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Small Church Ministry: A Sprint or a Marathon

By Glenn Daman

Two races seem to capture the attention of even the most casual observers of track and field — the mile and the 100-meter dash. Throughout the development of these races, the public has watched in fascination to see if someone would break the 4-minute mile, and to learn who would win the 100-meter dash and be crowned the world’s fastest runner. The manner in which these races are run is vastly different. One race requires blazing speed, the other tenacious discipline.

Pastors must decide how they will do ministry. Will they run in ministry like sprinters or as long-distance runners? A sprinter in ministry is one who blazes into town, brings new and fresh ideas, and challenges people to move forward in their relationship with God, but soon burns out from discouragement. Tragically, the small church is often plagued with pastors who stay 1 or 2 years. If the small church is to be healthy and make an impact, it needs pastors who are committed to run the race with endurance, who at the end of their ministry in the church can affirm with Paul that they have finished the race (2 Timothy 4:7).

Identifying the Race: The Importance of Longevity

To be effective, pastors need to understand the nature of the race. When pastors talk about longevity, they immediately think of an individual who stays 15 to 20 years in one church. For some, this kind of longevity is a requirement. Others balk at the idea of longevity. For them, it violates the role of the Holy Spirit. Who is right? Are pastors stifling the Spirit when they try to put a time frame on ministry? Are pastors hindering the church when they stay for only a short period? To answer these questions, pastors must acknowledge from the outset that how long they stay and where they serve is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, they must also be aware that the lure to leave a church for greener pastures can cause them to leave too soon. Longevity, while involving temporal considerations, is the commitment to remain in one church until one’s ministry is finished in that church.

Longevity is critical for building relationships

Effective ministry requires that pastors know their people and the issues confronting them. One hallmark of the small church is it is relationally based and driven. For pastors to be effective, they must know the people (both in the church and in the community), and the people must know them. Relationships do not develop just because a person has been given the position of pastor. Effectiveness only comes through long-term relationships. It takes time to learn the spiritual struggles of people. The greater the depth of pastors’ relationships with people, the more effective they will be in influencing them eternally. Christ, in developing and training His disciples, did not invent a program or give them a book to study. He invested His life in them and developed a close relationship with them. The time He spent with His disciples, walking with them through the affairs of life, had significant impact.

Longevity is critical for developing trust

Because the small church has often seen a rapid turnover of leadership, it has developed a distrust of pastors. Before a pastor can move a small church in a new direction, the congregation must trust him and know he will remain long enough to see his goals implemented. This is also true of people in the community. In rural areas, many people are suspicious of newcomers. They see people come and go; and, as a result, they are reluctant to develop a close relationship with a new pastor. One pastor shared his experience, “At 7 years, the church was getting ready to build a new parsonage. We had been living in a mobile home, and the church sold the mobile home so they could build on the same property. A day after they removed the mobile home, my wife was visiting a lady in the community whom she knew casually. When my wife explained the church would be building a new parsonage and we had no intention of moving, she told Randy, ‘That means you will be staying for a long time, and we can now become friends.’ That was after 7 years.” Often it takes at least 2 years to get to know people in the church and 4 years to gain the confidence and trust of the community.

Longevity is critical for developing spiritual health in the church

When pastors accept a call to a church, they envision a spiritually vibrant congregation. However, their dreams of an exciting church are soon dashed on the rocks of ministry realism. It does not take pastors long to realize their church is not the ideal church of Acts 2 they dreamed it was when they entered the ministry. When they encounter resistance, they wonder if God has placed them in a church that is the modern-day version of what Ezekiel encountered (Ezekiel 2:3,4). When people do not respond immediately to their call for change, pastors start looking for another congregation in hopes it will be more receptive. What they have forgotten is God does not call them to perfect churches, but to imperfect ones. Because people are tainted with sin, pastors continually deal with the reality of people’s sinfulness and their struggle to attain Christlikeness. It takes time to develop spiritual health in a congregation and in the lives of individuals just as it takes time for a baby to grow into adulthood. Paul reminds us not only to preach the Word, but also to do so with great patience (2 Timothy 4:2).

