Image: Pond5/Public Domain

Image: Pond5/Public Domain

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 long time 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, effect 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.

Click here to read Part Two.

  • Robert Foertsch

    Praying For The Sovereign Will Of The Lord Jesus Christ…

  • Particular Voices

    From the American Congregational Yearbook, 1854: “Another cause of frequent changes in the ministry is the want of an adequate preparation for its duties. Associating during his collegiate and theological course with few except students, a young man enters upon the ministry with but a limited acquaintance with any other class. It can hardly be supposed that he will have that knowledge of the world as it is, which will enable him to adapt his discourses to all the varieties of character of which a congregation is composed.

    Not a few are willing to be dismissed within three or four years of their settlement. They have gone over the topics they investigated, and used up the materials they collected, during their preparatory course, and they lack the high and noble purposes, the indomitable energy and relish for hard study essential to meet this crisis, and to insure freshness and continual growth. They are willing to remove to another field, where they may repeat what has been written, and secure sometime for reading and pastoral labor.

    And the temptation is strong in proportion to the amount of labor required of ministers, and never was that pressure so great as now.”

  • Amen. I told my church 10 years ago at my induction service “I’m here for the long haul, I want to baptize your children, conduct their weddings, and bury you all.” They took it they way it was meant! I have now been at Hillcrest Baptist longer than any previous pastor in our 55 year history, and I’m just getting warmed up.

  • teacher

    Great advice so far, thanks