Friday, October 6, 2023

In defense of a long pastorate. . .

This is a self-serving blog post.  I have spent all 43 years of my ministry in two congregations.  The first call, the placement out of seminary, extended some 13 years and, in the end, I was one of the last of my class to depart from the place where placed by the seminary, district presidents, and the Holy Spirit.  I always knew I did not have many moves in me and had never looked for a call.  Now I am in this parish in my 31st year.  Things have changed along the way.

Growing up the long pastorate was not only more typical but lauded.  I can well recall those pastors whose entire public ministry was carried out in one parish.  If that was not the case, it was not unusual and perhaps the norm for a pastor to spend his ministry in two or three congregations.  The fruits of such long pastorates was stability and growth on the part of both pastor and people.  When I was installed into my first parish, I was surrounded by pastors who had longer tenures and a few had been in one or two congregations their entire ministries.  When I moved into the district and circuit where I now am, there were several pastors who would end up with more than thirty years of service in one place.  I met them as giants of men whose stature and wisdom were of great help and inspiration to me.  The truth is that I thought when the time came for me to retire, I would be seen in the same light.  That is not quite how things are today.  

Congregations are told by the hierarchies of our church that long pastorates can be problems.  Some district presidents warn the people that they will need an interim minister to buffer between the old pastor who was there too long and the new guy who wants to stay more than a couple of years.  Pastors who stay in one place are no longer automatically seen in glowing terms but are increasingly suspect by those with jurisdictional responsibilities and the younger pastors around them and on the call lists to replace them.  I am not sure what has happened to change the way we view those who are pastors in the same place a generation or more.  It continues to mystify me.

Some are quick to say that with age goes laziness and complacency.  Indeed, some have somewhat publicly made the charge that the older pastors are lazy preachers and teachers, no longer read books, do not grow in their vocation, and are simply coasting toward retirement.  Of course, some of this is true of some but, in my experience, not of all nor could it be said that it was even typical.  I know many pastors my age and with my years of experience.  Many of them, perhaps even most of them, are vibrant and energetic and some of the most profound and thoughtful pastors, preachers, and teachers I know.  I listen to their sermons online.  I listen to their congregations laud their wit, wisdom, and work ethic.  If this laziness and complacency happens, I would suggest that it is anecdotal more than statistical and made have to do with complications of age than a dull intellect or a flagging spirit.  

Some worry that people will not easily or quickly move their loyalty to a new pastor after they have had one man as their pastor for so long.  I would suggest that no congregation shifts its loyalties or learns affection for a new pastor quickly.  To be sure, there is great interest and expectation in things new than inevitably flows to the new pastor and what changes he is bring and how he is different from the old pastor.  Most of this has to do with personality and what was once called style than substance.  But loving new things is a different love than that which goes to the familiar the dependable.  The people of God are often caught between these two loves as their pastor of many years leaves and a new one comes along to replace him in the office of pastor.  This happens whether a pastor stays five years or fifteen or even fifty.  What happens when the revolving door of pastors does not slow down is that people no longer bother to get excited about the new guy and no longer bother to build affection for him because they knew he may or will be gone soon.

Some are tempted to place blame for everything that is wrong today on the generation that went before.  Quite frankly, there are pastors who have blamed the boomers for so much that it sounds like they will actually rejoice when this generation finally dies.  The boomers are not the problem.  Every generation has its problems.  The devil, the world, and the sinful flesh are the problems.  The boomers in our own church body are not the agents of destruction and deterioration for which they are so often blamed as much as they are the laborers who kept things going with the means of grace while the world around them was imploding -- the extent of that implosion is only now fully known.  Like most of those getting ready to retire, I am boomer and own every failing of my generation.  But I refuse to allow the generations that follow to get by with blaming and shaming me and those with me for all that they judge wrong -- a wrong magnified by several generations of constant reaffirmation by the pastor in one place for a very long time.  Baloney.

