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The Importance of a Lengthy Pastorate

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Category Articles
Date December 24, 2009

I gave this paper on Monday November 23, 2009, in Bala at the first conference to be held in Wales specifically for ministers who had been in the pastorate for under five years. I am not sure that there are important differences between ministers who have been in the ministry five years and those who have been in the ministry for fifty. As one who is closer to fifty than five I believe there is nothing that I need more than to have my mind taught and my conscience aroused concerning the basics of ministry and preaching, to read again Stuart Olyott’s Preaching Pure and Simple, to be exhorted concerning the work of the pastor, to hear messages on the centrality of prayer, and urging me to repent of my sins, walk closer with God, grow in evangelistic concern and trust more deeply in the Saviour day by day.

I know that the following is a very subjective judgment to make but I think that one of my most powerful and used sermons was preached ten weeks after I began my ministry. The sermon on ‘The Preaching of John the Baptist’ went steadily round the world and was blessed again and again. I wish I could preach today as powerfully as I preached that sermon 45 years ago. When you read the lives of preachers you observe that all of them had the gift and exercised it from the very beginning. Where they started there they continued and they never stopped. You can read a sermon from Spurgeon’s New Park Street Pulpit Volume One or a sermon which Spurgeon preached 30 years later and you wouldn’t know which was which. You would probably think the sermon he preached when he was barely twenty years of age had a clarity and urgency that in later sermons might have been lacking.

It is hard to know what I have learned about preaching over the decades except increasing belief in its importance. There are some blind alleys I more readily recognize as such so that I no longer explore them. Other lessons learned (I hope) do not spring immediately to mind. I am still a learner and I view every preacher of whatever experience as my brother; I am on the same level as him and love to listen to young preachers talk and preach as much as sitting with or under the ‘ancients!’ I get much benefit from every contributor to our ten men monthly fraternal, especially the insights of those beginning their ministries.

What do I judge to be a lengthy pastorate? The Leadership magazine last year considered it to be one that was ten years in duration. I am thinking more in terms of twenty years though I am aware of many credible and useful pastorates that have been much briefer, such as M’Cheyne’s in Dundee. Few stay in one church for their entire lives. There are few today like Welshmen Cecil Jenkins and Graham Harrison who both completed almost fifty years in their pastorates. We still talk of a ‘marriage’ between a minister and congregation, though we recognize that it is generally one that does not last many years.

In the New Testament there appear to be few long pastorates. James seemed to have stayed in Jerusalem for his entire ministry, but nothing is made of that in Scripture. All the preachers were occupied evangelizing and church planting. There was a dynamism about New Testament preachers; they itinerate, settle for a short time and then move on, teaching, encouraging and leading a congregation on into truth step by step. The stability of the churches was provided by the elders who ruled and led the congregations and were themselves apt to teach them.

1. WHY ARE PASTORATES TODAY GENERALLY OF BRIEF DURATION?

i] There are those which fizzled out like a firework; the blue touch paper was lit and then the light and noise was quickly over. They were men and women who had no call from God and no understanding of the work of the preacher. They were soon disenchanted, and wearied of the work. The grief is that many more do not take the decision to leave this high and holy calling. The church of God would be stronger without them. They do not believe in sin or in atonement; they preach another gospel. But if they are more conservative men who remain in their pulpits then a pattern to their successive ministries is soon established. The first year they preach all their favourite sermons; the second year they scold the congregation for not inviting more people to church; the third year they are candidating in pastorless churches hoping for a call. That process can be compressed from three years into one.

ii] There are those who experience a moral fall. Taking advantage of their office and the access it provides into people’s lives in their vulnerability and privacy these ministers have not stood. Down they have fallen and the ministry is over. They failed to watch and pray just as Judas failed. He had had his brief powerful ministry with even devils subject to him, but he could not keep the devil out of his own life, and his ministry was followed by the blackest betrayal. If men do not soon learn to pluck out the right eye if it offends them, and to beat their bodies and keep them in subjection, lest preaching to others they themselves become castaways, then they can have no alternative but to cease their ministries.

