My friend, Pastor Dave, led a congregation in my neighborhood for two thirds of his life. This was a sweet fellowship and even though our denominational affiliation is different, Dave graciously invited me to fill the pulpit in his absence on several occasions.
One day over lunch, I asked Dave how he had managed to stay in one church over four decades. Were there not times when church members rose up and demanded new leadership? Did he not get the urge to try something new?
Bear in mind that I work with pastors. I hear the tales of midnight deacons' meetings, of forced terminations, of pressure groups, of bullies and rogue church officers and, in the words of one, "the devil in pew number seven." Dave had none of this?
"Give me your top three ways to stay at a church for 42 years," I said. He did not hesitate.
1. First, take a long view from the very beginning. The new pastor, Dave said, should plan to stay a minimum of five years from the first.
I smiled at that. It reminded me of Jeremiah 29:4-6 where God told Israel they would be in Babylon for 70 years and thus should "unpack your bags, build houses, plant gardens, have weddings and raise families."
2. Encourage those who help you. Church leadership is a team effort. Find those who make the team work and give them the nourishing support they need.
3. Enjoy the highs and stay steady in the lows. Both will come. Dave said, "My church never had any serious conflict. There was no movement to get me to leave." He thought a moment, then added, "We did have a few back door revivals (when people left). I've heard those horror stories from pastor friends who were butchered. But the Lord spared me all that."
That is the sum total of Dave's plan to remain at a church for 42 years. I am impressed, I must say. Having endured conflicts of one form or the other in almost every church I pastored, it's almost unimaginable to think of him having none. Think of the blessings he has missed! (I say with a smile.)
I'm not entirely sure I envy him though. While the various trials in my churches were no fun, and I bear lasting scars from two or three conflicts, the greatest lessons and biggest blessings are all associated with those times of crisis. And some of my best stories had their origin in those moments.
The crises remind me of what my Dad used to say of his six children: "I wouldn't take a million dollars for one of them; I wouldn't give you a dime for another."
Now analyzing Dave's advice for remaining at a church for decades, it might help to put matters in perspective. Dave's church is not large, and my observation is that his denomination has few megachurches. So perhaps the mentality—for want of a better word—differs from the atmosphere in denominations that are always pushing to do bigger and better, have more baptisms, report higher numbers, construct greater buildings. If our Southern Baptist Convention is not the prime offender in this matter, we are definitely in the playoff.
Back to the subject at hand: How a pastor can remain at a church for decades.
I'm also a 42-year man. In a way.
The difference is that in my 42 years, I pastored six churches! (Smiley-face goes here.)
The earlier pastorates were shorter, as is the case with most preachers just starting out. My pre-seminary pastorate lasted 14 months, the seminary pastorate 30 months, the third and fifth ones three years each. The fourth and sixth pastorates had tenures of nearly 13 and 14 years. (In between three and four, I logged three years as a staffer at the largest church in our state.)
Perhaps all of this qualifies me to add a few observations to Dave's three suggestions.
To remain at a vital church for many years, a pastor needs to develop certain skills. Among them are these:
1. Perfect the art of apologizing. You're normal, pastor. You're going to miss someone who needed ministry, say something you'd like to take back and offend someone needlessly. It happens. The pastor has never been born who led his congregation flawlessly from start to finish. Learn early in your ministry how to go to an offended or neglected member and say "I'm sorry" and "Please forgive me" and mean it, and you will make the rest of your years in the Lord's work far easier.
Some pastors leave a string of broken relationships in their wake. Eventually, with no more support, they move on to the next church and repeat the process. If they would humble themselves and work to mend broken fences, they might do themselves a great favor. (And wouldn't their families enjoy living in a community longer than two or three years?)
2. Organize your preaching so you will not repeat yourself more than you'd like. One of the main criticisms of long-time pastors is they preach the same sermons over and over. (Is it necessary to say you must not do that?)
However, any effective pastor will want to repeat something from time to time. You will even tell a story you've used before. Naturally, you will preach the same Scripture text more than once, and some several times. But you should do so with full knowledge that you preached that text on such-and-such a date, and while the text may be the same, make sure the sermon is new and fresh.
3. Grow. If you remain the same person, at the same level of spirituality and biblical understanding, without ever developing, nothing about this bodes well for your ministry or the church. Just as you want your members to keep growing and developing in Christ, the pastor must do so also. This may involve online courses, preaching or specialty conferences, reading books and picking the brains of the most effective ministers you know. Don't be afraid to try new things. Nothing makes a pastor grow spiritually more than preaching through a book of the Bible when he devotes himself to serious, lengthy study.
4. Get into the community. Find a way to widen your influence and connect with the people who make the community work. Appreciate city leaders who do well. Be careful about taking positions on community matters you're not fully educated about.
When two ladies from the chamber of commerce visited my office to ask me to join their community beautification committee, my first inclination was to decline. What did I know about gardening and landscaping and lawn care? However, once they told me what it involved, I accepted. I ended up cutting television spots on community sanitation and civic pride. When the college formed a board for the new symphony and invited me to join, I did. Neither of these was time-consuming, but I ended up knowing a lot of people in the community I'd have missed otherwise. Some of them joined my church.
5. Learn to love your critics. Every church will have trouble-makers and every preacher will have his naysayers. My counsel is to read Luke 6:27-38 again and again until the Lord's lessons on "how to deal with jerks" (oops, sorry) become second nature to you. What are those lessons? I'm glad you asked.
That Scripture is about loving your enemies. The counsel is not for everyone, only for "those who hear" (6:27). Not everyone "gets" spiritual things. See I Corinthians 2:14 for that.
—So, who are your enemies? Answer: The text answers that: those who hate you, curse you, threaten you, harm you or take what is yours.
—How can I love them? I don't even like them? Answer: You don't have to like them. You just have to love them. And what does that mean? In the Bible, love is something you do. And the Lord is commanding that we "do loving things" to the people who wish us harm.
—What loving things? We are to: a) Do good to them; b) Bless them (say uplifting things to them); c) Pray for them (asking God for His will in them); and Give to them.
—Why? Primarily because the Lord commanded it. And when you do these things you will win some of the critics over. More than that, however, you will honor the Lord Jesus Christ. As a side benefit, you will tickle the socks off the right-minded people in the congregation who know what the "bad guys" are doing and see how beautifully you are responding.
Eventually, you may outlive your adversaries. Some will change, some will die and others will move away. The rest will give up.
It's so worthwhile staying at a church for many years. Studies show longevity for pastors as a key element in growing a great church.
Let's see you do it.
Joe McKeever is retired from the pastorate but still active in preaching, writing and cartooning for Christian publications. He lives in Ridgeland, Mississippi.
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