Twenty people assembled on the faded tile floor of an aging school gym. We were a wobbly church plant, launching a congregation we hoped would blossom in our budding suburb of Bloomingdale, Illinois. This facility was our only rental option in a new community short on assembly spaces. I wondered to myself (never to our flock of course) if our group would grow and ever worship in a more appealing place. Not having to drag in our equipment every weekend, or wonder if the janitor had remembered to turn the heat up this week would be nice too.
One day in those early months of our church plant, I attended a pastors' conference. An older pastor made a passionate pitch for pastors to make a long-term commitment to the congregations they serve. "Be the faithful shepherd to the church you serve right now" he said. "Make it a goal to stay at your first church for at least 10 years."
Ten years seemed like a really long time then, especially since I was only 25. As I sat there, I wondered, If I do stay, will we still be meeting in the gym 10 years from now? Do I have the endurance and the skill to lead us for that long? But in spite of my doubts, the "stay-10-years" challenge inspired me.
It also seemed to make a lot of practical sense. Ten years would be enough time to grow the congregation, forge caring relationships, and begin to raise up a sturdy lay leadership. Ten years would be enough time to cultivate a good reputation for the church in our community. Ten years in the same place would also foster a more stable life for my family.
So, my wife Marina and I stayed. For ten years … and then some.
Of course it hasn't always been easy. There have been tough seasons. Some issues intensify in the longer pastorate.
For me, staying personally healthy and keeping our church moving forward in its mission over the years has required me to rethink my leadership style more than once. The changing phases of a church's size and life-stage demand this flexibility. The take-charge, pioneering mentality that works for a church planter usually does not continue to work well in a young congregation that has formulated its own DNA and is growing strong lay leaders. Pastors must adapt their leadership styles in order to lead well in the same church as it changes size and develops.
Staying in the same church long-term has also forced me to challenge my assumptions about ministry. I've had to learn how to navigate change and our church's growing pains. Never learned about that in seminary.
For example, the multiple building projects we've undertaken have taught me how to get people to see the need, settle on a shared plan, practice tangible faith, sacrifice as a community, and then endure that unpredictable, protracted stage called "the construction phase." Thankfully, our church did make it out of that old school gym … before it was bulldozed for a super-sized drug store. In that first decade our congregation built a sanctuary.
Many years after that first project, I can point to pastoral battle scars as a survivor of four church building programs. They have been worth it, though they probably took longer than they should have, cost more than I wanted to believe they would, consumed more energy than I wanted to give them, and served as a public means of my personal sanctification.
The temptation to slide off "the main thing" is inevitable for leaders who stay in their church for a long time. I have certainly been distracted by chasing my projects and pet peeves. The noble passion to get out there and grow a church can morph into an absorbing ambition to fill those empty chairs on Sunday mornings. Or to fixate on building that new sanctuary, which only results in having more empty seats to fill. Or it can start with a worthy aspiration to convince the board to finance that needed staff position, but can devolved into a skirmish in which you squander your influence reserves to get your way. Stay-in-the-same-church leaders are susceptible to missing or ignoring their own missteps. For me, regular getaways, prayer retreats, evaluation by lay leaders, as well as accountability to two mentors outside my congregation, have helped keep me grounded.