June 3rd marked my 25th anniversary as pastor of First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Arkansas. While plenty of pastors have stayed longer in the churches they serve, a 25-year tenure is worthy of reflection. For years I’ve been asked, “What’s the secret to your long tenure?” My first response is one I borrow from another long-tenured pastor’s answer: “No pulpit committees.” But seriously, folks, here are some things that have contributed to my quarter-century in the same congregation.
- Show up every day. When you do, days turn to weeks, weeks to months, months to years, and 1995 has become 2020. Show up. Go to work. Do your job.
- Focus on my current church not some future one. I’ve pastored two churches in 39 years. Didn’t seek either one. God made both happen. I figure that if or when he wants me to move, he will take care of that, so I don’t have to. Some pastors use too much energy dreaming about the next church, scoping out future fields, circulating resumes, instead of digging in and working the field in which God has placed them.
- Keep learning new things. I read (a lot and widely), listen to some podcasts, pay attention to the news, watch some documentaries, try an occasional new hobby. Stay fresh. Expand your mind and your capacity to think well.
- Bold initiatives every 4-5 years to keep the church changing. Same old, same old courts boredom for church and pastor. A purposeful new challenge, a bold goal, a transformative change troubles complacency and stirs hope. Don’t be content with yesterday’s ways and yesterday’s dreams. Ask Jesus for a new dream, his dream for the church. Change worship a little; tweak small groups, engage in some new mission, launch a fresh ministry. Jesus is not tame. He is on the move, on the loose, doing new things. Join him. Invite the church to join him. And the more tenure, the more willing the church is to follow.
- Love the people—even the hard ones. Learn their names and use them. Know some particular thing about them. Take interest in their lives. Weep with those who weep; rejoice with those who rejoice. Pray for them and with them. Follow up when you hear of needs. Some are easy to love. The church I serve provides my best friends in the world. But not all relationships between pastor and people are warm and encouraging. Hey, that’s just ministry. That’s just the church. Love them anyway. Bear with and be patient with the ones that try you. (You probably try some of them more than you know.) Forgive them when they hurt you. Point them to Jesus in all things. Jesus said the Father is gracious to the ungrateful and the wicked (Lk 6:35). If it’s good enough for him, it needs to be good enough for me.
- Admit when you screw up. Own your mistakes. Don’t rationalize, justify, excuse, or deny. Don’t blame and don’t cover up. “I was wrong” is enough. Depending on the nature of the mistake, sometimes you need to add “I’m sorry.” Humble yourself and ‘fess up. I’ve found over the years that the more grace I show others, the more they show me. And I need lots of grace.
- Build a team that compensates for your weaknesses. It’s okay to have weaknesses. Know them and staff for them—whether paid or volunteer. If you don’t need the glory, if you’re more invested in how the church does than in how you look to others, you’ll find people to fill in the chinks in your armor. Plus, a good team mitigates some of the loneliness, shares some of the burden, and adds to the joy. Teamwork can get messy and can be hurtful, but that goes with the territory. On balance, “we” can do more for the kingdom than “I” can. And it’s about the kingdom, not me.
- Seek Jesus every day. I can’t imagine going into a day in ministry without having lingered a bit in Jesus’ presence in Scripture and prayer and solitude. It’s his church after all. Why would I think I could do his work without him? If I’m going to speak for him on Sundays in the pulpit and in conversations with his people through the week, I better make some time every day to say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” My time with Jesus is often mundane and without fireworks and warm fuzzies. So is much of my time with my wife, but I still seek time with her every day. I seek it with Jesus too. Don’t think so much about the moments; think about the life long relationship you’re nurturing day in, day out, till you see him face to face. Don’t wait for time with Jesus to happen; make it happen.
There you have it: a few of the things I’ve learned in my long years in the same church. Maybe God will give you long tenure, maybe not. If he does, maybe these things will help in that direction. There are lots of perks to long tenure (that would be another post), but none more than this for me: it’s made me a better pastor; it’s made me a better Christian.