A Long Term Pastorate – Pitfalls and Positives
What qualifies me to write on this subject? Simply the fact that I have been the pastor of Childs Hill Baptist Church in London for the last 30 years.
How have I been able to do that? Firstly, I was converted when I was still only about to turn 13. Then, by the time I was only 14 I knew that the Lord was calling me to the pastoral ministry – not only that but I liked the idea (partly from ignorance of what is involved). Thus I was only actually 24 when I became a pastor. That is relatively young, of course, but I had been a Christian for 11 years and I had been preparing for the pastorate over a period of eight or nine years. Then, there has been little interest from other churches and I have felt it right to continue in the same place all this time.
Before I go further with the subject I will quote some words Geoff Thomas has written on the subject.
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.1
I think it is important to echo those words at the beginning for the last thing I want to do is to come over as some sort of expert or to say ‘hey, I’ve been in one place for 30 years’. That is not my intention.
It is also worth reminding ourselves that we are all different. Not every pastor is called to a long pastorate. Some have a pioneering gift. They can start a work or revive a flagging one well. Bundles of energy, they can sustain a ministry for five or six years but then it is time for them to move on and work elsewhere. That sort of apostolic gift is perhaps rarer than some think but if it is your gift, brother, don’t let anything I say deter you. Let’s never forget what an impact a short ministry can have. Robert Murray M’Cheyne was at St Peters, Dundee for a matter of only five years – so tragically brief but what an impact he had!
Generally speaking, long pastorates are rare these days. Geoff Thomas has been pastor in Aberystwyth for 48 years. May be there are others we could mention. John Marshall and Graham Harrison both served over 40 years. John Piper has only just retired after being at the same church since 1980 (32 years) and John Macarthur has been at the same church even longer – since 1969 (43 years) and has not yet retired. Historically, several 18th century Particular Baptists served long pastorates, for example John Gill in London (51 years); Benjamin Beddome in Bourton on the Water (55 years) and John Rippon (an incredible 63 years). It’s not just Baptists; Charles Simeon was in Cambridge over 50 years and William Jay in Bath some 62 years. Lloyd-Jones was at Westminster Chapel 30 years. Spurgeon pastored the same church 38 years. In my own church the first three pastors served for 25, 35, and 25 years.
Before we come to positives and pitfalls, then, let’s spend a little time thinking about the idea of a long ministry. A preliminary question is ‘what is a long ministry?’ Given that it is very rare for anyone to enter the ministry under the age of 20 and that normal life expectancy is around 70, anything from 20-25 years up ought to be considered a long ministry. Given that general rule, it is clear that only men who are converted relatively young and who live a relatively long life are likely to serve a long time in leadership. We only have to think of the example of Moses, however, who began to lead God’s people at the age of 80 and lived until he was 120, to see the danger of assuming too much.
Then we ought to note some other factors here. First, that a man may, of course, be called to another sphere of labour. When I completed my two years of study at the LTS there were four of us UK students. We’ve all continued 30 years in ministry without a break but only I and Ken Brownell at the East London Tabernacle have spent the bulk of our time in one pastorate. John Palmer is in his second, Bernard Lewis in his third. A man may not continue long in one place because he is called elsewhere or if there is some serious breakdown of relations between him and the congregation he serves. One reason I have continued so long in Childs Hill is that it has been very rare for any other church to show interest in having me come. In the only serious case (a church in Wales, unsurprisingly) I brought the matter to my church officers and they were quite unanimous in urging me not to pursue it as they felt the church could not afford to lose our family at that time (the family you note – not the pastor! Perhaps I’m not remembering as it was).
There are wrong motives for moving pastorate but there are right ones too. We want to resist the idea that we must all start somewhere small and move on to a bigger congregation as if bound by some law of the Medes and Persians. However, there are times when God calls a man from a backwater to a strategic position in some large and influential church.