iii] There are those ignorant of the true condition of the church that called them. They came to realize that staying in that congregation they would either have to compromise some of their main convictions or leave that pulpit. How slight was the commitment of the congregation to historic Christianity. How restlessly the officers responded to basic gospel affirmations. The preacher had had some hope of the church being conformed to the New Testament standard, and that the people, seeing its beauty, would desire it for themselves. It was not to be so. There was widespread intransigence and a growing resistance movement. The time came to move on. There is an exhortation by our Lord to brush the dust off your feet and move on elsewhere if you are confronted with sustained opposition. He gave that summons to men in all the zeal of youth, full of confirming signs and the life of heaven learned directly from him. There was no lack of preparation or zeal, but still, ‘They may resist you,’ Jesus said, ‘and if that is the case leave that place and go elsewhere.’

iv] There are those whose gift is one of quickening a moribund body, giving it life and a hunger for truth. These are men with an awakening ministry who can achieve this change and then they will move on. Set such men in stable pastoral contexts and soon both they and the congregation grow frustrated. They cannot expound the Scriptures to an established congregation week by week. If they are trapped as men who possess these gifts of evangelism but few gifts of pastoral teaching in a settled context then they must inform their congregation in the midweek meetings of their conversations, and the backgrounds of the new strangers who are present, and the visits being made and planned. Thus the ministry of outreach is appreciated and prayed for and their true gifts recognized by the church. They must pray that soon a man with pastoral gifts will be called to work alongside them or take over from them.

v] There are those who see the strategic importance of another ministry opening before them. They have begun their preaching in a rural setting, some sleepy backwater with an affectionate godly people who love their new pastor and strengthen him in every grace by their words and lives. He feels he could willingly spend his entire life in that place if that is God’s will. He or his wife may have personal links with that area. There are good schools. His influence stretches far beyond that congregation. Yet a call comes to him from a church in an important centre, a university town, a city with the centre of government, a community with a Bible College or seminary. His influence there will be far reaching, and he has learned much of his craft as an expounder of the Word and pastor of people’s hearts in his small town. Does this call come from God? Is it persistent, winsome and irresistible? Then he will move on. There is biblical precedent, a pattern of ministry with the apostle Paul moving on and on from one key cultural and economic centre to another.

vi] There are those who have steadily moved on, throughout their ministries, in the sovereign purposes of God. It is not that they are unaware of this high and holy calling; it is not that they discover that their gifts are evangelistic and church planting rather than pastoral and teaching; it is not that they are moving to strategic centres to exercise more influence for God; it is not that their ministries have been rejected and they are brushing the dust off their feet and moving on; they have no case of a moral fall; they even have enjoyed good health in that place, and also their family.

They are called by God after being four or five years in one place to leave and become the pastor in another congregation, and then in another, and so on, sometimes in areas far apart from one another even across oceans and continents. Others look on and see no pattern other than this willingness to move on. Are their personalities restless? Are they more quickly dissatisfied with where they are? Who knows? There does not seem to be a sinful resistance to the will of God who has placed them somewhere who then exhorts them to love the people of God in that place. I find it perplexing but recognize that I serve a God who can perplex me.

Sometimes one can see the ultimate purpose of ministers moving on. Arthur Pink had an extraordinary experience of doors being closed to him all over the world until finally he arrived in Stornoway in the Hebrides where his ministry became one of writing. This was to the edification of the whole church ever afterwards. We think we understand this purpose in God’s leading this writer, but with many another neither we nor the man himself understands why God moved him continually as he did.

Our calling is not to abuse our freedom to choose to move when we desire it, when, for example, things get difficult, or if there is opposition, if temptations are strong, if there is little apparent success, then those pressures alone are not sufficient reason to exhort us to move on. When a man is experiencing difficulty and opposition and asks for my advice then my initial response is to urge him to stay, to fight, not to allow the pulpit to fall into the hands of those with another gospel. I do not always appreciate how broken my brother might be, sinking into a dark depression, barely able to think coherently and to put one little sermon together. Sometimes the man must take a break from the pastorate for six months; sometimes he must resign and rethink and wait on God. He may need encouragement to take that step without guilt.

2. WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF A LENGTHY SETTLED MINISTRY?

The British monarchy has had its ups and downs since the death of Queen Victoria, at times seeming to be approaching its end, but what has given it credibility and affection in the eyes of the public has been the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II, hard-working, gracious, courteous, conscientious, well-judged, dignified, steadfast and ‘in it for life.’ If those words and phrases have become cliches, it’s only because they express thoughts so widely shared that we have nothing left to say about her except we respect her tremendously for these qualities – qualities exemplified throughout decades when they have sometimes seemed in short supply in the ranks of leaders of other institutions. The Queen possesses a reserve; she gives no interviews, sheds no tears even when mother and sister die, and makes no statement as to what she likes and does not like about her work. To combine such a sense of privacy with so terrifyingly public a role displays the degree of her self possession. She rules because she must; the momentum of history and the constitution demand it. It is her duty and sometimes a painful one. I admire this more than I can say. Once as a young woman she put her hand to the plough and she has not looked back.

Can evangelical preachers who believe in historic Christianity do this today? Can’t they learn from the example of the Queen’s consistency? Aren’t those steady long ministries all over the land markers that are saying that we Christians are here to stay in our secular and growingly anti-Christian age? More than occasional protestations about current doctrinal indifferentism and moral decline we continue in our vocations steadfastly to teach the entire Bible and evangelize our neighbourhoods and pastor our flocks. We lead an alternative community to the one in which our lives are spent. What are some of the advantages of a long settled ministry?

i] With a long pastorate the element of the ‘exciting new personality’ is non-existent. No one is focused upon the minister himself. The assembly knows him backwards and inside out! It knows his stories, foibles and gestures. So the concentration of the congregation is on the message that he preaches, the passage of the Bible he opens up, the application he makes of it to the varied condition of the hearers, known so well to him. That is a very different attitude from the anticipation a congregation has in the sound of a new voice coming from a barely known minister occupying the pulpit, or from observing a succession of men and women ascending the pulpit steps each week to lead and pray and read and sing and preach to the people.

A pastor who leads the entire service turns the attention of the people to the God he is serving. This is not a ‘one man ministry’ but a one Lord congregation. The people do not gather to sit on the edge of their seats wondering who is going to be doing something next, and what will be the following item. They know the structure of the service and so they give themselves to the Word when it is read, and also the praying, and the words of the hymns and the preaching rather than to the array of people who are introducing these things. That is a distraction from engaging with God.

I once was foolish enough to say to Dr. Lloyd-Jones how fortunate he was to go as a household name to Sandfields. Everyone in the steel town knew that he had given up a notable career in medicine in London to come to Port Talbot. What crowds then came and heard him from the start. The Doctor leaned forward and spoke straight at me with immediate earnestness; ‘It did me no good at all,’ he said.

They were curious about me and they came to look at me. They did not come to listen to what I said. I had a barren six months at the beginning of my ministry as they were simply motivated by fascination. It was not until that curiosity had been satisfied that they began to settle down and listen to what I was actually saying. Only then did people begin to turn to God.

An advantage of a settled pastorate is that it makes a people look to God, and more dependent on God, the one who alone can regenerate and sanctify a people, the one who must bless or we remain unblessed. The people have to learn not to look to mere man.

ii] With a long pastorate it is possible to bring the whole Bible to bear upon the whole congregation. My conviction, which must be derived from Scripture, is that the whole of the Word of God should be brought to bear upon all the people of God during their lifetimes. That is the reason why God has given it. I am the first to be exposed to all that God has taken great pains to give to the church and then I shine the light of this particular word on them. As a minister I am the means of making this connection in a pointed, illuminating, comforting and rebuking manner. That is the consequence for the mere believer of all Scripture being God-breathed. It is all of Scripture that thoroughly prepares us for every kind of good work before us.

