Planting Sticks: The Beauty of Pastoral Tenure in Rural Churches
When I was a child, my grandmother planted a stick in the ground. At least, that’s how I perceived it.
The thought of that stick had completely left my mind until my grandfather backed over it a few years later. The stick was bigger, but it still looked like a stick to me. Yet my grandmother ran across the yard as though my grandad had desecrated some timeless treasure. She repaired the stick that was really a tree with duct tape, as any good southerner would.
Decades passed without another thought given to that broken-down stick. That is, until this past April. As I pulled into my grandmother’s driveway, I was welcomed by beautiful pink blooms, the type that won’t let you look away. Then I realized that scrawny, duct-taped stick had grown into something truly breathtaking.
Jesus’ point about the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 13 is like the stick that became a beautiful tree. He compares the kingdom with an unimpressive seed that eventually grows into an impressive one. He wants his disciples to understand that the kingdom begins humbly but will enjoy a triumphant end. But what’s the difference between the seed and the tree, the humble beginning and the triumphant end?
The answer is time, just as it was with my grandmother’s tree. And time requires patience. The healthiest churches are often the result of pastoral ministries shaped by this long-term perspective of the kingdom—decades of watching, watering, and nurturing lead to the grandest blooms.
For churches in rural contexts like ours, this often means struggling for health. Our church has had 42 pastors in her 135 years of existence. That’s an average pastoral tenure of 2.5 years. Thirty-six of our pastors served for tenures of four years or less, and our longest-tenured pastor served only seven years. The effect has been a type of PTSD that assumes the pastor is always on the way out. When I go on vacation, or a pastoral vacancy occurs nearby, a dear woman or concerned young man—even my mom once—often stops by to ask if I’m leaving.
So, we are committed to staying. In the early days, there were times when my ministry felt like watering a stick. I’m sure my church members often felt the same way about dealing with me. It seemed like we were always trying to duct tape this tree together. But last year, we reached our first goal when I became our longest-tenured pastor. Lord willing, this is just the first quarter, and there remains a lot of ball yet to play.
The tree is beginning to take shape now, and the blooms are becoming more beautiful with each passing spring. For one, our church has really come to know one another now. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. After all, families know the truth about one another. It’s another consequence of time spent together.
And it’s beautiful. Members no longer have to scramble through a list of pastors when there’s a wedding or funeral. They know who will be there, and better yet, they know their pastor knows them too. When I bought a motorcycle from a Mennonite family and almost crashed it on the test drive, I knew exactly who I’d call to share a laugh. I called my friends, my family, my church. They know me and get me.
Like a pink bloom on a duct-taped tree, beauty is found in unexpected places. Over the years, great suffering has taken place. We’ve wept together. We’ve experienced cancer together. We’ve experienced the loss of matriarchs and patriarchs. They’ve sat by my hospital bed and cheered me on through grueling months of rehab. As Ruth teaches us, the most beautiful relationships are often woven with painful threads. When the tree has been broken and duct taped, you appreciate the blooms all the more.
A few weeks ago, our two longest-standing church members—one a widow and the other a recent widower—sat together during worship. It was nothing more or less than two long-time friends reminding each other that they weren’t alone.
Suffering provided the frame for this masterpiece of grace. And a masterpiece like that can only be fully appreciated beneath the light of time.
Perhaps the most beautiful bloom of a long pastorate is that you mature together. We’ve had a front-row, and sometimes painful, view of the Spirit transforming each of us into the image of Christ. We’ve had to forgive, encourage, and spur one another on to good works.
If you were to visit our church, you’d experience a warm welcome, elders shepherding together, and a congregation singing with their whole hearts. You’d likely enjoy your time and appreciate it like someone driving by that tree at my grandmother’s house.
But those of us who watched it grow from a stick are still awestruck by what it is today. We know where it came from and what it had to overcome. We see the grace of God everywhere we look.
So, to churches and pastors in rural, obscure places, I encourage you to nurture that stick planted in the ground. Whether you’re the pastor patiently shepherding the flock or a flock forgiving your pastor, commit to one another. Press on toward the healthier fruit. If necessary, even grab your duct tape. When it grows healthy and you see the blooms, you’ll savor it even more.