Monday, October 21, 2013

Pastoral Tenure, Part 2: The Blessings of Tenure

This is the second of two posts about pastoral tenure.  In Part 1, I reflected on the things that have helped me stay put in one place for a long time: my first pastorate almost 14 years; my current pastorate more than 18 years.

In this second post, I want to reflect on the blessings of tenure.  While there are blessings in any length of pastoral tenure, longer tenures bring different blessings.  And when I feel like I’m getting a bit stale or bored or feel the urge to flick the switch to auto-pilot, when I get itchy feet and ponder what it might be like in some new place, I count the blessings of tenure—some general and some very specific.  But even the more general blessings I cite come with names and faces. 

These blessings of tenure were brought home to me in two recent events that happened one on top of the other. 

First, I received a letter from a social worker in a local hospital who thanked me for coming to the hospital to support a family who’s loved one died in the ER.  She wrote, “You are a highly respected and dedicated professional in our community and bring healing with you wherever you go.”  Of course, when I read that line I checked the envelope again to make sure that note was addressed to me.  But that reputation doesn’t happen in one year or three years or five years.  Tenure helped make that happen.

And the second event happened at the wedding of a young woman who grew up in our church but has lived away for a number of years.  It was my honor to help officiate this wedding in Little Rock.  One of her bridesmaids was another young woman I’d watched grow up in the church.  I prayed with the bridal party just before the ceremony, and the bridesmaid said after the prayer: “I still find your voice so comforting, bringing back warm childhood memories.”  Another blessing of tenure.

Those are specific things that just happened.  Here are a few of the general blessings of tenure I enjoy:

·         I get to unpack all my boxes.

·         I have time to teach “the whole counsel” of God’s word, rather than just my hobby horses or the same 200 sermons over and over again at first one church and then the next.  This forces me to read and study and stay fresh.  I like that … most of the time.

·         I get to see that God redeems my bloopers and blunders and mistakes and sins.

·         I get to see the lost person come to Christ for whom some in the church (including me) have been praying for years.  In fact, I get to see answers to lots of prayers that have been faithfully prayed for years.

·         I get to know my people over time and on deeper levels.  I get to watch young ones grow up and older ones age.  I get to watch new Christians grow in their faith, and I get to witness older Christians mature in their faith.

·         I get to perform the wedding for children I baptized and sometimes baptize their children too.

·         I get to see firsthand how stories turn out: Does the young person make it to the mission field?  Does the young couple wanting children so desperately finally get one?  Does the troubled marriage get restored?  Does the prodigal come home?

·         I get to see some of that Romans 8:28 “good” that God works in the terrible things that happen to our people.  More often than not, that “good” doesn’t show up till years after the crisis.  I get to see some of that and it builds my faith.

·         People in the community view me not just as the pastor of First Baptist Church but as part of the Hot Springs community.

·         Will God use my preaching and teaching to shape and form a congregation to look more like Jesus?  I get to see.

·         My leadership gains gravitas and my viewpoint gains weight with every passing year.

·         Early on in my ministry in Hot Springs, a number of folks said, “I hope you’re here to do my funeral.”  I have been here for many of them—373 of them to this point.

·         I get to be with many of the same people through the various seasons of their lives: birth, graduation, marriage, divorce, surgeries, crises, moves, promotions, victories, sickness, dying and death.  I get to do a lot of weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice.  I get to be their pastor.  It’s so gratifying to hear someone tell me, “I remember when you were there for us when mom died … when the baby was sick … when we played for the championship … when I lost my job … when our marriage was falling apart … when our son was arrested … when the doctor said the cancer was gone …” and a hundred other things.

And I’ve only been here for 18 years.  I’ve got friends who’ve stayed a lot longer than that.  And they tell me the blessings just get deeper and better as the years go by.  If a critical key in pastoring a church is developing relationships, tenure gives relationships room to grow and season and develop.  And as you can tell in my list, relationships are at the heart of almost every blessing. 

