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You Can Transition to a New Church—Without Leaving Your Old One

Behind every great church, large or small, is at least one pastor who has been there long enough to outlast the bad times and build on the good times.

It is the most common thread for great churches. Pastors who stick around.

But pastoral longevity has its dark side too. The tendency to become stale.

Every time I talk about the value of long-term pastorates, as I did in last week’s post, Small Church Ministry: A Stepping Stone or a Place to Stand?, people remind me of horror stories about churches that withered into ineffectiveness because a pastor stayed too long.

That’s a reality that can’t be ignored, so today’s post is about that dark side—and how to overcome it.

First, the cause: Why do long-term ministries sometimes become stale and dead?

Because the pastor stops learning, growing and adapting. They rest on yesterday’s successes (real or imagined). They get tired and/or they grow lazy. They lose their passion, their heart and their effectiveness. Or they get tired of fighting stubborn members and settle into survival mode.

Now the solution: Long-term pastors who stay fresh and lead churches into health and effectiveness year after year, decade after decade, are always learning, always adapting and always growing. They outlast the bad times, learn from the failures and build on successes.

Actually, a pastor staying too long is almost never the real problem. If something is going well, a lifetime isn’t long enough. But if it’s not going well, a year can feel like a decade.

On its own, staying long is no guarantee of success or of staleness. The challenge in keeping a long-term ministry valid is staying fresh. If you do that, you’ll never overstay your welcome.

The best way I know to keep fresh in a ministry over the long haul is something called Transition Without Relocation.

What Is Transition Without Relocation?

Simply put, Transition Without Relocation is the ability to stay fresh, learn, adapt, grow and try new things while staying in the same church over a long period of time.

The pastor transitions (internally), but doesn’t relocate (externally).

Too many pastors do the opposite. Relocation Without Transition. They stay at a church for a few years until they run out of ideas, energy and/or support. Then they pack up and relocate to a new church. But they don’t make an internal transition. They take the old, tired, stale ideas that failed in the first church and impose them on a new place because they’re convinced the problem wasn’t with them (it’s never us, right pastors?). The problem is always the stubborn, godless, prayerless, visionless church they left behind in a huff of righteous indignation. Or the denomination that didn’t fund them well enough.

The pastor might experience a short honeymoon at the new church—this one looks promising!—until … the same problems happen again. Why? Because the pastor hasn’t changed anything but their geography.

How to Transition Without Relocation

So how do we keep fresh in the same church for years, even decades? In the 22 years I’ve served my current church, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. So I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But our church is fresher, younger, healthier and more forward-looking today than it has ever been.

Here are a few principles I’ve learned along the way. I’m grateful to my church and my pastoral mentors for sticking with me long enough to help me learn them. With a lot more to go. 

1. Never Stop Learning

A pastor who stops learning, stops leading. And a pastor who stops leading, stops pastoring.

The best pastors I know have an unbridled curiosity. For God’s Word. For leadership. For human nature in all its glorious quirkiness.

Show me a pastor who’s always wanting to learn more and I’ll call that a good place to start.

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Karl is the author of four books and has been in pastoral ministry for almost 40 years. He is the teaching pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, a healthy small church in Orange County, California, where he has ministered for over 27 years with his wife, Shelley. Karl’s heart is to help pastors of small churches find the resources to lead well and to capitalize on the unique advantages that come with pastoring a small church. Karl produces resources for Helping Small Churches Thrive at KarlVaters.com, and has created S.P.A.R.K. Online (Small-Church Pastors Adapt & Recover Kit), which is updated regularly with new resources to help small churches deal with issues related to the COVID-19 crisis and aftermath.