Rich Avery shepherds pastors toward enhanced purpose

Forward From 50 has featured some incredible stories of men and women whose lives have gone in completely different directions after passing their 50th birthdays. Rich Avery is different.

He knew early in his life what his purpose was and he hasn’t deviated much from that. For many years, Rich served as a pastor. Now he helps other pastors prepare for the future by pursing business ideas that create income or expand their sense of purpose.

A life-long Michigander, Rich had an interest in agriculture earlier in his life and briefly contemplated a career in farming. Thanks to the advice of a trusted mentor, he opted to plant seeds, not in the ground, but in the lives of other people. In college, Rich majored in sociology and later switched to political science because it intrigued him.

“Then I realized if I wanted to go in that direction, I was locking myself into becoming a professor, going to law school or something like that,” said Rich. “I thought I might become a politician someday and run for office, but God had other plans.”

A heart for people in crisis

Rich experienced his midlife crisis in 1996 when he was 26 years old. He was working in fund development to raise money for a non-profit organization. He was involved in donor relations, which meant he was constantly meeting people and encouraging them to support his cause.

He loved the job and the people he worked with. Still, he had a gnawing feeling he was made to do something else. One day, he joined a fellow church member to work with poor and homeless mentally ill people.

“He called it a ‘Hike in the Hood,” and took me to places along the river near downtown Grand Rapids where people were camped out and living in cardboard boxes or wooden pallets,” said Rich. “It looked and felt like a skid row to me. My heart was really broken for people living in that type of situation.”

He also met a few people who had been members of his church at some point, but became addicted to alcohol or experienced mental illness and wound up living on the street. So, instead of attending a seminary, Rich jumped into full-time ministerial training by doing crisis intervention with local homeless people. He spent half his time working at church caring for families in need, and the rest of his time on the street caring for people who had given up on life.

“Whether it involved caring for poor or homeless people, or those with mental illnesses, I felt called to the social service side of ministry to help people experiencing some type of crisis,” said Rich.

Eventually, he became more involved in global outreach and leading other churches to partner with his congregation to provide relief assistance and development work.

“I had to develop my skills as a pastor, but a lot of it was just a gift from God to have an interest in other people and a desire to serve them,” he explained.

Bearing burdens alone

Rich received confirmation he was heading in the right direction when doors opened for him to get a full-time job as a pastor at the church he attended.

Being a pastor brought challenges of their own. Chief among them was the need to maintain confidentiality about people and situations. Keeping secrets wasn’t an problem, but because of a commitment he made to people he worked with, Rich couldn’t decompress or share his feelings by talking about those issues with anyone else.

“I couldn’t come home and talk to my wife about a situation I encountered that day, nor could I talk to a pastor about what I was experiencing,” he explained.

“It’s a privilege to know those things and help people process whatever is going on in their lives while loving and serving them in those situations,” he added. “Sometimes it is real trauma and a pastor doesn’t have anyone with whom he can share his burden.”

Nor did Rich have the ability to fix many of the problems people encountered. All he could do was support and encourage them, and offer to pray with them. But, there weren’t a lot of easy fixes, and that sometimes weighed heavily on his soul.

Being locally- and globally-minded

Rich’s greatest accomplishment prior to turning 50 was the ability to help his church become more locally- and globally-minded, and to mobilize members to do things which made a difference in their own community as well as the world.

“We raised hundreds of thousands of dollars during a six-year period to provide clean water for thousands of people in different countries, primarily Africa,” he said. “It was a real blessing to play a role in that.”

Rich also enjoyed opportunities to travel regionally and globally to see his church’s generous donations put to use helping to meet the needs of people who members of his congregation were unlikely to ever meet.

“There is nothing better than building relationships and creating connections that can make a real difference in the lives of people,” he added.

Shift at 50 or wait for retirement?

In 2019, Rich’s church offered him a sabbatical to rest, reflect and contemplate what his life would look like the following year after he turned 50. The church gave him a stipend to invest in personal development and enjoy some time with his family. So, Rich booked a cruise organized by Dan Miller, who authored the book “48 Days to the Work You Love.” The cruise combined time off in the Caribbean with teaching and personal growth counseling.

“We took the cruise and spent some time trying to discern the next chapter in our lives and what that might look like,” he explained. “It was a really meaningful time.”

One thing Rich and his wife, Candace, talked about was whether he should wait until he was 65 and retired before jumping into some new ideas, or start now to begin living out the next chapter in their lives while they still had energy to pursue it.

“I took that year to really think about and take action on some dreams I’ve had for many years, but never pursued,” said Rich. “As I contemplated my next steps, mentoring and coaching pastors kept popping into my mind.

“A lot of people poured their time, wisdom and advice into my life to mentor or coach me personally and professionally,” he explained. “I felt I had an obligation and responsibility to pay that forward to bless other people in similar ways.”

Pastoring pastors

When his sabbatical concluded, Rich was inspired to pursue a new direction related to his lifelong calling, but different enough to challenge him in new ways. He felt drawn to help pastors prepare for what’s likely to be a new way of doing church.

