I was driving into my new town for the first time to assume the pastorate of my first church, and the question went through my mind, “Wonder how long I will be here?” I preached my first sermon as pastor on December 15, 1979. My final sermon was Christmas Day, December 25, 2011. I completed 32 years as pastor of this great church.
I asked myself on several occasions, “Is my staying here a matter of stability or insanity?” The ultimate answer to the question of staying, in my heart and mind, was this: “This is the will of God for me at this time in my life”, and that lasted for 32 years in one place. The pastor who preceded me was there for 3 years. He resigned on a Sunday morning, told the congregation that “Ichabod” was written over the door of the church and it would never amount to anything, and he never came back. Two months later I became the pastor and faced a group of people who were totally beaten down. In addition to this issue, there were five different factions in the church, each with a different concept of how the church should be run. Not only that, but financially the church was in a very poor condition, so much so that when I came to candidate, in order for me to stay in the local motel, the church had to prepay the bill. One more thing. After I had been pastor for five (5) years, I walked into one of the local restaurants to get a cup of coffee. I sat down beside a very successful business man in town whom I knew. He leaned over and said to me, “You’re in!” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “We were watching to see if you would stay, and you did. You’re in.”
Did I ever WANT to leave? The answer is yes. Did I ever TRY to leave? The answer is yes. But God … that is the answer to both issues.
Now, SINCE I stayed, was there any value in that? Does longevity have any real benefits, or it is that one just doesn’t have the opportunity to go anywhere else? Here are some benefits, as I see them.
1. THE CHURCH PROFITS GREATLY
When I came, the church was deeply in debt. We owned two buildings with a Christian school in one. Our offerings were scarcely enough to meet weekly expenses, much less do anything extra. Over the course of time, God allowed to close the school (there was another Christian school in the area), sell the school building, and completely renovate our existing buildings so that they were maintenance free externally and beautiful on the inside.
In addition to these things, we were able to raise the monthly support of our missionaries that we were supporting and also add a substantial number of missionaries to our missionary family. As pastor, I was able to make several trips to various mission fields, because the church could not financially afford to send me and my wife.
In addition to paying off our debts, we were able to save the money needed to renovate our buildings without having to make a bank loan. The bank WANTED to loan us money, but we did not want or need to borrow money.
2. THE COMMUNITY BECOMES YOUR FAMILY
I was seated in my office one afternoon and the phone rings. When I answer, my personal physician says, “Jerry, this is ___________. I was just in the ER at the hospital and there is a man there who is dying. I told him he needed to get his house in order. I wonder if you would mind going by to see him?” My doctor was a practicing Catholic. I went immediately to the hospital to see the man. He was indeed dying. I was able to lead him to the Lord before he died. I tell you that story to illustrate the value of longevity in a community and the way the community becomes your family.
I became involved in the Chamber of Commerce and also one of the local service clubs (Rotary) and these two connections gave me access to the business leaders in our town. These connections led to my being able to provide counseling to several of the leaders when they were in need of some help, either with their marriage, or other family issues. The superintendent of schools in our city was a member of my church. When an issue came up that concerned me or some parents in the community, I was able to go to him directly and talk through it.
You have probably already figured out that I pastored in a rather small community. All the more reason to not stay a long time. After all, you run out of prospects pretty soon! Right? Think about this. When people are looking for help, they go back to the last source of help they can remember. In a small community, you are able to saturate that community frequently with the gospel and information about your church. You then often become the last source of help they remember.
3. LONGEVITY FORCES YOU TO STUDY THE WORD
If a pastor stays at a church for 4 or 5 years and then moves on to another place, chances are he will simply go back and rework those 4 or 5 years of sermons and preach them again. You say, “What’s wrong with that?” Nothing. But when you stay in one place for an extended period of time, you cannot just go back and pull out an old sermon and hope no one remembers. I had one lady in my church who wrote the date in her Bible when I preached from a passage. And she would remind me if I used the same passage again. I told her it was the same verse but a totally new message. So, for me, longevity forced me to be a continual student of the Word. I spoke four times a week and tried to always have something fresh and relevant. During the Summer months I gave the congregation the opportunity to suggest Bible questions they wanted answered or topics they wanted me to speak about. That gave them some input and gave me an awareness of their needs.
4. LONGEVITY BUILDS THE FAMILIES IN YOUR CHURCH
Your families grow accustomed to your preaching and teaching style. Some will love it and will stay with you. Some will say, “You can’t preach a lick” and leave for what they think are greener pastures. Those who stay will grow along with you. You will see the children grow to be adults. You may even have the opportunity to marry some of them. You get to be involved in the birth of their children. You are called upon to bury their parents and grandparents.
When tragedy and hard times come in your life, your church family will watch you to see if you practice what you preach. They will learn from the way you handle tragedy and heart ache. After I had been pastoring for about 25 years, my wife developed cancer, lived just eight months and passed away. As you can imagine, I was emotionally crushed. I took a few weeks off from preaching to clear my head. When I came back to church and preached that first Sunday, someone said to me, “Pastor, you showed us a lot. You showed us how to handle loss in our lives. Thank you.” They will never know how much that meant to me. But I believe what the Lord used to teach me He also used to teach them through me.
5. LONGEVITY ALLOWS GOD TO DO WHAT YOU COULD NEVER DO ON YOUR OWN
My entire tenure as pastor in that church was a learning experience for me. On my last day there, I was learning how to turn over the reins of the pastorate to another man. I wanted them to see him as their pastor and not still be looking to me for answers and I told them that. Thankfully they did not call me to answer their questions. They went to their PASTOR.
Everything that was accomplished was not because I was accomplished or experienced or smarter than anyone else. The truth is, even though I had been a staff member for nineteen (19) years, I had never been in a place where the buck stopped with me. If one comes to the pastorate after several years serving as a staff member, in whatever capacity, the pastorate is NOT the same. Every decision you make affects more than just you. It is now your responsibility to consider the whole of the ministry, not just your particular arena. I had to learn to pastor everything from the janitor’s closet all the way to the top.
When you realize that a church is a family, every time a pastor leaves, it is like a father leaving his family. The next man coming in will be a step dad until he gains the confidence of the people. We all know that families have members who do strange things. Church families have the same characteristics. Leaving because you have an issue with a family member may simply be Satan’s way of rendering the church ineffective because if one family can cause pastoral turnover on an ongoing basis, Satan wins. At some point, someone must become the leader the church needs in order for the church to have the impact on its community that God intended. Maybe that someone is you.
Staying is not always the easiest decision to make but sometimes it is the best decision to make – for you, for the church, for the community, and for the kingdom of God. Make certain that what you choose to do is what God wants and not simply an easy out because of a momentary difficult situation. Remember, when in doubt, don’t!
Jerry Burton is a contributor for a new book compiled by Greg Burdine. Ministry Lessons will be available late Summer 2019.