One of the chief benefits of the long pastorate is what you have learned along the way.  That which you have learned most of all is that you are not the owner nor the judge over the congregations you serve.  You are not the reason for their success or their failure.  You are not the savior nor are you the demon.  You are their pastor.  Now the truth is that this is something you learn over time and not something you begin your life with after your ordination.  Your personality is what people are interested in and folks love the idea of a pastor with whom you can share a beer and an off color joke but that is not the pastor's calling nor is it his ministry.  He is there to preach faithfully the full counsel of God's Word and to preside at the administration of the Sacraments of God by which He imparts His gifts.  Along the way, he must learn some things about administration and leadership or he will be swallowed up by all the challenges and changes that inevitably come.  No pastor loves to administer the things that naturally flow from his calling (whether he is sole pastor to a congregation of forty or senior pastor to a congregation of three hundred) but if you will not master this part of things, you will never be free to devote yourself to the other things.  That is what age and experience provide.  You are a fool of a pastor if you believe you can insulate yourself from this other stuff and you are a fool of a pastor if you think these things define you.  The longer you are a pastor the easier it is to know the difference between the things that demand you immediate attention and the things that can wait and how to defend your waste of time on the many things that belong to the pastoral ministry but which cannot be measured or quantified by a statistic.  Every pastor feels guilty about spending time in preparation for preaching and teaching and leading worship even though they know this is important.  Nobody in the congregation will jump up and down because you spend an hour in prep for every minute you spend in the pulpit.  The reality is that I no longer feel any such guilt in the prep time and I do not shy from telling people that what I do that they cannot directly see or quantify is worth the time.

Finally, the role of pastor is most easily equated to the father in the family.  Dads tend not to be the emotional centers of the home nor do they tend to get much credit for the routine drudgery they do so that the family continues.  Pastors are appreciated for things that not quite essential to their task and unappreciated for the things that are.  The one thing that you learn with age and experience is that the pastor, like the dad, is known chiefly for what he sacrifices than for what he receives.  I did not get this in the beginning and lived under the illusion that it was possible to balance family, personal life, and parish.  I have learned that it is more like the circus performer who spins plates on a stick.  You go where you are needed.  Sometimes your family needs you most of all and sometimes your parish does and sometimes you need your own time away.  There is no balance or final equalization.  You learn to go to work when you don't want to and you learn to go home when you know you have things left to do.  Being a pastor is not simply what you do but who you are -- like a dad is to the home.  Unfortunately, dads are in increasingly short supply in the home and so pastors are more and more misunderstood and their ministry judged by things well beyond their control.  

Let me tell you a secret.  The world has always been going to hell in a handbasket (whatever that means).  The threat to the future of the Church is as much by those who react too quickly as those who do not react at all.  When the world around you is falling apart, you go back to the things that you have always done -- listen to God's Word, receive His gifts, pray, serve where you are, and give what you have.  Remember when Jesus said he who endures to the end shall be saved?  Maybe that has something to do with the role, calling, and ministry of the pastor as well.  The long pastor in the same place has learned to endure.  The people around him have probably learned the same thing.  Yes, the luster has long ago grown dull and the new pastor smell has worn off but in the end, the long pastorate is the best thing for pastors and for congregations.  Sure there are exceptions but this ought to be the rule.  Stay where you are planted until it is obvious to you by the Holy Spirit that it is time to move.


Rev. Alan Kornacki, Jr. said...

Having followed a pastor who was in the congregation for over 30 years when he retired, my experience was not pleasant. But much of that was because he was not faithful in his doctrine and practice. He practiced open communion, did weddings and funerals for anyone who could pay his fee, and other unsavory things. In addition to that, he would come back to the church every so often and tell the secretaries how to do things, keep abreast of the financial and attendance numbers, and make comments to congregation members when things were not done to his standards. But that says more regarding his personality and poor churchmanship than about the length of his tenure.

My vicarage bishop was in his congregation over 30 years when he died, and he was a faithful preacher and teacher. His successor is blessed to follow someone who was so faithful for so long.

Janis Williams said...

Thankful for your long pastorate. We have only been here for a portion, but coming in for the last third has meant much to a couple newly Lutheran. Would we have remained Lutheran and confessional it you were gone two years into our coming? I suspect we would have, because we are thoroughly convinced Lutheranism is Biblical Christianity. Nevertheless, having a Pastor who is also a Father, always there with Word, Sacrament, and care made it much more stable and comforting. We were “hone” from our first Divine Service. Thank you.