The Blessings of Tenure

In my previous post, I reflected on the ingredients of tenure, those things that have helped me maintain a fruitful ministry in one place for a long time: my first pastorate more than 13 years; my current pastorate 24 years and counting.

This week, I want to reflect on the blessings of tenure.  While there are blessings in any length of pastoral tenure, longer tenures bring different blessings.  And when I feel like I’m getting a bit stale or bored or feel the urge to flick the switch to auto-pilot, when I get itchy feet and ponder what it might be like in some new place, I count the blessings of tenure—some general and some very specific.  But even the more general blessings I cite come with names and faces. 

These blessings of tenure were brought home to me in two recent events that happened one on top of the other. 

First, I received a letter from a social worker in a local hospital who thanked me for coming to the hospital to support a family who’s loved one died in the ER.  She wrote, “You are a highly respected and dedicated professional in our community and bring healing with you wherever you go.”  Of course, when I read that line I checked the envelope again to make sure that note was addressed to me.  But that reputation doesn’t happen in one year or three years or five years.  Tenure helped make that happen.

And the second event happened at the wedding of a young woman who grew up in our church but has lived away for a number of years.  It was my honor to help officiate this wedding in Little Rock.  One of her bridesmaids was another young woman I’d watched grow up in the church.  I prayed with the bridal party just before the ceremony, and the bridesmaid said after the prayer: “I still find your voice so comforting, bringing back warm childhood memories.”  Another blessing of tenure.

Those are specific things that just happened.  Here are a few of the general blessings of tenure I enjoy:

  • I get to unpack all my boxes.
  • I have time to teach “the whole counsel” of God’s word, rather than just my hobby horses or the same 200 sermons over and over again at first one church and then the next.  This forces me to read and study and stay fresh.  I like that … most of the time.
  • I get to see God redeem my bloopers and blunders and mistakes and sins.
  • I get to see the lost person come to Christ for whom some in the church (including me) have been praying for years.  In fact, I get to see answers to lots of prayers that have been faithfully prayed for years.
  • I get to know my people over time and on deeper levels.  I get to watch young ones grow up and older ones age.  I get to watch new Christians grow in their faith, and I get to witness older Christians mature in their faith.
  • I get to perform the wedding for children I baptized and sometimes baptize their children too.
  • I get to see firsthand how stories turn out: Does the young person make it to the mission field?  Does the young couple wanting children so desperately finally get one?  Does the troubled marriage get restored?  Does the prodigal come home?
  • I get to see some of that Romans 8:28 “good” that God works in the terrible things that happen to our people.  More often than not, that “good” doesn’t show up till years after the crisis.  I get to see some of that, and it builds my faith.
  • People in the community view me not just as the pastor of First Baptist Church but as a pastor of the Hot Springs community.
  • Will God use my preaching and teaching to shape and form a congregation to look more like Jesus?  I get to see.
  • My leadership gains gravitas and my viewpoint gains weight with every passing year.
  • Early on in my ministry in Hot Springs, a number of folks said, “I hope you’re here to do my funeral.”  I have been here for many of them—604 of them to this point.
  • I get to be with many of the same people through the various seasons of their lives: birth, graduation, marriage, divorce, surgeries, crises, moves, promotions, victories, sickness, dying and death.  I get to do a lot of weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice.  I get to be their pastor.  It’s so gratifying to hear someone tell me, “I remember when you were there for us when mom died … when the baby was sick … when we played for the championship … when I lost my job … when our marriage was falling apart … when our son was arrested … when the doctor said the cancer was gone …” and a hundred other things.

And I’ve only been here for 24 years.  I’ve recently read of pastors who just finished 34 and 30 years respectively (makes me feel like the new kid on the block).  And those pastors tell us that the blessings just get deeper and better as the years go by.  If a critical key in pastoring a church is developing relationships, tenure gives relationships room to grow and season and develop.  And as you can tell in my list, relationships are at the heart of almost every blessing. 

