A recent poll suggests that the average pastor stays at his church for only three to four years. But that hardly seems long enough to be truly effective.
In times past, pastoral tenure was typically measured in decades—when the longevity of men like John Calvin (who ministered in Geneva for 25 years until he died), Charles Simeon (who served in Cambridge for over 50 years), John Stott (who pastored in London for over 50 years), Jonathan Edwards (who preached in Northampton for over 20 years) and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (who served in London for nearly 30 years) was the rule, and not the exception. Even in recent times, W. A. Criswell pastored in downtown Dallas for nearly 50 years and Adrian Rogers in Memphis for 32 years. There are others in large churches to be sure who have demonstrated longtime endurance serving a single congregation, but they are rarer these days. Long-term pastorates in smaller churches are an even more rare exception to the rule.
I remember before I started my ministry at Grace Community Church, my dad said to me, “I want you to remember a couple of things before you go into the ministry. First, the great preachers, the lasting preachers who left their mark on history, taught their people the Word of God. Second, they stayed in one place for a long time.” These were two sound pieces of wisdom. When I first came to Grace Church, most people thought that I would only stay a year or two, because I had been an itinerant communicator to youth groups. But in my heart, I knew I wanted to do the two things my dad advised: one was to teach the Bible expositionally, especially to go through the whole New Testament, knowing, secondly, that such a goal would require staying in one place over the long haul. I knew that was the only way I could continue to nourish my own soul, affect generations with God’s truth, and manifest integrity of life through long visibility.
As I look back on over four decades of ministry in the same church, I want to encourage you to embrace a long-term perspective in your church. While remaining in the same place may not always be God’s plan, here are ten practical suggestions that may enable you to sustain an enduring ministry. (We will look at the first four today, and the remaining six tomorrow.)
1. Don’t arrive unless you plan to stay
Pastors of past generations, like Calvin and Edwards, considered a call to a church similar to a marriage. In a sense, they were betrothed to their congregations; and faithfulness and loyalty to that union sustained them even through hard times. Pastors today need to learn from their examples. You need to see churches as more than stepping-stones to something bigger. No matter what size the congregation or challenges it presents, you must believe that God has called you to that flock. Even the greatest trouble and disappointment is God’s means of humbling you and breaking your self-confidence. We are all truly powerful and useful only when we are weak. Accept the benefits of trials. If you’re committed to stay when you arrive, and affirm that commitment regularly, you will prepare your heart to endure.
2. Learn to be patient
Humble patience with people may be the most important virtue you’ll ever exercise. After all, your goal as a pastor should be to bring the convictions of your congregation into line with the full message of God’s Word, and their lives to spiritual maturity. And this is a process of sanctification that takes time (decades not just months or years). It only comes from trusting the Spirit’s power in using His Word as it is faithfully proclaimed week after week, year after year.
3. Don’t be afraid to change
Not only will your people change as you instruct them spiritually, but you will also be changed. As you begin to unfold the Scripture, the Truth will alter the way you teach and the way you conduct ministry. You cannot know everything that the Bible is going to say until you have dug deeply into it. You may think you have everything wired, but inevitably you will come to passages that change the way you think and the way your church must respond. You and your people must be flexible, allowing the Word of God to shape you and your church, as you submit to Scripture.
4. Study to know God, not just to make sermons
The key to avoiding debilitating weariness in ministry is personal spiritual renewal. If your heart first and then your preaching is passionately alive to spiritual things, then you can expect your congregation to be passionately alive to spiritual things. Such passion, of course, must come first and foremost through your concentrated study of the Word of God. And here’s the key: Don’t study to prepare sermons; study to know the truth, to rejoice in the glory and grace of God, and to be conformed to His will. Sermons should never be the primary goal of your Bible study; they should only be the overflow of it. When you study, seek an accurate understanding of who God is and what He expects—first and foremost, this is for your own devotion and holiness. And then, from the abundance, instruct your people, urging them to follow you as you follow the Truth, written and Incarnate.
John Fawcett is a name you may not immediately recognize. In the late eighteenth century, Fawcett pastored a small, poor church in Wainsgate, England, where his salary was only 25 pounds a year.
In 1773, Fawcett was invited to become the pastor of a much larger church in London. Initially, he accepted the new position. But as his belongings were being loaded for the journey, the people from his church came to bid him farewell.
The tearful goodbye was so moving that John’s wife, Mary cried out, “John, I cannot bear to leave!” “Nor can I,” he responded, “We shall remain here with our people.” Their belongings were taken back off of the wagons, and John Fawcett remained in Wainsgate for the entirety of his 54-year ministry.