Dr. John Faw­cett was the pastor of a small church in Wainsgate, England, and was called from there to pastor a large, influential church in London in 1772.  He accepted the call and preached his farewell sermon.  The wagons were loaded with his books and furniture, and all was ready for the departure, when his parishioners gathered around him.  With tears in their eyes, they begged him to stay.  His wife said, “Oh John, John, I cannot bear this.”  Fawcett replied, “Neither can I, and we will not go.  Unload the wagons and put everything as it was before.”  His decision was greeted with great joy by his peo­ple.  And in commemoration of the event, he wrote the words of this hymn:

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.

We share each other’s woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

The blessings of tenure!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pastoral Tenure, Part I: How I Stay Put in One Church

[This is the first of a two part series on pastoral tenure.]

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]

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Prayer for Our Leaders

Each year about this time, our community hosts the Garland County Leadership Prayer Breakfast.  Hundreds of our community leaders attend along with many from our county who serve in elected offices.  It's a nice event.  Craig O'Neil was the keynote speaker: great fun and simple wisdom.  The daughter of one of our judges shared a reading about Jesus that stirred a rousing ovation from the audience.  I had the privilege of praying for our leaders.  Several people asked for copies of the prayer, so I thought the best way to provide that was by posting it on my blog.  "I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people.  Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them.  Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity" (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Here's the attempt I made at doing that this morning.  Would you add your prayers to this one?

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We praise you, our Father, because you are a great God.  You spread out the heavens like a tent and rest your feet on the earth like a stool.  You can hold oceans in the palm of your hands and spin a planet on your finger.  You are sovereign over the whole wide world.  And yet you take interest in the likes of us.  Not only are you kind to your people, as Jesus tells us, you are kind even to the ungrateful and the wicked.  What a great God you are.  You do anything you chose to do, any time you chose to do it, without seeking the counsel of any of us.  Nothing happens that takes you by surprise.  You know everything there is to know.  You are the one true God.  There is no one greater.  You are God and we praise you.  Your word tells us that you put rulers in their places and that with the puff of your breath you can inflate them to glorious heights or blow them away like a tumble weed. 

So Lord, we thank you for our leaders.  Our hearts go out to them whether they serve in the West Wing, the halls of Congress, behind the bench, the state house, the county court house, city hall, or in superintendent’s conference rooms all over our county.  Thank you for their willingness to serve.  And with the abuse so many of them take, it’s a wonder anybody would want to serve at all. So in this difficult climate, help them to serve well.  Give them strength to serve others rather than themselves.  May the high ideals that moved them to seek office be their beacon while they’re in office.  We ask that you give them common sense and a willingness to work with others, even those with whom they disagree.  Help them to remember that while compromise is always a dirty word when it comes to morality, it’s usually a golden word when it comes to politics.  So Lord, would it be too much to ask that you help all of our leaders seek the common good ahead of personal or party ambitions and the discernment to never confuse the two—so that they might have the courage to see things as they are, the vision to see things as they could be, and the wisdom to bridge the gap?

None of our leaders are perfect, so please give them the courage to admit their mistakes when they make them.  Forgive any stubborn pride that leads them to think they are better or wiser or more patriotic than others.   Raise up in them a spirit of humility that will stir them to listen more than speak, to think of others before self, and to feel a great need to pray about everything.

I suspect, Father, that those of us who have never held office can’t begin to imagine all the voices in their ears: constituents, lobbyists, party bosses, and all the rest—demanding this, expecting that, offering favors for votes.  We pray that in the midst of these many voices in their ears, they may both seek and discern your voice above all the rest.  For you are a God who guides, a God who is ready and willing to provide wisdom when we ask.  Help our leaders to ask … and then to hear your voice and have the courage to follow your lead of doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with you.

And while we get awful frustrated with our leaders sometimes, may our voices, the voices of your people, offer our leaders more than angry opinions, phony flattery, and bitter criticism.  May we offer respect and civility instead.  And even more, may our voices offer prayers in their behalf, just as you have commanded us to do, and just as we are doing today.  Please hear and answer our prayers as you see best, in Jesus’ name, amen.