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Steps Toward Recovering The 
Long-Term Pastorate

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 264

While discussing a call, a friend in ministry reflected, "After five years you wonder, ‘Why should I leave?’ After seven years you ask, ‘Why should I stay?’"

When it becomes apparent that one’s ministry is becoming a long-term pastorate in one locale, upon what kinds of things do long-term pastors reflect?

Unfortunately, too few pastors have ever experienced a long-term pastorate. There is something about a long-term pastorate that touches an oft-overlooked spiritual and developmental side of ministry. This spiritual side, like all things, has a positive and a negative side. But, all things considered, perhaps the greatest malady afflicting the church is the apparent growing rarity of the long-term pastorate.

What’s Happened?
 
Perhaps those factors which have led to the virtual rarity of the long-term pastorate are some of the same factors which have contributed to the growing uneasiness of pastors. Some of these factors may include
 
  1. Unreal Expectations For Short-Term Ministry.
  2. When pastors and congregations expect a pastoral relationship to last only 3-5 years, this affects both pastoral and congregation expectations. Pastors expect to realize their vision more quickly. Congregations, on the other hand, become more guarded of trusting and bonding to those "here today, gone tomorrow" pastors.

  3. Guarded Adoption of Change.
  4. Congregations, like many organizations, are replete with anxious groups and individuals. That is the nature of the church. The church exists to give comfort, solace and hope to large groups of anxious people. Yet what anxious people need most is the assurance—the virtual guarantee—that if they consider change, they will be supported. The "here today, gone tomorrow" pastor does not give that long-term assurance.

  5. Withholding of Congregational Trust.
  6. Churches are beginning to be aware of the short-term pastor. One congregation, reviewing a list of possible pastoral candidates, rejected the names of those who had a   "stepping stone" resume. They didn’t want to be another church enduring a 3-5 year pastorate designed to give the pastor greater promotional opportunities to "move up." They wanted pastors who would invest themselves and their lives to a long-term ministry partnership.

  7. Emergence of the Nuclear Parsonage.
  8. Pastoral families have, as the rest of the modern, industrialized world, become accustomed to moving. Home is where the moving van delivers the furniture…and picks it up again just a few years later. The resulting "Nuclear Pastorate" consequently is characterized by the "one program today, another program tomorrow" mentality. Some pastorates are so brief that these ministries may be more like "one program today, another pastor with another program tomorrow."

    The results? Short-term gains are unstable and subject to vaporization. Repeated multiple short-term pastorates merely magnify the numbers of vaporization experiences. The more congregations witness "success going up in smoke," the more distraught, despondent and powerless they may feel. Short-term pastorates may arise because pastors and congregational leaders are unfamiliar with how their serial short-term pastorates have stymied vitality and energy.

  9. Fewer Long-Term Pastoral Role Models.
The momentum for short-term pastorates appears to perpetuate itself. As other pastors consider their present situations they turn to their peers. Many peers, however, give counsel or encouragement which urge others to avoid long-term ministry. Without large numbers of pastors able to share the experience of the long-term pastorate, there is little if any encouragement for long-term ministry.
  1. The Multiple-Income Parsonage.
Growing number of families in ministry have two wage earners. Given the relatively lower wages too frequently among pastors, pastors’ spouses’ incomes are increasingly matching and exceeding pastoral wages. When the spouse’s job changes, pastors are drawn into a difficult situation. What is God’s calling? Where are the loyalties—to God or my spouse? Recognizing the primacy of keeping the home strong, pastors may move to follow the career opportunities presented to the spouse.
Recovering the Long-Term Pastorate
 
Certainly not every congregation or pastor is suited for long-term pastorate…at least not immediately. Often conflict centered on the pastor-congregational bond must be dealt with. Whenever this bond is tested, it almost always involves excruciating pain. In larger ministries the bond is complicated by multiple staff, a plethora of powerful leaders, and a significant pool of antagonists, wanna-be’s, and discontents.

It’s not easy to move from the shorter term experience of "dating" to the longer term experience of "marriage." Nor is it easy to move from a short-term to a long-term pastorate. "Dating" expects euphoria, good feelings, and is often fueled by the fantasy of the "perfect" partnership.

