Almost nine months into retirement after a 16-year pastorate, I found Congregational pastor Martin Copenhaver’s essay in The Christian Century (part of which is printed below) one I could relate to – and I was challenged by his last-but-one paragraph. Copenhaver draws out the benefits and difficulties of long pastorates in a way that many people (clergy and lay) may benefit from reading…
The Christian Century, March 7, 2013
Staying power: Reflections on a long pastorate by Martin B. Copenhaver
“… Eugene Peterson, who served one congregation for 29 years, is a big proponent of long pastorates: “The norm for pastoral work is stability. Twenty-, thirty-, and forty-year-long pastorates should be typical among us (as they once were) and not exceptional.” Drawing on the Rule of Saint Benedict, Peterson advocates, and for many years lived out, a “vow of stability,” which he summarizes in four words: “Stay where you are…”
… I find it particularly chastening to recognize that I have known pastors, even savvy ones, who do not see when it is time to leave. They could spot such a time in another pastor’s life from a hundred paces, but not in their own. Knowing when it is a good and appropriate time to leave is more art than science, of course, but that may be just another way of saying that it is difficult to know.
Before we can fully assess the benefits of a long-term pastorate, it is necessary to consider what happens after a long-term pastor leaves. Successors of long-term pastors often struggle, many remaining only for a few years. There are various reasons why this is so often the case. After so many years, parishioners can have a hard time transferring their loyalty. Also, without anyone intending it, over time a pastor’s approach to ministry begins to be assumed as normative, as if it is the only way to do things, and the successor can seem guilty of diverting from that norm. This dynamic is all the more pronounced with a long pastorate.
Whatever the reasons, the experience of so many who follow long-term pastorates should give us pause. It may not be possible to know if a pastor has stayed too long until a number of years after that pastor has left. It may be only then that anyone can know if the long-term pastorate equipped the congregation to thrive after the long-term pastor leaves…
So I remind myself that Paul planted, Apollos watered and the rest of us are just passing through. In the church, none of us pastors are indispensable. That is a good thing because, in the larger scheme of things, none of us will remain for long. Only Jesus is indispensable.”
The signs of “thriving” at the church I used to serve are good: they have an excellent new pastor (a man I would have chosen myself if I had anything to do with the “search” process, which I did not, apart from prayer). After six months he is now officially “installed” and is growing in stature and in people’s affection month by month. I pray he will “stay a long time.”
Lord, bless your churches in transition!