It is a very demanding task preaching all the books of the Bible to all the people of God all through their lives. There are a number of reasons for this. There is the sheer size of the Old Testament, almost three times the size of the New Testament, and yet your main ministry on the Lord’s Day must centre on the good news of the life and achievements of the Lord Jesus Christ. All of Scripture is equally inspired by God but it is not equally important. The first six chapters of I Chronicles are not at all as crucial as the six chapters of the letter to the Ephesians. Then take, for example, the situation facing the prophets in most of the Old Testament period. They were preaching into the face of utter indifference and hostility, to a people who had turned from God and were worshipping the Baals. Jeremiah preached long and earnestly to such a people and they gave him no hearing. He had no encouragement from the rulers of the land; the kings were, almost overwhelmingly, ungodly men. That is very different from the situation that you and I face in our little gospel congregations. We face a people who are there to be encouraged in their relationship with God. They know him; they love him and their desire is to love him more and they want you to be helpers of their joy in their Lord. Our calling is not to chop them into little pieces.

So what do we do when we are faced with preaching through the prophetic books? The weakest response is to preach about the situation, and about judgment, and about repentance. No, not that. The congregation must be made to tremble as though they themselves were under the wrath of a sin-hating God and then made mighty glad that in Christ full propitiation has been made. However, a sustained ministry that creates trembling is one-sided. You can seek to preach on such passages evangelistically. You can preach on a few chapters and then turn to other parts of Bible and return to them in a few years’ time. You must preach on them through the spectacles of the history of redemption. There is no need to ‘do’ the book of Jeremiah by preaching through every part of it in one series. A long ministry will enable you to keep such breaks in mind and return to that book and others over the years, but you may not skip such books entirely.

You learn your trade. You learn from the lectures you received in theological seminary. You learn from hearing men speak on these themes at conferences. You learn from sitting under the best ministry. You learn from books and from the web, from whatever sermon series are contained there. There are finally appearing in the public domain through all these media examples of fine consecutive preaching on books other than the epistles of the New Testament. You are a foot soldier in the army of the church of the Lord Jesus alongside others. You seek to grow as a preacher.

People will never hear all the Bible preached to them in a lively, vital, applicatory manner without sitting under a minister whose intention is to remain in that pulpit for as long as it takes to preach the whole of Scripture.

iii] With a long pastorate the minister is constrained to explore new material. If he has had a series of pastorates then he has a backlog of files of prepared sermons he can take out, dust down and, with minor adjustment, preach again, and again . . . But if he is in the momentum of a long-term pulpit ministry then he is anxious to explore new themes and sections of Scripture which he has hitherto been unable to open up – the Psalms, the book of Job, Hebrews, the letters to the Thessalonians, even Leviticus, and so on. He will be that wise husbandman who brings things old and new out of his treasure store. One of the men who is among my heroes has been in his pulpit for decades and now, approaching the end of his 70s he is talking excitedly about the new series in which he is about to engage the interest of his hearers. He has been reading the commentaries, and introductions and seeing what is on the web and is already salivating with anticipation about preaching this book to the congregation. He is not ancient, and does not talk of his age; his youth is renewed like the eagle.

What period would you judge to be the best time of Dr. Lloyd-Jones’ preaching? J. I. Packer heard him in the late forties and so he deems that period to be the one in which the Doctor was the finest. My friends heard him in the late fifties and for them that was the Doctor at his prime. The people of Sandfields in Aberavon claim that he was never better than with them in the late 20s and 30s. In other words one concludes that as he always abounded in ministering the Word of God in its richness to the people that he was always excelling in his vocation.

I think he retired too soon, when he still had some years to give to Westminster Chapel and to arrange for a man with his same commitment to expository evangelistic preaching to succeed him. Ministers do not retire, we are frequently told, they are still preaching. Yes, but they do remove themselves from the demands of two or three new sermons a week, from having to dig deeply into the Word of God, to inquire, to think biblically. There is a long-term relationship between himself and passages of Scripture which cry out to be preached on which is as much a part of his life as his own family. The retired minister is now absent from one congregation that loves him as their own pastor-preacher, and continually prays for him in the unique dynamics of this God-created relationship. These are huge losses.

iv] With a long pastorate the preacher gets to know his congregation rather well. In the early years he has to spend more time with them in the afternoons, sitting in their homes and hearing about their pilgrimage. Then that phase ends and he can spend more time with fringe people, bringing them in, in evangelizing, in contacting strangers, in hospitality. The developing trust between the pews and the pulpit assists him as his reputation spreads. The constant invitations he receives to preach elsewhere are not resented by his well-fed and well-loved people. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is also the sitting Member of Parliament for a constituency in Fife. He has to deal with constituency matters brought to him by concerned little Fifers like housing and neighbours and rent and education matters. The ordinary folk of his constituency bring such matters to him, but he is also the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Do the people of Kirkcaldy resent the fact that he cannot be with them as much as the MPs of their neighbouring constituencies? Not at all. ‘Our man is the Prime Minister,’ they say, glad to share him to influence their nation and the nations.

