By Darrel Rowland
For several years in a row, Kent Fillinger’s statistics have shown that church growth peaks when the senior minister is in his eighth to tenth year. Last year, those churches’ weekend attendance increased an average of 8.3 percent—about double the figure for years 11-20 of a minister’s tenure.
The 2010 contrast was even greater: 17 percent growth for years 8-10, a mere 1.4 percent for the second decade.
One reason: The figures shoot down a prevalent myth that a long-term ministry equals numerical success for a church. In fact the research suggests the opposite may be true.
Another is almost a lament for alternatives: What are we supposed to do, put the preacher on an ice floe on his 11th anniversary and push him downstream?
Those interviewed for this article lead (or have led) churches that now attract more than 70,000 every weekend. Several were the founding ministers and helped their churches flourish, and all have devoted many years to serving Christ’s body.
So it’s natural for those with such a personal investment to be more than a little troubled by statistics suggesting that their best days may be behind them.
But the large majority readily acknowledges that it’s difficult to take an unbiased look in the mirror. A few bring in outside consultants to make sure the church is staying on track. And virtually all count on an inner circle of trusted leaders and advisers who will be loving and honest enough to set them straight if they start to go off the rails.
“Just like going to the gym or working out, it’s easier to do when there is someone challenging you,” said Tim Harlow, 50, senior pastor at Parkview Christian Church southwest of Chicago for the past 22 years.
“The downside to longevity is that it’s easy to lead a church to some level of growth and then become complacent because you already feel like you’ve done your job,” Harlow said. “It becomes about the past and present and not about the future. We need to surround ourselves with people who will help us to think about the next level.”
Dennis Bratton, 66, retired from Mandarin Christian Church in Jacksonville, Florida, said, “Most guys I’ve known who were leading growing churches were driven by a fire in their bellies for lost souls. Does that fire go out? Or do priorities have to change in growing congregations?”
He acknowledges wrestling with whether security superseded significance.
“In the final few years of my ministry I deliberated this point often. I was hiring gifted young staff members who wanted change, to do things differently, to ‘bring our church into the light of the 21st century.’
“We had many discussions about the need for change. I believed we had a plan that was working. We were still growing, reaching people, including young families, but I couldn’t simply ignore the sincere concerns of younger voices. So, we made changes . . . against my aging instincts, but for the sake of relevance and outreach.”
Robin Hart, 52, of Northside Christian in Wadsworth, Ohio, said, “I will periodically ask some of our younger members of all generations—from youth to young adults in their 20s, 30s, and 40s—just to see if I’m still relating and connecting to them. They have all had very positive comments. But even with that, we have purposely hired some younger staff members to make sure we are reaching the younger generation with every means possible.”
The lead pastor at Real Life Ministries in Pullman, Washington, Aaron Couch, 38, agrees that the longer ministers are in one place, the fewer risks they take.
“I am not sure that it is an attempt to finish well as much as a concern over losing what we have gained. The more I have to lose, the less I seem to be willing to risk,” he said.
“The longer we are a Christian, the harder it is to remember what it feels like to be lost. We start to preach sermons from the Scripture that appeal to us, and those like us, who already understand and see the world from a largely biblical worldview. This loses sight of the brokenness of people and how hard it is to risk in your faith when you are new at it. The sermons are true and biblical, and maybe even wonderful, but they are communicated from a perspective of health—not from a perspective of helping broken people find God. It appeals to long-term Christians, not to new believers.”
Considering the Real World
The church leaders most uncomfortable with the statistics say that equating a church attendance plateau with a minister’s tenure ignores other real-world factors that can be at least as important.
“I would suggest that the seeming diminished effectiveness of older pastors may have as much to do with the congregation aging as with the pastor aging,” said John Caldwell, 68, who retired in June 2010 after 36 years as the only senior pastor Kingsway Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, ever had.
“Change is more difficult for a congregation as it ages and grows because it has more and more to risk, as opposed to a new congregation that can try anything because it has nothing to lose.”
He said the central message of a book from the 1980s detailing the life cycles of congregations holds true today: A church will inevitably plateau and begin to decline; a church must recognize that and basically reinvent itself when it recognizes the beginning of such decline.
Caldwell cited a more disheartening reason for diminished effectiveness that he and other preachers have experienced.
“When the date of my retirement was determined about three years out, it was like the elders flipped a switch. For over 30 years they had given me virtually nothing but support and followed my lead,” he said.
“However, they became more resistant, and made decisions which I believe were very harmful. The chairman of the elders explained that since I would no longer be there, they had to step up and take more responsibility.”
Jeffrey A. Metzger of River Hills Christian Church in Loveland, Ohio, pointed out that the community where a church meets also ages and changes.
