When I was first training for ministry in the early 1990s, it was common for pastors to switch churches every few years. Most veteran pastors had served three, five, even ten churches in the course of their ministry life, moving from place to place as the Lord “called them”. I suspect that some of these supposed calls stemmed from a desire for career advancement (how often was a man called to a smaller church?), and many from weariness with not being followed, or due to an inability to develop chemistry with the church congregation. But could it be that church-hopping pastors actually contribute to the very problems that drive them out of churches?
I now have the advantage of looking back on twenty-five plus years of vocational ministry and observing that few churches flourish that have church-hopping pastors or church-hopping laity. They lack enduring love and enduring relationships, even though enduring love is central to the Gospel (2 Thess. 3:5; Ps. 136). What are we left with without this fundamental display of steadfast love to one another? How can we call people to faith in a God who demonstrates enduring love if we fail to lovingly endure in relationships?
Identifying the Problem of Church Hopping
The way I see it, church hopping actually contributes to unhealthy Christians because:
- It doesn’t model patience or faithfulness (Gal. 5:22), fruits of the Spirit that flow from our mutual love for one another.
- It contributes to the professionalization of the clergy: hired guns that come and go depending on career opportunities. This leads to distrust by the laity and heavy workloads for clergymen who do most of the ministry.
- It contributes to competitiveness between churches as we do all we can to retain a generation of believers that habitually switch churches.
- It makes congregations hesitant to follow bold leadership moves because the congregants are wondering if the primary leader is willing to persevere through the consequences of his decisions.
- It leaves pastors, their wives and families with few long-term friends due to frequent moves.
- It encourages pastors to lead with very little skin in the game, after all, if they fail, the pastor can just move on and leave the congregation holding the bag.
- The church experiences multiple seasons of unnecessary plateau as pastoral search teams repeatedly labour to find “God’s next man”.
- It fails to display the biblical imagery of the church as a family (Rom. 12:10), since the family keeps abandoning one another.
- Church-hopping pastors create church-hopping Christians and vice versa.
Acknowledging the Temptation to Leave
For sure, long-term ministry can be terrifying and filled with challenges. I’ve experienced many over my seventeen years at Harvest. For example:
- When congregants/other leaders move on, each of them takes a piece of my heart with them. When departures are multiplied over the years into the hundreds, the temptation to become self-protective is real.
- When periods of plateau last longer than they should, it’s hard to wait upon the Lord, and tempting to move on.
- When other pastors speak of larger populations of people, or more fertile ground it’s tempting to cut and run, especially if I know I have the capacity to do more.
The Blessing of Enduring Relationships
Relationships best display the Gospel when they lovingly endure. Think about family relationships: every marriage and family also struggles with irritation, stagnation and frustration, and yet we would all abhor the idea of family-hopping! Instead, relationships thrive that display persevering love and loyalty to one another through joy and trial.
In church life, pastors find joy and proof of spiritual fruit when they stay long enough to officiate the weddings of adults they dedicated as infants, to baptize believers that resisted the Gospel for years, to see generations raised up to serve the Lord, or to appoint elders that were elementary students when we started! Loving faithfulness can be taught, but it’s better caught through role-modelling. Very simply, how can we call our people to long-term faithfulness in an era of increased church hopping if we are unprepared to model it as leaders?
To be sure, longevity in any church doesn’t necessarily mean functioning in the same role for decades on end. It shouldn’t be driven by comfort and familiarity. If God does truly calls us to another place, we mustn’t act like Jonah (Jon.1:3). That said, I truly believe the church would be a better place if more leaders and laity alike put an end to the unholy habit of severing relationships with the people they have covenanted together with and committed themselves to the spiritual family God has placed them in for life. While there is room in the universal church for itinerant evangelists, missionary church planters and some movement between churches, there is a huge need for more servants of Christ to deliberately bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things (1 Cor 13:8) together. This is the essence of God’s love to us-steadfast love. When we display these qualities in one church family for years on end, we display the faithful love of God toward us. We put the Gospel on display.