Churches with histories of serial pastorates may also adopt many of these same unhealthy dynamics. Failing to find satisfaction in the "perfection" of each other, the pastoral partnership may experience upheavals not unlike the immature, incomplete and emotive-driven break-ups of dating relationships.

The Need For Ecclesiastical Intimacy
 
As in interpersonal relationships, the problem is one of "ecclesiastical intimacy." In the absence of ecclesiastical intimacy, the Body of Christ does not bond. Instead, it lives in an anxious, dismembered existence. When parts try to bond, anxiety arises. Indicators of this anxiety are conflict, distrust, fight/flight responses, withdrawal, and the like. Because they are largely emotive, they are nearly impossible to contain once ignited.

The healthy pastoral partnership, like a healthy marriage, however, is characterized by the experience of major and multiple conflict, intense division, dealing with irreconcilable differences. But such profoundly painful and difficult experiences do not bring the termination of the relationship. Instead, through the school of experience they coerce the development, as unwilling as many may be, of bringing forth the aspects needed to sustain long-term relationships.

Learning to reconcile, to love, to show patient kindness and the highest level of forgiveness and churchmanship are but some of the lessons which inevitably affect and enhance ministry. Indeed, perhaps that is why long-tenured pastors seem to have a distinctive character about them. They are in for the long-term. They have an analogous essential character-based conviction of commitment "till death do us part."

Marks Of The Long-Term Pastorate
 
What things, then, mark the long-term pastorate? More importantly, what transformations happen when pastors stay in a congregation for a decade or longer, often in the same position?
1) Strong Identification with The Church.

    Short-term pastors seldom feel the strong identification with the church that long-term pastors feel. One pastor recently shared that after eight or nine years in the same church, the congregation is no longer a "job" or the "church where he ministers." Instead, it’s "family." It’s where so many of the significant events of his life—and those of his family—have occurred. The more "rites of passage" one experiences in a church, the stronger the resulting identification with that congregation.

2) Increased Loyalty.

    When pastors make a commitment of the majority of their ministry at a church, that loyalty can increase greatly. When new opportunities for other ministries arise, the long-term pastor doesn’t react with "I wonder if this is my ticket out of here." Instead, they may be overwhelmed with the profound realization that such calls—even the "dream" calls--may not excite them at all.

    Many long-term pastors have simply indicated they are no longer interested in other calls. To those unfamiliar with the short-term pastorate, this might appear to be a psychotic type of ecclesiastical suicide. But it can be one of the most healthy indicators of a mutually edifying ministry partnership. Perhaps that is a reason why so many long-term pastors have declined more lucrative ministry opportunities.

3) Deeper Sense Of Ministry Commitment.

    Long-term pastorates don’t just happen. They are forged out of conflict, fear, disagreement, and multiple tests of trust. Healthy, long-term pastorates aren’t the result of a lack of conflict anymore than healthy, long-term marriages are the result of never arguing, disagreeing, or having the urge to turn one’s back and "throw it all away."

    Instead, the deepened commitment to the congregation may often come about as a consequence of facing the conflict, overcoming personal pain, trusting each other in the face of fear and sometimes virtually certain disappointment. The shared experience of conflict can be a very powerful bond. For some long-term pastors, such events marked the beginning of their conviction of a long-term pastorate.

4) A Recognition And Acceptance Of The Spiritual Journey Of Ministry.

    Pain nearly always evokes spirituality. The pain of the long-term pastorate, though evoked by many of the same things experienced by short-term pastorates, results in a qualitatively different spiritual process than that of short-term pastorates.

    The Biblical record contains examples of many prophets engaged in painful, life-changing, long-term ministries. One of the most invasive is that of Hosea. But one cannot overlook the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the Southern Kingdom’s most loyal spiritual support, the prophetic years of Isaiah, Amos’ never-silenced preaching for justice, and Samuel’s ministry before and during the institutionalization of national Israel.

    But whoever is mentioned, God’s calling was always long-term. It always included pain. It always required their lives. And, of course, it always necessitated ever-increasing trust in God’s direction. That is what characterizes the long-term ministry. God is in control. The sometimes excruciating pain and deep disappointments experienced are just God’s tools to prod us on faith’s journey.

