A Long Pastorate

Are there lessons to learn?

In God’s goodness I pastored the same church for 36 years, from 1980 until Christmas Day 2016. A younger pastor approached me recently to ask what it was like.  Here are his twelve questions followed by my answers. I am a fervent advocate of sticking with one church if at all possible. It brings huge benefits. My experience and the conclusions I came to might stimulate you to think about your own ministry and its aims.

1. How have you maintained your walk with the Lord over the years?

Morning quiet times before the rest of the family are awake have been the backbone of my fellowship with God. I pray using a list of church members and read the Bible using a reading plan. I never used Bible reading notes. I think they can distract from concentrating on Scripture and looking for the Lord to speak personally to you. He is the living God.

Maintaining this is hard when you have young children. But you do your best with the time you have. And I kept seeking God even when I felt a failure. He is a God of grace.

Paralleling Adam, the first into Eden, as head of the house I felt my responsibility was to be up and about each day before anyone else and to tend our ‘garden’, our home and the things God had called me to be responsible for, in prayer and waiting on the Lord.

2. How have you cultivated your relationship with your wife amid the demands of ministry?

Ann and I nurture our relationship through date nights which are zealously protected. You need to keep romance alive and do your best to bring your wife to radiance through your love (Eph 5:27). If a man neglects the state of his family, he is unfit for ministry (1Tim 3:4-5).

The relationship of husband and wife, flourishes as they do things together. Take an interest in each other’s interests. I took an interest in Ann’s interest in nineteenth century novels, for example. She took an interest in the Premier League. It worked.

And we play music and sing together – hymns and Cole Porter on the guitar and violin.  

3. How have you juggled the responsibilities of pastoral ministry and family life?

In handling life, routine is your great friend. From the beginning, God made us to be creatures of habit, putting in place such things as night and day, the weekly Sabbath and the yearly seasons. Don’t fight that but embrace it and use it. I found it best to have a weekly routine of activities in mind. Thursday and Friday were days for sermon preparation. Saturday was the day off, so the children were not neglected and so on. I tried to stick to this. Not with total rigidity. A pastor must be prepared to rise to a sudden crisis among his people and drop other things if necessary to look after them.

I think the main lesson I learned here was not to be a perfectionist – especially when it comes to sermon preparation. You are in the pulpit to feed souls, not to show how clever you are. Do your best and commit the rest. In a fallen world, perfectionism is a sin and often a very damaging one too. 

4. How have you developed healthy relationships with your fellow church leaders? 

My fellow elders and deacons changed over the years. There were different groups of men as time went by and age overtook them.

Initially I was young and new to ministry and the group of elders advised and protected me, though they were happy to be led by me most of the time. I was grateful for the way they used their ‘seniority’ in such a kind way and we got on well.

In the middle years of ministry we pursued ‘away days’ for the elders, not only for prayer and discussion, but also for building friendship. We encouraged our wives (the elderflowers!) to meet together too. We sometimes used an evening to have a meal together somewhere. A good team spirit at the heart of a church makes for a spiritual ‘home’ for God’s people. In some ways elders are to be ‘homemakers’ for Christ’s family. 

But as I got older and had younger men with me it did become more difficult. They were good men but busy men with pressurized jobs. It was new territory for us all and perhaps it was not handled in the best way. The lack of time to build true friendship cost us. 

5. How have you stayed fresh in your preaching, and has your preaching changed significantly?

Being editor of Evangelicals Now for many years helped me to stay fresh. It exposed me to lots of news of Christians from around the world and other people’s ideas. So, it got me thinking about other things and delivered me from being too fixated on our church. That was very beneficial.

I think over the years my preaching has become shorter. I enter the pulpit now with just one sheet of paper. It’s best to finish with people wanting more not less. And our screen dominated culture has left people with fairly short attention spans.

I asked Ann about how my preaching had changed. Her comment was that it has become more worshipful over the years.

One change is that I have come to believe that as well as exposition of a passage of the Bible we do need more preaching on topics using the whole of Scripture. We need to address head-on some of the current challenges with which our godless society confronts Christians rather than just in a passing comment in an exposition. You can’t deal with a question like ‘Can a boy be trapped in a girl’s body?’ without deploying a full Christian worldview and verses from across the Bible. And taking on the world’s questions properly will encourage the church. It will show that Scripture really is sufficient for life and godliness and to equip us for every good work, (2 Tim 3:16-17).

6. How have you managed change in church life?

First, change in the church starts with getting all the elders on board. That was where we always started. This is vital. It might take time but it is worth it. Trying to push ahead with a doubtful or  divided leadership, is terribly foolish.

