This is based on the paper I gave last Saturday
What qualifies me to write on this subject? Simply the fact that I have been the pastor of Childs Hill Baptist Church in London for the last 30 years.
How have I been able to do that? Firstly, I was converted when I was still only about to turn 13. Then, by the time I was only 14 I knew that the Lord was calling me to the pastoral ministry – not only that but I liked the idea (partly from ignorance of what is involved). Thus I was only actually 24 when I became a pastor. That is relatively young, of course, but I had been a Christian for 11 years and I had been preparing for the pastorate over a period of eight or nine years. Then, there has been little interest from other churches and I have felt it right to continue in the same place all this time.
Before I go further with the subject I will quote some words Geoff Thomas has written on the subject.
I am not sure that there are important differences between ministers who have been in the ministry five years and those who have been in the ministry for fifty. As one who is closer to fifty than five I believe there is nothing that I need more than to have my mind taught and my conscience aroused concerning the basics of ministry and preaching, to read again Stuart Olyott’s Preaching Pure and Simple, to be exhorted concerning the work of the pastor, to hear messages on the centrality of prayer, and urging me to repent of my sins, walk closer with God, grow in evangelistic concern and trust more deeply in the Saviour day by day.
I think it is important to echo those words at the beginning for the last thing I want to do is to come over as some sort of expert or to say “hey, I've been in one place for 30 years”. That is not my intention.
It is also worth reminding ourselves that we are all different. Not every pastor is called to a long pastorate. Some have a pioneering gift. They can start a work or revive a flagging one well. Bundles of energy they can sustain a ministry for five or six years but then it is time for them to move on and work elsewhere. That sort of apostolic gift is perhaps rarer than some think but if it is your gift, brother, don't let anything I say this morning deter you. Let's never forget what an impact a short ministry can have. Robert Murray M'Cheyne was at St Peters, Dundee for a matter of only five years – so tragically brief but what an impact he had!
Generally speaking, long pastorates are rare these days. Geoff Thomas has been pastor in Aberystwyth for 48 years. May be there are others we could mention. John Marshall and Graham Harrison both served over 40 years. John Piper has only just retired after being at the same church since 1980 (32 years) and John Macarthur has been at the same church even longer - since 1969 (43 years) and has not yet retired.
Historically, several 18th century Particular Baptists served long pastorates, for example John Gill in London (51 years); Benjamin Beddome in Bourton on the Water (55 years) and John Rippon (an incredible 63 years). It's not just Baptists, Charles Simeon was in Cambridge over 50 years and William Jay in Bath some 62 years. Lloyd-Jones was at Westminster Chapel 30 years. Spurgeon pastored the same church 38 years. In my own church the first three pastors served for 25, 35 and 25 years.
Before we come to positives and pitfalls, then, let's spend a little time thinking about the idea of a long ministry.
A preliminary question is “what is a long ministry?” Given that it is very rare for anyone to enter the ministry under the age of 20 and that normal life expectancy is around 70, anything from 20-25 years up ought to be considered a long ministry.
Given that general rule, it is clear that only men who are converted relatively young and who live a relatively long life are likely to serve a long time in leadership. We only have to think of the example of Moses, however, who began to lead God's people at the age of 80 and lived until he was 120, to see the danger of assuming too much.
Then we ought to note some other factors here.
First, that a man may, of course, be called to another sphere of labour. When I completed my two years of study at the LTS there were four of us UK students. We've all continued 30 years in ministry without a break but only I and Ken Brownell at the East London Tabernacle have spent the bulk of our time in one pastorate. John Palmer is in his second, Bernard Lewis in his third. A man may not continue long in one place because he is called elsewhere or if there is some serious breakdown of relations between him and the congregation he serves. One reason I have continued so long in Childs Hill is that it has been very rare for any other church to show interest in having me come. In the only serious case (a church in Wales, unsurprisingly) I brought the matter to my church officers and they were quite unanimous in urging me not to pursue it as they felt the church could not afford to lose our family at that time (the family you note – not the pastor!).
There are wrong motives for moving pastorate but there are right ones too. We want to resist the idea that we must all start somewhere small and move on to a bigger congregation as if bound by some law of the Medes and Persians. However, there are times when God calls a man from backwater to a strategic position in some large and influential church.
A move may be necessary because a man has come to a situation under a false apprehension. He may have thought the situation was quite different to what it turns out to be. Whereas he had expected a desire for the truth there is firm resistance. In certain cases it is better to be out of that situation than to continue to flog a dead horse, as it were. Paul Beasley-Murray says
There is no point, for instance, in remaining in a church where the members as a whole refuse to follow the leadership offered. Nor is there any point in remaining in a church where it quickly becomes apparent that one is a square peg in a round hole.
Then further, a man may not continue in ministry at all because of ill health, mental or physical, or because of a doctrinal or ethical fall. Other ministries just fizzle out. That is a good thing if the man was never called in the first place. Geoff Thomas caricatures the process with some “the first year they preach all their favourite sermons; the second year they scold the congregation for not inviting more people to church; the third year they are candidating in pastorless churches hoping for a call.” It can all happen in one year in some cases.
It is appropriate to say, therefore, when talking about a prolonged ministry that it is only possible by the grace and providence of God. Probably in most cases it will not happen but when it does there are many positives as well as pitfalls to be avoided.
I suppose we are really talking about an attitude rather than a time frame. An early twentieth century Lutheran writer, Newton Royer, gives an anecdote where one of the elders of a certain congregation rings the doorbell at the pastor's home. The pastor's little boy comes to the door and the elder says "Johnnie, where is your papa?" The boy answers, ''Papa is in his study praying, asking God to guide him that he may rightly answer his call to a larger city." ''Well," said the elder, ''where is your mother?" "Oh," said the boy, "she is upstairs packing the trunks to move."!
To quote Geoff Thomas yet again
Our calling is not to abuse our freedom to choose to move when we desire it, when, for example, things get difficult, or if there is opposition, if temptations are strong, if there is little apparent success, then those pressures alone are not sufficient reason to exhort us to move on. When a man is experiencing difficulty and opposition and asks for my advice then my initial response is to urge him to stay, to fight, not to allow the pulpit to fall into the hands of those with another gospel. I do not always appreciate how broken my brother might be, sinking into a dark depression, barely able to think coherently and to put one little sermon together. Sometimes the man must take a break from the pastorate for six months; sometimes he must resign, rethink and wait on God. He may need encouragement to take that step without guilt.
We could frame the question like this “Should I enter the pastorate intending to stay in the same place or intending to move on after a few years?” It is not an easy question to answer as there certainly ought to be a willingness to move on if the Lord wills. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the prevailing attitude should be that of intending to stay for the long haul. Royer talks about the difference between a renter and a home owner. The one deals with repairs on a short term basis, the other on a long term basis. That can make all the difference when things go wrong. He says, “recently, I heard a farmer say that he could determine whether or not the man whom he employed by the month intended to apply for work the next year by the manner in which he performed his labour.” That is something worth pondering at the outset.