    Long-term pastorates recognize this is a profound, intimate manner. They’ve trusted God and seen how God had been faithful in the past. Since God has not let the church down, they have an ever-increasing confidence of faith in God’s leading and faithfulness in the future.

5) Profound Spiritual Greatness.
In ancient times and some contemporary cultures, the key community figure is the medicine man. The spiritual guru of the community, this individual is seldom an "import." Instead, the institution of "Medicine Man" enjoys its broad enduring influence because the medicine man is there for the long-term.
 
Spiritual greatness develops not by a serial re-transplantation into different soil. Instead, it flourishes in the soil in which God’s divine call has planted us. Repeatedly transplanted trees rarely produce fruit unless transplanted for good reason.
 
The same is true of ministers. Giant oaks are giant because they did not move—in spite of the storms, the droughts, the heat, the cold, the winds, the lightning, etc. It is specifically and precisely because they endured that they are "great."

6) Long-Term Pastorates Ask Different Questions.

Short-term pastorates deal primarily with issues on a short-term basis. Such short-term approach questions might include,
    • How can I fix this?
    • What’s the quickest way out?
    • What response will involve the least pain?
    • Is it really worth it?
    • Shouldn’t I just do something else?
Long-term pastors may also ask these questions. But, based on their repeated experiences, they recognize that some things don’t fix quickly. Especially in severely conflicted churches, the multitude of issues that need to be addressed may take years…or decades. Indeed, the quickest way out may not be the best…or even a healthy, realistic option.
 
Instead, the long-term approach may evoke questions such as…
  • In what ways does the current situation impact the church long-term?
  • What modes of intervention, if any, are necessary?
  • What congregational forces exist which most naturally address the issues at hand?
  • Which issues presented are "real"?
  • What developmental challenges does the current crises present?
  • What spiritual challenges and growth opportunities are present?
  • What are the best strategies for leading the church through the present crisis?
  • What growth goals should the church be directed toward to give leadership and support to endure and grow as a result of the crisis?
  • What prices must I and the congregation be willing to pay?
  • What actions are best for the long-term pastoral partnership?

7) Deep Respect For The Influence Of Long-Term Ministry On Others.

    One long-term pastor, reflecting on a capital fund-raising banquet, shared his surprise at a specific part of the banquet program. Members were asked to share their favorite memories over the five decades of the congregation’s existence.

    To his surprise, the members recounted numerous accounts of ways in which his ministry made a difference in so many of their lives. Things the pastor had long forgotten were shared. The tearful recollection of even those things that pastors are "supposed" to do (e.g. marriages, baptisms, hospital visits, and funerals) surprised the pastor.

    Pastoral ministry is a ministry of influence, especially (lest we forget) in the little things. The longer the pastorate, the deeper the respect many parishioners have as pastors baptize, confirm, counsel, marry, baptize, and finally share final hope at death. This respect is mutual. The bond mutually satisfying. The joy profound and eternal.

8) Increased Ability To Weather Ups And Downs.

Long-term ministry can have the same types of experiences as short-term ministries. Members get disgusted and leave, programs fail, antagonists emerge, wanna-be’s wreak havoc, power plays against pastor and staff divide, threats and ultimatums are given and implemented, the largest givers leave for other churches for "mysterious" reasons which add greater difficulty to the financial hardship they leave behind.

9) Increased Ability To Be Less Serious.

After the first decade of ministry in the same locale, long-term pastors may begin to feel "they’ve seen it all." After being taken back by the first manifestations of the various things which happen in congregations—and those "peculiar" things which seem to happen only in specific congregations—long-term pastors take a less emotive and more cognitive approach.
 
The emergence of this type of non-anxious self-differentiation from the highs and lows of ministry is not borne of apathy. Instead, it originates in a more mature understanding of what kinds of leadership interventions—or non-interventions—are most conducive toward long-term congregational health and vitality.
Diversified "Currency"
 
While discussing leadership, John Maxwell frequently speaks of pastoral "currency." This currency refers the credibility a leader gains by gaining trust through accomplishing various goals and tasks for the organization, individuals, and groups of individuals.

Long-term pastorates develop this "currency" in ways analogous to investment. The longer the effective pastorate, the greater the currency. Greater amounts of currency lead to the ability to diversify one’s "currency."