Longevity is critical to maintain morale

Congregations, like individuals, can become discouraged. When a congregation becomes discouraged, the ministry becomes stifled as people lose their sense of hope and purpose. While many different issues and events can undermine morale, a significant problem in the small church is the rapid turnover of pastoral leadership. This, when coupled with other factors, can undermine a pastor’s confidence that God is working in the congregation. When a church is struggling, it needs stable leadership. When pastors leave, instability undermines effectiveness. People wonder if God is working in their church. This is further compounded by our mega-focused culture. Our culture operates with the assumption that bigger is better. As a result, the church begins to view itself as inferior. When several pastors leave to serve larger congregations, it reinforces this thinking.

Longevity is critical for effective transformational change

The small church has often been labeled as unchangeable. While this is usually not the case, the small church is often slow to change. Pastors are agents of change. Growth (whether spiritual or numerical) cannot happen without some degree of change where pastors replace old patterns with new ones (Ephesians 4:22–24). Transformational change in people takes time. This is equally true for a congregation. Change brings uncertainty and risk. It takes time for a congregation to become accustomed to new practices so they no longer feel uncertain or hesitant. It takes time for people to feel comfortable with change so they fully understand how they are to act, what they are to do, and why. This can only happen when pastors, as change agents, remain long enough to see new patterns established.

Avoiding the Hindrances

The writer of Hebrews, in comparing our spiritual pilgrimage to a race, writes, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1). Difficulties and obstacles can easily bog down those running the race, whether it is the race of the Christian life or the race of ministry. While pastors face many hindrances caused by outside forces, pastors place some hindrances on themselves. While serving a small church, pastors can allow hindrances to restrict their ministry; and, if these hindrances are left unchecked, they can cause a pastor’s ministry to lose its vitality.

The pitfall of complacency

One danger pastors face when remaining in a small church is complacency. They learn what is expected, become comfortable in their activities, and become complacent in ministry. They put in their time, do the required tasks, but do not move beyond them. This danger becomes greater the longer a pastor is in ministry. Like a weary marathon runner, pastors can get to the point where they cease to focus on finishing well and just want to cross the finish line.

One pastor, in describing the dangers of longevity, made this observation, “Because of the lack of turnover in many small communities you may be stuck at where you came in. Sometimes once they have figured out who they think you are and what they think you can accomplish, it is difficult to grow in that setting.” As a result, pastors become satisfied. They no longer have a sense of urgency to their ministry and can lose their vision for the church and for reaching the community.

The pitfall of success

The lure of success is an illusion pastors must overcome if they are to remain in the small church for the long haul. Pastors attend conferences, regional meetings, and see the success of others and the benefits they receive. The result is pastors become jealous of other pastors. One pastor writes, “We are too worldly — we think size is more important. Even our reporting seems to focus on size or at least numbers. They look across the fence and see the benefits (larger salary, better benefit packages) other pastors receive and decide they should be entitled to them as well.” When this happens, their discontentment begins to grow. He looks at his church much like how a man looks at his old clunker while walking through a new car lot. What used to be seen as reliable transportation now appears to be a sputtering rust bucket. The church that excited him when he first arrived now appears tainted because of its smallness.

The pastor’s discontent can further be exacerbated if the church is in an isolated location and offers a small or limited benefits package. It is difficult to remain in a church where it is a daily fight to make ends meet on a limited salary. It is difficult not to see the larger church with the larger salary as God’s calling. What pastors attribute to God can often be a blanket to conceal their own desire for ministry and financial success.

The pitfall of human imperfection

One challenge pastors face in remaining for an extended period in a small church is they know the people and the people know them. Pastors have seen the people at their worst, and they have seen the pastor at his worst. The result is pastors may form conclusions regarding people in the church and in the community. They no longer see the potential; only the problems. But the street goes both ways. Just as pastors view people in a particular way, people also see their pastor’s faults. They learn he is not the ideal, perfect pastor they once thought he was. Their rose-colored glasses are replaced with the dark lenses of reality. They know their pastor and his faults just as the pastor knows them and their faults. The pastor no longer has a clean slate. However, familiarity does not need to be a hindrance. It can be a springboard for authentic, transparent ministry. When people see their pastor’s warts, a pastor can begin to show them Christ and the difference He can make in one’s life.

