Some Thoughts on Long Pastorates and Great Churches

Curtis K. Shelburne: CNJ columnist

An aging and highly-respected minister who’d been serving the same congregation for many years was once asked by a group of young pastors, “How can you stay in one church and work successfully for such a long time?” I don’t know what kind of sage counsel they expected, but his answer was simple and to the point: “Don’t do anything stupid.”

Good advice. And sometimes not all that easy to keep putting into practice!

I think I’d add a few corollaries. And I think he’d agree.

#2-Love the people God has allowed you to serve.

#3-Love a church that has a history of loving its pastors.

#4-Be as gracious to your people as you’d like for them to be to you when you bump up against corollary #1 and occasionally do something stupid.

Later this spring, my family and I will mark our twentieth year at the same loving and lovely little church. When I think back over those years, I am amazed at the changes that have taken place and at the directions I believe God has led us to go. Never in my wildest dreams could I have written the story that the Author has written and, yes, I’m excited about the chapters that will come. I have no idea what the Author will write, but I love the story and I trust the Author.

Lots of churches are larger. Lots have more programs. In the present Wal-mart age you can easily drive less than a hundred miles from our little church and our little town and find more than a few churches of thousands who can offer specialized programs for anybody from left-handed 32-year-old red-headed secretaries born in months ending in “R’s” to programs for folks interested in underwater basket-weaving as an outreach tool to Maui pearl divers. 

And that’s fine.

Some of those megachurches are great churches, healthy churches. Some aren’t.

Pretty much exactly like some small churches are great churches, healthy churches. And some aren’t.

Though I truly want our church to grow in every way, size has precious little to do with whether or not a church is a great church, a healthy church.

It seems pretty clear to me that whether your church is growing or not almost certainly has at least as much to do with the demographics of your community as it does with the program and effectiveness of your church. You can’t do much about your community’s demographics. But you can do something about being a spiritually healthy church. And any spiritually healthy church in any community has a potential for genuine growth.

And what’s a healthy church? Ah, we could talk for hours about that, I think. But I’d say it’s a church truly centered on loving the Lord, proclaiming the good news of Christ, loving the people God has placed in it and around it, and celebrating with joy its oneness with all who love and proclaim its Lord.