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.
Every time I talk about the value of long-term pastorates, as I did in last week’s post, Small Church Ministry: A Stepping Stone Or a Place to Stand?, people remind me of horror stories about churches that withered into ineffectiveness because a pastor stayed too long.
That’s a reality which can’t be ignored, so today’s post is about that dark side – and how to overcome it.
First the cause: why do long-term ministries sometimes become stale and dead?
Because the pastor stops learning, growing and adapting. They rest on yesterday’s successes (real or imagined). They get tired and/or they grow lazy. They lose their passion, their heart and their effectiveness. Or they get tired of fighting stubborn members and settle into survival mode.
Now the solution: long-term pastors who stay fresh and lead churches into health and effectiveness year after year, decade after decade are always learning, always adapting and always growing. They outlast the bad times, learn from the failures and build on successes.
Actually, a pastor staying too long is almost never the real problem. If something is going well, a lifetime isn’t long enough. But if it’s not going well, a year can feel like a decade.
On its own, staying long is no guarantee of success or of staleness. The challenge in keeping a long-term ministry valid is staying fresh. If you do that, you’ll never overstay your welcome.
The best way I know to keep fresh in a ministry over the long haul is something called Transition Without Relocation.
What Is Transition Without Relocation?
Simply put, Transition Without Relocation is the ability to stay fresh, learn, adapt, grow and try new things while staying in the same church over a long period of time.
The pastor transitions (internally), but doesn’t relocate (externally).
Too many pastors do the opposite. Relocation Without Transition. They stay at a church for a few years until they run out of ideas, energy and/or support. Then they pack up and relocate to a new church. But they don’t make an internal transition. They take the old, tired, stale ideas that failed in the first church and impose them on a new place, because they’re convinced the problem wasn’t with them (it’s never us, right pastors?). The problem is always the stubborn, Godless, prayerless, visionless church they left behind in a huff of righteous indignation. Or the denomination that didn’t fund them well enough.
The pastor might experience a short honeymoon at the new church – this one looks promising! – until… 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 years, even decades? In the 22 years I’ve served my current church, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. So I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But our church is fresher, younger, healthier and more forward-looking today than it has ever been.
Here are a few principles I’ve learned along the way. I’m grateful to my church and my pastoral mentors for sticking with me long enough to help me learn them. With a lot of more to go.
1. Never Stop Learning
A pastor who stops learning, stops leading. And a pastor who stops leading, stops pastoring.
The best pastors I know have an unbridled curiosity. For God’s Word. For leadership. For human nature in all its glorious quirkiness.
Show me a pastor who’s always wanting to learn more and I’ll call that 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.
Once you find that bare minimum…
3. Be Willing to Change Everything Else
As an example, I’ve changed the way I preach 5 times in the 22 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 (see point #1) how to communicate better.
When I hear all the arguments about what style of preaching is the best (exegetical, topical, verse-by-verse, “as the Spirit leads”, 3-point, less than 30 minutes, etc) 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
I’m convinced one of the main reasons so many pastors ignore the Pastoral Prime Directive of equipping the saints and making disciples is that we’re insecure.
We’re worried that someone might do our job better than us.
But a good, healthy, effective, confident 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.
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 30 years in pastoral ministry gaining a wealth of experience. And now it matters less than it ever has.
No, experience is not and will never be useless. It’s of great value. But with the current pace of change, adaptability matters more.
But too often, we allow our experiences to dig ruts in our minds, hearts and spirits. So many of my peers in ministry seem to spend all their time complaining about the sad state of the church “these days” and pining for the way things used to be – but probably never were. Their 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 keep our years of pastoral experience infused with a healthy curiosity and adaptability to changing circumstances, we will have a powerful combination.
Here’s one of the best ways to start shaking off those cobwebs…
7. Do Reverse Mentoring
There are young people in your church who are called to ministry – at least lay leadership, if not 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 spurring them on to follow God where he’s leading them, many of us stifle their creativity by forcing them into our old molds, while calling it discipleship. Or mentoring.
What we need is some reverse mentoring. Old coots like me need to take the time, not just to impart our wisdom and experience to the next generation, but to listen, too. Let’s turn that teaching into dialog. 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. Then, after listening, I’ve learned to…
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.
So what do you think? Do you have any other ideas about how to stay fresh for the long term?
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