Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Benefit of Longevity

When I left seminary for my first call 30 years ago, the average tenure of a Pastor in his first parish was about 22 months. There are reasons for that. A few of the congregations calling a candidate were marginal congregations with a history of calling a new Pastor and not addressing compensation until he left. A few of the congregations were hard to shepherd and tended to chew up novice clergy and spit them out after lunch. Some of the congregations were small enough that even with work would soon not be able to compete with the salary paid to a candidate leaving years later. These often received new candidates every 3 or 4 years with a year in between to save up some cash. Many moved because a congregation that wanted a man with a little experience and had more going on issued a call he could not refuse. Don't get me wrong, I am not talking money here but mission and ministry. Often these were suburban congregations and the first parish was rural or urban. Many also moved because they ended up far away from home and family and, as we all know, the Holy Spirit always calls a Pastor in the direction of his in-laws.

A few Pastors stayed in their first calls... and stayed... and stayed... I was one of them. I stayed just under 13 years. I was ready to leave in 2 but, thankfully, the Spirit was not ready. With the assistance of a great Bishop (Ron Fink), a wonderful cadre of circuit clergy (Albany/Schenectady circuits), the counsel of a wise retired Pastor (Howard Lincks), and a solid friendship that continues to endure (Bob Duchow), this young Pastor stayed. And a miracle happened.

A wounded and conflicted parish healed, a weak and struggling Lutheran identity strengthened, an unfocused mission was clarified, and a green, brash Pastor matured. I would have left in a minute those first 2 years but the opportunity never came to me and so I stayed long enough to confirm children I had baptized, marry children I had confirmed, bury people who had become friends, and lead people who learned to trust me even as I had learned to trust them.

When calls began to come, I discovered that the parish was stable and strong, the lay leadership wise and committed, and this newbie had become the one people looked at when someone asked "What did we used to do about this?" In the end, the right call came. I initially resisted it. A close friend asked me, "Don't ask what would happen if you left, ask what would happen if you stayed..." It helped me to see what I did not want to see -- it was the right time to leave. Through tears and a voice barely whispered, I read my letter to the congregation after the Divine Service. Their tears made harder what I knew to be the right time.

Now I have been here just under 17 years -- my second parish. It too was a congregation weakened by previous conflict, wounded by too many years of barely getting by, and clouded by uncertainties about their identity and mission. We have grown (not just in numbers) and our mission has greatly increased. Healing has come, though scars are still there. Defeated hopes and dreams have given way to a new facility some 10 years ago and a new ministries that utilize the additional space -- a can do attitude. It was not me -- don't ever believe it -- it was a window of opportunity, a good match (the work of the Spirit), and much patience and trust (on all sides).

And I have confirmed the first baby I baptized after arriving here... and married some of my confirmands... and watched as people who were my age have become old... and buried some of the people who had become wonderful friends. I have waved good bye to way too many people moved by the army and industry and welcomed more people than I can remember. Some of the young military men and women, met here, married here, had a child here, and, God bless them, have moved back here -- and I got to be a part of their wonderful growth in life and family.

Today a woman in the congregation died in her 90's. I had known Doris when her husband Jim was still alive. I buried him about 9 years ago. Doris seemed never to change until her failing memory began to be a problem. For years her son David brought her to early service until it no longer worked out. When David called me to tell me death was near, we talked for nearly 40 minutes about his mom and dad. We laughed and sighed. She was a stranger to me 17 years ago and on Saturday I will bury a woman who had become a part of my extended family. There is sadness there but also joy -- this woman was no stranger to me... even though at the end of her life I had become a stranger to her... It is the privilege of service and the benefit of longevity.

When I look out on to the pews on Sunday morning, I see new faces of people I have yet to get to know... I see familiar faces of those who I call by name at the altar rail every time they commune... I see the faces of people whose faces have changed as I knew them and who I sometimes cannot remember not knowing... I see the faces of children become adults -- all while I was here to watch them... and young adults mature... I had not one gray strand in hair or beard when I came here and now I, like them, sport more than I ever thought I would. They have put up with me and I with them. They have loved me when I was hard to love and I have loved them when they drove me crazy. And if I were ever to leave this place, it would be just as painful as it was to leave the first. I am not looking for that day -- if it comes, God will tell me. For now I appreciate knowing these people well enough to know who they are, what they have gone through, and how they have endured in faith. I like burying people I can speak about personally -- they were not strangers to me in their lives and they are not strangers to me in death. Like Doris. This is where I will stay until the call of God becomes impossible to ignore... and I do not regret any day of it...

So if you are a Pastor reading this, I hope you have the opportunity to stay... and stay... and stay... in one place. There are benefits to longevity when it comes to being a Pastor... many benefits... to the people in the congregation, to the congregation's identity in the community, and to you and your family...


Rev. Ray Salemink said...

I had one prof at the seminary that said, "3-8 years. You better have a good reason to stay after 8 and an even better one to leave before 3." You have very, very good reasons for staying after 8.

Philip said...

Thank you for Pastor for posting this. It gives me hope and perspective as I complete my studies here in Fort Wayne and go out to my deferred vicarage and eventual call. Life is truly full of saying hello and saying goodbye and in Christ these relationships are strengthened through time together. Thank you again.

janie said...

As a Christian who has been on a long jouney seeking a church where the Law/Gospel is the 1st middle and last. I am ever so greatful our Lord heard my pleas for a church such as Grace. And to think Grace was right under my nose. (I keep remembering, all things are in His time and for His purpose. Praise God. At one point in my journey I had decided if I found myself suddenly a widow, I would buy plane tickets and fly around the country to hear Law/Gospel preached. Thankfully those plans have been put in "file 13".
Thanks that is to Pastor and members