A move may be necessary because a man has come to a situation under a false apprehension. He may have thought the situation was quite different to what it turns out to be. Whereas he had expected a desire for the truth there is firm resistance. In certain cases it is better to be out of that situation than to continue to flog a dead horse, as it were. Paul Beasley-Murray says,
There is no point, for instance, in remaining in a church where the members as a whole refuse to follow the leadership offered. Nor is there any point in remaining in a church where it quickly becomes apparent that one is a square peg in a round hole.
Then further, a man may not continue in ministry at all because of ill health, mental or physical, or because of a doctrinal or ethical fall. Other ministries just fizzle out. That is a good thing if the man was never called in the first place. Geoff Thomas caricatures the process with some: ‘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.’ It can all happen in one year in some cases.
It is appropriate to say, therefore, when talking about a prolonged ministry, that it is only possible by the grace and providence of God. Probably in most cases it will not happen but when it does there are many positives, as well as pitfalls to be avoided.
I suppose we are really talking about an attitude rather than a time frame. An early twentieth century Lutheran writer, Newton Royer, gives an anecdote where one of the elders of a certain congregation rings the doorbell at the pastor’s home. The pastor’s little boy comes to the door and the elder says ‘Johnnie, where is your papa?’ The boy answers, ‘Papa is in his study praying, asking God to guide him that he may rightly answer his call to a larger city.’ ‘Well,’ said the elder, ‘where is your mother?’ ‘Oh,’ said the boy, ‘she is upstairs packing the trunks to move.’!
To quote Geoff Thomas yet again
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, rethink and wait on God. He may need encouragement to take that step without guilt.
We could frame the question like this ‘Should I enter the pastorate intending to stay in the same place, or intending to move on after a few years?’ It is not an easy question to answer as there certainly ought to be a willingness to move on if the Lord wills. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the prevailing attitude should be that of intending to stay for the long haul. Royer talks about the difference between a renter and a home owner. The one deals with repairs on a short term basis, the other on a long term basis. That can make all the difference when things go wrong. He says, ‘recently, I heard a farmer say that he could determine whether or not the man whom he employed by the month intended to apply for work the next year by the manner in which he performed his labour.’ That is something worth pondering at the outset.
As for biblical guidance on the subject, there does not seem to be anything very much in the New Testament. This is in part because the New Testament is very much a book about beginnings and covers only a relatively short period in history. James, the Lord’s brother, in Jerusalem seems the one example of a settled pastorate over many years. Tradition speaks very highly of his impact in that city and it comes out in Scripture. Perhaps there is something in the very title ‘pastor’ or ‘shepherd’ that suggests a long term commitment to the sheep. Even a teacher has to make some sort of time commitment if he is going to be effective. ‘Elder’ again conjures up someone committed for the long haul until death intervenes.
When we turn to the Old Testament we have examples of long periods of leadership in the case of some of the kings and long periods of ministry in the case of some of the priests and prophets. The very fact that Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel had lengthy ministries in one place surely demonstrates that on the face of it there is nothing to be said against a man continuing long in a ministry in one place. John Wesley and others so structured the Methodist connexion that no-one stayed very long anywhere. One can see the wisdom in that, given the time and situation, but whether he was wise to do that in every case is hugely open to question and it can be argued that this is one of the things that has served to undermine Methodism in a way that is not true of the Baptist cause.
Saul, David and Solomon all reigned for lengthy periods (around 40 years). When we think of the kings of Judah we notice that only eight of the 20 or more reigned 25 years or more. The statistics: Asa 41 years; Jehoshaphat 25 years; Joash 40 years; Amaziah 29 years; Uzziah (Azariah), 52 years; Hezekiah, 29 years; Manasseh, 55 years; Josiah 31 years.
If you know your kings you will immediately notice that, apart from Manasseh (the exception that proves the rule perhaps), these were all kings who were pronounced good. In the case of Joash, you remember, however, that he only did what was right in the eyes of the LORD all the years of Jehoiada the priest (1 Chron. 24:2). The last 11 years of Uzziah’s reign were clouded by his proud act of entering the temple to offer incense, punished by leprosy, and even the final years of Hezekiah were not exactly without their problems. These are important further caveats.
