By Merv Birky, Regional Conference Minister
Most churches would prefer to keep their pastor long-term rather than short-term. Research has shown that churches that experience long-term pastoral leadership tend to be healthier than those with serial short-term pastors. When a congregation and pastor are “a good fit”, both generally make fewer pastoral changes.
Last year I concluded over 37 years of pastoral ministry in just two congregations—16 years in the first, and over 21 years in the second. A question I am frequently asked is, “How did you manage that many years in just two churches?”
There are of course many contributing factors: a good fit; patient & gracious congregations; strong involvement of competent lay leaders; effective and open communication; much prayer, shared visioning…
This article will focus on another factor that was very significant for me: congregational support for active involvement outside the congregation. Without it, I would not have lasted 37 years, nor would my tenures have been so long.
That active involvement can take many forms. I served on Conference committees, participated in local ministerial groups, regularly attended the Mennonite pastors’ Retreat and cluster gatherings, attended Pastor’s Week and other continuing education opportunities, was nearly always at Annual Conference Assembly and often at denominational Assemblies. Where there were travel or registration costs involved, the congregations paid for them as part of the agreed upon Memo of Understanding. And, none of those involvements were considered to be “vacation time.”
Obviously, I was not engaged in all of those activities at once! There needs to be a reasonable balance between outside involvements and the clear priority of congregational commitments. But freedom to engage in those outside involvement should not be at issue.
Now, as Regional Conference Minister in our Conference, I strongly encourage pastors to participate in their pastors’ cluster group (SECOMP or DAMM, or a local ministers group where there is not a Mennonite cluster). Make every effort to participate in Annual Assembly, Pastor’s Retreat, Faith & Life Forum. And, I strongly encourage congregations to include the cost of these events in their annual Budget, without considering it to be “vacation time.”
There are of course the usual additional factors to take into consideration: full-time or part-time, bi-vocational commitments, family responsibilities, travel distances, etc. However, as I have heard from pastors in various contexts over the years, it is clear that freedom and commitment to being connected in these various ways plays an important part in both congregational and pastoral satisfaction.
Two other important benefits of the pastor’s outside involvements: One, it provides opportunity to hear from others, whether from within or outside the congregation. Two, it helps the pastor keep the church connected with other churches in our Conference and denomination as well as in the neighborhoods where we live.
So, pastors—as you are giving attention to your pastoral responsibilities, also give attention to meaningful involvement outside the congregation. And churches—as you articulate what you expect from your pastor in your job description and budget, be sure to include encouragement and freedom for them to be involved in meaningful experiences outside the congregation. In so doing you will all be much more likely to reap the benefits of a long-term relationship.