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A Ministry That Survives the Long Haul

A recent poll suggests that the average pastor stays at his church for only three to four years. But that hardly seems long enough to be truly effective.

In times past, pastoral tenure was typically measured in decades—when the longevity of men like John Calvin (who ministered in Geneva for 25 years until he died), Charles Simeon (who served in Cambridge for over 50 years), John Stott (who pastored in London for over 50 years), Jonathan Edwards (who preached in Northampton for over 20 years) and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (who served in London for nearly 30 years) was the rule, and not the exception. Even in recent times, W.A. Criswell pastored in downtown Dallas for nearly 50 years and Adrian Rogers in Memphis for 32 years. There are others in large churches to be sure who have demonstrated long time endurance serving a single congregation, but they are rarer these days. Long-term pastorates in smaller churches are an even more rare exception to the rule.

I remember before I started my ministry at Grace Community Church, my dad said to me, “I want you to remember a couple of things before you go into the ministry. First, the great preachers, the lasting preachers who left their mark on history, taught their people the Word of God. Second, they stayed in one place for a long time.” These were two sound pieces of wisdom. When I first came to Grace Church, most people thought that I would only stay a year or two, because I had been an itinerant communicator to youth groups. But in my heart, I knew I wanted to do the two things my dad advised: one was to teach the Bible expositionally, especially to go through the whole New Testament, knowing, secondly, that such a goal would require staying in one place over the long haul. I knew that was the only way I could continue to nourish my own soul, effect generations with God’s truth and manifest integrity of life through long visibility.

As I look back on over four decades of ministry in the same church, I want to encourage you to embrace a long-term perspective in your church. While remaining in the same place may not always be God’s plan, here are 10 practical suggestions that may enable you to sustain an enduring ministry. (We will look at the first four today, and the remaining six tomorrow.)

1. Don’t arrive unless you plan to stay.

Pastors of past generations, like Calvin and Edwards, considered a call to a church similar to a marriage. In a sense, they were betrothed to their congregations; and faithfulness and loyalty to that union sustained them even through hard times. Pastors today need to learn from their examples. You need to see churches as more than stepping-stones to something bigger. No matter what size the congregation or challenges it presents, you must believe that God has called you to that flock. Even the greatest trouble and disappointment is God’s means of humbling you and breaking your self-confidence. We are all truly powerful and useful only when we are weak. Accept the benefits of trials. If you’re committed to stay when you arrive, and affirm that commitment regularly, you will prepare your heart to endure.

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John MacArthur is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, as well as an author, conference speaker, president of The Master’s College and Seminary, and president and featured teacher with the Grace to You media ministry. He has written nearly 400 books and study guides, including The MacArthur Study Bible.