So we may say, in general, that kings who served a long time were good kings – men such as David, Solomon, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah and Josiah – and that men who were kings for a short time – such as Abijah (3 years), Ahaziah (1 year), Amon (2 years), Jehoahaz and Jehoachin (3 months each) were bad kings. However, we must never forget Manasseh, a very bad king who only repented at the very end, and Saul who started well enough but soon turned bad. We have also mentioned Joash, Uzziah and Hezekiah and the negatives that have to be added with regard to their reigns. Solomon is another long reigning king whose record was not without blemish.
With these parameters of a practical and biblical sort in place, then, let’s begin to think of positives and pitfalls. I would like to start with the pitfalls. We will come on to the positives later.
1. The church often gets to be known as pastor so-and-so’s church
Long pastorate or not we often fall into the short hand method of referring to Barry King’s church or Gary Brady’s church. Of course, we also say ‘my auntie’s church’ or ‘Tony’s church’, and they are not pastors, so we must not be too hard on ourselves. I think ‘my church’ is okay from a member but less so from a pastor. With a pastor it can be dangerous.
People still refer to Spurgeon’s Tabernacle. If you go to Port Talbot in South Wales they may say to you, innocently, ‘this was Lloyd-Jones’s church’. This is all the more likely if a man stays in one place any length of time. If you google ‘John MacArthur’s church’ you will get Grace Community Church, California. If you google ‘John Piper’s church’ you will get Bethlehem, Minneapolis. I am not sure exactly why, but you see the danger. The church is Christ’s and to call it by anyone else’s name raises a danger that we ought to beware of.
2. There is the danger of being a dictator
Geoff Thomas quotes the autobiography of an old Strict Baptist minister now with the Lord, Bernard Honeysett. Bernard wrote,
John Kemp was one of five pastors I knew personally who held pastorates for more than 50 years. In the case of Stanley Delves of Crowborough, his predecessor was also in the office for over fifty years, so that the two spanned over a century. It has been my observation that when men have continued so long, they can unwittingly become dictators. A generation grows up under their ministry and pastoral care, and their word can become law. I knew of one case where a church meeting was mentioned and the pastor said, ‘I will say when we are to have a church meeting.’ Sometimes such leaders make no provision for the future when they are taken, in some cases with very sad results. (page 51)2
There are some situations where it is hard to imagine a dictatorship ever arising so firm is the grip of the church meeting and there are such strong personalities around. One can see the danger, however, especially where the minister is a strong personality and when it gets to the stage when he can remember many of the congregation when they were in nappies.
3. There is the danger of creating the church in your own image
A similar though a different danger is that of creating a church in one’s own image; the church becomes a mirror of the pastor. One writer speaks of co-dependency.
Obviously, a minister wants to have an impact on the church he is serving. He wants them to believe what he believes, live the way he lives and to a certain extent to show an interest in the things that he is interested in. However, given that no man is perfect, a mere reproduction of one minister is not going to be an unmitigated blessing to a church. They are likely to pick up his weaknesses as well as his strengths. In many cases this can be mitigated by a plural eldership, by a leadership style that does not centre on one person and his personality, and by being aware of the danger from the outset. Another help is the use of sabbaticals – regular (ideally seven yearly) periods of a few months away from regular ministry. (Having said that I have more than once observed men leaving their pastorates after a sabbatical – yet one more thing to put churches off the idea. Perhaps a contract can be drawn up. Few churches will give a man a sabbatical after less than seven years.) There is also the impact of various visiting preachers. Further, the sheer variety in a properly taught congregation will also make a difference. As God’s Word goes home and is lived out in them, what variety should be seen.
4. There is the danger of complacency
We are all warned against complacency in the Bible. In Zephaniah 1:12 God says, ‘At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs, who think, “The LORD will do nothing, either good or bad.”‘ Leaders in particular are warned against this sin in Amos 6:1, ‘Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come!’
