I just had a conversation with a friend who is looking at moving to a new church. He has two possibilities that really appeal to him. At our recent Rural Church Pastors Network gatherings ( http://www.ruralchurchpastorsnetwork.com ), I talked with a few pastors who were just in the process of saying goodbye to their church. On the other hand, there were a few that had been in their church for 5 and 12 and even 17 years!
In our Canadian church culture it is assumed that pastors will not stay around very long. We marvel at how someone can stay such a long time at one church – especially if it is a small rural church. I want to address this issue over the next while. Before I go on, I want to be clear, I have only been in my present church for 5 years and the longest I’ve served anywhere was just over 7 years. But my desire is to pursue long term ministry in the same church.
Long term ministry in one church, especially in a rural church, is of great value. If you have spent time in a rural town you know that unless you have been there 5 or even 10 years, people still see you as the new guy. It is as you spend time in that community that people begin to open up to you. They see how you live and act over time. They see how your children are raised. They see your commitment not just to the church but to the community. Some doors will not open until you have proven yourself over a number of years. My personal feeling is that at 4 years I am have just begun to get a feel for the people and the community and they are just beginning to open up to me.
So, pastoral longevity #1:
Begin with no end in mind.
Sometimes we treat our calling to a particular congregation like a project of some kind. If you are working on building a new garage in your backyard or are trying to run a marathon, you begin with the end in mind and figure out what you need to do to get there. When it comes to our pastoral tenure, I believe it should always be open ended.
Some pastors go into a local congregation with the thought: “I’ll plan to be her for about 5 years.” As soon as we go in with an expiration date in mind, we are already saying we are not here for the long haul and are only passing through. The people in your church and in your community will see that.
When we go in with the desire to be fully there until the time that God very clearly tells us it is time to move on, then we will begin to see our community as our own. We will care about the people inside and outside our congregation. We will be more likely thinking of how God’s kingdom can have long term impact.
If you can’t see your kids graduating from the local high school or are already thinking that you don’t want to grow old here, you may already be disengaging before you have even begun.
I believe that it is God who calls us to a local congregation. If it is God who calls us, then we should look for ways of honoring that call until we are clear that He is calling us somewhere else. Let’s not plan on leaving until we have accomplished all that God has wanted for us.
So here’s my first encouragement on pastoral longevity – it begins in our own minds: Begin with No End in Mind.