Long term pastors tend to be invited to write, and preach, and lecture not only in our country but all over the world. He is their gift to these people and they are thankful to God that they have him. Their calling is to give their pastor as much freedom as they can and as his needs require. His responsibility is not to abuse that freedom, but to be sensitive to the congregation’s needs, to be aware that his critics will seize on this and run to the elders with eyes open wide, ‘You know that he is off again . . .’ Each invitation must be judged, and the pressing needs in the congregation must not be neglected.

v] With a long pastorate one’s testimony to one’s neighbourhood can be established. When you begin your ministry time seems much longer than in the few remaining years of your life. After three years you feel that you have then earned the right to be outspoken, and address the town through the letter columns of the local newspaper. It is a great mistake. Wait twenty years before you write a letter to the newspaper (or before you use Powerpoint, or let slip that you believe in some fringe religious position such as the interpretation of Romans 7, or that the gift of prophecy is for today, or that the believer is not under the rule of the law of God, or that the state of Israel has an important part to play today in the purposes of God . . . Wait, and think, and read, and pray and grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ about twenty years before such sea changes are announced. There is much that is profitable and fundamental to occupy your ministry until then.). You will choose the issues you want to fight over in the press more wisely when you are in your forties.

When you first came and stirred the congregation there were people who complained that you would soon be going off to a church in a big city, or that you could go to a church in the USA, and that you would leave ‘the mess you have caused by your doctrines far behind you, to the casualties like us who have to remain here hurting because of your insensitivity . . .’ This could be fearfully true for some men. They quickly show that they can tear down, uproot and destroy. Yes, but now the rest of their ministry has to be spent in showing that they can also build up, pastor and evangelize a happy congregation. For every year of conflict there has been they must pray for ten years of pastoral peace.

An advantage of a lengthy ministry in a community is that you are known in the place, and like your Saviour you have grown in favour with men. They speak well of you – even if it is begrudgingly at times, ‘. . . well, I must say this for him, that he knows what he believes and tells his people straight.’ Your children have been to the local schools and know other children as you do through them, and their parents, and the staff. You are thus naturally known when preachers are increasingly anonymous men only seen infrequently at the crematorium. You have access to local radio; you may become a governor in a local school.

My town of 18,000 people, half of whom are students in the university, is in a state of constant flux. When either my wife or myself have been to town (ten minutes walk away) and returned home one spouse will ask the other, ‘Who did you meet?’ Maybe one of us has recognized one person in a hundred and then talked to one or two people. That is quite exceptional for city folk who see no one they know, but to walk into town and around town is to be a certain presence in the community. I rarely meet people I know when standing in line with them in the Post Office but I do know some of the staff behind the counter. I have given one a copy of Pilgrim’ Progress. We know people like that. There is a list of folk we can contact and invite to special meetings.

3. ARE THERE DISADVANTAGES FROM A LENGTHY MINISTRY?

i] Can one man’s personality reveal the fulness of God to a congregation? Of course it cannot. But can the personality of ten Christians coming one after another in rapid succession on ten successive Sundays reveal the fulness of God to a congregation? Of course that cannot either. It is a great mistake to be thinking in such ways, that looking to men could enhance a congregation’s appreciation of the riches of God. We preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord. It is the pastor’s preaching, not his personality, that reveals God in law and gospel, in both testaments, in prophecy, writings, gospels, letters, Acts and Revelation. In the Word God is found. The pastor is growing as a man of God himself; the Word of God has impacted him pervasively; the work of sanctification is effectual in all who believe but especially in the man who labours in the Bible day by day. However, it is not as if the pastor is the only Christian these people meet. Would you rebel against fatherhood because God gives us just one father, and though he might be a man with evident weaknesses and sins? In the homes of our friends we meet other fathers. In every congregation there are many other men who are also filled with the Holy Spirit. They don’t have to try to preach. They are never in the pulpit, but one sees God in them all, but in the declaration of the Word and its application in pastoring God is known and the full Christian life approached.

