toward change because everybody’s just tired of the struggle. 
  5. The only people left in the church are long-termers who will die as members of the church. They don’t like what’s happening to their church, but they’re also not moving their membership. They’ll wait out this pastor like they’ve waited out others. 
  6. Paying the bills takes priority over everything else. As the church declines and givers decrease, the bills nevertheless remain the same. This problem is especially acute if the church is still making building and property payments.  
  7. The pastor is willing to let the church die on his watch. You’d hope that would not be the case, but I’ve seen it happen. The pastor guides the ship to its death and blames the congregation all the way. 

Leaving a declining church is seldom easy for a pastor, however. Nobody wants to feel like he is “abandoning the ship,” and no pastor wants to look back on a seemingly failed ministry. Rather than condemn any pastor, let’s pray for all pastors today who may be wondering about God’s will for their lives.  

9 Comments

  • dheagle93 says:

    What do you do when you’re fighting hard against #7, but #3 is still true—and the financial and other key lay leaders in the church have already gone to survival mode like #6?

    It’s not all their fault–some of it is mine, some of it is prior leadership not preparing/structuring for the future, some of it is people who will sip tea while the ship goes down, some of it is that people who begin to catch a vision for the future then head to a church that enables them to serve instead of parking them as “maybe somedays” in a committee structure?

    Some of us are trying, and we aren’t willing to let the church die on our watch, but the alternative seems to be resign, sell life insurance, and let it die for lack of a shepherd.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Great question. First, the very fact that you ask the question and recognize realities is, in my judgment, a positive. It’s the leaders who don’t even want to assess and admit reality that most concern me. Here’s my encouragement: find 2-3 people in the church in whom you can pour yourself. Invest in them. Help them grow as disciples. In the meantime, pray without ceasing as Jesus taught us to pray for more laborers. Trust that He will help you even as you strive to raise up a few leaders. Look for the glimpses of God’s glory in your work — and rejoice when you see them. Feel free to connect with me directly if you’d want to talk more.  

  • Every pastor needs to read this since 90% of Churches in America are under 100!

  • Kristen says:

    What can be done when the pastor owns the church? There may be eight members left at best. The church is full of black mold and other local pastors even talked to him about closing it. It has been this way for several years now. I was asked to help and did so for two years. When the mold was discovered and he wouldn’t address it we had no choice but to leave.

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