Dr. John Fawcett was the pastor of a small church in Wainsgate, England, and was called from there to pastor a large, influential church in London in 1772.  He accepted the call and preached his farewell sermon.  The wagons were loaded with his books and furniture, and all was ready for the departure when his parishioners gathered around him.  With tears in their eyes, they begged him to stay.  His wife said, “Oh John, John, I cannot bear this.”  Fawcett replied, “Neither can I, and we will not go.  Unload the wagons and put everything as it was before.”  His decision was greeted with great joy by his people.  In commemoration of the event, he wrote the words of this hymn:

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.

We share each other’s woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

Oh, the blessings of tenure!

The Ingredients of Pastoral Tenure

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.

Summer Sermon Series 3

Here are the breakdowns for a couple of more summer sermon series I’ve done over the years. If you’re interested in a sermon manuscript for any of these sermons, email me at john@firsthotsprings.com

Summer Nights

You Must Be Born Again (John 3:1-18)

All Night Long (Luke 6:12-13)

All the Way Home (Mark 4:35-41)

The Right Question (Acts 16:22-34)

Courage in the Night (Judges 7:15-23)

Come On Over and Help Us (Acts 6:6-10)

Get Ready Now (Matthew 25:1-13)

Speak Lord, I’m All Ears (1 Samuel 3:1-18)

Summer Songs

I used a clip of the song for which the sermon was named.

Lovely Day (Psalm 118:24)

The Long and Winding Road (Psalm 23)

Kyrie Eleison (Psalm 32)

A Man of Constant Sorrow (Psalm 88)

We Are Family (Psalm 128)

Thanks for the Memory (Psalm 105:1-5)

A Time for Us (Psalm 131)

Eye of the Tiger (Psalm 124)

Leaving on a Jet Plane (Psalm 121)

Hallelujah (Psalm 147:1; 150)

If these summer sermon series posts have primed the pump for your summer preaching, then I’m grateful. Here’s to biblical, engaging summer preaching!

Summer Sermon Series 2

For anyone interested, here are the titles and texts from some of the summer sermon series I shared in the previous post …

Not Just Another Day at the Beach

The God Who Heals (2 Kings 5:1-14)

The God of Second Chances (Jonah 1:17-2:10)

The God Who Makes a Way (Exodus 14:10-31)

Life’s Defining Question (John 21:15-19)

*****

Head for the Hills

Mt. Moriah: The God Who Tests (Genesis 22:1-14)

Mt. Sinai: Laying Down the Law (Exodus 20:1-21)

Mt. Nebo: Dying Well (Deuteronomy 34:1-12)

The Hills of Hebron: Wholly Follow the Lord (Joshua 14:6-15)

Mt. Carmel: Get Off the Fence (1 Kings 18:20-40)

Mt. Transfiguration: See the Glory (Matthew 17:1-8)

******

Here Comes the Sun

Hanging the Sun (Genesis 1-2:3)

General God (Joshua 10:1-15)

Is Anything New Under the Sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11)

Of Sunscreens and Umbrellas (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:32-36)

Ain’t No Sunshine When He Comes (Matthew 24:29-31)

Goodbye Sun, Hello God (Revelation 21:22-27)

*****

Summer Blockbusters

Brave (Luke 1:26-38)

Despicable Me (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

Parenthood (Psalm 46)

Finding Nemo (Jonah 1:1-17)

The Lion King (Revelation 5:1-10)

The Sixth Sense (James 4:14)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (2 Corinthians 5:6-10)

*****

I’m sharing this to illustrate how to flesh out a topical series. In choosing particular texts, I prayed through the needs in the church as best I understood them, and selected texts that might speak the gospel to their needs. This is one way the 23rd pastor becomes a 23rd preacher—shepherding the flock through preaching, applying the Scripture to their particular struggles, questions, joys, and Bible literacy needs. That’s why your series, even under the same series name, might have different texts. If you’re curious about the individual sermons, email me at john@firsthotsprings.com, and I can send you a manuscript.

