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!