Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Long Pastorate - 30 Years In the Same Church

Rev. Robert Smallman, pastor of Bible Presbyterian Church (PCA), in Merrill, Wisconsin recently marked his 30th anniversary of serving that congregation. He lives in a community about an hour north of where I went to college at Stevens Point. More than once he and I have chatted about ministry in his neck of the woods.

I found this article at the Aquila Report ( detailing his own reflections about serving this church.

Reflections on a Long Pastorate: 30 Years and Counting

Written by Robert T. Smallman
Editor's note:

TE Robert Smallman wrote this article when he and his congregation celebrated his 25th anniversary of pastoral service at Bible Presbyterian Church in Merrill, Wis. Now he is reaching his 30th year at the same church and this assessment of a long pastorate are still true. Bob indicated that the only thing he would add is the fact that he has had a faithful staff member over the last 15 years who has made his ministry easier.

Recently my congregation and my family celebrated our twenty-fifth year at our church in Merrill, Wisconsin. It was never our intention to stay this long – I was a city boy coming to a rural community, and Linda and I thought we would probably minister here for five years or so before moving on to something more suitable to my background. Indeed, as the more tenured members of my congregation know, I tried leaving a couple of times; but God in his good providence had other plans ("We may make our plans, but God has the last word" Proverbs 16:1, TEV).

Long pastorates (like long marriages) are not much in vogue these days – nor are they easily attained – but both are wonderfully rewarding. What can be better than seeing the children I have baptized grow up in the Lord, go to school, and then come back to be married? Or to see children who have sat under my ministry grow up and sense God's call to their own ministry? The downside, as I have often said, is that I also have to "live with my mistakes" when it would be so much easier to escape to a different church and let my successor mop up after me.

Long pastorates (particularly in a rural setting where turnover is minimal) also lead to a trust between the pastor and members that carries you through stressful times. When we were starting our first building project, a deacon (an older man) said to me, "Why should we do this? You're just going to get us into debt and then leave." As we built our latest addition, the only person who asked if I would be staying around was our banker.

Similarly, when we've gone through the painful work of church discipline, I have been able to draw on a track record of trust and friendship that gives members confidence that their leaders won't act hastily or do something that would bring harm to the body. Even when people don't always understand or agree with hard decisions we have made, they have been able to draw on the reservoir of trust that we've accumulated over the years to carry us through those bumpy times that inevitably come in the life of a church.

Even my best and dearest friends would acknowledge that I am a far from perfect pastor. And I would never propose what I have experienced as the model for everyone else; but I have made a few observations over the years of factors that have contributed to my longevity here.
First, I have tried to cultivate a Word-centered ministry. My habit, from my first Sunday in Merrill, has been to preach through books (or significant portions) of the Bible. I've done that for several reasons:

1. I don't have to lie awake on Sunday nights wondering what I'm going to preach the following Sunday (I may still lie awake on Sunday nights but not because I'm searching for a text!).
2. It forces me to look at each text in its greater context, and it teaches the congregation to see the inter-relatedness of Scripture.
3. Over time I will regularly confront all the major themes of Scripture rather than just gravitating to my favorites. I have to preach the "hard" texts as well as the obvious ones.
4. It keeps me fresh. During my 25 years [now 30 years] here, I have only repeated four series: Acts, Revelation, Ephesians, and John. As I began each of these four again I did so with the idea that I could save myself some time by simply "updating" the old series, and each time I have found that impossible. The texts may be the same, but I am different, my people are different, and the times are different. And so I have the joy of digging afresh into these magnificent texts.
5. Preaching through books enables me to tackle potentially controversial subjects inductively and from a variety of sources. People at our church don't believe in election primarily because it's in the Westminster Confession (though they're grateful for that confirmation), but because Paul and John and Jesus believed it. So I don't generally preach on the topic of election but on Ephesians 1 or Romans 9 in the context of series on those books – and it's a lot harder to argue with Paul than with me!
6. Finally, it tends to allow listeners to hear the Word itself rather than be turned off by feelings of personal offense. If Mrs. Jones has a problem with gossip and then hears me preaching about gossip, she's more likely to be able to listen to the text rather than take personal offense if she knows that I'm just preaching through James rather than singling her out! (People will often tell me, "That message was just for me," but we both understand that I wasn't trying to pick on just them.)

Second, I attribute my longevity to a growing understanding of what ministry is all about. As a young man with dreams of large churches and numerical "success," I was devastated by the trials and struggles I faced in ministry – struggles with my image of ministry, with people under my ministry, and with the circumstances of ministry itself. I was overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy and failure.

As I have grown as a person and as a pastor, I have come to appreciate that despite all the joys and satisfactions which accompany pastoral ministry and keep me going – that the call to ministry is at its heart a call to suffer. Jesus commanded us to take up our cross (not a set of golf clubs) and follow him, so we should not be surprised when we have to trail him through Gethsemane and Golgotha on the way to the empty tomb.

