Recently, I joined two other pastors in a panel discussion on endurance in pastoral ministry. We averaged 28 years in the same church. Since that may seem daunting to a young pastor, the moderator asked if we originally planned to stay so long in our ministries.
That question sent me drifting back 31 years to the start of my present pastorate. I don’t remember thinking consciously at that stage, “I’m planting my life in Memphis.” Many in my generation tended to go light on ecclesiology, and so thought of climbing instead of staying. Discussions of moving on to bigger and better things frequently marked the ministerial gatherings. Staying in one place, planting your life, enduring the many changes accompanying any congregation, just didn’t seem to be the focus.
But after years of involvement in pastoral ministry, I think that staying long should be the rule rather than the exception. Certainly, one might posit Paul’s missionary church planting ministry, staying a few months to a maximum of three years, as one possible pastoral template. Yet Paul’s calling “to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named,” differs from the pastor’s call to “shepherd the flock of God among you” (Romans 15:20; 1 Peter 5:2). As his normal practice, Paul turned the shepherding role over to local church elders/pastors (Acts 14:23) while he pressed on to new regions with the gospel. Meanwhile, pastors stayed long to teach, train, shepherd, correct, admonish, counsel, and encourage the local congregations.
Why Stay Long?
While admitting that some churches make staying long difficult due to lack of support, power groups, poor financial compensation, neglect of caring for pastors, and ongoing dissatisfaction with their pastors (yes, I’ve been there), a lot of congregations provide a good foundation for long tenures. Their hunger for Christ, desire to reach the community and beyond with the gospel, appreciation for faithful pastoral care, and respect for the pastoral office tend toward encouraging longer pastorates. They just need faithful pastors to stay.
Yet sometime pastors move too quickly to enjoy what years of labor has rooted in these churches. A few problems arise and resumes get updated and spread. Sure, the rough edges need to be smoothed. An atmosphere of biblical exposition needs to be cultivated. Biblical church polity needs to be established. Relationships must be strengthened in gospel application. Confessional bonds must be taught. A mission trajectory needs to be set in place. But how will it happen if pastors keep moving on? It likely will not take place. Churches that could have a strong community impact as they grow in health and Christlikeness, just “do church” with little biblical aim. Pastoral hopping saps their life. Until a pastor commits to stay through the difficult days—and these days come with any pastorate—those churches may flounder.
Pastoral longevity tests and shapes the character and gifts of the pastor. It challenges him to work through more of God’s Word with the congregation instead of repeating the same 100 sermons that he has stuffed into file folders to cart from one church to the next. It gives the congregation a more balanced diet of Scripture, as the pastor works through book after book—Old Testament and New Testament—to expound the riches of the Word. It gives time to develop solid disciples who know the Word, understand how to interpret Scripture, and apply it to the whole of life.
Staying long means that the pastor’s prayer life will change. He will discover more and more of what it means to live in the grace of God, to “venture all on God,” as John Bunyan expressed it. He will face battles; it’s inevitable. Power groups that have held the church in bondage, if they would be dissolved, must be met head-on with a faithful man of God standing upon the Word. Over time, his boldness and humility, his power and grace expose false teaching and faulty ecclesiology, correct sloppy living and anemic congregational relationships. He leads them out of man-centered worship toward a robust, joyous, and gospel-centered worship of the living God. He sets the example in witness and mission, changing the culture of the church toward the unbelieving world.
None of this happens in a short pastorate. Staying long and staying faithful for the long run, by the grace of God can bring about healthy changes in the church.
What’s Needed for Staying Long?
While any pastor that has stayed long might come up with additional necessities, I think that the following five top my list.
That’s a word that may get under our skin. We want what we want NOW! Just as you can’t bring your own body into good health with rash, impatient practices, you can’t lead the church to health without patience. It takes patience to cultivate listening ears, to make significant polity changes, to instill a mission heart, to see transformation in relationships, and to find renewal in corporate worship. Often, those changes take many years, and then continue patiently honing each facet of a healthy church life.
Congregations can be tough on pastors. They can complain, fail to show appropriate gratitude, ignore pastoral pleas, etc. Our pastoral expectations run high. We want quick responses so that we can move on to the next big plan on our agenda. But staying long calls for contentment with the little incremental changes, the one person that seems to “get it” when you’ve taught, the surprising volunteer for a mission team, the unexpected tears in the middle of worship, the kindly act toward an easily passed over attender. Just like Jesus who would not crush the bruised reed or put out the smoldering wick “until he leads justice to victory,” so pastors must show contentment in the little things until gospel transformation takes place in their congregations (Matthew 12:20).
Healthy, long-term relationships require a measure of vulnerability. By that, I mean that if I’m getting closer to others they will see that I don’t always have my act together; that I sometimes need a good kick to start moving. Vulnerability smashes our pride, so we may run from it to maintain a certain image, and never stay long.
Just check the example of courage in the book of Acts and beyond. The church grew by the courageous examples of pastors enduring suffering in order to establish the gospel firmly in their congregations. Read about Luther and Calvin, Bunyan and Simeon, Lloyd-Jones and Stott. Courage stays long.
More than anything, neglecting to cultivate trust in the Lord speeds pastoral departures. That doesn’t mean that every short pastorate exposes unbelief. But sometimes it does. Learning to trust the Lord, especially when adversity dogs the pastor’s steps, is the only way to stay long.
Maybe you’ve run into a wall in your pastoral work. Instead of updating your resume, consider what might happen if through patience, contentment, vulnerability, courage, and trust in the Lord you manage to stay longer? Twenty-five years from now a healthy church and a maturing pastor might bear testimony to God’s grace in endurance.