A pastor friend of mine recently died after living to age 85. He pastored the same church for nearly 30 years. Well, there was that two-week stint that he pastored another church in Florida. Yes, two weeks.
This large-steeple church lured this pastor to their college town and the South Georgia church said all their teary-eyed goodbyes. However, once this pastor arrived and began his ministry, he discovered that the picture painted by the search committee didn’t match what he found once he put his feet behind the pulpit and among the people.
After many nights of internal struggle and much prayer, he did the unthinkable. He asked the church that he left if they would allow him to come back and reclaim his pulpit. They did. He resigned his Florida church after two weeks and went back to Georgia and ministered to those people until he retired from the pastorate.
This pastor was fortunate and so was his congregation. They discovered what few pastors and congregations discover, a long-term relationship that helped define both pastor and congregation and even a community.
Most congregations never have a pastor long enough for the minister to leave much of a stamp on the congregation. They are shaped more by the constant changing of the post and the collective DNA of the membership. The longer people have been members of the congregation, the more their DNA permeates the church. They understand that preachers come and go and so will some members, but they know they will stay. Because their investment is deeper and their commitment to the church and community often extends generations, these people sometimes have a granite attitude, “shall not be moved.”
They see their job as that of a soldier protecting the fortress and seem to be opposed to anything that could move the church out of the dark ages. To their credit, they can also protect the church from the whims of unnecessary change. More times than not, they form opposition to any form of change that doesn’t meet their approval.
However, there are other times these people have gentle servant hearts and the nature of shepherds. Somewhere along the way, they figured out that being in a new place isn’t an easy thing and so they make it their job to help the new pastor be successful, regardless of the number of years he or she stays. They help him or her become oriented to the church culture and the community. They help the pastor establish key relationships. Clearly, these churches are healthier. Pastors will typically stay longer and when they leave, the goodbyes are usually healthy goodbyes.
The people in these churches realize that life is filled with transitions. Young pastors typically start out in smaller churches and move up the ladder as they gain experience. Few churches are going to be able to keep a pastor for 30 years. Many church people would probably say, “Thank God.”
Most congregations are not willing to be introspective enough to ask the deeper questions about themselves and understand their congregation systemically. Since that is the case, most congregations continue to repeat the same mistakes, act the same way toward one another, and treat their pastors and staff the same.
Likewise, most pastors don’t do their homework, either. They continue to believe the grass is greener elsewhere and they pick up and leave, never understanding their relationship with their current church and projecting the ideal life with the next place of service. Rarely can they turn around and go back when disappointment follows.
However, if pastors went to churches and ministered as if they were going to be there to the end of their ministries and congregants treated pastors as if they were going to be there that long, how might the relationships between the two change?
Relationships might begin differently. Pastors might not be looked at as outsiders and congregants might not be looked at as people who are defending their turf at all cost. Perhaps more trust would develop and a common goal of working for the sake of the Kingdom would actually win the day. Oh, yeah, there is that thing about the Kingdom of God. So it really isn’t all about us? How easily we forget.
In a world where God will continue to call pastors to be itinerant throughout our careers, as was Jesus, we should focus on better and healthier ways to make transitions, but the secret to that is in developing healthier ways of living together. Healthy transitions cannot really happen if the church isn’t healthy before pastors transition. Neither churches nor pastors can be healthy if we are both trying to make the church all about them. Sometimes that is thinly veiled under a lot of “Jesus talk.” We can all speak the language of Zion, but as my pastor friend discovered from the search committee so many years ago, it’s not always the truth.