When pastors get together for some kind of group experience, the convener usually opens discussion by asking the pastors to share their name, the name of the church they serve, and how long they have been there. Having recently sat in a group like that, I had the opportunity to say, “My name is John McCallum. I serve at First Baptist Church, Hot Springs. And I’ve been there for over 18 years.”
I don’t know who’s more amazed by the length of my tenure: my colleagues or me. My situation is made more intriguing by the fact that though I’m 57 years old and have been a lead pastor for 31 years, I’ve only served two churches in that time frame. What makes this so interesting to pastors is that (according to a 2011 Barna report) the average tenure of Protestant pastors is only four years.
So some of my pastor friends scratch their heads over it and ask how I manage to stay so long in one church.
The first thing I say in response to this question is, “No pulpit committees.” Chances are pretty high that if no other church ever asks you to consider becoming their pastor, you’ll stay right where you are. And honestly, that’s been the case for me. In 31 years of pastoring, I’ve only had serious conversations with two pulpit committees, both of which contacted me in the first church I served, and one of which was the committee for the church I’ve now served for 18 years. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I suspect it helps that I made a decision at the beginning of my ministry that I would never initiate contact with a church that was looking for a pastor. I wouldn’t send an unsolicited resume, and I wouldn’t ask a friend to do it for me. I’ve always figured that was God’s business and sure as I tried to make something happen, it would end badly. This posture certainly limits opportunities. And the lack of opportunities to move elsewhere has surely helped keep me in one place for long periods of time. That’s the first reason for my long tenure.
Here’s a second: I’ve never pastored a church in a dying community. God has placed me in a growing suburb and in a stable mid-size city at the hub of a fairly dynamic county. I’ve not pastored in a community that regularly witnesses factories close, downtown businesses shut their doors and board up their windows, or has more people moving out than moving in. My hat is off to pastors who serve in dying communities. Those churches need pastors as much or more than the kind of churches I’ve served. But how does a pastor stay for very long in a dying community with a shrinking church and no prospects to see it grow enough to sustain the pastor’s family? Pastoring in more dynamic communities is something I have no control over, but it sure helps tenure.
And so does this: my age. Now this wasn’t always the case. While it’s hard for me to remember that I was once a young man, there was a day when I was in the sweet-spot for pastoral transitions: which is ages 35-49. I moved to First Baptist, Hot Springs, when I was 38. I still had several “prime” years left for moving elsewhere after I came to Hot Springs, but I just got busy with my work here and the next time I checked the calendar, I was 50. Opportunities diminish after that—especially opportunities for growing churches that are composed of mostly younger adults or are in need of reaching younger adults. Churches are enamored with youth, and I don’t blame them. While age usually means experience and accumulated wisdom, it can also mean cynicism and bitterness too. While age can certainly mean a pastor works smarter instead of harder, it can also mean a pastor decides to put his/her ministry in neutral and coast into retirement. While I have no statistics to back it up, my sense is that a pastor’s longer tenures happen on the back-end of his/her ministry rather than on the front end. Age makes a difference in tenure. At least it has for me.
And so has this: instead of focusing on changing churches, I focus on changing the church I am in. While I’ve only been pastor of two churches, I’ve actually pastored three or four different churches in both places. Churches can change and grow in so many ways: numbers, budgets, spiritual development, additional ministries, additional staff, and, among other things, additional or remodeled buildings that create new or better space. It’s hard for a pastor to get bored when things are changing and popping. The challenge for pastors in these situations is to make appropriate and necessary changes in the way we pastor—what do we take up and what do we give up? This is hard work: sometimes painful, but seldom boring. I’ve been blessed to be in churches that were willing to make changes and grow in different ways. I can honestly say that the quality of the two churches I’ve served and their willingness to change have had more to do with my tenure than my own gifts, skills, or abilities.
Then there is this: I've learned to deal with conflicts quickly rather than letting them fester. Unresolved, festering conflict hurts the church, causes the church to take their eye off the ball, and steals a pastor's joy. It has always helped me to deal directly and forthrightly with the kind of conflicts that hold the potential to disrupt church unity. God has blessed this. And God has taught me something along the way about church conflict: most people don't have to have their way, but they do want to have their say. Bathe the process in prayer. Treat all people with love and respect. Hear people out. Make a church decision. And move on. This is how God has resolved the few conflicts with which I've had to deal through my three decades of pastoring. And this is a key reason I've been able to stay put in the same church for lengthy periods of time.
And here's another reason along that same line: I try to remember that things are never as good or as bad as they seem to be in the moment. A wise pastor told me that early in my ministry and it has helped a lot. That sage counsel has helped me maintain an even keel through the many seasons a church experiences. It's helped me not to get too hyped up when good things are happening. It's helped me not to get too discouraged when things are tough. And it's helped me not to fret or stew much one way or the other. This counsel has kept me from premature flight from one church to another (which has its problems too).
Oh, and one more thing: I make friends with church members. Common pastoral wisdom suggests that it’s not wise to make friends with church members. When I was a young buck, I was told by a number of experienced pastors, “Get your friends outside of the church.” That may be good advice, but that never worked for me. My best friends are church members—have been in both churches I’ve pastored. These are friends with whom my family has vacationed, friends with whom I’ve traveled to Razorback road games, friends who’ve shared our joys and halved our sorrows and who have allowed us the same privilege with them. Here’s how this helps tenure: friends root your heart in one place; friends make it easier to stay and harder to leave; friends add joy to the journey. I’ve never fashioned myself a very good friend, but I’ve sure been blessed with some. If I was to move, I wouldn’t just be leaving a church, I’d be leaving friends.
And these are the things that have helped me stay put for way longer than the average tenure of most pastors. I’m not saying that a long tenure is always better than a short one. God calls some pastors to short tenures, often to do hard things that need to be done but make it hard for the pastor to stay. A dynamic ministry of three or four years in one church is probably better for the kingdom of God than doing the same year of ministry twenty years in a row in the same church. My calling has been to long tenures. And if you think God might be calling you to the same, my prayer is that the things that have helped me stay put will help you stay put too.
[Next time: The Blessings of Tenure]