It is one of the dangers of a long term pastorate, where things have been fairly successful and where the situation is quiet. One can get into a routine, doing the same things that have always been done and with no expectancy of any great change. A drowsiness settles and zeal begins to flag.
5. There is the danger of a ‘we’ve tried that before’ mentality
Again similar but slightly different, it doesn’t take so very long before no-one can suggest a new idea without the minister saying ‘we’ve tried that before’ and either ‘it doesn’t work’ or ‘we’re not trying it again anyway’. It doesn’t matter whether it’s children’s meetings, mums and toddlers, tract giving, door to door, meal and message, open day, family services, etc, the average church tends to try most of the available options – some work and are retained, others are tried and found wanting. When a new generation comes along they sometimes come up with something new but it is usually only a variation on what has been done in the past. It is the easiest thing in the world to say (and it is not always in so many words) ‘we’ve tried that before’.
I was reading a piece by an advisor to sales people. He writes,
I spend most of my time with extremely experienced sales executives and professionals. Largely, they have been selling for years; most have been very successful. They bear the scars one gets from experience. They’ve ‘been there, done that.’
In many cases, though, these grizzled veterans struggle to improve performance, but they are stuck in a rut. They are both prisoners of their own experience, and somewhat jaded by their experience. They know they have to change, but fear change. As an advisor to these companies and individuals, it’s often a struggle to overcome the resistance. The resistance is understandable, but getting them to move is often a challenge.
He then talks about new sales staff and their willingness to try new things or often old things they are too inexperienced to know are old. I’m sure that we have similar stereotypes in the ministry. Older men, a bit jaded, a bit ‘been there, done that’, and younger men full of enthusiasm. There are also, thankfully, older men who stay fresh. Those are the sort who are a blessing in a long ministry.
6. There is the danger of taking life easy
In the ministry you really are very much your own boss and if you have no conscience it is not that difficult, after you’ve been in the role for a few years, to start making it easy for yourself. You have to be out on Sunday and at the mid-week meeting, of course, but if you get yourself organised you can make sure that any other evening meetings are taken by others and avoid doing too many visits at night. After a while sermon preparation becomes easier and with a little effort you can squeeze all your preparation in to a day or even half a day at a push. Avoid any commitments outside the local church. Your church will be keen for you to take a day off. Keep it fastidiously and take Saturday and bank holidays too. If you don’t work yourself too hard on Sundays you will then only really be available four days in the week and much of that time can be taken up with reading what you fancy or pursuing some other hobby. Perhaps I exaggerate a little but you must beware of this danger for it can grow ever more strong the longer you are settled in the same place.
7. There is the danger of going on too long
If you recall learning to ride a bicycle, you will remember that there are two main difficulties to be overcome. First, there is getting on the bike in the first place. Then, when you are finally up and running, there is the important matter of how to stop and get off. Something similar pertains with the ministry. They used to say of the Welsh rugby team it was harder to get out of the team than to get into it, and that is probably true of the ministry too.
There is a story of John Gill’s niece saying of Gill near the end ‘My uncle still keeps in Deuteronomy, and I don’t know when he will be out of it.’ In those last years Gill’s voice grew weak and there was restlessness in the congregation, some of the young people going elsewhere. But when the church suggested a co-pastor he did not like it at all: ‘that Christ gives pastors is certain, but that he gives co-pastors is not so certain.’ He even went the length of comparing a church with a co-pastor to a woman who should marry another man while her first husband lived, and call him a co-husband! The church was only trying to be kind. Benjamin Beddome’s final years when he struggled with gout and had to sit to preach were also rather unhappy in many ways and that was at least in part probably because he went on too long.
There have been a few disasters in living memory. Sometimes the problem is that the minister does not believe in retirement. ‘There is no such thing’ they say. And yet the Bible clearly tells us that the Levites were to retire at 50 (Num. 8). You may come back at me and say that the priests didn’t retire. There may be something in that but my point is simply that retiring is a biblical idea. For a man to step down then at 60 or 65 or 70 or 75 from a pastorate is not wrong.
