Five Lessons for A Long-Tenured Ministry
June 2017 marked the beginning of my 20th year at Founders Baptist Church. That milestone represents a great treasure in my life, and the lives of my wife and children. Whatever good the Lord has accomplished through me by His mercy and grace, He has returned multiplied mercies to us through His church. Those multiplied mercies would not have been known, in the way that I’ve known them, had I not stayed in my place. I wanted to share a few lessons I’ve learned about staying put. It should be clear that this is not an exhaustive list, and not given with a specific order in mind.
1. There is never a time when you stop fighting to think biblically about ministry.
I might have thought, when I was a 20-year-old man serving in my first vocational ministry role (I just turned 54), that there would come a time when thinking biblically about ministry would be automatic. Of course, spiritual growth does take place in the realm of our thinking. We grow in our knowledge of God’s Word and in our experience of applying that Word. But the mind is like a garden. It requires daily work that includes not only sowing biblical thoughts, but striving to weed out everything that doesn’t agree with Scripture. Self-control was a fight for the apostle Paul well into his ministry (1 Cor 9:27), and we can be certain that the battle continued to the end of his journey. Self-control includes our thought life. This will include things like your motives, your feelings (pastors feel hurt and disappointment too), your ongoing commitment to a biblical philosophy of ministry, your ambitions, and a whole host of other daily tests. Watch how you are thinking and mortify those thoughts that don’t agree with Scripture.
2. You will never stay in place long-term unless you learn to fly by the instruments.
What I mean is that (in keeping with #1) you consistently choose to view ministry from the standpoint of Scripture instead of how you feel. Our feelings are unreliable. Are you fully convinced of that? You should be, and if you are not you will never have a long-term ministry with one congregation. There will be days when you feel loved by the church, and there will be days when you feel forgotten by the church. There will be times when the church seems healthy and strong, and there will be times when you are very concerned by what you think you see in the church. There will be times when you feel especially needed, and there will be times when you feel that the church would be better off without you. If you can’t identify with the things I’m saying, just wait. They will come. But through it all, what holds you in place is what Paul entrusted to the Ephesian elders: God and the word of his grace (Acts 20:32). You plug the trustworthy Word into every one of the thoughts that challenge you. Using just two of the examples of I’ve sighted, I must remind myself: “What seems to be true from my vantagepoint may not be true at all. Only God fully knows the situation. I do not even know myself exhaustively (1 Cor 4:4).” Or, “I don’t serve the church for the church to love me. I serve the church as a member of God’s family and a slave of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 12:15).” In other words, many of the battles fought in ministry are battles with self. Satan knows how to appeal to self, and we must know how to mortify those sins by the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.
3. There is more than one reason why the pastoral qualifications focus on a man’s character with a special emphasis on his family life.
In 1 Timothy 3:4, Paul writes that a pastor “must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?”
The man’s household management displays his character and skill in a most personal setting, but it also serves as a proving ground with respect to the family of God. And what is household management like? Isn’t the family where loyal love, patience, endurance, forgiveness, confession, correction, encouragement, wisdom, warning, celebration, and a whole host of other qualities of godliness are needed and demonstrated? The church is not a business—the church is a family. What is most needed in pastors is not business acumen, but fatherly love and faithfulness. Households require management skills, but they aren’t executed in a cold environment. The man’s entire life is wrapped up in the well-being of those in his family.
We are living in a world that knows very little about family love and loyalty. In many cases, marriage is treated like a temporarily exclusive dating relationship. As soon as things get difficult, people go looking for greener relational pastures. But can pastors bemoan such an attitude when we demonstrate something similar toward local church congregations? I’m not arguing that God’s Word requires a man to stay with one congregation for a lifetime. I’m not denying that God moves men to new fields for ministry. What I am saying is that the mindset and heart of a true shepherd is one that marries itself to a church in a way that would make him very slow to move away. We stay put when we think of our relationship to the local church as household management.
4. Ministry relationships are enriched over time.
What can be said of family relationships in the local church can be extended to the relationships formed in leadership. Not only have these years at Founders meant rich relationships with the congregation, I also know the joy of love and comradery with all those who lead in ministry. It is a joy to look around the room when our elder body meets and see faces of men with whom I’ve served for almost two decades. It is a joy to have that same kind of relationship with deacons, Sunday School teachers, ministry staff, and others who lead in ministry at so many levels. Over time, a ministry team develops a rhythm, a common heartbeat, a set of ministry instincts that have been formed over many years together in the Word of God. God certainly adds new members to that number. People are added over time with whom we haven’t spent almost two decades. But when that happens, they are introduced into an environment that has matured over time and they are shaped by it. That is not possible apart from a long tenure.
5. Long-tenured ministry requires a diligent self-watch.
I’ve addressed this point in nearly everything stated above, but I want to underscore it. We are disciples of Jesus Christ before anything else. If we ever forget or neglect this truth, we are headed for trouble. As I referenced earlier, Paul’s personal example in 1 Corinthians 9:27 should also guide us: “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Charles Spurgeon often reminded his students of the words of Robert Murray M’Cheyne:
M’Cheyne, writing to a ministerial friend, who was travelling with a view to perfecting himself in the German tongue, used language identical with our own: “I know you will apply hard to German, but do not forget the culture of the inner man—I mean of the heart. How diligently the cavalry officer keeps his sabre clean and sharp; every stain he rubs off with the greatest care. Remember you are God’s sword, his instrument—I trust, a chosen vessel unto him to bear his name. In great measure, according to the purity and perfection of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God” (Lectures to My Students, 1:2).
Others could certainly add to the list that I’ve given, but I pray that these might be helpful as we strive to stay put and serve the Lord well.
Richard Caldwell is one of our nine TES campus pastors, having served as the senior pastor of Founders Baptist Church in Spring, TX since 1998.