That is what they told me. They were the denominational representatives at a Placement Breakfast for seminary graduates in 1988. “Every week in Oklahoma there are a dozen staff members who leave and another twelve that begin at a new place,” the fellow I came to know remarked. Twenty-four staff changes any given week. Those statistics were enough to rattle any sense of longevity.
I remember reading the pastoral history of the first church I pastored. Very few pastors stayed beyond three years. I was one of those statistics. We enjoyed our time in Gould, Oklahoma. No one invited us to leave. In fact, I think they would have liked us to stay. We were going to return to Texas for my second trip through Seminary. We moved back across the Red River.
Today, there is only the history of the First Baptist Church, Gould, Oklahoma. The town boasted a population of 321 in 1989. Rural Oklahoma is full of good people but not many job prospects. The school consolidated with Hollis in 1990. Over time the lack of population growth combined with an aging population forced the church to close. We, of course, were saddened.
Yesterday Brian and I were chatting. We are new friends. He wondered about pastoral longevity. Brian thought most pastors were short timers. I had to agree that it did seem to be the case. I described a number of pastors I knew who had been at their vocational setting for quite some time, bucking that trend. What is the case?
Al Mohler remarked (2009) that the average stay for an evangelical pastor was about three years. Trevin Wax attempted to bust the myth by writing (4/12/2007) the average maybe more near 5-7 years. Sam Rainer wrote (3/12/2013) it was somewhere between 3-7 years. There are many variables that influence the statistic.
We celebrated the completion of 19 years at Snow Hill yesterday. We look forward to many more. I have been thinking about what may have contributed to what I believe is a healthy long-term pastorate. Every time I attempt a list I think of my visceral reactions to those who tout the way to do it.
What I have come to believe is that it is more about your manner of doing things than mechanics of what we do. Early on our church grew at a pretty good pace. I was asked to write a piece describing, “What we did.” All my attempts at alliteration, being catchy, or sounding smart failed me. The truth is we really liked each other. And, we still do. In fact I think we could say after all these years we love each other.
I find it very difficult to preach and talk about God being not less than personal while at the same time objectifying church members as a means to a larger church. Reading the Story of the Invisible God made Visible in Jesus leaves me acutely interested in the way people matter. And, when we talk about Pastoral relationships that also means how a congregation believes their pastor and family are people who matter. This is the activity of Love.
Shared suffering and grief, loving disagreement, and hope filled dreaming have strengthened relationships in our church. I read a description of a young pastor whose preaching style revealed a lack of self-awareness. That may be the case for not taking oneself too seriously. But, a deep self-awareness and honesty about who we are in our relationships goes a long way to deepen the bonds of affection people share. Too often authentic love is inhibited both by pastors who want to be what they are not and church members who will not allow a pastor to be who he or she is.
I do not mean to imply that people do not change or do not need to change. What I mean is illustrated by our interview before becoming Pastor and family in Gould. “Do you play the piano?” The question of course was directed to Patty. She did not pause. “No, but if you want me to take lessons, I might try to learn.” She was not a piano playing pastor’s wife who could provide a two-for-one deal. But, she was willing to let them know she would work to find a place among them to love and serve.
Patty was not asked to take piano lessons. Nor was I. We were invited to grow together. In that regard not much has changed. We have been invited to grow together at Snow Hill. I think we have.
We are as convinced today as we were then we are in the right place. I would even borrow a line from my late friend Lyle, “There is no place I would rather be than right here, right now.”