Words of Wisdom from Pastors with Tenure (Part 2)

A 2011 Lifeway Research poll found that the average tenure for pastors in a local church is 3.6 years. Some have suggested that the number may be higher. Nevertheless, pastors who stay at a given church for ten, twenty, thirty, or more years are a rare occurrence. Yet the pastors that we tend to admire the most are those who have stayed at and labored in a single local church for an extended period of time. Furthermore, some advantages emerge with a pastoral tenure or longevity at a single local church. For these purposes, I’ve asked four men (Rob Morgan, Frank Owens, Randy Riggs, and Rusty Russell) to answer three questions about the importance of staying at one local church for an extended period of time. Today’s installment contains the answers of Rusty Russell and Randy Riggs.

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Rusty Russell

Rusty Russell is the Senior Pastor at Peace Church in Wilson, NC where he has served for 24 years.

  1. What are some of the advantages of staying at a church for a long time?

Trust: It takes time for people to trust you, and you really can’t stay somewhere over a long period of time unless people come to trust you. Trust enables you to cast vision and get people onboard with it, especially if it involves any significant change.

Relationships: Over time, relationships deepen and you’re able to impact others genuinely and see real life change, at least you hope that happens. Life change, however, isn’t simply a function of time. It takes intentional investment and individualized attention.

Growth: I say growth in a couple of ways:

  • In numbers: Generally speaking, if a pastor is seeking to make an impact and reach the community, growth should occur. There should be more people attending because there are more people being reached. Again, growth isn’t simply a function of time. It takes intentional strategy, hard work, and most importantly, the unique, undeserved blessing of God.
  • In personal spiritual depth: When you stay in one place for a long time, you cannot run from problems. You have to face them and develop the character to handle them. Obviously, there are some situations in which it may be impossible or ill-advised to stay.
  1. What key factors did God use to enable your longevity/tenure?

A decision to stay: Pastor Gordon Sebastian, the pastor before me, stayed at Peace Church for forty years. He said that, when he moved to Wilson, he had pastored several churches in three years. He told the Lord, “If You will let me stay here, I’ll stay,” and he did. There were plenty of times that he could have given in and plenty of resistance he had to face, but he had decided to stay, and God blessed that determination. As a result, our church expects pastors to stay and not to leave. Before Bro. Gordon retired, we had well over one hundred years of combined experience as a staff of six to seven pastors.

A great staff culture: I served with two other staff members when I first came to Peace, and I had the kind of relationship with them that allowed me to “vent” over things that were going wrong. They listened to and helped me. I know that many pastors are in solo ministry. If that is the case, they need to find another pastor to talk to. Developing support from others is very important to longevity.

A culture of evangelism, discipleship, and outreach: Bro. Gordon also established a culture in the church that wanted to focused on reaching lost people as its primary mission. That has allowed the people to be outwardly focused. In my view, an inwardly focused church tends to have many more problems than an outwardly focused one. This is because outwardly focused members realize that “It’s not about me.”

The right power structure: A change in the administration of our power structure has made a huge difference here:

  • Our boards (deacon, finance, trustees) are elected by the church body and then make 99% of the decisions of the church.
  • The boards have clearly delineated lines of authority.
  • Board membership is accountable to standards of integrity. All board members support the church with their attendance, service, and tithe and are not allowed to serve if they do not. (We do check these things, even their giving.)
  • The deacons and staff serve as the nominating board for committees and nominations are checked before they are submitted to the church. If they do not meet the criteria, they are not nominated.
  1. What advice concerning this topic would you give to young men entering into the ministry or those who may be considering moving to a new church?

First, choose the church you pastor carefully. Really listen to the Lord and don’t make hasty decisions. Once you go there, make up your mind to stay there unless the Lord makes it very clear that you are to leave.

Second, slowly seek to change the power structure of the church in order to bring integrity to its leadership.

Third, be outwardly focused! Reach and disciple people! I don’t mean that you just preach on reaching and discipling people—do it personally. Others will stoke their own fires from your flame, but you’ve got to have a flame!

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Randy Riggs

Randy Riggs pastors the Good Springs Free Will Baptist Church in Pleasant View, TN where he has served for 25 years.

  1. What are some of the advantages of staying at a church for a long time?

There are many advantages: The security and well-being of your wife and family; they need the stability). You can develop relationships with the businessmen and businesswomen in the community; this opens up unbelievable opportunities for ministry. While you reap a harvest of those who go before you, you also see a harvest of the seed you’ve sown over the years; no doubt you have to study and keep your messages fresh. You can preach through much of the Holy Scriptures. You know who the trouble-makers are. Finally, you can Scripturally deal with issues and see them resolved.

There are also many blessings: Seeing prayers answered; seeing the flock grow in Jesus; performing wedding ceremonies of young couples and then their children in later years; dedicating children, baptizing them, performing their wedding ceremonies, dedicating their children; developing deep, lasting relationships with people; putting down roots and having a place to call home; and when the time comes to step down, not leaving problems for the next minister!

  1. What key factors did God use to enable your longevity/tenure?

A supportive wife: The prayers, encouragement and support of my precious help-mate have strengthened and blessed me.

A wonderful church family: They have accepted us as we are. The church family has graciously prayed for us and with us. They have become dear friends. And some have become our second parents and grandparents.

Support of the Church Leadership: The elders of the church are willing to serve. This does not mean that we agree on every idea. But we are able to lay aside our pride for the greater cause of Christ.

Encouragement of area pastors: On a weekly basis, the area Free Will Baptist pastors meet for an informal time of fellowship. Being able to “unload” on a fellow minister who knows and understands the pressures of ministry is invaluable. Don’t have The Lone Ranger mentality in ministry.

  1. What advice concerning this topic would you give to young men entering into the ministry or those who may be considering moving to a new church?

I’d advise young men to shower the people with love and to be there when they’re hurting (deaths, funerals, serious health issues, etc.). These are times the flock really gets to know your heart. Don’t preach to them. Simply be there with them, and love them.

I’d also add: Be patient with people. Be real and genuine. Don’t be a know-it-all preacher. Praise the flock and shower them with honest appreciation. Show humility before the flock and honestly admit your mistakes, failures, and yes, even confess your sins. Pay your debts; some ministers relocate from church to church to stay one step ahead of the creditors. Be faithful to God. We serve Him by serving the flock. Keep yourself accountable to the church leadership.

In the words of Dr. L. C. Johnson, beloved president of Welch College, “Never resign on Monday morning and don’t carry your resume with you.” When you see that the grass may be greener on the other side, keep in mind the grass will still need cutting. Remember, God never calls us from a ministry; He calls us to a ministry.

Author: Jesse Owens

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