Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Tenuous Tenure—Part One: The Dangers and Damage of the Pastor-Parish Rotisserie

Not "Roast Pastor," but "roast al pastor."

Some observations about our service to Christ and others only become possible with longevity. I mean here not only a longevity that comprises the decades of service that eventually become “a life of ministry” in whatever number of pastorates and other roles one serves in the body of Christ. There are also lessons that can only be learned by consistently serving the same congregation and community over a significant period of time. At the risk of seeming like I know something after only thirty-three years of pastoral service, some perceptions from my perspective seem appropriate this morning.

The Advantage of My Vantage Point
Having previously served five other congregations in my first twenty years, I inadvertently fell into the category that John Ng, then-Vice President of Church Ministries for The Christian and Missionary Alliance, described disparagingly to a pastor’s retreat in Columbus, Nebraska. As I recall, his words were along these lines, “I’m tired of pastors bragging about their ‘twenty years of experience’ when they’ve only had the same four to five years of experience four or five times. When they reach the stage where they actually have to grow in the Lord, develop their leadership skills, or pay the price of change in the congregations they serve, they get ‘led to serve somewhere else’ and abandon their church to the next pastor.”

Older, more wrinkled, a bit spicier, too.
Still, it is “only” thirteen years or so with which I have been blessed to serve The Glenburn Community Church and the communities of the Intermountain Area in northeastern California. Sadly, while that pales in comparison with friends who have served single congregations and/or communities for decades, my baker’s dozen of Christmases, Easters, and Women’s Circle Bazaars leaves me with arguably the longest continuous ministry tenure in the Fall River Valley. To most observers of North American churches, this would be entirely unsurprising. The often volatile nature of small, rural congregations matches up disastrously with the nature of “the ministry career” that sees such churches as stepping stones to “more important ministry” elsewhere.

The Problem That Prompts My Passion
There is a lot to grieve in the passing of one pastor after another through the congregations here. Just as there is much to mourn in the collateral damage seen in the passing of congregations themselves. As congregations suffer through “yet another new pastor,” communities suffer through “yet another new church” destined to replace one or the other of congregations no longer viable as Christ’s flock rotates among the remaining religious relics. In contrast, there is also a lot to celebrate in being privileged with a lengthy tenure despite the usual turnover to be found in the “traditional pastoral career path,” and a lot to commend in noting the lengthy survival of any congregation that develops a stable heritage and is thus capable of providing a legacy to future generations.

Tacos, rather than burritos - not too tightly wrapped.
Acknowledging both the blessings and obligations of this all-too-rare perspective, then, I want offer some observations about three stages of ministry that appear within the life of a pastor, and within the life of a congregation as well. I would call these three stages “Putting Out Fires,” “Spinning the Plates,” and “Finding Your Traction.” We’ll look at these over the next several posts in hopes of providing encouragement and support to those willing to actively engage in their service to Christ and others. Stay tuned.

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