KNOW WHAT SEASON OF LEADERSHIP YOU ARE IN
Many good leaders will step into the new year naming a particular emphasis that will help to focus the staff and/or congregation. It may come in the form of a “this is the year of” statement or a sermon series that sets the tone of our next trip around the sun.
Focus is always helpful. But, the degree of helpfulness is directly related to what season of leadership you are in and how deep into that season you find yourself.
You see, clarity about this year’s focus is always more helpful when it’s being navigated within the context of where God is leading you in the next five to seven years.
While some resist the idea of what we may call “long-range vision” there is a pattern revealed in the scriptures that is worth reflecting on as you prepare to step into the future.
SEASONS OF SEVEN
In a section of the Mosaic law, George Bullard, author and retired church consultant, sees a pattern that reflects the relationship between pastor and congregation. In Leviticus 25, God directs Israelite farmers to work the land for six years but give it a rest—a sabbath—in the seventh year. Leaving the land fallow in the sabbatical year would refresh it to produce effectively for the next seven-year cycle.
Like Israel’s fertile soil, both congregation and pastor need to be refreshed every seven years. They have to navigate the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next to remain fruitful. In my experience, both from working with leaders from all over the country as well as from my own leadership journey, two needs emerge at these transitions.
First, a shared vision of the future must be re-cultivated for the congregation to stay in step with the Holy Spirit. Second, the pastor or leader often needs to personally retool to lead toward the vision effectively.
How long have you been leading in your current context? One year? Six years? Nine years? Fourteen years? Your answer to that question would immediately stir several other questions in my mind for you as a leader and in regard to the ministry in which you lead?
Why? Because I’d be curious to know how many potential renewals you and the church have walked through together. But this isn’t just a way of marking time, because cycles aren’t alike. Each seven-year period of a pastor’s tenure has its own predictable characteristics. Bullard fondly calls these cycles seasons of seven, and recognizing them as they unfold can help you discern and stay in step with the Holy Spirit as you look to the future.
FIRST SEVEN | THE FOUNDATION ZONE
The first season of seven is a pastor’s Foundation zone, the period that determines how successful the tenure will become—and whether it will last.
A church and its new pastor typically start with excitement, optimism, and hope for a new future. But between the second and fourth year, usually when the pastor is leading change, conflict arises— the honeymoon is over.
The national average for pastoral tenure (roughly four to five years) indicates that most pastors choose to leave during or shortly after this crisis. But if the pastor weathers it well, they and the people come to trust each other more deeply, which lays a foundation for growth. If the pastor stays, the next season is usually the most fruitful period of their tenure.
If you’ve been leading for five to seven years at the same church, it’s time to re-cultivate the vision for the next season. If you’ve just begun leading, it’s a key window to set the direction for your first season of seven.
SECOND SEVEN | THE FRUITFUL ZONE
Let’s call the second season the Fruitful Zone because of the bountiful harvest the church often reaps during this period. Thom Rainer notes, “A church is likely to experience some of its best years, by almost any metrics, during this period of a pastor’s tenure. Indeed, in my interviews with both pastors and members, I have heard this theme repeated. Both parties have worked through the tough times. They now trust each other and love each other more deeply.”
During this season, the congregation grows in its admiration for the pastor in two respects. First, as a shepherd, the pastor has walked with families through personal celebrations and crises— weddings, births, baptisms, parenting challenges, marital conflicts, and funerals. In addition, the pastor’s prayer, preaching, equipping of others, and spiritual guidance has brought about meaningful transformation in people’s lives. Secondly, if the church as a whole has missionally prospered, people increasingly respect the pastor as a directional leader who has helped the congregation stay in step with the Holy Spirit.
If you’ve been leading in your church for twelve years to fourteen years, it’s time to re-cultivate the disciple-making clarity and vision for the future if you have not done so already in the recent past.
THIRD SEVEN | THE FIZZLE ZONE
The third season of seven we call the fizzle zone because of what our team has observed to be a common reality. There are still plenty of positive stories to tell that would warrant retitling this third season of seven, but what happens more often than not is that the culture of mission cools. The pastor– who sacrificed and invested significantly in the previous two seasons–is often tired, overly comfortable, experiencing some personal vision fog, and unknowingly maintaining the status quo.
Respect for the pastor as shepherd, in this season, usually remains as high as ever, but respect for the pastor as leader begins to come into question. Frustration can begin to bubble up among staff, volunteer leaders, and even the congregation as they wonder whether the church’s best days are behind them. A doubt begins to grow in the minds of many of the pastor’s ability and even willingness to refocus the church for the future. If this goes on too long, lay leaders who have journeyed with the pastor for years start raising questions. Feeling betrayed, the pastor may now be the one who resists change.
This isn’t inevitable. Some leaders do renew vision in the third seven, not only for the church but for themselves—especially by remaking their role into that of a mentor who empowers younger leaders for the church’s future. Unfortunately though, this isn’t the most common outcome.
If you’ve been leading your church for more than twenty years, it is a good time to engage in a more collaborative process to discern the church’s future story but also a time to refocus how to live out your own calling in the next chapter of ministry.
NAVIGATING THE SEASONS
Seven years is merely a general rule of thumb for the season’s length. Some seasons may be shorter than seven years; others may extend longer. (Indeed, Rainer estimates that the typical cycle is five years long while Gary McIntosh gauges it at ten.) Whatever the cycle’s speed, the conclusion is the same: every congregation needs to renew their shared vision and point leaders often need to renew how they best live out their calling at regular intervals.
In his article “The Seven-Year Itch,” David L. Odom offers some helpful questions to help a leaders discern what’s happening in them, their congregation, and their context at such crossroads:
- What are the three most important ministry results of the last five to seven years?
- What factors contributed to these results? Who were the key actors that God used? How did I contribute?
- What are the three most important ministry results for the next seven years?
- What conditions would encourage those results? How might I cultivate them?
- What does this tell me about the church’s future and my role in it?
STEP INTO THE FUTURE
As a leader, you can wrestle with these questions alone, of course. You can even explore them in informal conversations with church members without revealing the full degree of fog you may be experiencing.
But as you approach these very normal inflection points in your tenure and the church’s future story, engaging in a spiritual, collaborative process facilitated by a strategic outsider can provide an enormous amount of clarity, unity and freedom.
At Clarity House, we love being a safe place for leaders to wrestle these sorts of questions. We specialize in assisting church teams in discerning a shared vision that is coupled with disciple-making clarity.
Thom Rainer, “Five Stages of a Pastor’s Ministry,” Lifeway Research, May 31, 2016, https://lifewayresearch.com/2016/05/31/five-stages-of-a-pastors-ministry
Gary McIntosh, “Long Pastoral Tenure Can Hurt Your Church,” The Good Book Blog, Biola University, June 14, 2013, https://www.biola.edu/blogs/good-book-blog/2013/long-pastoral-tenure-can-hurt-your-church
Adapted from David L. Odom, “The Seven Year Itch,” Faith and Leadership, October 2, 2014, https://faithandleadership.com/seven-year-itch