Certainly, this does not mean that the long-term pastor is immune from failure. Nor does it mean that the pastor is above scrutiny or criticism. What it does mean, however, is that there is not the existential fear and worry of their ministry from day to day.

It also means that effective long-term pastors have multiple "currency" resources. They know where these resources are…and where they aren’t. They understand that each individual has various "currency pockets." The individuals which may share the most intimate details of their life in counseling and give the pastor the most intimate trust in this area may not recognize—or give—the pastor any "currency" in issues involving the committee, task force, or area of ministry responsibility in the church.

A pastor’s long-term ministry helps realize that members diversify their pastoral currency investment. When such individuals withhold currency in one area, long-term pastors know that "currency" is not an "all-or-nothing" proposition. They also know—by experience over time—the exact same ministry actions do not result in the same amount of "currency"…even with the same individuals.

Knowing and having repeated experience of the sometimes incredulous and inequitable ways in which people delve out "currency," gives pastors a sense of freedom. Unlike their short-term ministry peers, they do not have to succumb to the pressure of doing everything right in a limited amount of time.

In healthy pastorates currency grows in an environment of credibility, forgiveness, and time. As it flourishes, so does the ministry partnership between pastor and parishioners.

Suggestions To Those Aspiring To Long-Term Pastorate

  1. Honor God's Timing.

Whatever the actual length of one's pastorate in a given location, one of the most important things is to honor God's timing. This is best done by incorporating the conviction that you will be in the pastorate in which you serve for the rest of your life.

The only way you will move is if God's timing indicates otherwise. For some, developing a genuine conviction of this may be difficult. But it is the first step. The ministry is, after all, God's--not yours. Honoring God's timing keeps the ministry in the hands of the One to whom it belongs.

  1. Don’t Be Reactive.
  2. The pain, hurt, failure and rejection you feel may or may not be real at all. It may simply be an over-reaction to negative—but "normal"—ministry experiences.

  3. Think Long-Term, Not Short-Term.
  4. Looking back on their long tenure, long-term pastors can put the difficult events into a long-term perspective. But they did this long before their current ministry was long-term. They planned on being at the church long-term. Some plan to remain in one church for the duration of their ministry or the rest of their lives.

  5. Think Vision.
  6. The quickest way to bring the possibility for a long, vibrant ministry to an end is to avoid casting a vision. Though different pastors and churches have varying capacities for vision, every healthy congregation needs a preferred picture of themselves held before them.

    Admittedly, some churches may attempt to oust those pastors with strong, enthusiastic, godly visions. The annals of church history demonstrate that even visionary pastors like Robert Schuller have been put out because of their vision.

    One of the exciting things about the long-term pastorate is that the vision has the potential to become greater. The longer the time span, the greater the vision.

    Unless leaders continually cast the vision, the real challenges and opportunities needed to be addressed by long-term ministry may never surface. Vision also creates euphoria, purpose, and greater dependence on the leadership. It is that healthy dependency which forms the basis for a leadership team which is empowered, energized and equipped to aspire and attain God’s vision for the congregation.

  7. Don’t Be Driven By Numbers And Externals.
  8. This does not mean to ignore them. Nor is it an excuse to avoid appropriate accountability. Instead, this advice is directed to look toward trends and movements, not "blips" and "bleeps."

    People familiar with the stock market understand that, over the long haul, what the stock market does from one day to another is relatively insignificant. It is over time that one sees a more accurate reflection of the real performance of a given investment.

    In any enterprise, numbers happen. Numbers will rise and fall. Programs will come and go. Long-term pastorates understand that ministry is more than numbers or programs. Instead, it’s the holistic effect of all the experiences of the unique journey of faith which God leads the congregation to experience.

  9. Learn About--And Love--The Community.
  10. If you and your family don’t and can’t love where you are, you will likely not experience a long-term pastorate in that place. Long-term pastors allow themselves and their families to participate in the community. They love their community and support it, knowing that there is no place else on earth that God would have them minister. Soon, they begin to gain a community perspective of ministry. They are not just called to take care of the church. They are there to make an impact on the community, too.

  11. Climb Off The Career Ladder.

There are at least four problems with pastors climbing the professional ladder.