Before moving on to other matters, in my next post I’ll put bones on two other summer series I mentioned in the previous post: Summer Nights and Summer Songs.

Are you preaching a series this summer? Please let others know what your series looks like in the comment section below.

Summer Sermon Series

Summertime is upon us.  We are all aware that church attendance is becoming more sporadic among our members.  Sadly, this is becoming an all year long phenomenon.  But we expect sporadic attendance in the summer: vacations, camps, mission trips, weekend getaways.  There’s a reason why someone coined the term “summer slump.”  But slump or not, we’re still worshiping every Sunday, and the pastor has the privilege to preach the word, even it is to a few less people than usual.  As an every Sunday preacher for 39 years, I’ve logged a lot of summer Sundays in the pulpit.  I enjoy summer preaching.  Seems to have a more relaxed feel about it.  It’s also a time when the preacher can experiment a little in his preaching, try some new things, exercise a little creativity.  So, preacher, what’s your plan this summer?

Series or One-off Sermons?

I am typically a series preacher—even in the summer.  A summer series has the potential to build a little interest in the congregation, perhaps even a little summer momentum.  Even folks who miss a Sunday may choose to livestream the sermon now or later just to keep up with the series.  But this year, I’ve decided to do one-off sermons.  This gives me the opportunity to address some things from the Scripture that seem particularly relevant to the congregation in this season.  It’s a little more work, but it seems right for this summer.  Plus, I am off in July.  My guest preachers can preach what they feel led to preach rather than forcing them into a series that’s not their own.  I will begin a new series when I come back in August.

What about re-preaching some of your best sermons?

The renowned, late Calvin Miller awakened me to this idea years ago.  He said that during the summers he schedules sermons he’s preached before.  As I recall, he operated by three rules: 1) At least 5 years must have passed since he’d first preached the sermon.  2) He must refresh the sermon to reflect the current situation and needs.  3) He must be able to preach the sermon as if it were brand new.

Miller believe there were some advantages to this practice: it gave the sermon longer life, and it allowed Miller to spend more time in study and preparation for the preaching he would do in the coming school year.

Usual homiletic approach or experiment with some different approaches?

Most preachers have their “style.”  Some prefer sermon “points”—a deductive style: state the main point and proceed to say this, this, and this about it.  Others prefer sermon “moves”—a more episodic, thought building upon thought to a conclusion (feels more narrative and inductive in nature).  If we’re sensitive to the mood and the flow of the text we preach, our “style” will vary naturally, but most of us weren’t trained that way, so we tend to force every text into our comfortable homiletic mold.  What if you used the summer to experiment with a style outside your norm?  Summer is a more relaxed time.  Preach a sermon with narrative contours instead of points.  Preach a sermon in monologue style telling the story as the main character from that character’s point of view.  What if you preached the text in the form of a story with plot and tension and resolution?  We tend to default to our comfort-level style.  Summer gives us the opportunity to experiment with a little creativity in our preaching, a creativity that your congregation will probably welcome and enjoy.

Preach through a Bible book or do a topical series?

Bible book series often work in the summer.  Summer is a good time to preach through a shorter Bible book that could be preached in 8-10 Sundays.  And if you can’t preach the entire book, you can hit the highlights of the book that seem most relevant to the needs in the church.  In a recent summer I did a series called “Road Trip.”  Each Sunday we figuratively boarded the church van and traveled to key places in Acts where vital events in the spread of the gospel were taking place.  In a season when people are all about road trips, we thought this would be a good hook for the congregation.  We couldn’t preach every text, but we certainly were able to hit the high points and meet the key characters.

