A few weeks ago, I celebrated my 29th anniversary as pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church. The church, since its founding in 1969, has had two pastors -- Bill Wilson, the founding pastor, and me. Bill, who was a great friend and mentor, and I used to joke with each other that we were the only two members of a very select fraternity – guys who had been pastors of Brentwood Baptist Church.
It’s not a bad club to be in.
As I start my 30th year of ministry at Brentwood Baptist Church, people have been asking me to tell them the secret of a long-term ministry.
Honestly, I don’t know. I didn’t set out to have a 30 year plus ministry here. I kept showing up to work, and there was always something to do. I would do that, and then, we’d move on to the next thing. Before I knew it, 30 years had slipped away.
I will say this. I don’t pastor the same church I came to in 1991. In fact, I don’t pastor the same church I was leading in 2000, 2010 or 2015. I have led five or six different churches during my career. They’ve just been at the same address.
Every time the church faced a new opportunity, the church would have to change something about the structure or ministry programming to meet the new challenge. Not only did the church have to change, but I had to change, and I had to change first. Before the church could change, I as pastor had to change.
The first challenge we faced was how to handle the growing pastoral care needs of the church. I love visiting hospitals and ministering to people in the crisis moments of their lives. Now, there were just too many people for me to care for them adequately. Like the first century church, we had to find a new way to take care of our members, and again, like the first century church, the deacon ministry saw what was happening to me, and the church and stepped up. They set up a care structure to take over ministering to the pastoral care needs of our church.
And take over they did. I was told if I was making hospital visits, then they weren’t going to make them, and if the deacons made them, then there was no need for me to make them. For a while, I worried they wouldn’t do as well as I would have in taking care of our people. I needn’t have worried. The deacons did an amazing job. It’s not unusual for our deacon ministry to make in excess of 15,000 pastoral care contacts in one year!
Our deacon team covers every hospital almost every day. Their deacon badges have become well known in our local hospitals, and it’s not uncommon for a nurse to ask one of them to step in and pray with someone who may not have any family support.
Here’s what I didn’t expect. Our church grew to love our deacons in ways they used to love me. It wasn’t unusual for someone to stop me after worship services and tell me about when they were in the hospital, the deacons had visited them, prayed for them and stayed in contact with them. Then, they would tell me how much they loved the deacons.
They used to love me. Now, they loved the deacons. This was a little harder to take than I thought it would have been.
The deacon ministry wasn’t the only ministry that stepped on my turf. Administratively, I was pushed out of more and more meetings and processes. In my early days, I had been part of every meeting of every committee. I knew everything that was going on. Now, the church was too large for me to handle all of the administration required for our multi-dimensional congregation. We hired an executive pastor and a business administrator to take care of the details. I was given reports, but there were whole areas of the church I didn’t touch any more. I had to give up being involved in everything. I had to do this in order for the church to grow.
Here’s what I’ve found out. For a church to grow, the pastor has to grow first. This growth requires both letting go of some areas of ministry and learning how to do new things. Letting go means grief. I miss some of the things I used to do. It also means discipline – forcing myself to learn new things that may be uncomfortable or even difficult for me to do.
Most of the time, when a church reaches one of these opportunities or seasons, they will change their pastor, or the pastor will choose to move on. The church will need a different kind of pastor for the next season of their ministry. Some pastors know their season. They know what skills and experience they bring to a church and have a well-defined understanding of their ministry.
Some are church planters. They love getting a church started from nothing. Others are healers and love going to a wounded church and guiding them back to health. Eventually, they will sense they’ve accomplished their mission and look for a new place to do their work.
On the other hand, there are some pastors who refuse to grow. They don’t learn new skills or keep up new opportunities. They find one or two things they do well, and then, that’s all they do.
It’s not the church that’s afraid of growing. It’s the pastor. Like a bad parent, some pastors refuse to let their churches grow because they fear the church will outgrow their skill set or not need them anymore.
A growing church will always demand their pastor to be the first one who grows. After all, no organization, not even a church, can ever outrun its leader.