ii] Can one man’s ministry preach all the Word of God to a congregation? No, but they hear other preachers. It is suggested that long series of expository sermons weary a congregation. Yet a church where different preachers stand in the pulpit each week speaking on a limited number of basic themes from the Bible, teaching basic gospel matters and rarely saying anything fresh can also weary a congregation. Most long term expositors preach three Sundays a month and on the fourth Sunday someone else preaches. Then there are special meetings which break into series, long or short. There is a baptismal service, there are meetings for Christmas and Easter, national events and special occasions. There are summer vacations from the pulpit when visiting preachers give the word. There is no fundamental flaw in the Puritan approach to preaching all the Bible systematically to all the people of God.

iii] Can a minister stay too long? Yes. There have been times of poverty when even notable preachers could not afford to own their own houses and did not know where they would live if they ended their ministries, and so that fear of the unknown kept them in that pulpit when memory and faculties were failing. I do not know in Wales today of any decrepit minister hanging on to his pulpit, while I do know a number whom I consider to have terminated their ministries prematurely. They have said to me that they felt as though they could not take the church any further and that a new voice and a younger man was needed. I would want to be assured that the congregation entertained those sentiments also.

There must be men who have stayed too long, are recycling old messages, wearying a congregation with clichés, have too much power to be told that the time has come to end their pastorate. Then the officers must take courage into their hands and address the old man with confidence and tell him that they believe it is God’s time for him now to end his ministry. Most men will not need to come to such a confrontation; weariness in preparation, and their wife’s ill health are factors that encourage thoughts of retirement.

There is no question I am asked more often these years than when am I thinking of retiring. A well established minister retiring is a briefly exciting event to spectators; the old man goes and a new man takes his place. ‘The King is dead: Long live the King,’ but then after a short time all that is forgotten and there is reflection at the nature of the old ministry; the changes that subsequently have taken place may not be pleasing to all. I remember the sadness when I heard of Lloyd-Jones’ resignation from the pulpit of Westminster Chapel. There has to be preparation for so important, delicate and mysterious an event by the minister and the church.

4. WHAT IS NEEDED FOR A LENGTHY SETTLED MINISTRY?

i] A steady and growing assurance that the Christian ministry is the best and most privileged of all callings, and that in doing this work God would have you complete your vocation.

ii] A growing awed appreciation for the flock you shepherd, for their remarkable gentleness, their simple appreciation of your ministry and of the means of grace, their warm affection for one another, standing round for an hour after the services talking earnestly and happily together, having a special disdain for any kind of sharp practice, an untiring readiness to help and pity one another, and all these graces simple everyday virtues unrecognized by them as remarkable – and you are their pastor!

iii] The growing work of the Spirit in your life to strengthen every grace and endowment and to stir up the gift that is in you. The Christian ministry is also the most difficult and demanding work in the world. There are few true conversions today as the Western world is under the judgment of God. It is not difficult to make people religious, but to make them disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, cross bearing and self denying, their lives ruled by God’s Book – how rarely such a great change is seen. There are many disappointments, many falls, and also fallings out in which we ministers get involved. How demanding is mortification of sin, to keep one’s body in subjection. How challenging is the discipline of meditation and private prayer, or repentance for our falls and confession to our Father. Each sensitive pastor bears a load of guilt and a sense of failure. ‘Am I just playing at being a minister?’ he will ask himself. How hard to handle disappointment as God’s present appointment, and to learn contentment in whatsoever state we are in. To do all this, the Holy Spirit’s love and energy is essential.

iv] Finally, your life must be ruled by the Word. There has to be an immense, growing, loving understanding, submission and delight in it. You will often want to pick it up and hug it to yourself as the best gift God ever gave you after his gift of his Son as your Saviour. On you go, loving to think about it and meditating in it day and night. While that love endures so will your lengthy service in his church.

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