Eugene Peterson, in his memoir, The Pastor, writes about being at the congregation for which he was the founding pastor for the long haul. He stayed there for 29 years! In his reflections on the nature of his ministry he writes:
“Early on in my reading I came upon this sentence: ‘The essential thing in heaven and earth is… that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; that thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something that has made life worth living.” [Nietzsche] That struck me as a text I could live with. I saw myself assigned to give witness to the sheer livability of the Christian life, that everything in scripture and Jesus was here to be lived. In the mess of work and sin, of families and neighborhoods, my task was to pray and give direction and encourage that lived quality of the gospel – patient, locally, and personally.
Patiently: I would stay with these people; there are no quick or easy ways to do this.
Locally: I would embrace the conditions of this place – economics, weather, culture, schools, whatever – so that there would be nothing abstract or piously idealized about what I was doing.
Personally: I would know them, know their names, know their homes, know their families, know their work – but I would not pry. I would not treat them as a cause or a project, I would treat them with dignity…..the overall context of my particular assignment in the pastoral vocation, as much as I am able to do it, is to see that these men and women in my congregation become aware of the possibilities and the promise of living out in personal and local detail what is involved in following Jesus, and be a companion to them as we do it together.”
There is a satisfaction in staying in one place for a good period of time so that you get to know all the people, their personal history, their challenges, their aspirations, their gifts, and the different stages of their lives. You grow close to people whose loved ones you have buried, prayed for, baptized, educated, visited in hospital, and married. You know those who struggled with addictions, who have fallen from grace, and picked themselves up and tried again. The shortest pastorate I had was my first – four years – when I was being trained in ministry. The longest was fourteen years. I am now in my eleventh here at the Chapel.
While you know that you are not indispensable, and the time will come when you have to move on, you also know that continuity and stability is valued by a congregation who get to know and trust you despite your failings. Like a family, we have to take one another in when in trouble, we experience misunderstandings, we work at communication, we forgive one another, and we grow in Christian love for one another. That is what long-term ministry is about. It is being the church.