Years later, as he reflected on his decision to stay, Fawcett penned the words to his most-well-known hymn: Blest Be the Tie that Binds. The familiar words of that song resonate with the loyalty and love that characterized the pastor who wrote them.
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
Before our Father’s throne,
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
Our comforts, and our cares.
Fawcett’s story illustrates the legacy of long-term commitment in pastoral ministry. In yesterday's post, we looked at four practical suggestions for sustaining your ministry over the long haul. Today, we will consider six more:
5. Be thankful and be humble
As a servant of the Chief Shepherd, you need to be grateful for the flock that Christ has entrusted to you, and regularly tell both them and the Lord of your deep gratitude. Contentment begins with confidence in God’s providence. Your church may not be as big or as financially well-off as the church down the road, but you can be content if you trust that God has sovereignly placed you exactly where He wants you to be. It also helps to always remember that, no matter your circumstances, you are unworthy of what you’ve been given.
Don’t think you deserve a bigger ministry than you have. It is grace that has placed you in such a noble calling. Learn to define success in terms of faithfulness, and not in terms of popularity. The measure of your ministry is not determined by numerical growth, but by adherence to truth in life and message. While many preachers seem to work for earthly glory, godly preachers humbly labor for the glory that is yet to be given to them, in the presence of their Lord.
6. Don’t lose sight of the priority
As a pastor, your duty is to shepherd your flock—this means nourishing them on the Word of God, leading them toward Christ-likeness in tender affection, while protecting them from error. You are a pastor. You are not primarily an event coordinator, a financial analyst, a vision-caster, or even a leader. Your ultimate responsibility is not to innovate or administrate but to disseminate divine truth. Only in that way will you be training up people within your congregation to live and serve effectively and obediently for the honor of God and the impact of the gospel. A church environment dominated by the Word and the Spirit will produce a congregation that will serve alongside you so that you will be able to concentrate on what you are called to do: teaching the Word while humbling yourself before God in dependent prayer.
7. Expect to work hard
If you’re faithful to your calling, you will find it to be a difficult and relentless task. Pastoring is not like an assembly line that stops and lets you walk away. It is a kind of blessed bondage that requires discipline and sacrifice. Still, it brings the purest joys and most lasting, even eternal satisfaction.
Enduring pastors are not undisciplined people who show up on Sunday for an improvised pep rally. Nor are they men with a few years’ worth of sermons who take them from church to church. Rather, they are disciplined men whose lives are brought into line so that they can invest their physical and spiritual energies into the flock God has given them. It's a consuming task, but it comes with the promise of long-term impact as your congregation is taught the truth and sees it lived out over decades. They will trust you and you will find them your crown of rejoicing. Moreover, being forced to keep studying and preaching through Scripture will expand your own understanding of divine revelation so as to increase your usefulness and the body of your life work. This will bring the blessing of learning from others because it requires that you be a diligent and constant reader of the best of biblical, theological, and biographical material.
8. Trust the Word to do its work
People in churches today are starving for theological, expository preaching, but don’t even know it. To be sure, they realize the vacancies in their life, the shallow places, the lack of insight, the absence of understanding. They realize that they cannot solve their numerous problems and dilemmas. They’re looking for divine answers, and they’re being offered human, artificial substitutes that can’t help. Long-term exposition will satisfy their hearts and, at the same time, increase their appetite for more. And God has given us the deep treasuries and fresh truths of His Word, the riches of which no amount of years can exhaust.
9. Always depend on the Lord
Obviously, a ministry that rests solely on human strength, cleverness, or survey strategies, even if successful numerically, is doomed to be short-term and superficial. A lasting spiritually transforming ministry must be built by God’s power released through His truth. And He always blesses His truth and the labor of a true man of God. When you realize that you can’t resolve all the problems in your church, that you can’t save the unbelievers who attend your services, that you can’t cause spiritual fruit in your people—you will fully rest on God who can, accepting your weakness and inadequacy, and relying solely on the power of the Word through the Spirit.
10. Don’t leave just to leave
When you approach your pastoral ministry as a life commitment and serve your flock as I have described, you will find it hard to leave. We are, generally, not called away from, but called to a people. Leave your current ministry for another only if you have a true calling to that other place. The fact that a new opportunity pays better, has a larger facility, promises respite from current problems, or provides a platform for greater influence, doesn’t necessarily make it a right move and can play to ambition. So make sure that when you leave, your reasons are spiritually compelling. And also, do your best to ensure the flock you leave behind is well taken care of before you go. That is a vital part of your legacy.