With these parameters of a practical and biblical sort in place then let's begin to think of positives and pitfalls. I would like to start with the pitfalls. We will come on to the positives later.
1. The church often gets to be known as pastor so-and-so's church
Long pastorate or not we often fall into the short hand method of referring to Barry King's church or Gary Brady's church. Of course, we also say “my auntie's church” or “Tony's church” and they are not pastors so we must not be too hard on ourselves. I think “my church” is okay from a member but less so from a pastor. With a pastor it can be dangerous.
People still refer to Spurgeon's Tabernacle. If you go to Port Talbot in South Wales they may say to you, innocently, “this was Lloyd-Jones's church”. This is all the more likely if a man stays in one place any length of time. If you google “John Macarthur's church” you will get Grace Community Church, California. If you google “John Piper's church” you will get Bethlehem, Minneapolis. I am not sure exactly why but you see the danger. The church is Christ's and to call it by anyone else's name raises a danger that we ought to beware of.
2. There is the danger of being a dictator
Geoff Thomas quotes the autobiography of an old Strict Baptist minister now with the Lord, Bernard Honeysett. Bernard wrote
John Kemp was one of five pastors I knew personally who held pastorates for more than 50 years. In the case of Stanley Delves of Crowborough, his predecessor was also in the office for over fifty years, so that the two spanned over a century. It has been my observation that when men have continued so long, they can unwittingly become dictators. A generation grows up under their ministry and pastoral care, and their word can become law. I knew of one case where a church meeting was mentioned and the pastor said, 'I will say when we are to have a church meeting.' Sometimes such leaders make no provision for the future when they are taken, in some cases with very sad results. (The Sound of His Name, B of T, 1995, 51).
There are some situations where it is hard to imagine a dictatorship ever arising so firm is the grip of the church meeting and there are such strong personalities around. One can see the danger, however, especially where the minister is a strong personality and when it gets to the stage when he can remember many of the congregation when they were in nappies.
3. There is the danger of creating the church in your own image
A similar though a different danger is that of creating a church in one's own image, the church becomes a mirror of the pastor. One writer speaks of co-dependency.
Obviously, a minister wants to have an impact on the church he is serving. He wants them to believe what he believes, live the way he lives and to a certain extent to show an interest in the things that he is interested in. However, given that no man is perfect, a mere reproduction of one minister is not going to be an unmitigated blessing to a church. They are likely to pick up his weaknesses as well as his strengths. In many cases this can be mitigated by a plural eldership, by a leadership style that does not centre on one person and his personality and by being aware of the danger from the outset. Another help is the use of sabbaticals – regular (ideally seven yearly) periods of a few months away from regular ministry. (Having said that I have more than once observed men leaving their pastorates after a sabbatical – yet one more thing to put churches off the idea. Perhaps a contract can be drawn up. Few churches will give a man a sabbatical after less than seven years.) There is also the impact of various visiting preachers. Further, the sheer variety in a properly taught congregation will also make a difference. As God's Word goes home and is lived out in them what variety should be seen.
4. There is the danger of complacency
We are all warned against complacency in the Bible. In Zephaniah 1:12 God says At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs, who think, 'The LORD will do nothing, either good or bad.'
Leaders in particular are warned against this sin in Amos 6:1 Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come!
It is one of the dangers of a long term pastorate, where things have been fairly successful and where the situation is quiet. One can get into a routine, doing the same things that have always been done and with no expectancy of any great change. A drowsiness settles and zeal begins to flag.
5. There is the danger of a “we've tried that before” mentality
Again similar but slightly different, it doesn't take so very long before no-one can suggest a new idea without the minister saying “we've tried that before” and either “it doesn't work” or “we're not trying it again anyway”. It doesn't matter whether it's children's meetings, mums and toddlers, tract giving, door to door, meal and message, open day, family services, etc, the average church tends to try most of the available options – some work and are retained, others are tried and found wanting. When a new generation comes along they sometimes come up with something new but it is usually only a variation on what has been done in the past. It is the easiest thing in the world to say (and it is not always in so many words) “we've tried that before”.
I was reading a piece by an advisor to sales people. He writes
I spend most of my time with extremely experienced sales executives and professionals. Largely, they have been selling for years, most have been very successful They bear the scars one gets from experience. They’ve “been there, done that.”
