Surviving the 7-Year Slump

The question was one I’d answered countless times before, but the response to my answer was one I’d never heard.

I was speaking at a church planter’s training when Chris Backert, the National Director of the Ecclesia Network asked me “How many years has your church plant been going?” I told him we had just hit our sixth anniversary.

“Oh… Year seven in church plants is traditionally the worst.”

At the time I nodded and laughed nervously. We had recently hit a few bumps in the road so what he was saying made some sense. In retrospect, what I wish I had done was to sit down and grill him on every aspect of what I’ve come to think of as the Seven Year Slump.

Chris’s anecdotal wisdom, gained through observing countless church plants and church planting networks in his Ph.D. work proved to be exactly on the mark. In truth, year seven was hellacious for both me as a pastor and for our community. I wish we could have seen it coming. But then again, he tried to warn me, didn’t he?

For us, year seven was marked by relational breaks in the staff, people leaving, and a general malaise as we drifted unable to focus on vision or mission while we worked exhaustingly to put out fire after fire. It seemed like we had reached a point where the way we had been doing things, and doing them successfully, no longer worked.

In the midst of all that, I remembered the one other thing Chris had told me about all this. “Year seven is all about endure, endure, endure. If you can make it through, years 8-15 are generally pretty great.” I clung to those words.

Since then I’ve seen this pattern repeated in church plant after church plant. I wouldn’t call it an absolute law, but rather a general truism: somewhere around year seven, a new church hits a place of crisis, a place where what got them there in terms of leadership skills, structure, and ways of dealing with problems no longer works.

Why does this happen?

There are a number of reasons having to do with both the pastor and the people. Generally speaking, years 1-2 are years of excitement. Even in the hard parts, there’s a novelty and a joy in working out the issues, in finding the ways that this new church will handle problems, talk about the hard parts of community and together become who they are becoming. In years 3-4 that community and its leaders are finding their footing and in years 5-6 experiencing the fruit of their work and enjoying having hit their stride.

But by year seven the cracks are showing. The leaders are tired. There are some natural churn points where people leave and year seven is one of them. In fact, it’s often the point where some of the last of the core group who helped start the church decide to move on. This can have a huge effect on both the pastors and the congregation as these folks whom everyone thought were so central to the life of the community decide to leave.

This is also often the point of pastoral burnout. Regardless of how many people are helping, the emotional and psychological toll of the previous seven years often means that at this point a pastor will feel he or she no longer has anything to give, that the well has run dry and worse, because the church has changed drastically over the last few years, the lessons and skills learned at the beginning no longer seem adequate to take the community forward.

Year seven is where the impatience and unrealistic expectations of a community are often revealed- we thought we’d be farther along, better able to handle problems… more mature as a community. Even harder, as the pastor is tired and butting up against  the ceiling of their own skill set, the community begins to feel the restlessness that often hits leaders around this time.

Even established churches are not immune to this seven-year cycle. I recently heard of one church on the east coast that has existed for 200 years, and with the exception of two pastors, every pastor’s tenure has lasted between six and eight years. The cycle repeats itself.

How do we handle this seven year slump? How can we navigate the twists and turns of what one pastor friend of mine recently described as “the worst year of his life”?

First, as was mentioned earlier, year seven is all about endure, endure, endure. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and the issues you face during this time will not be easily resolved in one elder meeting, or with some quick changes. This is a time to throw yourself not into problem solving and working harder, but into a deeper dependence on God and a heightened listening to the Spirit. God is at work, both in the hearts of the leaders and in the community itself, and year seven is a time to pay special attention to that.

Second, realize that this is a normal thing. You are not the first leader or community to experience this. It’s not an indictment on you or your skills or your walk with God that you are hitting this rough patch. It’s a natural phase in the growth of a church, and more, it’s a necessary phase.

Richard Rohr, in Falling Upward, says

“So we must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say. And that does not mean reading about falling, as you are doing here. We must actually be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide. It is the necessary pattern. This kind of falling is what I mean by necessary suffering… It is well dramatized by Paul’s fall on the Damascus Road, where he hears the voice “Why are you hurting yourself by kicking against the goad?” (Acts 26:14). The goad or cattle prod is the symbol of both the encouragement forward and our needless resistance to it, which only wounds us further… Until we are led to the limits of our present game plan, and find it to be insufficient, we will not search out or find the real source, the deep well, or the constantly flowing stream… There must be, and, if we are honest, there always will be at least one situation in our lives that we cannot fix, control, explain, change, or even understand.”

The seven year slump then, is not so much a problem to be managed or fixed, but a necessary part of our journey. It is a period of life that God uses to get our hearts and the collective heart of our church off of the grandiose dreams of “success” we held at the beginning and onto something deeper, onto God Himself.

