Staying to the Glory of God: One Preacher’s Death Wish
On September 22, 1967, Dr. Raymond Edman, then retired president of Wheaton College, was preaching at Wheaton’s chapel when he suddenly collapsed and died in the pulpit. Amazingly, his sermon was entitled “In the Presence of the King.” I’ve sometimes thought that if I could choose my end as a pastor, it would be to die in a pulpit like Dr. Edman, proclaiming God’s Word with my last breath.
THIS PREACHER’S DEATH WISH
However, today I would like to amend that death wish. At the risk of sounding morbid, I would be more specific. I would choose to die not just in any pulpit, but preaching in my current pulpit at South Shore Baptist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts.
By God’s grace, I’ve had the privilege of serving SSBC as the senior pastor since September, 1997. After more than a decade here, I increasingly see the value of long-term ministry in one church, and I increasingly want to stay.
WHY STAY AT YOUR CHURCH?
Sadly, extended pastorates are uncommon. Various statistics place the average pastoral tenure at anywhere from two to six years. While God uses every gospel ministry for his glory, regardless of its length, I’m discovering that some blessings and opportunities to glorify God come only with time. Consider a few with me:
Staying increasingly reflects the glory of God’s faithfulness
First, staying increasingly reflects the glory of God’s faithfulness.
Under-shepherds model the Good Shepherd’s devotion to a flock by staying with them and ministering to them year after year. When we persevere with a congregation, we present a dim yet tangible reflection of our covenant-keeping God who never leaves us nor forsakes us.
I think for instance of the impact this has had on children in the church. After 13 years I’m seeing students whom I taught in our children’s ministry now graduating from high school. These kids (and we adults) inhabit a consumeristic culture where transience, lack of commitment, and personal fulfillment overshadow every sphere of life, from jobs to marriages to churches. What a gift for them to grow up in a church where they find not only an unchanging gospel, but also a steadfast minister who proclaims that gospel and in some small way exemplifies its permanence.
A college freshman who grew up at SSBC recently shared his sense of calling to pastoral ministry. As he told his story, he referenced my faithfulness to expository preaching as a factor contributing to his love for the Word and vision of pastoral ministry. I was profoundly humbled, especially when I consider all those times I have griped about the challenges of ministry! Such glimpses of God’s goodness make me want to stay longer and see what else God will do.
Staying creates opportunities to glorify God through more strategic gospel ministry
Second, staying creates opportunities to glorify God through more strategic gospel ministry.
Young pastors tend to overestimate what they can do in the short term and underestimate what they can accomplish over a long, diligent tenure. When I first became the senior pastor, I was brimming with ideas and dreams, new initiatives and ministry overhauls, all complete with handouts and diagrams. I had lots of energy to create and change, but my efforts tended to be shortsighted and impulsive. Looking back I realize how patient the church, elders and my fellow staff members have been with me!
After thirteen years, I haven’t lost my drive to dream. Not only does my idealism remain, but the gospel goals I have today are bigger than in the early days. But I find my plans now have longer, more realistic timetables for their communication and implementation. In part, this is because I’m not in a rush. When you visualize yourself shepherding one church for several decades, you gain the mental space to plan more strategically and work more patiently for gospel-multiplying goals like church planting, pastoral training, or positioning your church as a regional resource. These kinds of plans don’t typically develop in a church with a revolving door leadership.
Similarly, effective church reformation takes time. We recently adopted a new doctrinal statement. The process took almost three years. We’ve slowly moved toward more biblically-shaped Sunday services without declaring a worship war. We’re raising the bar of church membership by gently but consistently pruning the membership rolls, working on a new membership covenant, and gaining a deeper understanding of church discipline. This all takes time, the one thing a short-term pastor does not have. The best way for a pastor to inoculate a church against biblical reform is to strong arm the members too quickly toward a vision they’re not ready to implement.
Perhaps most importantly, I’ve discovered that it takes time for a congregation to understand and trust their pastor, and for a pastor to love and appreciate his people. Much can be attempted for God’s glory when a church and its leaders trust their pastor, the pastor has the best interests of the church at heart and a deep knowledge of the congregation’s unique character, and both pastor and congregation are committed to each other and the gospel for the long term.
Staying challenges a pastor to make God’s glory his motivation for ministry
Further, staying at one church for many years challenges a pastor to make God’s glory his motivation for ministry.
Eventually the wedding reception ends, the honeymoon is over, and the new couple must learn to flourish together amidst the rhythms of daily life. And at some point the honeymoon between a church and new pastor ends, and the pastor must discover how to carry on a faithful gospel ministry there year after year.
After thirteen years in one place, what will keep me going and the church spiritually growing? I’ve lost my faith in well-marketed ministry fads. My personality and youthfulness can’t carry the load. The church knows me way too well by now, and what little youthful “coolness” I once had evaporated long ago. Perhaps I could go to another church that doesn’t know me and surf a wave of novelty. I could re-preach some of my better sermons, re-introduce some of my more effective programs, and re-dazzle a new congregation with a few of my better insights. But to what end?
Only an expanding delight in God’s glory can dispel such thoughts and fire the soul for a long-term commitment to one church. Only love for God’s infinite worth inspires us to cherish his beloved people, not just in theory, but in a specific congregation and for a long stretch of time. Only when we treasure God’s name supremely can we overcome our instincts to build a resume, climb a ladder, and eject when we hit turbulence. Only a deep conviction about the sufficiency of God and his Word will steel us to preach expositionally Sunday after Sunday, so that our people’s confidence may increasingly rest in God’s power rather than in our wisdom.
To be sure, lengthy pastorates bring temptations as well. Over time, laziness, complacency, and stagnation can threaten a man’s ministry. But again, a vision for God’s glory is the answer. When God’s glory drives us, we can still summon courage to confront a longtime friend in the church who has fallen into sin. We can still dream and pray for the church after years of service, because we long to see the congregation cherish Jesus more. To quote C.S. Lewis, God’s infinite worth always calls us “further up and further in,” even when we inhabit the same parsonage year after year.
THE REAL QUESTION: WHY LEAVE?
Is it possible to leave a church for God’s glory? Of course. In fact, I know brothers who have been fired for the sake of the gospel.
Furthermore, many pastors long to find a healthy church and stay put, but in God’s mysterious providence that has not been their journey thus far. Even though I’ve written this article, I can’t guarantee that I will still pastor South Shore Baptist a year from now. God is sovereign.
That said, I’m arguing that instead of asking, “Why stay long-term?” we should be asking, “Why leave?”
Why not come to a church mentally committed to an extended tour of duty and leave the leaving to God’s sovereign timing? Why not enter a church with the assumption that you will pour your life out “like a drink offering” on one pulpit, rather than always holding something back for a better opportunity? As God permits, let us embody the gospel by staying with a particular flock, for the glory of God.