There is an expression in English ‘to die in harness’. It means literally to die with your armour on and by analogy to die before retiring. Some ministers speak of it admiringly. I think, however, that the man who said ‘but it’s no good for the harness’ had a point. On rare occasions men actually die in the pulpit. It gives people a sense of eternity no doubt, but there is not much to be said for it otherwise.
If a man refuses to retire then he is in danger of going on too long. If dementia should strike that can cause major problems.
8. There is the danger of not preparing for the future
A similar issue is the matter of making preparations for the future. Transition is always difficult, never more so than at the end of a long ministry.
Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones famously announced his retirement from Westminster Chapel rather suddenly in 1969. Some heard the news with great sadness. There had been no preparation for what has been called ‘so important, delicate and mysterious an event’ as the change of pastor. There is some evidence that Lloyd-Jones later regretted this as the church went into steep numerical decline. His later efforts to put things right probably did more harm than good.
I am aware of another case where the minister basically wanted to appoint his own successor. The congregation was not happy with the idea and so an otherwise often friendly relationship between pastor and church ended on a rather sour note that has not entirely faded even to this day.
No man can know exactly when his ministry is going to come to an end, but some thought for the future is probably wise. At the very least the congregation can be reminded of the fact that the ministry will end at some point and they can even be given teaching on what to do at the time.
Obviously where an assistant or a co-pastor can be brought in then the way can be smoothed, but there are no guarantees even with that approach.
So there is a fairly lengthy list of pitfalls. And I am not finished yet. There are a few more things of a negative nature that can be said before we come to something more positive. These negatives consist of brief warnings rather than pitfalls as such.
1. You may not see the teaching take root
A lot depends on the situation you go into but you may find that there is not the response to the teaching that you seek. If a man spends a long time in a place, it is more disappointing to see the teaching not take root than if he is there a short time.
2. You may see the people melt away before your eyes
Length of stay does not guarantee success of any sort. One hopes to see numbers increase rather than decrease and again it is hard to take if this happens over a long period. The feeling that a lot of effort has brought little obvious reward is hard to resist. Some authorities say that Joseph Caryl’s congregation rather diminished during his long series on Job and that is why it joined with John Owen’s after Caryl’s death. Others deny this, but it is certainly something to consider.
3. You will have to come to terms with what cannot actually be changed
You may have received this pastoral advice before but the fact is that some situations just will not change. Let me give you two examples.
Imagine a person who suffers from depression. The depression drags them down and everyone around them. Okay, you say, depression can be treated these days with drugs. Yes, but this person believes it is wrong to take such drugs. Well, tell them it isn’t. What is likely to happen is that they will every now and again try some but then not be sure, and so we are back to square one.
Or imagine someone in their eighties perfectly sane in many ways but convinced her octogenarian husband is having affairs with women who steal things and is trying to poison her. It is clearly dementia and unless some miracle drug is invented there will be no change.
When you are a young pastor you are full of confidence that you can solve such problems. After a while you realise that you will not.
4. You will have to live with your mistakes
One final warning. If you stay in the same place for any length of time then you will inevitably make mistakes and by not moving on you will have to live with those mistakes. One of the attractions of a fresh start is just that you begin again and your past mistakes can be forgotten. If you stay in the same place then you have to live with your mistakes.
Well, that’s enough negativity. What about something more positive? Despite all these negatives, I think we have to say that there are many positives about a long pastorate in the same place. Let me mention some.
1. With a long pastorate the element of the ‘exciting new personality’ is non-existent.
This is a point Geoff Thomas makes well.
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 . . . 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 become 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.
2. You have more time to get to know the people
How long does it take to get to know a person? Well, that all depends on what you mean by know. You can get to know a person at a certain level in a few hours or days. To really know a person it usually takes some years.
I can think for example of people I know who you would think are pretty confident, balanced people who keep it together very well. And yet in each case I know there is a volatility that can be set off by a certain train of events. Thankfully, good teaching and good advice and wise friends make all the difference.
