Only Jesus can make a church great. But he allows us to participate in that process.
Behind every great church, large or small, is at least one pastor who stayed long enough to outlast the bad times and build on the good times.
It is the most common thread for great churches. Pastors who stick around.
But pastoral longevity has its dark side too. The tendency to become stale.
Too many pastors rest on yesterday’s successes (real or imagined). They lose their passion, their heart and their effectiveness. Or they get tired of fighting entrenched problems, so they settle into survival mode.
But pastors who lead churches into long-term health and effectiveness are always learning, adapting and growing. They outlast the bad times, learn from the failures and build on successes.
The answer to keeping a long-term ministry valid is something I call Transition Without Relocation. If you do that, you’ll never overstay your welcome.
What Is Transition Without Relocation?
Simply put, Transition Without Relocation is the ability to stay fresh, learn, adapt, grow and try new things in the same church over a long period of time. The pastor transitions (an internal change), but doesn’t relocate (an external move).
Unfortunately, too many pastors do Relocation Without Transition. After running out of ideas, energy, or support at one church, they pack up for a new church where they recycle everything for a different congregation.
The pastor might experience a short honeymoon at the new church, but the same problems happen again. Why? Because the pastor hasn’t changed anything but their geography.
How to Transition Without Relocation
So how do we keep fresh in the same church for the long haul? Here are a few principles I’ve learned to stay at one church for 30 years – a church that is more alive and vibrant now than ever.
1. Never Stop Learning
A pastor who stops learning, stops leading. And a pastor who stops leading, stops pastoring. Even if they stay on the job.
The best pastors I know have an unbridled curiosity. For God’s Word. For leadership. For human nature in all its glorious quirkiness.
A pastor who’s always wanting to learn more is a good place to start.
2. Reduce the Essentials to the Bare Minimum
Staying fresh in ministry doesn’t mean playing games with essential theology. But the essentials are far fewer than most of us think.
Fighting over non-essential theology may be exciting for a while. And you may even gather a few fellow-travelers. But in the long-term, majoring on the minors will cap your ministry at the faithful, cranky few, while making everyone else so weary they’ll move on. Or they’ll make you move on.
Trim away the non-essentials. They’re a heavy burden to carry for the long haul.
3. Be Willing to Change Everything Else
I’ve changed the way I preach 6 times in the 30 years I’ve been at my current church. I expect to change it again before too long because what worked then doesn’t work now. And what works now, won’t work later. Plus, I’m always learning how to communicate better.
When I hear all the arguments about what style of preaching is the best (exegetical, topical, memorized, bullet-points and so on) I want to scream, “as long as the message is biblically-based, the best method is the one that works!”
The same goes for liturgy, music styles, small groups, pews, chairs, casual dress, suits and ties, you name it.
“Because we’ve always done it this way” is a bad reason to keep doing anything. But it’s a great way to get stale. Fast.
4. Equip Others to Do Ministry
One of the main reasons so many pastors ignore what I call the Pastoral Prime Mandate of equipping the saints and making disciples (Ephesians 4:9-11) is insecurity.
We’re worried that someone might do our job better than us.
But a healthy, confident and effective pastor wants to be surrounded by people who do things better than they do.
No pastorate can last long under the burden of doing everything yourself. Discipleship isn’t just a command, it’s a blessing – to the disciple, the pastor and the church. As the old saying tells us, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
5. Keep a Regular Sabbath
A tired pastor is an ineffective pastor. And a pastor who won’t take a Sabbath because they think the church can’t make it without them is both insecure and arrogant. A deadly combination that will cut a pastorate short as quickly as anything will.
Pastors, this may be hard on some of our egos, but you need a Sabbath more than your church needs you. And, paradoxically, you need a Sabbath because your church needs you.
6. Don’t Let Your Experience Stifle Your Adaptability
I’ve spent over 40 years in pastoral ministry gaining a wealth of experience. And now it matters less than it ever has.
Experience is of great value. But only if you can remain adaptable, as well.
But too often we allow our experiences to dig ruts in our minds, hearts and spirits. We complain about the sad state of the church “these days” and pine for the way things used to be – but probably never were. Our previous experiences are stifling the creative spark of the Spirit, who always wants to do a new thing in a new generation.
Thankfully, experience and adaptability are not mutually exclusive. If we infuse our years of pastoral experience with a healthy curiosity and adaptability we’ll have a powerful combination.
7. Do Reverse Mentoring
There are young people in our churches who are called to ministry – lay leadership and full-time clergy. But we sometimes miss it because the ministry they’re called to doesn’t look like the ministry we’re used to.
So, instead of encouraging them to follow where God is leading them, we force them into our old molds and call it discipleship. Or mentoring.
What we need is some reverse mentoring. Old coots like me need to add listening to our discipleship tool-belt. We need more dialog, not just monolog. When we do that, we might like what we hear.
I haven’t come up with a great, new ministry idea in decades. But our church is filled with great ideas because I’ve learned to listen.
8. Say ‘Yes’ a Lot – Even to Ideas that Didn’t Work Before
I love saying ‘yes’ to crazy ideas. Even to ideas that failed before.
After all, the flip-side of “what worked then, won’t work now” is “what didn’t work then, might work now.”
Pastors who keep a foot on the brakes don’t inspire anyone. Pastors with a listening ear and a hand on the steering wheel can nudge good ideas to become great ones.
That’s where innovative churches come from. And that’s how we keep ourselves and our churches fresh for a long time to come.
(Photo by Kirk Johnson | Flickr)