What are some of the keys to lasting in ministry?

I have thought about many of the people I have admired in ministry, some of them now retired after many years of pastoral ministry. I believe that many of those folks lived by their sense of call to ministry. They knew for certain they had been called into ministry by God, and nothing was going to deter them from that commitment.

Many of them had a specific situation or person to remember, and that remained as a focus moment in their lives. They had learned to celebrate that moment and nurture that calling, and nothing was going to deter them from being the minister God had called them to be.

Many of them lived through some very lean circumstances, situations that too many of us in the younger generation probably would not tolerate. We have much to learn from their example. I don’t believe that we have to return to those conditions, but we may be guilty of being soft and not having the patience and stamina of our predecessors.

Many of those folks recognized that ministry is a process and not an event.

Many of those folks recognized that ministry is a process and not an event. We are very event and experienced oriented, and we expect "instantaneous" results for our efforts. They were willing to plod along, doing the routine aspects of ministry without a lot of fanfare. We need to catch that example in ministry today, even in the face of the "experts" telling us to be church CEO’s and administrators. We need to be willing to devote quality time and energy to preparing our sermons and teaching times; we need to spend more time with people, instead of too much time at our computers; and we need to devote more time to prayer, seeking God’s direction and blessing for His church.

A pastor, who had been at his church for thirty years, shared with me the value he saw in being able to be pastor in one place for that long. He told about the lean times at the beginning, and about the slow and steady progress he had experienced to be able to see the kind of impact his church was now having. He talked about the privilege of being there with some of these families for births, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, grandchildren and deaths. He shared about the level of trust and vulnerability in those relationships that had developed over the years, trust that never would have been possible if he had not made the commitment to stay. It takes at least five years to truly develop some depth of relationship with one’s people.

I believe that one of the keys to lasting longer in one place would be to make a good start in that location. First impressions matter a lot. Establish some good habits at the beginning, and model an attitude of truly caring about the people of that congregation.

As pastors, we need to honor the context of our place of ministry — it has value and meaning to the people we are called to minister to and with. Never speak disparaging of their culture and environment. For many of them, it is the only context they have known. If it needs improvement, then work with them to make things better. Don’t try to change too many things too quickly. Be willing to persevere and be satisfied with slow, but steady change.

Work at good communication within the church, and try to extend that communication into the community. Good communication is a two-way street. We as pastors need to be good listeners to them and their story instead of just expecting them to always listen to us. Good communication is like a circulatory system for the human body — there needs to be an exchange of information and emotions.

One of the keys to lasting longer in our context of ministry is that we truly learn how to deal promptly and positively with conflict. Conflict is a normal experience in congregational life, and it’s an aspect of ministry that many of us have not dealt with very effectively. Conflict can be managed and can be productive, but sadly we allow it to become destructive when we fail to take care of situations promptly and courageously.

Another key to staying longer is having an accountability person(s). We need a friend to share our pain with, and someone to provide emotional and spiritual support. People in our churches will ignore the signs of "battle fatigue" in their pastor. Sometimes those congregations will overwhelm us with unrealistic expectations, negative criticism and misplaced anger. Each of us in pastoral ministry needs a "Barnabas" or an "Aaron" to voice words of encouragement or to provide mentoring.

As we work through changes and challenges in the church, we need to celebrate the positive things that happen. We need to build a positive church image. A positive attitude becomes a very attractive appeal to others to become a part of a group that has a healthy self-image. It becomes a very important part of truly experiencing church growth.

In recent years, the length of stay for pastors has declined to about four years. The longest stays in a congregation now average eight years. We as pastors need to help our churches experience more growth in every aspect of ministry as we commit to longer lengths of stay. This is also so much healthier for our marriages and our families as they would not have to experience the trauma and pain of frequent moves. I pray that we can learn something from the retiring clergy’s examples and that we can apply some of the other principles to extend the average longevity of our pastorates.

Additional Resources:

  • "Pastors Who Stay," part of the Pastor to Pastor series.
  • Leading Churches Through Change by Douglas A. Walrath, 1979.
  • "Profile of Today’s Pastor: Transitions" by John C. Larue in Your Church, May/Jun 1995.