I think too of someone who again exudes a measure of confidence although to a lesser extent than might be the case with others. Now I don’t know their whole story and I have never felt it my pastoral duty to delve into the past and ask probing questions. However, I know enough to realise that again without good teaching and good advice and wise friends the situation would be rather different.
When you have been with people a long while you get to know their moods and their stress points; you get to know something of their background, their family ties, the pressures they are under at work. All this lies hidden to the visiting preacher who is really like a blindfolded man with a gun, and even a man who has been there five or six years, say, and is beginning to see where his shots are landing is only starting to get to grips with who exactly it is that he is preaching to.
3. You have more time to get to know the community and for the community to get to know you
At the same time you have more opportunity to get to know the community and for them to get to know you. Country villages are notoriously slow to accept people. I was staying in a village in South Wales many years ago when a friend I was with who lived there said hello to a man who was passing and then smiled to me and laughed. He explained that they always referred to that old man as the man from outside the village and yet he was much older than my friend who, nevertheless, had been there from when he was a baby. Even in London you have to be here at least two years before anyone thinks you’re permanent.
It is only when you have been in a place 10 years, 20 years, that you really get to be part of the furniture and you get to know who the people are who live in that community. When I am walking to Golders Green I will see Lord Childs Hill, perhaps, and maybe I’ll speak to him. He’s not easy to spot if you’re not in the know. Similarly, it takes the same amount of time for them to get to know you and to be assured that you are not some phoney or some fly-by-night who will be gone very soon. Although simply getting to know people will not convert them, the very fact that they have got to know a Christian minister may count for something.
4. There is more opportunity for a man to develop as a minister and so be useful
When a man moves from place to place, especially if he does that a number of times, then obviously his time is going to be taken up each time with the move, with getting to know his situation – the congregation, the community, his living situation. Time spent on this is time that cannot be spent on other things. The temptation to revisit the barrel of previous sermons will be too great to be resisted and so the need for fresh study will diminish and that will, generally speaking, be detrimental to the minister’s development. ‘Many simply repeat their five year bag of tricks everywhere they go’ (Paul Beasley-Murray). Royer suggests a correlation between length of pastorate and knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. He wonders if this is because ‘the pastors who preach to the same people year after year must depend especially on the unsearchable riches of divine truth, and there are only two avenues to the heart of the sacred Scriptures, viz., the Greek and Hebrew languages, and the Scriptures – these two are the unfailing fountain of all riches to the preacher.’ Certainly the longer a man is in one place the more he will feel a need for Greek and Hebrew.
longer pastorates will be successful only to the degree that ministers themselves are growing and developing. For this to happen pastors need others to help them grow and develop. Hopefully the stimulus will in part come from within the local church – I have been fortunate in having leaders who have contributed to my own growth and development. Certainly there is something lacking if pastor and people cannot ‘journey’ together. However, outside resources are also vital.
Geoff Thomas says,
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.
He says of Lloyd-Jones,
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.
Conrad Mbewe has written that you cannot preach through the Bible completely with any meaningful depth even if God allows you to live to the ripe old age of Methuselah.
As a preacher, you also keep studying and thus grow in your knowledge of the Bible. Hence, you can come back to passages you have preached through before and preach through them again with new and deeper insight. At least, that has been my experience.
Coming at it from the other end, another writer says that he firmly believes ‘continuing education is imperative if a pastor is to be effective in a long-term pastorate’.
5. There is more likelihood that a minister will show self-control and discretion
Royer points out that if a man intends to stick around for some time to come
he will be very cautious as he mingles with the people in any of the very many possible relations; he will guard his tongue, watch his acts, even his facial expressions, lest he leave a deleterious impression upon the hearts of the people whom he has been commissioned to bless.
Motives are also sanctified to some extent. Anyone can be impressed by a new minister; it is the man who stays year after year whose inner life is exposed and really begins to make an impact.