“Many congregations that were once located on the growing edge of a city a decade or more later may find that the time and place of rapid development has become a place and time of stagnation or even decline,” said Metzger, 56, who began River Hills with his wife in 1997.
“Churches in such settings typically grow somewhat less dynamically. This kind of demographic and sociographic change may have as much or more to do with growth rates than the age of the senior leader.”
Gary Johnson, 56, senior minister at The Creek in Indianapolis, said, “When a congregation plateaus, it cannot be assumed that it is due to the aging of the senior minister alone.”
An internal analysis of why attendance at The Creek flatlined last year pointed more to logistical factors.
“In a nutshell, it was due to a change in our worship schedule and venues, along with reaching maximum road capacities on a Sunday morning,” Johnson said. “We have had to hire four police officers to do traffic control on Sunday mornings because access to The Creek is only a two-lane road. We are now prayerfully thinking about launching worship services at other times than Sunday morning to alleviate traffic congestion.”
Hart, the minister from Wadsworth in northeast Ohio, said other possible growth-limiting factors include the size of the community, physical limitations, such as building and parking lot sizes, church debt, staff relationships, and church governance policies.
“I am 52 years of age and have been at Northside Christian Church for 28 years. Our greatest growth came in the last six years of our ministry. I have also heard, and it has also been my observation, that there is virtually no very large church without someone in the history of that church being a long-term minister.”
Roy Wheeler, 80, used a vigorous visitation program as Paramount Terrace Christian Church in Amarillo, Texas, grew from 200 in 1966 to 3,000 about 10 years ago. That year he was forced to retire from full-time ministry because he partially lost his voice. He is still an associate pastor at what is now Hillside Christian Church, and urges preachers to develop long-term ministries.
“I worked as hard when I was in my 70s as when I was 30,” he said. “We never had a down year except when 70 people broke away and started a charismatic fellowship. We grew every year, year after year after year.”
Rather than a minister’s tenure, Bratton from Jacksonville said, the growth plateau “may be more a maxing out of competence to lead at the next level” through various growth stages and culture shifts.
Thirty-two of Bratton’s 44 years in ministry were at Mandarin Christian Church, now Christ’s Church Mandarin & Fleming Island.
“What we did at 100 in 1978 was far removed from what we did at 4,000 in 2008. Speaking for me, I’d say I was much closer to my competence in 1978 than I was at most points further along the journey,” he said.
Alan Ahlgrim, 64, who’s led Rocky Mountain Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado, since it opened 28 years ago, worries about the value placed on a minister who would be regarded as entering his peak performance years with many secular employers.
“Sadly, the senior pastors who are just hitting the ‘50’ mark may feel that they soon need to hit the road. What a tragedy. It’s becoming increasingly clear that cultural connectivity trumps age and spiritual maturity,” he said.
“The faithfulness of senior leaders may not be the issue; might it really be the fickleness of those who merely idolize the new and the now?”
Looking Beyond Numbers
Most of these ministers dislike judging the success or failure of a church solely or even primarily by attendance numbers.
“Church planting, caring for children at risk, community transformation—none of this is reflected in traditional measures,” said Greg Nettle, 49, minister of RiverTree Christian Church in Massillon, Ohio, for 23 years. Measuring the success of his church’s goals may be difficult with the normal yardsticks.
“We’ve been in a three-year transition moving away from attractional to missional. I’m fully committed to reaching 100,000 people in northern Ohio, but, we’re going to do it without putting up buildings.”
Longtime minister, writer, and educator LeRoy Lawson, 73, wonders, “Is effectiveness measured only by continuing dramatic growth? If so, you can make a case for an almost inevitable falling off of the rate of growth. I absolutely believe, though—other things being equal—that longer ministries are generally more effective because of the enriched relationships, the deepening commitment to God and one another, and the sense of security the congregation enjoys when they have a leader they know and have learned is trustworthy.”
Dusty Rubeck, president of Dallas Christian College, said he would like to see more research.
“Although the correlation of age and tenure on growth rates seems to be fairly clear, I would be hesitant to attribute a causal relationship between the two without having a bit more information,” he said. “From my perspective, it seems we ought to take an even deeper look at this issue.
“Then we should make sure that we structure our teams and resources to make the very most of the talents of our longest-serving ministers. While it is fairly simple to replace older leaders with younger ones possessing greater energy or new ideas, it is extremely difficult to replace the relational stability and organizational knowledge of those who have served for many years.”
Ahlgrim from Rocky Mountain Christian said he’s trying to find the right balance.
“Dr. Martin Luther King once said: ‘Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.’
“That’s how I see it. I want to be good for God by not staying a day too long or transitioning a day too soon.”
Darrel Rowland is an adult Bible fellowship teacher at Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church and public affairs editor of The Columbus Dispatch.