Longevity in ministry is the result of a healthy partnership between the minister, the church, and the elder group. As cited in a previous blog, ministers help make longevity possible through building trust – trust that is demonstrated through a healthy measure of character, competence, and chemistry with the church. But members and leadership groups are just as important. Sustaining longevity in ministry is a team effort. Churches help make long-term ministry possible by loving and supporting the minister and his family. Elder groups contribute to longevity by releasing the minister to fully use his or her gifts and by welcoming the minister into a full collaborative partnership.
The Southwest Church has never treated me as a hired hand. Even when some pockets of the church were unhappy for some reason, I have always felt personally loved, affirmed, and supported. Seldom have disagreements felt personal. The church has made us part of the family, encouraged us to stay, and rewarded our longevity with generous affirmation and rewards. They have remained encouraging and loyal when they could have placed blame. And they have demonstrated receptivity to the vision God has placed on our hearts. Compliments and gratitude are encouraging, but becoming team players in the mission is the most encouraging thing you can do for your minister. We don’t need flattery. We do need encouragement and input. But most of all, we need partners in ministry!
The elder group has never treated me like a hireling. I have been a full partner in ministry. I am not an elder, but they treat me like an equal. I have a welcome place at the table in every discussion or conversation about the church and its future – and am often given deference because of the value they place on my role. In fact, they expect me to take a leading role among them, with our staff, and in Southwest’s ministry. They are not controllers, but collaborators. They are not managers, but shepherds who empower the flock – including our ministry staff. They are willing to let the church be the church, allow gifted people to use their gifts, and refuse to be micromanagers and bottlenecks. They give us freedom and trust.
While interviewing a prospective youth minister, one of our shepherds graphically said, “We will give you lots of rope. You can either make a noose or a lasso.” I cringe at how you might hear that, but I laughed in agreement when he said it. I knew he was saying that we are looking for people to enter into a relationship of trust. He was saying, “We’ll give you freedom to use your gifts and do your work, but we expect you to live up to that trust and minister wisely.” Freedom requires responsibility and trust. Good ministers devote their lives to ministry. They thrive when given the freedom and the support to do their work to the max. Ministers I know crave the opportunity to work in that kind of environment – and won’t be quick to leave when they find it.
In the best of times, what has held us together has been a common vision and mission. A clear vision provides continuity and safeguards the future. New leaders are considered only if they are in sync with the vision. A church can’t flourish with knee-jerk redirection every time new leaders are selected. Multiple and competing ideas can be evaluated on whether or not they align with the church’s vision. A common vision helps create an environment of trust because we all share common commitments and are working toward the same goal. Freedom and empowerment are possible when there is this kind of alignment. Ministers and ministry leaders can step out and move with the mission. Our elders set direction and boundaries in collaboration with ministers and they also provide spiritual oversight, wise counsel, and accountability. And they serve as stewards of the mission of God for our church. As they serve, they release the ministry staff to lead the day to day ministry. This kind of empowerment is one of the reasons I have continued in the same church for 40 years.
The goal of ministry is not longevity itself. It is not to see how long we can last. It takes great wisdom to know when it is time to go. I’m very sensitive to that after forty years and sincerely ask my shepherds to help me discern the time. The last thing I want to do is hold on too long. The kingdom of God is too important to make ministry about yourself. My prayer is that my shepherds will not just help me discern when it is time, but that they will help affirm within me the next stage of life and ministry – whether at Southwest or somewhere else. We don’t retire from ministry; we just assume a different role or play a different part. I’m confident God promises as much value in the next stage of life and ministry as he has provided in the past. I just pray I have the discernment and passion to embrace it.
No doubt, not every ministry should be as long-term as the one I have experienced. It has been a blessing to me and I hope to our church. The kingdom of God is larger than a local church and bigger than my corner of the world. Each of us must discern our place in it, relinquish our expectations, and remain open to the call of God on our lives. If that happens to be a long obedience in the same place, do it to the glory of God. Enjoy the unique, front row vantage point of seeing God work in the life of a local church. It’s a pretty good seat!