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3 Keys to Longevity in Ministry

I have been privileged to be a pastor for about nine years. In the first church I served at, my tenure lasted about four years. The second tenure lasted about three and a half years, and now I am serving as pastor of a third local church. Surprisingly, my experience as a pastor is not unique. It does seem short, but statistics tell us that the average pastoral tenure lasts about 3.6 years. To state the obvious, that’s not very long, and it illustrates the unfortunate state of pastoral longevity today.

It was not always this way. One of my heroes of the faith, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), grew up during a time when long pastorates were the norm. His grandfather Solomon Stoddard pastored the same church for over fifty-five years. His father, Timothy Edwards, pastored the same church for over sixty years. And had he not been forced to resign from his church after (only) twenty-three years, it’s safe to assume Jonathan Edwards would have served till the time of his death, just like his father and grandfather and the majority of pastors in Puritan New England. The relationship between pastor and church was kind of like a marriage—“till death do us part” was the idea. That is not to say there was never conflict, but there was a long-term commitment that was virtually unbreakable. In the three centuries since, the pastoral landscape has changed dramatically.          

Over the past few months I have gotten to know a man by the name of Dave Lewis. Dave is a kind and humble man who loves to golf and, I am told, is quite competitive. Dave is a fellow pastor and when we met one morning at a local McDonald’s I asked him, “How long have you served at your church?” I knew he was an older gentleman but his answer still blew me away: sixty-four years! Dave started serving at Bald Eagle Alliance Church way back in 1953, not long after he had graduated from Bible college. While a lot has changed during that time, and countless pastors (including me) have transitioned to other churches, Dave has stayed put. From what I can tell, he doesn’t have any retirement plans, even though he is now eighty-seven years old.

I was curious so I asked Dave what the secret of his longevity was. He answered, “The grace of God and the will of God.” His simple answer hints at a profound truth. It is not God’s will for every pastor to spend his entire ministry at one church. However, in the case of Dave, God ordained that he would have a lifetime ministry at one local church. Such a long ministry was only possible through the sustaining grace of God.

Here are three ways Dave has relied on the grace of God to sustain his ministry.

Prayer

First, Dave is a person of prayer. As we continued to talk, Dave spoke to the need of every pastor to read good books and even mentioned a few authors by name. “Read Bunyan, Newton, Spurgeon, and above all, Tozer,” he said. Dave talked about the early days of his ministry when he heard A.W. Tozer preach on several occasions. Ever since Tozer’s death in the 1960s, he has drunk deeply of Tozer’s works and it was almost as if he knew Tozer like a close friend. Pastor Dave is a voracious reader of Christian classics and he encouraged me in that same direction.

Prayer for him is the “powerhouse” of the ministry. Of course, he was simply echoing what Charles Spurgeon and many others have said before him. Having a focus on prayer is absolutely vital when it comes to maintaining a long and fruitful ministry. He also spoke to the need of every pastor to immerse himself in Scripture. While there are plenty of good titles and good authors (such as the above mentioned), there is no substitute for the word of God.    

Love for Others

Second, Dave truly loved others. When I asked Dave to tell me about his church, he had nothing but good things to say about them. “They are the most loving and gracious people a pastor could ever ask for,” he said. Even after all these years, there was still a deep affection between the pastor and his people. I have been around long enough to know that this is unique, and I found Dave’s words concerning his congregation to be refreshing and encouraging.

Perhaps the thing I found most remarkable about Pastor Dave is that there is still a fire in his belly that drives him. As he shared about what he was preaching and teaching on in the coming week, there was clearly a passion and excitement that was driving him. It seemed as though he couldn’t wait to share with his people the riches that he had discovered from his study of God’s word. Even after sixty-four years of preaching the word and shepherding the flock, the fire has not dimmed.

Humility

Third, Dave exhibited humility. If you tried to look up Dave on the internet, you would find that he does not have a web presence at all. His church doesn’t have a website, and he does not have a blog or a Twitter following. Dave is what we would call “old school,” but I believe he is a model worth following and one that is all but lost in our day and age.

Please understand I am not here to put Dave on a pedestal. When I asked him about doing a little write-up on him, he was very hesitant to agree, not just because he is a humble man, but because he is aware of his own sin and shortcomings. Dave doesn’t want anyone to look to him or to any other man. Rather he would have us look to Christ (Isaiah 45:22) and his power to save. As the psalmist puts it, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Psalm 115:1)

Far too many pastors start off wanting to be the next John Piper or Tim Keller. It’s fine to have good models in pastoral ministry, but it is unhelpful and even detrimental to aim for ministry success from a worldly perspective. This is kingdom-building of the wrong kind and it happens all the time. God is simply calling pastors to be faithful (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:1-4, John 21:15-17, 2 Timothy 4:2) and diligent (2 Timothy 1:11-12) and to serve with endurance (2 Timothy 4:6-8) knowing that one day the Lord of glory will reward them for their labours.

Few pastors will ever spend the entirety of their ministry at one church. Obviously, Dave Lewis is unique, and I praise God for his life and ministry and the example he has given us. Many others have served well over the years, and perhaps you have heard of them and are aware of their ministries, but it is a safe bet that most are unknown to the world, except for the people and communities they serve. We can praise God for these faithful men, but if you are looking for the best model to follow, look no further that the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate “good shepherd” (John 10:11) who lays his life down for the sheep. Every pastor should strive to emulate him and serve in the grace and wisdom that only he can give.      

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