Cultivating a Heart for Long-Haul Ministry in Church Revitalization: Part 1
My buddy Joe will tell you that there were many times he wanted to quit. For ten years, he was slugging it out in a small, rural community doing the demanding, self-sacrificing, urgent work of church revitalization, enduring criticism, and praying a ton. But it wasn’t until year 12 that everything began to change. Why? God blessed the late nights and the long years. God did something amazing.
I love how pastor and author, Mark Dever, describes pastoral ministry. In one quick sentence, he nails it—“Preach and pray, love and stay.” This paints a simple picture of the power of pastoral ministry. We can easily overcomplicate what God has made profoundly simple! And yet, the reality of pastoral ministry is that tenures are often short in local congregations. Why is that? Why don’t pastors stay?
Well, the truth is, it can be a struggle to stay for many different reasons. For example, the lure of bigger and better opportunities while a pastor is wrestling with ministry frustrations can give a pastor the misconception that his church is a better stepping stone than it is a cornerstone.
So, the question I want to ask is this: Is a long-haul ministry mindset all that important? Specifically, in church revitalization, is a lasting commitment to leading and shepherding a particular congregation needed to see healthy, sustainable renewal become a reality for that church? If so, why? What are some of the reasons this is so important?
The reality is this: when we look at churches that are healthy, vibrant, and growing, it is incredibly common to see a pastor who has been serving that same congregation for many years through both the good times and the bad. This is especially true in a revitalization context where it takes perseverance to lead a dying or declining church back to health. It takes time to see the healthy fruit of a revitalized church.
Ten Reasons for Long-Haul Ministry
In a recent article [i], Pastor Scott Catoe offers up ten reasons why long-haul ministry is so important and so effective. According to Catoe, long tenures are vital to the discipleship, health, and future ministry of a church. I believe history shows that he is exactly right! Let’s consider Catoe’s ten points and reflect on the profound importance of longevity in ministry:
#1. Tenure leads to trust.
There are many people in declining churches who don’t believe their pastor will be around for more than a year or two. In fact, the longest average pastoral stay in North America is now two to three years. Congregations have experienced the revolving door of coming-and-going pastors all too often and cannot foresee that their next pastor will be any different than all the others. Why even bother building trust?
Trust takes time. Walking with a couple from their wedding day to the birth of a child and through all of the tragedies and celebrations along the way—these things build relational credit with people. There is no substitute for this investment. If you are committed to your church for the long haul, relationships will grow. Without sustained commitment, it is nearly impossible to reverse the decline of a struggling church body. In revitalization ministries, patience is paramount.
#2. Longevity is better for your family.
Staying for the long haul is important for our wife and children’s health and growth. This kind of stability allows a pastor’s family to experience a true sense of community and familiarity that can serve as an anchor through the challenges that come with life in ministry.
I think of my friend, Alex. Alex grew up in a home where his father was a pastor. He will tell you that the hardest part for him about being a pastor’s kid was moving from town to town and church to church over the course of his childhood and teenage years. Alex’s father served five different congregations during his eighteen years living at home, four of which were located in completely different cities. Alex told me, “Moving so much made it really tough to find good friends that I could count on and turn to. Plus, switching from school to school and having to adapt to so many different teachers and school systems was really hard, especially on my younger siblings. But the toughest thing about moving so much was that I never really experienced what it was like to have a church family. As soon as I would begin to feel comfortable, building relationships with members of a congregation, both young and old, we would move on to another church in another city. To this day, I don’t think I have ever experienced what it feels like to have a church ‘home.’”
Alex’s experience is not unique. The truth is, a pastor’s family can really struggle if they don’t have a solid, predictable place to grow up in or a community to stay connected to. There is a stability, familiarity, and consistency in remaining committed to a particular congregation that is healthy and helpful. This is one way that we can serve, love, and lead our families well in ministry.
#3. The pastor learns the people.
As Catoe rightly points out, when you go to a new church, there’s always a honeymoon period where for several months you really can’t do anything wrong. Everybody’s excited that you are there. They love you and they love your family. But the honeymoon always ends! It may be a couple of months or a couple of years, but this is when things get hard. We will realize that not everyone is as on board as we thought. This is when many pastors make the jump to a different church, where they can go live in the blissful beginning period again. When it gets hard, just make another jump.
While the honeymoon is great, it is also an illusion. It’s when the honeymoon is over that you get a picture of who the church really is. If we are going to be faithful pastors who know, love, and understand our congregations well, we will have to persevere beyond the early days of our ministries. You may not like all that you see, but staying committed when it gets ugly will speak volumes about your love. You can’t pastor your people well unless you learn them well. Don’t rob yourself of experiencing that, and don’t rob them of having a pastor who will stick with them beyond the honeymoon phase.
#4. The church earns the trust of the community.
When a pastor has been a steady leader in a church for years and years, the community notices. Conversely, if a church has unstable leadership, it will not have a great reputation in the community. That lack of relationship with those in the surrounding neighborhoods will create stagnancy within our congregations. In a church where membership has been on the decline, bridge-building in the community is a critical part of new growth and restored vitality. If we want to earn the trust of our communities, we need to be committed as pastors to modeling what it means be faithful for the long haul.
#5. Commitment to the long-term changes how you lead.
Catoe writes, “Pastor, do you lead as though you will be there until you are with Him? Doing so radically changes your view of current challenges, difficult members, the enormity of the problems you are facing, and the timeframe to provide solutions. Additionally, it helps you choose your battles wisely.”[ii]
If we are looking to the future, then our ministries will become a marathon and not a sprint. This way of thinking will affect how we lead. We will realize that not every hill is a hill to die on. In fact, very few hills are hills worth dying on! We can be patient. We don’t have to rush change. And if this is our trajectory, we won’t find ourselves burning bridges with people because we haven’t earned their trust. Rather, if we can trust in the sovereignty of God and make slight changes as they are appropriate, we will earn the trust necessary to make the bigger changes later. As we preach and pray, and love and care for people—and as we stay, month after month, year after year—then will our churches experience real, lasting change.
In Part 2, we will consider five more reasons a commitment to the long haul is so important when seeking to revitaliza a church.
[i] Scott Catoe, “Ten Reasons Pastoral Tenure Matters,” thepillarnetwork.com,https://www.thepillarnetwork.com/pillarblog/10-reasons-pastoral-tenure-matters (accessed January 24, 2022).