When pastors get together for some kind of group experience, the convener usually opens discussion by asking the pastors to share their name, the name of the church they serve, and how long they have been there. When it’s my turn, I say, “My name is John McCallum. I serve First Baptist Church, Hot Springs. And I’ve been there for 24 years.” Would it surprise you to know that I’m usually the odd man out? I’m thinking about this today because this Sunday I begin my 25th year as pastor of First Baptist Church, Hot Springs. I’ve served here almost 39% of my life. I served more than 13 years in my only other pastorate. I guess tenure is kind of my deal.
I wish I could say it was on purpose, but it’s not. When I began both of my pastorates, I never said to myself, “I’m going to stay here x number of years.” It just happened. But as I look back on my ministry, there are some ingredients that factored into a longer tenure.
The first is no pulpit committees. Chances are pretty high that if no other church asks you to consider becoming their pastor, you’ll stay where you are. That’s been the case for me. In 38 years of pastoring, I’ve only had serious conversations with two pulpit committees both of which contacted me in the first church I served, and one of which was the committee for the church I’ve now served for 24 years. In the interest of full disclosure, I suspect it helps that I made a decision at the beginning of my ministry that I would never initiate contact with a church that was looking for a pastor. I wouldn’t send an unsolicited resume, and I wouldn’t ask a friend to do it for me. I’ve always figured that was God’s business and sure as I tried to make something happen, it would end badly. This posture certainly limits opportunities. And the lack of opportunities to move elsewhere has surely helped keep me undistracted in one place for long periods of time. That’s the ingredient in my long tenure.
Here’s a second: I continue to nurture my personal walk with Jesus through Scripture and prayer. These are my first and most important disciplines. Jesus meets me in these disciplines, keeps me rooted in the one main thing (my walk with him), and mitigates the inevitable discouragements and seasons of burnout in ministry. A pastor’s longer tenure isn’t first about the church; it’s about Jesus and the pastor’s personal walk with him. This is a critical ingredient for tenure.
And another thing has helped in my tenure: I’ve never pastored a church in a dying community. God first placed me in a growing suburb and then in a stable mid-size city at the hub of a fairly dynamic county. I’ve not pastored in a community that regularly witnessed factories close, downtown businesses shut their doors and board up their windows, or had more people moving out than moving in. My hat is off to pastors who serve in dying communities. Those churches need pastors as much or more than the kinds of churches I’ve served. But how does a pastor stay for very long in a dying community with a shrinking church and no prospects to see it grow enough to sustain the pastor’s family? Pastoring in more dynamic communities is something I have no control over, but it sure helps tenure.
And so does this: my age. Now this wasn’t always the case. While it’s hard for me to remember that I was once a young man, there was a day when I was in the sweet-spot for pastoral transitions—which is usually age 35-49. I moved to First Baptist, Hot Springs, when I was 38. I still had several “prime” years left for moving elsewhere after I came to Hot Springs, but I got busy with my work here and the next time I checked the calendar, I was 50. Opportunities diminish after that—especially opportunities for growing churches that are composed of mostly younger adults or are in need of reaching younger adults. Churches are enamored with youth, and I don’t blame them. While age usually means experience and accumulated wisdom, it can also mean cynicism and bitterness too. While age can certainly mean a pastor works smarter instead of harder, it can also mean a pastor decides to put his/her ministry in neutral and coast into retirement. Experience tells me that a pastor’s longer tenures happen on the back-end of his/her ministry rather than on the front end. Age may make a difference in tenure. At least it has for me.
And so has this: instead of focusing on changing churches, I focus on changing the church I am in. While I’ve only been pastor of two churches, I’ve actually pastored three or four different churches in both places. Churches can change and grow in so many ways: numbers, budgets, spiritual development, mission engagement, unity, additional ministries, additional staff, and, among other things, additional or remodeled buildings that create new or better space. It’s hard for a pastor to get bored when things are changing and popping. The challenge for pastors in these situations is to make appropriate and necessary changes in the way we pastor—what do we take up and what do we give up? This is hard work: sometimes painful, but seldom boring. I’ve been blessed to be in churches that were willing to make changes and grow in different ways. I can honestly say that the quality of the two churches I’ve served and their willingness to change have had more to do with my tenure than my own gifts, skills, or abilities.
Here’s another ingredient in tenure: I am committed to be a lifelong learner. As we age, it’s easy to assume we know all we need to know to keep the church humming along. Mistake! Keep learning. Keep reading. Attend a conference or two. Get a few pastor friends who can help you stay sharp. And be open to new ways of learning. In the first third of my ministry, nobody had ever heard of blogs or podcasts or social media. Now those things keep me learning and growing. And Audible—well, that enables me to read more books than I ever could before. Being a lifelong learner keeps a pastor from getting bored, and boredom is a tenure-killer. It can lead a pastor to look for a different church where he hopes he can get excited again but where he will probably grow bored again unless he’s committed to lifelong learning. This is an important ingredient in my tenure.
As is this: engage the community. Don’t become so sequestered in your church, you forget you also live in a community you need and a community that needs you. If your kids like sports, coach them in a city league. Serve as a volunteer in some local not-for-profit that captures your interest. Attend some high school sports from time to time. Get connected to other pastors in the community. The only limit is your time and your imagination. The more you love the community in which you live, the more you want to stay where you are. Hot Springs took some getting used to for my family, but we’ve grown to love the city and can’t imagine not living here. This ingredient has added to our tenure.
And one more thing: I make friends with church members. Conventional pastoral wisdom often suggests that it’s not wise to make friends with church members. “Get your friends outside of the church.” That may be good advice, but that never worked for me. My best friends are church members—have been in both churches I’ve pastored. These are friends with whom my family has vacationed, friends with whom I’ve traveled to Razorback road games, friends who’ve shared our joys and halved our sorrows and who have allowed us the same privilege. Here’s how this helps tenure: friends root your heart in one place; friends make it easier to stay and harder to leave; friends add joy to the journey. I’ve never fashioned myself a very good friend, but I’ve sure been blessed with some. If I was to move, I wouldn’t just be leaving a church, I’d be leaving friends.
And these are the things that have helped me stay put for way longer than the average tenure of most pastors. I’m not saying that a long tenure is always better than a short one. God calls some pastors to short tenures, often to do hard things that need to be done but make it hard for the pastor to stay. A dynamic ministry of three or four years in one church is probably better for the kingdom of God than doing the same year of ministry twenty years in a row in the same church. My calling has been to long tenures. And if you think God might be calling you to the same, my prayer is that the things that have helped me stay put will help you stay put too.