There were already a number of social, cultural and economic trends influencing the American church before COVID arrived; however, that situation simply magnified problems churches had been ignoring for years. Rich felt pastors needed to brace for a fundamental shift in the way churches would operate and, especially, how ministry staff would be paid in the future.

For much of the post-World War II era, pastoring a church was a full-time job for many men who were paid directly from church coffers. As a result, pastors were expected to devote their full attention to leading a church and guiding members.

Church attendance has fallen dramatically in the past 20 years, especially during the COVID years. In smaller congregations, tithes and offerings to support the church started to shrink. Many churches began employing dual-vocation pastors, meaning they worked part-time at the church, but also held outside jobs to help cover expenses.

“Full-time ministers were suddenly becoming part-time because congregations could no longer afford to pay their full salary,” Rich explained. “Unfortunately, churches were still demanding full-time effort from their part-time pastors.”

More Than a Pastor

Rich started a coaching business, More Than a Pastor, to help ministers prepare for the change. He launched a blog as well as a podcast and assembled resources to help pastors looking for ways to create income outside the church.

That also applied to people who didn’t necessarily feel called to be a pastor, but still wanted to serve God. Many times, those people think their only option is to serve as a full-time pastor.

“However, they could also serve God while working as a teacher, engineer, trashman, doctor or any number of other careers,” Rich explained. “They may have had a vision for what their lives and ministry should have looked like by now, but they were disappointed their plans didn’t work out the way they envisioned.”

Many times, pastors just need permission to pursue what they feel called to do – and serve the church at the same time. Rich helps pastors realize they can still be devoted to their church and congregation, while also applying their skills and life experiences to other areas.

“Perhaps they want to leverage their ministry skills in the marketplace in ways that allow them to still serve God and provide for their families no matter what happens,” said Rich. “I help pastors and entrepreneurs bridge the gap between pursuing a vocational ministry in the church and a business in the marketplace. It’s not just pastors I help. A lot of entrepreneurs also feel a tug to do more to build God’s kingdom.

“So whether people need to make money for the purpose of giving it away, or whether they need money to have greater opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others, I help them live out their faith,” he added.

Discovering their sweet spot

The first step is to brainstorm with pastors to uncover their sweet spot which combines the right ratio of time and money. To do that, Rich employs a GPS – a plan to identify their:

  • Goals or dreams for life and what they want to accomplish.
  • Passions or experiences that get them excited and motivates them to make a bigger difference.
  • Skills and talents.

“There is a sweet spot in everyone’s life where their goals, passions and skills intersect. Then we create an opportunity around that sweet spot to help people take their lives to the next level,” said Rich. “It could mean creating an income outside the church or starting an organization to meet a need or advance a cause the person is passionate about.”

In November 2021, Rich transitioned out of his pastoral role at the church he led for 20 years. He joined a church he helped launch several years earlier and still enjoys an opportunity to be a relief preacher every three or four months. He also works with a non-governmental organization (NGO) that assists pastors globally by mentoring, coaching and training them to grow in the grace of giving.

“The idea comes out of 2 Corinthians where Paul encouraged the church to be more generous in their hearts,” said Rich. “It’s about fostering a lifestyle of generosity in churches, especially overseas, to help improve their local funding.”

Many pastors in Cambodia and Africa are reaching out to pastors in America to ask for help funding their churches. But, with American churches undergoing a transformation themselves, it’s important for overseas churches to improve local funding by growing in the grace of giving, he explained.

Leap of faith

It was somewhat unsettling for Rich to give up the security of a paycheck from his church to build his More Than a Pastor platform. Yet, taking that leap of faith created an opportunity to do coaching with the NGO.

Rich’s wife and children were fully supportive of his desire to start More Than a Pastor; however, some people at his former church were more apprehensive.

“They thought my timing was odd and that I should have more things better developed before taking the leap,” Rich explained. “But there were some transitions taking place at that church which showed me the timing was right. I had the dream for a long time and was tired of putting it off.”

There were more advantages to fully moving in one direction rather than assembling his plan in piecemeal.

“We took a leap of faith and God blessed it in ways we would not have imagined. We just trusted things would work out and experienced surprises and blessings along the way,” said Rich. “We knew if things didn’t work out the way we envisioned, I could always get another job. There are always other income opportunities.”

He knows there is still more for him to accomplish. Rich believes he can write a book yet this year, if he simply buckles down and focuses on getting it done. He also joined several communities of like-minded people he relies upon for encouragement and accountability.

“It’s really important to have a supportive community around you when you’re making decisions like these,” Rich explained. “Doing it all on your own works for some people, but I think it’s important to lean in and develop relationships in a community with people who are heading in the same direction you want to travel.”

Seeking feedback

After his sabbatical and before launching his business, Rich met with a dozen pastors to share his concept with them and ask for feedback.

