Many times I’ve heard a conference preacher introduced like this: “Dr. Foreman is an internationally sought after preacher. He has pastored churches in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, and Tennessee.” Reciting them all together makes it seem like this is an accomplishment—“his pastoral skills have been recognized everywhere!”
I must admit that the skeptical side of me just won’t be quiet. What were his pastorates like in those churches in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, and Tennessee? How long were they? Why, each time, did he make the decision to leave? Unless he’s very, very old, those were some pretty short pastorates!
This moving around—generally from a smaller church to a larger one—is the ladder that many ministers spend their lives climbing. We tell our old church that we’re leaving, ultimately, for the greater glory of God. We tell our new church that we’re coming, ultimately, for the greater glory of God.
But do we consider staying for the glory of God?
THREE MEN WHO STAYED FOR THE GLORY OF GOD
When I’m asked about my models for pastoral ministry I’ve often said, “Three Cambridge Anglican bachelor S’s—Sibbes, Simeon, and Stott.” Each of these men found a strategic location, began expounding God’s Word, and stayed. Expositional preaching is foundational to a Christian ministry, and it’s worth thinking about finding a strategic location and even remaining single. But for this article I want us to consider that other matter of longevity.
First, the facts about these three. Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) began preaching in Cambridge in the early 1600s, and had a continuous ministry in London at Gray’s Inn from 1617 until his death in 1635. Charles Simeon (1759-1836) preached at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge from 1782 until his death in 1836, a remarkable 54-year ministry! And John Stott (b. 1921) began preaching at All Souls’ Church, Langham Place, in London from his appointment as curate (1945) and rector (1950), and he preached there regularly until just a few years ago—a ministry that, remarkably, even exceeds Simeon’s in length!
Why have I chosen these men as my models? Because I think there are good reasons for pastors to stay put at one church for as long as that serves the congregation.
Now, I’m not saying that Scripture presents a uniform pattern of how long God uses a leader—Moses led the people for forty years, Jesus led his disciples in person for three. The apostle Paul, in his unique role as church planter among the nations, would stay in a place from a few weeks to a few years, and then move on. The Old Testament priests would serve the Lord at the Temple for decades.
Yet one of the chief attributes of God’s love is its steadfastness, its unchanging unmoveableness. And permanence is one of the things that seems to distinguish the important relationships from the passing nature of casual ones.
Also, I’m not saying that pastoral moves are wrong by nature. I have pastored and left a church in Massachusetts in order to further my education, and pastored and left a church in England in order to become a senior pastor in the church I currently serve. I have been here for sixteen years at the time of this writing. And I don’t assume that I should never leave here (though I have no plans to). I assume instead that I should leave this congregation when it would be best for the congregation. But I also assume that it would normally be best for me, as for other pastors, to remain where I am.
BAD REASONS TO LEAVE
Sometimes, pastors will move for reasons that aren’t very good: a larger church, a larger salary, boredom over the current situation, unresolved staff issues, being out of ideas, conflict with the congregation, interest in more prestigious location, or an empty barrel of already prepared sermons. Even as I regularly hear of pastors making heroic sacrifices to care well for their congregations, so I occasionally hear of charlatans, hypocrites, immoral men, and others who need to be exposed and brought to repentance before divine judgment overtakes them.
Congregations may get rid of pastors, but that’s not what I’m thinking about here. I’m thinking about pastors deciding to be done with congregations. Staying with a congregation through thick and thin helps the church to see that you’re not with them because it’s easy, or because everything goes your way. You’re with them because you love them and you rely on God. You endure for his sake, for the love he has given you for his people. You continue, like the prophet Ezekiel, even though the people’s hearts are hard. Charles Simeon endured years of opposition to his ministry before there was obvious fruit. Adoniram Judson endured years of apparent fruitlessness before God gave him converts. How are people to observe the outcome of our lives and faith (Heb. 13:7) if we don’t stay long enough for them to know us?
I fear that too many pastors have let market-driven thinking put a premium on new, novel, and innovative, and thus they undervalue faithful, reliable, constant, and certain. No doubt, sometimes it’s the right thing to move on. But more often, our penchant to move shows that we’re relying on programs more than preaching. We’re looking for seed that springs up quickly rather than the slower-growing and hearty fruit of elders and ministers, faithful mothers and fathers, and generations of blessing to a community through a faithful ministry.
WHAT YOU CAN AND CANNOT ACCOMPLISH IN A SHORT PASTORATE
Consider the things that you can do if you are only at a church for a year or two. You can introduce new songs and some new ideas. You can preach. You can start afresh on some relationships in the community. You can perhaps bring new people into leadership, and very quickly give people a chance to serve on yet another pulpit search committee.
Now consider some things you cannot do in a brief pastorate. You cannot do the funerals of saints you’ve known and loved for years. You cannot comfort those who are in their declining years, having known them in the days of their fuller service to the congregation. You cannot see men you led to Christ getting married, going into the ministry, and becoming fruitful in their own lives and ministries. You cannot see long-term changes in the way a congregation thinks or is structured.
Just like children require years of slow, patient, repeated teaching in order to grow, so too, normally, does a congregation. That’s why Paul exhorts Timothy to “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2).This kind of long-term perseverance is the way God normally rebukes our own faithlessness, humbles us, and then shows us his sufficiency and grace as he supplies for us yet again, far beyond what our own resources could do.
HOW TO PASTOR FOR THE LONG HAUL
If you agree with me that longevity is normally better than quick, short pastorates, how do you bring it about? Here are two simple ideas that I’ve found useful, both of which relate to the pastor’s rest.
1) Regularly take sabbaticals in which your congregation gives you weeks (or months!) off for rest, relaxation, reading, and perhaps writing.
2) Raise up other men in your congregation to teach and preach. Work on creating a textured leadership that is not dependent on you, so that new workers are constantly identified and raised up and other voices bless the congregation. This brings in some of the freshness that may often be associated with a new pastor; and it makes it possible for you to share the teaching load, which will help you to bear your part longer.
Sometimes it’s good to consider leaving for the sake of the gospel. But for the sake of the gospel, and for the glory of God, it’s good to consider staying, too.
Mark Dever is the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, and the author of What Does God Want of Us Anyway? (Crossway, 2010).
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