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I received some interesting news recently: I now have the longest tenure of any Protestant minister in the city of Oxford, Mississippi. Father Joe at St. John the Evangelist has some years on me, and there are a few men out in the county with more seniority, but inside the city limits my tenure is the longest.
Eight and a half years.
Why so few long-term pastorates here? Oxford is not a particularly hard place to live, and churches here don’t run off pastors in droves. It’s mainly because I made it to town during the later stages of a few long-term pastorates, all of which ended in recent years. My relative longevity in town, in other words, is an unimportant bit of trivia.
Nevertheless, the news prompted me to reflect on what it takes to stay in ministry over the long haul. Misplaced priorities and misunderstandings of the nature of the work will shorten a pastorate. My total ministry experience is just shy of 16 years, but here are five things that have served me well so far.
1. You must love teaching the Bible.
Paul told Timothy, “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). Pastors must spend many hours each week in God’s Word. If you don’t enjoy lots of studying, reading, and thinking about how to communicate the Bible, you probably won’t enjoy being a pastor, and you won’t be much help to your people.
Above all, shepherds must feed their sheep (John 21:15–17).
2. You must like your people.
Notice I didn’t say “love your people.” Christians must love everyone; that’s not unique to pastors.
But if a pastor likes his people, if he genuinely enjoys their company, it’ll be much easier to spend the years with them—meeting with them on Sundays and Wednesday nights and during innumerable Bible studies, eating lunch with them, counseling them, and welcoming them into his home. One of my favorite verses on this front is 1 Thessalonians 2:8: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”
Some questions a pastoral candidate should ask, then, before taking a church include: “Can I legitimately see myself making friends in this church?” and “Is there any possibility of an overlap of interests?” If the answer is “no,” he probably won’t be a good fit for the church. Pastors need to be realistic. A pastor and his family won’t thrive everywhere.
A pastor and his family won’t thrive everywhere.
One of the biggest compliments I can pay Grace Bible Church is that I can be J. D. here. That would not be true in every church. Many pastors feel the need to pretend, and that can only last so long.
3. You must protect your family.
Ministry is a jealous mistress. Pastors will be tempted to demand things of their families that other Christian wives and children don’t have to do.
If you’re going to stay in ministry, keep your family out of it. Draw a line between your responsibility as a pastor and your responsibility as a husband and dad. Your family must have a life outside the local church. Fight the temptation to resent it when the church isn’t as important to your family as it is to you.
My goal is for my wife and kids to feel no more pressure to be present for church activities than anyone else not on staff.
4. You must be content with hitting singles.
Pastors are tempted to schedule numerous exciting events each year. It’s easy to get the ecclesiological adrenaline pumping when a dynamic speaker comes to town, when launching a new children’s program, or when bringing in a musical act Christian radio can’t stop playing.
Event-based ministry eventually burns people out—especially pastors. Special events are great in moderation, but monthly home runs aren’t a realistic expectation, and they suck up all the oxygen that could otherwise create space for deep, meaningful relationships.
Pastors need to love the weekly rhythm of sermon preparation and delivery, prayer, corporate worship, Bible studies, visiting church members, meals with community groups, even staff meetings. That rhythmic pattern surely won’t feel like a home run, but when they are solid singles—deploying the “ordinary means of grace”—that accomplish much over time (1 Tim. 4:13–16).
5. You must realize success may not feel like something you worked for.
The title of this article is a play on the movie How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Of course pastors must work hard, as Paul told Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
If one day you look up and realize you truly enjoy the people in your church and are amazed by the way they’ve grown in the Lord, you won’t feel it’s a result of anything you did. You’ll know the Lord did it, and you’ll be thankful you get to be a part.
Faithfulness = Success
Pastors who aim for measurable success often drive away members, crush staff members, and alienate their families. Pastors who aim for faithfulness will, over time, find they lead the kind of church they always desired. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, aim for faithfulness and you’ll get success thrown in; aim for success and you’ll get neither.
Faithful pastors have the mindset that enables them to become, unlike me, a truly senior minister in their town, since they delighted to give their life to one church and one community.