Third, year seven is a good time as a pastor to revisit and re-evaluate your call. Some people excel at planting churches and new works. Some people excel at maintaining and growing to slow maturity what has already been planted. Not everyone can excel at both. Year seven is a great time to look in the mirror and ask yourself what type of leader you are. Are you a planter/pioneer who needs to be involved in new things to stay vital? Are you a shepherd/homesteader who can plant him or herself for the long haul? Are you someone who has thought of themself as the first but now is being called by God to do the hard work to become the second? The key to asking and answering these questions fruitfully is brutal self-honesty. There’s no point in just cutting and running from the seven year slump as things get hard. No matter where you go it will be waiting for you just down the road.

These kinds of soul-searching questions of call need proper space to be processed, and that’s why fourth, year seven is the year you should take a sabbatical. The natural burnout of this season, combined with the need to do some serious thinking about the church and about yourself as a leader demand time and space, away from the urgency of ministry. You need time to be alone with God, time to rest, time to find clarity.

Someone might say that year seven, with all the turmoil I’ve described in the life of a church is a terrible time for a leader to be absent. On the contrary, it’s a great time- not only because the leader him or herself with all their tiredness and anxiety is often an underlying source of the turmoil, but also because another necessary part of church maturity is allowing others to lead, to make mistakes, and to learn. Letting go and prying your white knuckles off the wheel for a season is the best thing you can do.

Year seven and the period directly after it is a wonderful time for corporate reflection as well. It’s a time to evaluate our expectations over and against reality. We thought we would be that type of church, at that size, at that place of maturity… But we’re not. Can we give thanks and revel in being the church God has allowed us to be and let go of the church we thought we would be?

It’s also a good time to evaluate the practicality of structures and skills. What works in a church plant doesn’t necessarily work in a church 7 or 8 years along. What needs to be let go of? What needs to change and grow? What’s missing that needs to be addressed? Working through these questions can actually aid greatly in dealing with the emotional slump that is often felt in year seven communities and bring back a sense of excitement and forward movement. In addition, as leaders, it’s a time to look not only at our call, but at our skill set. As we are becoming and have become a very different community than in the past, do I need to learn new leadership skills, new ways of leading and loving these people? Can I admit to myself that if I am to remain and lead this community in its next season of life I need to learn some new things, read some different books than I have been reading, take a class or in some other way learn to lead in a different way for a different time in the life of our community?

Lastly, the seven year slump is a call to see, and to help our congregations see struggles and problems, from relational issues to questions about how ministry or leadership should be structured, formationally. In other words, it’s a great time to remind a congregation that growth, not numerical growth but spiritual maturity as a community, comes not through the easy times, but through the hard ones. That as much as we’d just like to fix everything and move quickly on, the reality is that if we do that, we run the risk of missing what God is doing through the growing pains, through the relational struggles, through the mess.

For our community, the seventh year was an incredibly hard and painful one. But as we moved past it, we began to see how God had been at work, stretching and growing us. For me personally came the realization that while I thought I had gotten the pastor thing pretty much down, I really hadn’t, and in fact needed to go back and unlearn some things, rethink some things, and generally stop thinking I/we had “arrived.” The gift of the seventh year was to humble me and make me into a learner again. I took a sabbatical, took my hands off the wheel for a season, and came back more relaxed, and more trusting of God than my own skills. I did reevaluate my call during this time, wondering if it was time to hand things off to the leaders I had helped raise up in our community over our seven years together. Ultimately, I decided that there was more for me to do in this church, but not in the same way. Whereas I had been the “Lead Pastor,” after this time we transitioned to more of a team leadership where the elders as a whole led the church. And those elders freed me up to try some new things and take on some new roles outside our community; coaching other pastors/church planters, and working with our church network. This allowed me to feel good about staying, but also scratched the itch I had to do some new things. It allowed me to continue to lead, but in completely new ways, alongside others, rather than over them.

Due in part to some hard decisions we had to make, and in part to communicating them poorly, during this period we lost about 1/3 of our people. Those who chose to remain, however, were committed. They had been taught through this time the necessity of praying for their community, its elders and its pastors. We all together had learned valuable lessons about how we communicate with each other, support each other, and what it means to be formed by God together through the pain of community.

As we emerged from this painful time, we began to realize that life was continuing, our community was still there and most all, God was still present and working.

One of the real beauties of the year seven season is that year eight comes after it. It’s tempting to think when you are in the middle of the mess that the mess has become your new reality- that this is how it will now always be. But take heart, endure, listen to what God is doing in your midst, and know that should you choose to stay, years 8-15 are generally pretty great. And should you go and your community continue on, both you and your community get to start over. In either case, God is present and at work, bringing you and your church to further maturity in Christ.