In many cases, though, these grizzled veterans struggle to improve performance, but they are stuck in a rut. They are both prisoners of their own experience, and somewhat jaded by their experience. They know they have to change, but fear change. As an advisor to these companies and individuals, it’s often a struggle to overcome the resistance. The resistance is understandable, but getting them to move is often a challenge.
He then talks about new sales staff and their willingness to try new things or often old things they are too inexperienced to know are old. I'm sure that we have similar stereotypes in the ministry. Older men, a bit jaded, a bit “been there, done that” and younger men full of enthusiasm. There are also, thankfully, older men who stay fresh. Those are the sort who are a blessing in a long ministry.
6. There is the danger of taking life easy
In the ministry you really are very much your own boss and if you have no conscience it is not that difficult, after you've been in the role for a few years, to start making it easy for yourself. You have to be out on Sunday and at the midweek meeting, of course, but if you get yourself organised you can make sure that any other evening meetings are taken by others and avoid doing too many visits at night. After a while sermon preparation becomes easier and with a little effort you can squeeze all your preparation in to a day or even half a day at a push. Avoid any commitments outside the local church. Your church will be keen for you to take a day off. Keep it fastidiously and take Saturday and bank holidays too. If you don't work yourself too hard on Sundays you will then only really be available four days in the week and much of that time can be taken up with reading what you fancy or pursuing some other hobby. Perhaps I exaggerate a little but you must beware of this danger for it can grow ever more strong the longer you are settled in the same place.
7. There is the danger of going on too long
If you recall learning to ride a bicycle, you will remember that there are two main difficulties to be overcome. First, there is getting on the bike in the first place. Then, when you are finally up and running, there is the important matter of how to stop and get off. Something similar pertains with the ministry. They used to say of the Welsh rugby team it was harder to get out of the team than to get into it and that is probably true of the ministry too.
There is a story of John Gill's niece saying of Gill near the end “My uncle still keeps in Deuteronomy, and I don't know when he will be out of it.” In those last years Gill's voice grew weak and there was restlessness in the congregation, some of the young people going elsewhere. But when the church suggested a co-pastor he did not like it at all. “that Christ gives pastors is certain, but that he gives co-pastors is not so certain.” He even went the length of comparing a church with a co-pastor to a woman who should marry another man while her first husband lived, and call him a co-husband! The church was only trying to be kind. Benjamin Beddome's final years when he struggled with gout and had to sit to preach were also rather unhappy in many ways and that was at least in part probably he went on too long.
There have been a few disasters in living memory. Sometimes the problem is that the minister does not believe in retirement. “There is no such thing” they say. And yet the Bible clearly tells us that the Levites were to retire at 50 (Numbers 8). You may come back at me and say that the priests didn't retire. There may be something in that but my point is simply that retiring is a biblical idea. For a man to step down then at 60 or 65 or 70 or 75 from a pastorate is not wrong.
There is an expression in English “to die in harness”. It means literally to die with your armour on and by analogy to die before retiring. Some ministers speak of it admiringly. I think, however, that the man who said “but it's no good for the harness” had a point. On rare occasions men actually die in the pulpit. It gives people a sense of eternity no doubt but there is not much to be said for it otherwise.
If a man refuses to retire then he is in danger of going on too long. If dementia should strike that can cause major problems.
8. There is the danger of not preparing for the future
A similar issue is the matter of making preparations for the future. Transition is always difficult, never more so than at the end of a long ministry.
Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones famously announced his retirement from Westminster Chapel rather suddenly in 1969. Some heard the news with great sadness. There had been no preparation for what has been called "so important, delicate and mysterious an event" as the change of pastor There is some evidence that Lloyd-Jones later regretted this as the church went into steep numerical decline. His later efforts to put things right probably did more harm than good.
I am aware of another case where the minister basically wanted to appoint his own successor. The congregation was not happy with the idea and so an otherwise often friendly relationship between pastor and church ended on a rather sour note that has not entirely faded even to this day.
No man can know exactly when his ministry is going to come to an end but some thought for the future is probably wise. At the very least the congregation can be reminded of the fact that the ministry will end at some point and they can even be given teaching on what to do at the time.
Obviously where an assistant or a co-pastor can be brought in then the way can be smoothed but there are no guarantees even with that approach.