Small Church Ministry: A Stepping-Stone Or a Place to Stand?

stepping stoneYou know that pastor you run in to at church conferences who’s always looking over your shoulder to see if there’s someone better to talk to?

A lot of us may be doing that to the church we’re pastoring.

In a recent comment on, a reader named Tom Burkholder wrote this: “As a bi-vocational pastor for over 23 years there are very few fellow ministers who do not see small churches as stepping stones instead of real long-term ministries.”

I responded to him this way:

“That’s a great point about stepping-stones, Tom. I think one of the big reasons many Small Churches stay unhealthy when they don’t need to, is that too many pastors aren’t putting their heart into the Small Church ministry they have.

“Instead, they’re looking for something bigger – or they put all their energy into making their Small Church bigger, instead of healthier. This makes the church they are supposed to be pastoring feel overlooked and neglected. That’s not a great recipe for a healthy ministry or a healthy church.


The New Small Church Theme Song?

The whole time I was writing my response to Tom, the old Monkees song, I’m Not Your Stepping-Stone, was playing in my head. (Yes, I’m that old.)

I wonder how many suffering, overlooked churches would like to sing that song to their long parade of former pastors, if they could?

One of the most universal statistics for healthy churches is this: The longer the average stay of the pastor, the more likely the church is to be healthy. The quicker the turnover of pastors, the sicker the church. 

To be sure, there are some churches that are so dysfunctional they chase off pastor after pastor. But more often than not, pastoral turnovers are the result of a pastor looking for greener pastures.

What would happen if every pastor of every Small Church saw their ministry, not as a stepping-stone to something bigger, but as an investment to make with all their heart and soul?


Stepping-Stone Pastorates Are Bad for Pastors, Too

Not only is it toxic for churches when pastors treat them like stepping-stones, it’s toxic for pastors too – and for the pastor’s family.

Too many pastors and their families live like spiritual vagabonds. They move from place-to-place, year after year, without establishing personal, social or spiritual roots. All while complaining  preaching that their congregation members should be making a stronger commitment to one church and putting down spiritual roots. That’s a hard message for a congregation to take seriously from their fifth pastor in a decade – which happened in my current church, until I dug in and stayed 22 years and counting.

Most of the time, pastoral relocation is not because churches want them to leave, but because the pastor is looking for something better – and better is always defined as bigger.


Don’t Leave Them There, Lead Them There

No one can pastor a church well if they’re always keeping one eye on something bigger and better. People know when they’re being used.

Yes, we should always strive for more. And we should never settle for less. But we don’t get there by ignoring or belittling the church we’re currently called to, or by treating the people in it as stepping-stones to something better.

We get to a better place by leading the church we’re in to a better place – even if it isn’t a bigger place. And that starts with us making a full commitment to them.

There’s a big difference between settling for less and determining to commit fully to where you are for as long as God has you there.

Do you want to pastor a church you love? Love the church you’re pastoring.


So what do you think? Have you treated a church like a stepping-stone just because it’s small?

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(Stepping-Stones photo from Richard Riley • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

10 thoughts on “Small Church Ministry: A Stepping-Stone Or a Place to Stand?”

  1. Thanks for this great article which reinforces and confirms my feelings and actions of about 15 years ago concerning our medium sized church ministry. My wife an I are now in our 23rd year of this same church ministry and we are SO GRATEFUL that they put up with me then, and together we are thrilled with the health we see now. It is worth the effort to grow a church healthy. But you are right – it takes commitment and a paradigm shift in our thinking.

  2. My Dad, who was a congregational leader in his church (and mine when I was growing up) for many years recently passed away at age 100. His pastor, who recently retired after nearly 40 years at the church, recounted at the funeral that when he was asked to come to the church, my Dad asked him “do you plan to plan to stay here or are you using us to move to a better place.” He said that question stayed with him every time he thought about moving. I know my Dad’s thinking was that if the pastor expected the congregation to be committed, then the pastor ought to be committed as well.

    My wife and I moved to our present location (village of about 1000 people) as church planters 10 years ago with the idea that this would be a lifetime commitment. After 10 years, we are part of a small, but thriving, church. It would not exist at all if I hadn’t had that long term commitment. On the other hand, I am able to be here because I have a military retirement and my children are grown. If we had to rely on the church for full support, we wouldn’t be here either. And, bi-vocational is difficult in very small places with few jobs when you’re an outsider. So, I do understand and empathize with those pastors who stay in small places for a few years and move on. It’s hard to stay energized when the compensation is less than that of a first year teacher and there is little chance that will change in the foreseeable future.

    1. I agree, Ken. Long-term stays aren’t always possible. I empathize with pastors who have to leave due to difficult churches. After all, I had two short-term pastorates previous to my current 22-year one. But putting everything into it while you’re there is a blessing for everyone.

  3. I’m in a denomination that appoints ministers to the churches. All my active ministry I could anticipate a new church 4 or 5 years duration. That has changed,and ministers are staying longer without the automatic “time to move them” year. In my current appointment, I learned that since organizing in 1889, ministers stayed one and two years. Stepping stone was that church’s calling. Train them and send them on. I have been with them five years and praying this is a more healthy approach. Retirement does wonders to heal ambition.

  4. Two thoughts come to mind.mone thought is sometimes pastors can stay too long. I know of more than a few pastors who are staying on in thier present church only until they retire. The result is once thriving congregations are dwindling to a handful of seniors. Something that pastors in long term situations should be considering is a process of succession.

    Another question I have is after a long time in one church how does a pastor renew vision and spiritual vitality? How does he/sh keep fresh after ten or twenty years in one place.

  5. I’m reminded of the book “The Wisdom of Stability” by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, which speaks to many of the themes you’ve raised here, all appropriate and well-taken. What Wilson-Hartgrove argues for is a rooted in place for all Christians; unfortunately, pastors are often the worst offenders. Yet if we commit to a place, we also offer a prophetic witness to a overly mobile and surface-dwelling world just by staying and laboring in the field to which we are assigned.

  6. Thank you so very much for this. I am laity serving, beginning my fifth year for a circuit of three very rural itsy bitsy churches. These churches are isolated, and their communities have been very hard it due to the economy. I believe that each person is well worth the time spend in preparing the bulletins, sermon, and dressing appropriately to represent God’s Word and Work in our lives. Thank you, I pray more people read this article and see that these itsy bitsy churches are our mission field, and need help.

  7. As the pastor of a “small” congregation, I have seen the damage done when they were viewed as a stepping stone or as a “learning” church. I pray I stay appointed at this amazing church as long as possible!

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