“That’s where I came up with the name More Than a Pastor,” he explained. “One of the people I consulted confessed he felt kind of bored in his ministry, as great as it was. He knew he was not using all his gifts and talents. Nor did he fully tie his passions and interests into the dreams and goals he set for his life.

“He really felt like pursuing a business on the side which could not only provide more income for him, but would help him be more creative in his ministry,” said Rich. “I knew I could help him become more focused with his time and energy to be more innovative in what he was doing. I knew I could help him to be more than a pastor.”

Prior to COVID, many pastors were not feeling much financial stress. However, after two years of reduced church attendance and people slow to return, pastors now realize they may have a problem with which to contend.

“Many churches are struggling with financial pain right now. Fewer people are engaged in giving across the board, and a recession isn’t helping that problem,” said Rich. “Many pastors realize they need income outside the church or they want to use their gifts and talents in different ways. My goal is to bless pastors in ways they were not expecting, while blessing their churches and communities, too.”

Overcoming an upper limit

If Rich had to start over, there is one thing he would have done differently.

“I would have focused on other goals earlier to get my platform up and running sooner than I did. It has taken me a while to put my services out there for people to see,” he explained.

Rich had been sitting on his business idea for a while, but was reluctant to take the leap of faith he needed. If he had embraced the idea earlier, then Rich would be in an ideal position today to help more pastors weather their economic storm.

“I’ve dealt with some self-doubt,” he confessed. “I read a book titled ‘The Big Leap‘ by Gay Hendricks. He believes we all have an upper limit in that we think we’re only worthy of so much success, love or money. When we get close to that limit or even start to break through, we self-sabotage our progress by doing things which intentionally hold us back.

“I can relate to other people who struggle with feeling ‘Who would want to listen to what I have to say?’” Rich explained. “That’s why I was slower in promoting what I wanted to do and getting my message out to pastors who needed to hear it.”

The right message

His message may not have resonated with pastors before they started feeling an economic pinch, yet Rich knows his message makes sense to pastors today. The tide is turning as pastors look for ideas to create income outside the church.

“There has always been a narrative of the starving pastor. For some reason, churches think it’s important to keep pastors poor and humble,” said Rich. “Churches in smaller communities may struggle to pay their pastors enough to meet their financial needs.”

Pastor Gary Keesee, at Faith Life Church in New Albany, Ohio, has been advocating for many years that without provision, people cannot have vision. Consequently, he encourages people to “Fix the Money Thing.” For the same reason, Rich encourages pastors to take ownership of their income and their lives.

“I want pastors to not just accept what the church says they are worth, but to look at alternatives. I want pastors to become their own advocates for creating other income or freeing up their time,” said Rich. “Perhaps a pastor is serving in a full-time role, but being paid a part-time salary. My goal is to empower him to have conversations with his church to make that transition.

“Churches need to honor that part-time role and free up more time so the pastor can do other things to create a full-time income to support his family,” said Rich. “Several pastoral colleges are beginning to offer co-vocational ministry degrees so pastors can get ministry training and a degree in business.”

In fact, many church-planting organizations today encourage pastors to have a business or a job outside the church while starting a new congregation.

“It addresses the very thing I struggled with for 20 years in wondering whether I was called to be a pastor or to be an entrepreneur,” said Rich. “It is very affirming that pastors, churches, colleges and communities realize it is possible for ministers to serve in both roles.”

Billy Graham himself said, “I believe one of the next great moves of God is going to be through believers in the workplace.”

Redefining retirement

Rich really doesn’t see himself retiring, if that means giving up work to focus entirely on recreation or “taking it easy.” He knows he will always be doing something to help other people.

“I would like to move someplace warmer than Michigan. Summers here are awesome, but I’m not a huge fan of winter,” he explained. “I used to plan my mission trips so that every month or two I’d be somewhere warm. COVID upended that and I left my missions role at church.

“But working with this nonprofit organization means I will be doing more international travel,” he added. “The person I am succeeding at this group is 85 years old and never retired. In fact, he started this program around age 60.

“So, I have been blessed with a lot of examples of people who are not retiring, but refocusing their lives,” said Rich. “They feel their older years are the best years to apply their skills, talent and experiences to live in their sweet spot of purpose.”

It doesn’t have to be huge step, such as creating an organization or even quitting a job. Rich encourages people to take a small step to test their idea to see if it has legs and whether it would be worthwhile to pursue.

“A lot of times people don’t get started because their idea is too big, and that can be overwhelming,” Rich explained. “So start small. There are thousands of businesses you can launch with little or no money. You don’t need to get a building and hire five employees to get it off the ground.

“If there has been an idea burning within you for a while, then talk to people you trust about it. Take baby steps to get it going,” he added.

“Many times, pastors don’t know who they can trust to discuss their ideas or problems. They generally can’t talk to their parishioners or even their church board about financial struggles and their dreams for doing more,” said Rich. “They need to speak with someone who has been there and done that – someone they can relate to who understands what they are feeling.”

Rich is happy to serve as that confidential sounding board. To connect with him, visit