Many pastors, particularly newbies, have a noble aspiration to stay long term in a church. I think it is safe to say that most of us know the value of serving long-term in one place. It gives us the privilege of journeying with people as they travel through different seasons of life—something not possible with short-sprint ministries. It also provides the opportunity to bring about deep and long-lasting change in a church.
For many of us, long-term ministry is a dream that turns into a nightmare.
Then the harsh realities of pastoral ministry hit us like a speeding freight train. We find ourselves looking for an exit; for greener pastures somewhere else.
Too often, people enter church ministry with blissful naivety; without recognising and weighing up the cost of staying in a church long term. It’s like people who love the thrill of climbing Mt Everest but who fail to understand how much it costs to get to the top. If we want to last the distance, we need to take a hard and honest look at how much it will cost us and ask if we are prepared to pay that price. So what is the cost we need to be aware of? Here are three parts to it:
- Being prepared to sacrifice speed for painful slowness.
- Being prepared to fail, not just once but many times over and over again.
- Being prepared to be hurt time and time again.
1. Being prepared to sacrifice speed for painful slowness
We all love speed. We are always looking for things to happen faster and faster. Faster internet. Faster fast food. Faster computers. Faster microwave food. Things need to move faster. Top Gun’s Maverick sums it up: “I feel the need; the need for speed.”
If we plan to serve in one church long term, then we have to sacrifice our need for speed. Changing and growing a church can be very very very slow and by slow I mean more than a few months or even a year. Sometimes it takes decades.
Changing and growing a church can be very very very slow. Sometimes it takes decades.
I remember speaking to a young pastor who was excited about his new church. Six months into it he was still excited. After two years he was ready to pull the plug.
Of course, some churches seem to change faster than a speeding bullet. But many others move at snail’s pace—painfully slow for speed-lovers. But why should we be surprised? Churches are not like speed boats that can do 180-degree spins at the drop of a hat. They are like ocean liners that take a long time to change course.
Churches come with traditions, practices, values and customs that have accumulated over years—maybe even centuries! It will take time to decipher them, let alone change them. To think we can change the church overnight (or even in a year or two) is crazy. Just earning people’s trust will take longer than that: As the saying goes, “It is hard to earn a person’s trust. But it can be easily lost overnight.”
However, if slowness is a problem for us, we need to remember that it isn’t for God. He was prepared to wait until Abram and Sarai were old before miraculously providing their first child. He was prepared to wait 400 years before bringing Israel out of Egypt (Gen 15:12-16). He was prepared to wait 80 years before using Moses for that job. God has his own timing.
Yet things are usually happening in the meantime. When things are slow, we need to recognise that God is still at work, changing people every minute of the day in quiet and subtle ways. Even in the most hardened of churches, the Spirit of God will use the Word to bring about Christ-like transformation. It is worth remembering the book of Ruth: as the whole nation of Israel was going down the toilet (see Judges), God was at work in a country village, bringing together a Ruth and Boaz, through whom David and his greater Heir would come to the rescue.
Being prepared to fail, not just once but many times over and over again
Who likes to fail? Success is something we pursue and celebrate. We put our “successful” leaders on pedestals and urge everyone to be like them.
Unfortunately, church ministry often sings to a similar tune. We pick “successful” pastors to be guest speakers at our church growth conferences, clinging to the worldy hope that we might be able to copy their formula. Notice that one of the key questions in strategic planning is, “What does success look like?”
Now, I’m not against being successful, and I certainly don’t want to be someone who cuts down “tall poppies”. It is important to plan for success. But we need to remember that success is something God gives us. He may use our planning and effort, but he does not depend on them. Success is up to God, not us (see 1Cor 3:5-9).
If we are serious about long-term ministry, we need to know and be prepared for a string of failures.
If we are serious about long-term ministry, we need to know and be prepared for a string of failures. There will be people we will fail. Many sermons will go down like lead balloons. We will make wrong (if not bad) decisions that will hurt people. We will fail to give some people the attention they need. People will complain about our boring meetings. We may fail to disciple people; fail to raise up leaders; fail to visit the sick; fail to evangelise our community; fail to raise money; fail to find extra staff. We might lose our cool or say the wrong thing that causes people to leave the church.
Failure is part and parcel of any long-term ministry. This is not an excuse for failure. It is simply to recognise that we will not always get it right. Indeed, many times we will get it wrong.
That might demoralise us. A string of failures and mistakes might make us want to pack our bags and move on. But if we are serious about staying, we will have to pick ourselves up and keep pushing on. We also need to remember that while no one loves to be a failure, God loves failures and died for them. We need to remember that our failures should not define us, nor do they need to be the end of the world (though some moral failures will disqualify us from ministry).
Yet, what ultimately defines us is not what we fail to do for God but what God has successfully done for us. He loved us, not because we were so good, but quite the opposite. Remember Paul’s words in 2 Cor 11:16-33. As the super-apostles paraded their super credentials, Paul paraded his failures and weaknesses. As he reminds us, it is when we are weak that God’s grace is more than sufficient. 2 Cor 12:9.
Being prepared to be hurt time and time again
Our natural instinct for self-preservation makes us want to avoid pain at all costs. But if we are serious about long-term ministry, we will need to be prepared for hurt that will come time and time again. Many of us have a dreamy view of ministry; that it is all fun and games. If we talk about suffering, we think of it as the sort of suffering we have to endure to get fit.
But long-term pastoral ministry is not for the faint-hearted. People will complain and criticise and often unfairly. They will complain about your preaching, your leadership, your decisions, your dress code, your manner, your pay, and your attitude. People you have depended on will turn against you and stab you in the back. Church leaders will gang up on you because you are trying to do the right thing. Although you are trying to serve the church, some people will think you are leading them to death—think about Moses. Of course, we are not Moses, but many of us probably have an idea of how he must have felt.
But again, why should we expect anything different? Although the church is God’s holy people, they are still a bunch of ratbag kids who need to grow up to become like Christ. In his graciousness, God has given us a part in this. But as any parent will tell you, raising children can be painful. In Galatians 4:19, Paul even likens his efforts to the pains a mother goes through in giving birth to a baby. This is the pain he feels until Christ is fully formed in the church. It is hard enough to endure birth pangs for an hour or two. Imagine 20 years of them!
If we are serious about long-term ministry, we need to be prepared for the years of such pain. Are we prepared to pay this cost? We need to be if we are serious about long-term ministry.
And yet, if we are serious, God’s grace and power will prove to be more than sufficient to sustain us to the very end. As Paul wraps his ministry and passes the baton to Timothy, he encourages him with these words:
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. (2 Timothy 1:6-8, NIV)