A friend asked me to reflect on what you learn by staying in one place for 25 years.
I’ve been thinking about the request ever since, but I haven’t stopped much to ponder that question. Before I knew it, a year went by.
I still am surprised to think that I, who never lived anywhere more than seven years, have been here now for nearly 26 (at the end of this month).
I moved a lot while growing up. Moving to greener pastures is overblown. There’s always a septic tank under there somewhere, as Erma Bombeck once said.
So, here are my current observations about staying.
- In a way, staying put means just doing the next thing that comes along.
Still, there are amazing rewards for staying put so long. How many people can say to a college graduate, “I still remember holding you at the hospital your first day of life?” No CEO or world leader can.
- The world changes even when you stay put.
People change, circumstances change, and the church constantly changes. There really is no staying put, just changing in the same place.
You change too. You don’t avoid change, nor does a church, by staying put. You either pastor four different churches in 25 years or pastor four or five churches in the same location over 25 years.
- You sure need friends, colleagues, books and growth to stay fresh.
You can grow tired of your own voice in your head and look out in wonder and think just before the sermon, “I can’t believe they’re still here. It must not just be me.” You don’t want them to think the same thing.
- Adjusting and responding is way underappreciated.
Unexpected crises and economic conditions rarely ask you how they might fit in to your leadership plans. But they determine a lot. So does a positive attitude. Reframing, restating in hopeful terms and seeing your own negative tendencies can help.
- Being the change agent or prophet or savior or famous preacher doesn’t happen most of the time.
Being with people is better than being a big deal. Contentment, creative reinvention, waking up with energy to roll up your sleeves and come up with plan B. That’s a lot of it. Being famous absolutely guarantees it’ll be harder. I’m only guessing about that one.
- Staying means familiarity and belonging, but it also means death and loss.
Deaths and funerals shift from ministry to strangers to mourning the loss of friends. Loss comes all kinds of ways. But it always hurts, and you better leave room to grieve.
- Don’t be afraid to look at the numbers.
They can tell you a lot. But be sure to look at the good things they tell you as well as the bad. Give all the affirmations as much weight as the one criticism.
- Over time, you have at least the opportunity to bear with and learn from your critics rather than departing with self-righteousness intact.
Often, what has changed is not them but you. You’ve learned a bit more about grace and why you need it.
- Children were, are and always will be the best part of working in a church.
Youth are a close second, and brokenhearted souls are not far behind. They all share a certain lack of resistance to God that is disarming and humbling.
- Families, like the local congregation, will always be there.
They are an irreducible unit of sustaining life, along with the need for friendships. They take a wide variety of forms, but certain truths about them abide forever, healthy or not.
- Leadership is not always self-conscious.
Sometimes, when I’ve been aware of leading, it turned out badly. Other times that felt like failures or less than stellar were in fact turning points. Bottom line is you rarely know how it’s really going.
- Starting stuff is easy. Following through is hard. Stopping something you started years ago nearly impossible.
- Constant learning is essential.
Reading, conferences, speakers and consultants can be useful, and study is close to breathing. Having friends and peers who support you is life-support.
I am most grateful to God for every book, conference, class and training I received in understanding human beings.
- It is better to take care of the church as though it was finally up to God and take care of your spouse and family as though it was all up to you.
Too often at the beginning of ministry 39 years ago, I had these reversed and am still learning to do better.
- If you give someone responsibility, give them support, but more importantly give them the authority to carry it out. And if it isn’t exactly what you had in mind, it’s OK.
- Morale is a function of genuine care and concern for the people you work with and for, not a technique or something you can feign. Same with forgiveness and blessing.
- After 9 a.m., your schedule is whatever occurs that you didn’t plan.
You can stay 25 years if you can avoid getting angry about that. The interruptions are ministry, and it is then that your people find out who you really are.
- Have a great hobby and let the congregation see you love it.
It encourages them to develop other parts of their lives along with you. If it involves guitars, that is especially good. Golf helps many preachers, but it eroded my spiritual life to the point of despair.
- Nothing happens without a good staff, people who really pray and a congregation that is willing and able. You may help, but nobody does it alone.
- You can’t save anyone, much less the world. But God can.
- The longer you do this, the more sense the Bible makes. And the longer you do this, the less you need to figure it all out. It’s a gift.
Come to think of it, most of these are true for anyone, not just a preacher.
Gary Furr is pastor of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.