  • First, being on the ladder takes your feet off the solid ground and makes you susceptible to falling.
  • Second, it takes you away from where you are supposed to be.
  • Third, it gives you a fantasy-based view of the "greener grass" on the other side;.
  • Fourth, it fuels and feeds a "built-in" "I’m outta here ASAP" mode of thinking.

Certainly God can and does call individuals to positions of greater responsibility and authority in the church. But it’s His calling—not our selfish, narcissistic impatient covetous—which should draw God’s chosen toward these positions. Perhaps we need to recall Martin Luther’s belief that the ministry is the highest and most noble office to which one can aspire. (Cf. Ministry Health article #120 "How's Your Career Path Going?")

  1. Learn To Deal With Problems.

Many pastors flee churches with problems. Every church, every ministry, has struggles. One of my favorite saying is, "Big churches, big problems; little churches, little problems." Yet the true magnitude of any problem in any church is the greatness, not the size, of the pastor and the church.

The most difficult problems, perhaps, are those which cannot be solved immediately…or at all. Some things can’t or won’t change. Learn them, deal with them, live with them. In many cases, the first step to dealing with congregational problems is to identify, learn and deal with one’s own personal issues.

One slogan common in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth applies also to us: "Physician, heal yourself" (Luke 4:23 NIV).

  1. Prayerfully Seek God’s Direction.

There are, I believe, two types of "prayer-led" Christians. They are the "Direction Seekers" and the "Direction Givers."

Direction Seekers are those who pray genuinely seeking God's direction for decision and His blessing. Direction Givers are those who make their decision first, then decide to pray to God tell Him what they've done-and what He must do. 

Both, when asked, say "I've prayerfully come to such and such conclusion." Both appear spiritual. One is born of faith; the other of crass, ego-driven narcissism. Long-term pastorates must be driven by the experience of God's answer to prayer, not by self-driven motivators.

Which Is For You-Long or Short-Term Pastorate?

Long-term pastorates are, as short-term pastorates, ultimately subject to God's will. Some long-term pastorates have followed short, turbulent short-term ministries. Some long-term ministries are followed by another short-term ministry. Sometimes short-term pastorates become unintentionally long and vice versa.

Thus "clear-cut" generalizations that long-term pastorates are better or worse than short-term pastorates are simplistic. Each congregation and every pastor has a God-given relationship assigned. That relationship may, as God intends, be short- or long-term. The only accurate generalization that can be drawn is that the pastorate should last as long as God intends. Ultimately, it ought not be unduly threatened, coerced, or influenced by anything other than God's will.

Whatever the tenure or duration of ministry, perhaps the most important question to consider is, "Can God put me into a long-term ministry in my current pastorate? If He does, am I ready for it? Am I willing to stay for ten or more years? Am I willing to put my ministry into a long-term perspective or am I unwilling to make the attitudinal-and spiritual-changes necessary to enjoy a long-term pastorate?

God's Promise To Long-Term And Short-Term Pastorates

Of all the pastors I respect most, it's those pastors with long-term pastorates whom I tend to trust and admire most. My grandfather, uncle, and father all served long-term pastorates and short-term pastorates. But, in their 28, 24, and 27 years each (respectively) in their last congregations, I have come to see that the greatest joy may be in the healthy, long-term pastorate. At this writing, I have become a long-term pastor, entering my thirteenth-and counting-year of ministry in my present congregation.

Like them, I have experienced excruciating and congregation-threatening crises. Like them, I have experienced the tears, the pain, the disappointment and the trials. But, like them, I have-and am-experiencing the great joys which only long-term pastorates experience. I am enjoying watching God transform God's people over their lifetime through my ministry. Of course, the one whose spiritual transformation I enjoy watching is my own.

Regardless of your ministry tenure, I invite you to draw strength from my long-term pastorate grandfather. Of all the encouragement for his ministry, I believe it was Isaiah's promise that kept him strong-and faithful-in his long-term pastorate.

"They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."
Isaiah 40:31 KJV

Ironically, this was also my grandfather's oft-repeated motto for his own long-term pastorate.

Stay strong. Wait on the Lord for the long-haul. He will renew your strength for your long-term pastorate.

Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:24 PM