A man of doubtful character and questionable motives may manage to remain in almost any pastorate for a few years, but if he is wrong at heart the fact will make itself manifest. He must ring true if he hopes to prolong his labours through the years in one place.
6. The impact of personal disappointment is diminished
This is a point that a writer called Richard Dreselhaus makes. Let me simply quote him:
It is virtually impossible for me to recall a time in 45 years of pastoral ministry when I was not battling disappointment, a sense of falling short, of letting people down, of failing to reach goals or achieve objectives.
When pastors stop the clock at any of these moments, the disappointment seems crippling. But when pastors focus instead on months, years, and decades, the hurts of the moments are swept away by the passing of time.
Let me personalize it a bit. Repeatedly I have reviewed the stats for a given Sunday and felt the cause was hopeless; but, when I saw that single Sunday against the backdrop of decades of ministry, the picture began to change.
When evaluating goal achievement at the end of the year, it is tempting to ignore the progress of the decade and focus only on the shortcomings of a given year. The long pull matters. It is winning the war that eclipses the isolated battles that may be lost or won along the way.
One benefit of hindsight is that the valleys are lifted and crooked places are made straight. The criteria used for measuring ministerial effectiveness become increasingly more accurate and reliable. The perplexities of a given moment are diminished and minimized by the trustworthy verdict of passing time . . . I argue for the long-term pastorate. I grieve when I see the premature resignation of a gifted minister. I want to shout: ‘Hold on. Hang in there. What is a day or two, a month or two, or even a year or two in light of a 40- to 50-year lifetime call to ministry?’
I also am a realist. Sometimes the Lord’s assignment is short. Sometimes a pastor has no control over things that happen. There is a right time to conclude an assignment . . . Leaving can be as much a step of obedience as staying. The fact remains, many pastors leave their assignment prematurely and by doing so miss the incredible opportunities longevity can bring.
7. Long range goals are possible
Royer observes that it is foolish to take a one-size-fits-all approach to a pastorate. Successful methods in one place are rarely equally useful in another. ‘Vicinities and congregations differ of necessity, and the elements which differentiate one congregation from another may require years to master and control. It is also true that the same community and pastorate change vastly.’
He also says that it is only the long term pastor who ‘can secure unity of purpose in a congregation’. Many churches suffer from the arrival of a series of young men all with their own ideas. In Childs Hill the pattern from the fifties to the seventies was (to caricature) – a fundamentalist, followed by a Lloyd-Jones man, followed by an activist, followed by a Charismatic. Because these men only stayed between four and seven years they had an impact but no really lasting impact. Meanwhile the church got pulled in this direction and that to no great purpose.
8. You have the opportunity to see a generation rise
This may not apply quite where a congregation finds it hard to keep its young people, but it is still a joy, for example, to know that someone I dedicated as a child is now on the mission field herself in France, a mother of three. Beasley-Murray says,
It is a wonderful privilege, for instance, to be involved with families over a period of time and to see those children brought for a service of dedication later confess their own faith in baptism; and then at a later stage to be involved in their marriage and even in the dedication of their children.
9. You have an opportunity to see the teaching take root
Royer says of the minister ‘unless his ministry extends over a number of years, he will leave them much as he found them in their way of thinking, believing, and doing.’
Dreselhaus and others say that if you look at the work of the Barna Group, you will find that the median number of years pastors have served in their present assignment is four. (According to Jerry Scruggs,3 with forced terminations on the increase, the median tenure for Southern Baptist pastors is barely three years.) Other stats suggest maximum effectiveness does not occur until around the seventh year. (Others note that growth often occurs between five and ten years in). ‘The point is irresistibly clear:’ Dreselhaus says ‘most pastors leave before they achieve their maximum impact in ministry.’
10. You have the opportunity to see the impact of a full ministry
It is not good for a church to keep changing its minister. Every time a change comes too soon the full impact of a ministry is not seen.
- The whole of Geoff Thomas’ address can be found here.
- ‘The Flexible Leader’, Search, Winter 1991, p.30.
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