Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Long-term pastorates

I have yet to read any study that did not find that one of the keys to a healthy, growing church was a long-term pastor.  For many smaller churches the likelihood of having a pastor stay for an extended time is rather small.  The church I served as pastor had an average pastor tenure of about 12 months before I went there.  Most of its pastors were students from a nearby seminary who either left when they graduated or chose for one reason or another to not remain at the church while they completed their studies.  After I had been there for only six months one of our deacons told a Sunday school class that he expected I would soon be leaving for a better church.  Spend a few minutes thinking through his comments and you will soon recognize the image this church had of itself and the amount of pain it felt after being abandoned every 6-18 months by yet another pastor who previously announced he believed "God has called me to serve this church."  I'm sorry if I sound a little cynical, but I just never thought God was so confused that He changed His mind so often about who should serve as the pastor of a church!

Certainly, there are legitimate reasons for a pastor to seek a new place to serve, but too often pastors leave for the wrong reasons.  I know one pastor who flees every time there is a problem in the church he is serving.  He has grown every church he has served, but there will never be growth in a church without some level of conflict.  When that conflict gets a little intense he announces God is leading him to another place of service, and within a short period of time what growth the church experienced under his ministry disappears.  He will never enjoy a great ministry if he doesn't learn how to manage conflict.

Other pastors leave their smaller churches because they are looking for the perfect church to serve.  The grass always looks greener around other churches.  Such pastors never unpack all their shipping boxes when they move into the parsonage because they know they will be packing everything up again in a couple of years.  The truth is they look for a great place to serve because they are not capable of making their current ministry a great place.  As one former seminary president once said, "The minister who is unable to make a place great is too weak to hold a great one."

Our small church was able to accomplish some pretty remarkable things during my pastorate, and I will quickly tell anyone that had nothing to do with me.  As I told the congregation one Sunday while I was listing some of the things we had done, "My primary contribution was to hang around long enough for you to realize what you were capable of doing."  I brought stability and encouragement to the congregation; I challenged them to dare to attempt great things for God; and I frequently reminded them that I believed in them more than they believed in themselves. 

One of the most important things a pastor can do is to demonstrate his or her commitment to the church being served.  When the congregation knows the pastor is committed to their church it makes them more willing to take greater risks.  When they know their pastor loves them and truly believes in them good things begin to happen.  Now, this takes time, especially in a church that has been trained to expect the pastor to leave after only a few months.  Trust isn't earned overnight.  In my case, the pastoral turnover had been so frequent it took about seven years before some of our folks finally decided that I wouldn't abandon them the first time a pastor search committee came calling.  They knew that they were more than just a rung on my climb up the ministerial ladder.

To remain at a smaller church for an extended period of time isn't always easy.  It requires that the pastor is committed to personal growth, and it requires a number of intentional actions the pastor needs to take.  This issue of long-term pastorates is so important I dedicated an entire chapter to it in The Bivocational Pastor: Two Jobs, One Ministry.

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