Sometimes we suffer with our people – we weep with those who weep. Sometimes we suffer on behalf of our people – ignoring our admonitions and counsel, they bring grief on themselves, their families, and on us and the church. And sometimes, of course, we suffer from our people – either from those who directly oppose us or from the "well-intentioned dragons" of which Marshall Shelley so eloquently writes. We neither seek nor enjoy such suffering; but we must grow to understand that it is a normal result of following Jesus. If we do not, it will crush us.

As I started this vocational journey thirty years ago, I was often encouraged by my deep personal assurance that God had called me into ministry. I sometimes joked with people that I was more sure of my inward call to ministry than I was of my salvation. But as I struggled through some of the great trials of ministry (and through my own personal issues), I found ultimately that it was the confirming outward call which sustained and carried me. Somehow (notwithstanding all my self-doubts and weaknesses) God really was using my ministry in the lives of my people. I began to see those providential events that had brought me here and were keeping me here (despite my best efforts to manipulate them). I came to understand that while I could do many things with the rest of my life, this was the only thing I truly wanted to do.

Third, I have been blessed with a very supportive wife. My first call out of seminary was to a mission church (not a decision I would recommend to others!) and it turned into a very difficult experience. While I was ready to give up pastoral ministry altogether, Linda steadfastly believed in me as her husband and as a pastor, and her faith in me and my calling kept me in the ministry. Since then she has continued to take her wedding vows ("for better, for worse") most seriously and has been a steady rock in my sometimes rocky career.

After I resigned from that first mission church, I returned to seminary for a degree in counseling. The academic focus of that degree was not nearly as important as the sabbatical. Whether studying pastoral theology or ornithology, I just needed to get away and be re-created; so I became a part-time student and a full-time factory worker. That three-year hiatus became the basis for my fourth observation about long pastorates.

As I worked my way up the pecking order at Solo Cup Company from machine tender to supervisor of the foam cup department, I came to realize that I didn't have to be a pastor to survive in the world. I became a very good and valued supervisor within the company and ultimately took a sizeable pay cut to go back to being a pastor. What a liberating feeling to know that I could fail as a pastor and still support my family! Knowing that I don't have to stay here (or even remain in the ministry) has made it so much easier to see beyond the temptations of the greener-grass syndrome.

Incidentally, the other big lesson that I learned in the factory is that pastors don't have a monopoly on pressure-filled, time-demanding jobs! For that reason I have much more realistic expectations about the amount of time and energy that my people have to invest in church activities.

Fifth, I have come to accept my weaknesses along with my strengths – without being threatened by my weaknesses nor overconfident about my strengths. Early in my ministry I tried to overcome all my weaknesses. I attended seminars on evangelism, one-on-one discipleship, and management by objectives. I tried to model my ministry after older pastors whose ministries I admired but succeeded only in driving myself to frustration and depression because I could never measure up to my own standards.

Finally, after enduring a mid-life crisis surrounding my 40th birthday, I learned to be as comfortable with what I couldn't do as with what I could. Of course, my congregation had arrived at that point long before. Much earlier they had accepted me for who I am rather than for who they wished I could be! I am still very much aware of my weaknesses and eye them with "redemptive discontent," but I pour the bulk of my energy into building my strengths.
This understanding has also taught me to be patient with my people, and that too has added to my longevity. Because I am the recipient of God's "unlimited patience" (1 Timothy 1:16), I am learning to be a dispenser of it as well. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, "Lord, help me to see not how much I have sinned, but how much you have forgiven."

Finally, becoming involved in community affairs outside of the church has made it easier for me to stay in the church. I once heard a conference speaker declare that if we had enough time to join the Kiwanis Club, we weren't doing our jobs as pastors. Nonsense!

When I first moved to Merrill, we were a small, relatively isolated congregation meeting in a little building buried between two houses. Few people knew we existed. So within a week or two I joined the Chamber of Commerce and volunteered for its Legislative Committee. In an era when "networking" only referred to NBC, ABC and CBS, that opportunity allowed me to network with people throughout the community and opened up still other venues to serve and to make our church visible. Today I'm a member of the city's Police and Fire Commission; I'm on the board of our local hospital; I chair the advisory board for another hospital's Clinical Pastoral Education residency; and I announce the high school hockey games. A few years ago I served as chaplain for the sheriff's department. Our church has been very gracious in sharing my time with these and other community groups, understanding that these opportunities promote the church and the gospel. And for me they provide an outlet to share my gifts with people who might never come through our doors. It's fun and renewing. How can an elder "have a good reputation with outsiders" (1 Timothy 3:7) if no one outside the church knows him?

Long pastorates are certainly not God's will for everyone. Just as some pastors leave too soon, there are many who stay too long. On more than one occasion I have counseled a friend that it's probably time for him to move on. But although I've had several colleagues tell me they regretted a move they made in the heat of some disagreement within their church, only rarely (and then usually during a first pastorate) do I encounter a pastor who feels he's stayed too long. I realize that a call to a church doesn't have the same "'till death do us part" vow that our marriages do, but I am convinced that most pastors would be better and feel better if they stayed longer.

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