Second, change is helped by listening to the church’s concerns and clear teaching on whatever you are trying to do and why. I tried to always to get people to understand something of a Biblical basis, whether it concerned adding women to the diaconate (while keeping male eldership) or removing our beloved pews.

Third, change requires great patience and willingness to talk to people personally about their questions and qualms. It is no good splitting the church over secondary or tertiary matters. The Lord desires love in his church and unity is always a priority. 

Seeking God’s will in prayer is essential. And I had a desire to, in a sense, let God himself make things clear. What do I mean? For example, we had a building project. There were three different options, with, of course, three different prices. Different people in the church were drawn in different directions. This could have been divisive. So, in God’s goodness, we were given the idea of holding an anonymous gift day. We prayed. God would over-rule through the amount of money made available. What was promised more or less exactly matched the price of one of the options. No-one could disagree and we moved ahead amicably.

7. What have you found most challenging about a long pastorate in a single church?

In all honesty there has not been too much of a challenge. My experience has been nearly all positive.

Long pastorates give you time to build a real church family. And it is a wonderful thing to be performing weddings of children who you saw born in the church, came up through Sunday school and came to faith in Christ.

A long pastorate means you get to know people well, and the fact that you haven’t been tempted to move on signals that you really are committed to them and love them. This actually makes pastoring people much easier because they trust you and can see that you are on their side. Hanging around for many years also generates confidence both inside and outside the church. Stability is good for people, especially in a quickly changing world. You get the reputation for being a reliable church with a reliable ministry. That’s the kind of place where people can find a home.

I suppose the difficult part was preparing for the day I was no longer there. We decided on the idea of having an overlap between myself and the next pastor so that my departure would not present itself as a cliff edge for the church. This worked pretty well.   

8. What are some things you’ve done that you definitely wouldn’t do again? 

When I was first in ministry I concentrated entirely on our own congregation. I took little or no notice of the needs of other nearby churches in our association. I now think that was a huge mistake.

It was only towards the end of my ministry that the Lord prompted me to widen my horizons. Smaller churches are loved by God and should not be ignored by us. I began to take an interest in other congregations and to encourage our people to offer fellowship and support – not with the motive of taking them over, but with a concern to honour them and be there to help them. A large church can become in-grown and rather proud of itself and have little sympathy for fellow believers in more difficult circumstances. This is not Christlike. Jesus said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35).

9. What are some things you’ve done that you definitely would do again?

We must always major on feeding the flock of God on the Word of God. People need to leave on Sunday mornings feeling that they have had a substantial spiritual meal. Churches which are always tailoring their presentation to the outsider tend to sell Christians short with ‘Bible lite’ messages and leave them spiritually hungry. 

I preached through the Shorter Catechism and also the church’s doctrinal statement and would certainly do that again. Without systematic theology Christians fail to have a Christian mind by which to engage with the world and live with clarity for Christ.

I also worked out a short membership course for new people which I think the church still uses. This has proved helpful in bringing the position of the church into focus and giving those considering membership something to bite on. Fuzzy ecclesiology makes for a troubled or wobbly church. Clear ecclesiology is not the gospel, but it does make running a healthy church much easier.  

10. What importance have you attached to building personal friendships with non-Christians?

Building a loving church is essential to evangelism. John’s first epistle tells us that if we love one another God lives among us (1 Jn 4:12). It was my own experience that very often outsiders sensed the presence of God in the church and they wanted more. This proved most effective in bringing people to Christ.

I’m afraid my building personal relationships with non-Christians was not perhaps the priority it ought to be. I always felt that inviting people to church to hear me preach looked rather strange and it was best done by others.

We did have good neighbours and other friends, mainly through Ann’s involvement with the local school. We were always upfront about being Christians and sometimes they came to church at Christmas or on other occasions. But we did not prioritize friendship with them for evangelistic purposes. Again, I’m not sure that befriending people purely to get them into the church is quite the right motive. 

11. What led you to move on, or what might lead you to move on?

I stayed as a member of the church as long as possible after my retirement from the ministry – without ever attending church meetings. But I had been called to the work of the Pastors’ Academy, so eventually we moved nearer to the base at London Seminary and also nearer to our children and their families. 

12. If you could say just one thing to me, ten years into my current pastorate, what would it be? 

The one thing I would stress is always to major on the grace of God in Christ. This is for your own spiritual strength and therefore for the joy of your pulpit and the health of the church (2 Tim 2:1). ‘Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future’ is a phrase that has stuck with me. Every saint has a past dealt with by God’s grace alone, so let us be gracious people. Every sinner has a future if they meet the grace of God in Christ. Grace, grace, grace!