Or instead of preaching a book, a preacher could tackle sections of Scripture or common themes in Scripture.  For example, a preacher might track through the minor prophets, preaching one key text from each of the 12 minor prophets (a step forward in biblical literacy for the congregation in texts seldom preached).  Maybe you’d want to preach the 10 Commandments during the summer.  You could even preach the larger story of the Bible by choosing 8-10 key characters in God’s story from Genesis to Revelation using a biographical approach to tell God’s story.  Or how about developing a summer sermon series on relationships with the “one another” texts in the Bible.  Pray through the possibilities for your congregation.  God will lead you.

I mostly use topical series in my summer preaching.  I like to choose a broad theme that captures something of the essence of summer and ties it to the Scripture.  Below are some of those series across the years:

  • Not Just Another Day at the Beach — Since many people spend some time on the water during the summer, I chose texts from the Scripture that happened on the water or at the shore.
  • Head for the Hills — Some prefer to take their vacations in the mountains.  I chose texts that happened on a hill or a mountain.
  • Front Porch Wisdom — Summer is a time of front-porching with people.  A lot of wisdom has been dispensed across the years on front porches.  I chose texts (mostly from Proverbs) that offer wisdom for the practical matters of living.
  • Summer Songs — Who hasn’t spent a summer evening driving with the windows down and the radio up?  I took well-known songs from culture, connected them to a psalm, played a part of the song during the sermon, and preached the gospel through the psalm.  I used the song title for the sermon title.  People were highly engaged in this series: “What song are you doing this Sunday, preacher?”
  • Summer Blockbusters — Hollywood hopes to make a lot of money at the box office in the summer.  I did a little google research of well-known summer blockbusters from the last few decades, chose a few, used the title as the title for the sermon, and preached a text that captured the essence of the title.  I only used film clips for a couple of the sermons.
  • Here Comes the Sun — Summer and sun go hand in hand.  I chose texts that involved the sun and preached those texts.
  • Summer Nights — More than a song from Grease, this became a sermon series.  I chose texts where the action happened at night, and I preached the gospel through those texts.
  • Summer of Love — Baby boomers remember the so-called Summer of Love in 1967 San Francisco.  We spent the first half of the series preaching texts that proclaim God’s love for us.  We spent the last half preaching texts that teach us how to love others.  We also asked our small groups to do a service/ministry/mission project of their own choosing in our community that summer.

Over the next few posts, I’ll flesh out some of those topical series, citing titles and texts.  So if you’re interested, check back a few times in the next week or two.

What do you do with your summer preaching?  What are you doing this summer?  Leave a comment below,  We might just help each other out.

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

Welcome to my new blog site, The 23rd Pastor.  My name is John McCallum, and I have been a lead pastor since 1982.  Since that time I have served only two churches: First Baptist Church of Greenwood, Missouri (now Fellowship Greenwood) and First Baptist Church of Hot Springs, Arkansas.  I am just completing my 24th year as pastor of this good congregation.

A little background: I have been married to Dayna for 41 years.  We have two grown children and seven grandchildren.  In other words, I’m old :).  But old is not so bad when you’ve been taking a few notes along life’s journey.  At this stage of my ministry, I feel compelled to share out of my decades of experience in the hopes of encouraging other pastors and ministers in the church.

Education: I received a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.  And I received both an M.Div. and a D.Min. from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri.  And having served as a lead pastor for almost four decades, I have also earned my degree from the School of Hard Knocks.

Last October I published the book, The 23rd Pastor.   (I’ll post the Amazon link at the bottom of this page, if you’re interested.)  The book has been well-received by both pastors and laity.  The interest the book has received has inspired me to do a little blogging on the pastoral life: pastoral care, preaching, leadership.  Years ago, I began a blog called Life at the Altar in which I address a variety of issues.  Some of those posts apply to pastoral life, most are posts addressing a variety of issues.  This blog, The 23rd Pastor, will focus on pastoral matters only.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey, interact along the way, and create a little community of brothers and sisters longing to be the shepherds God has called us to be.