The pitfall of unrealized goals and expectations

Pastors often measure their effectiveness by visible results. They set goals and expect to achieve those goals. When goals are not reached, pastors become discouraged and may question the commitment of the people, doubt their own abilities, and even become unsure of God’s promises. The result is they may look elsewhere for a more hopeful ministry, or perhaps look for employment outside ministry. When facing unrealized expectations, pastors wonder if they would be better off working as a greeter at a local store where there are no expectations, pressures, goals, or frustrations. In reality, the problem is not the people, the pastor’s abilities and calling, or even God. The problem is pastors often have unrealistic expectations. The challenge they face is to establish goals based on their present resources and opportunities. They must prayerfully consider the opportunities God has placed before them, recognizing He has given them the available resources to meet these challenges.

Running the Race: Keeping Energized During the Race

When confronted with the discouragement and complaints of Jeremiah regarding the ministry to which he was called, God responded by challenging Jeremiah: “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5). How can pastors have longevity in ministry without becoming worn out? How do they maintain their ministry vitality while remaining an extended period in a small church?

Pastors maintain their ministry vitality by maintaining their spiritual growth

Longevity in ministry requires a spiritual connection to the empowerment of Christ (John 15:4). Before pastors can lead others toward spiritual maturity, they must be spiritually mature themselves. They must continually be striving toward godliness in both faith and practice (1 Timothy 4:16). It is easy to become so involved in ministry that pastors neglect their own spiritual well-being. In his pursuit of preaching, the Scriptures can become a textbook to be studied and expounded on rather than a personal Word from God on how to live. If a pastor’s identity does not come from his calling and his relationship with Christ, he can easily become distracted by those critical of his ministry. If he is not clear in his relationship with God, then his ministry will become clouded by the struggles he faces. Like Elijah, when pastors are discouraged, they do not need more programs or to be reminded of past accomplishments. They need to know whom God is and what He is doing in the outworking of His redemptive plan (1 Kings 19:11–18). If a pastor does not have a firm understanding of who God is, God’s call on his life, and God’s empowerment to fulfill the call, ministry can easily become distorted and misguided. Longevity, ultimately, is not about staying in one place versus moving to another church with more potential. Longevity in ministry is about a pastor’s communion with God, and his sensitivity to God’s will and purpose for his life and for the life of the church.

Pastors maintain their ministry vitality by maintaining their ministry growth

Pastors need to remain current in the cultural, theological, and ministry trends affecting people and the church. To remain on the cutting edge of ministry (as opposed to the status quo), pastors must pursue continuing education, whether it is formal or informal. To keep vitality in ministry, they need to improve their ministry by training for effectiveness. The moment pastors stop learning, their ministry grows stale.

Second, growing in ministry requires cultivating friendships with unsaved individuals. Pastors can easily become so involved in the church that most of their time is spent with Christians. Pastors who work overtime may lose contact with people outside the church. The result is many pastors no longer understand the issues confronting the unsaved and how to minister to them.

Third, growing in ministry requires establishing realistic and attainable goals. Goals challenge pastors to focus on what is ahead rather than only on the past and present. As pastors establish goals, they should periodically redirect the emphasis of their ministry. It is easy to become locked in on pet projects and topics, whether it is in one’s preaching or ministry. Intentionally breaking out of the box brings freshness to a pastor’s ministry and new perspective to his people so they are challenged to grow as well.

Fourth, growing in ministry requires pastors to remain excited about people’s spiritual growth. It is easy to focus on attendance rather than on what is happening in people’s lives. It is often difficult to see growth in people because growth occurs slowly over time rather than in dramatic spurts. When a pastor has been at a church many years, however, he can look back and see significant growth in people. These victories may appear small, such as a person having enough courage to pray publicly for the first time. Yet, every measure of growth, no matter how small, is cause for excitement because it is a testimony of the grace of God working in the lives of people. Growth is the result of the Holy Spirit’s activity (Philippians 1:6).

Fifth, growing in ministry requires maintaining the vibrancy that comes through sharing the spiritual load. Ministry is not a one-man show. The church’s ministry is the calling of the whole church. No single individual is responsible for the ministry of the congregation. Scripture makes it clear that ministry is the responsibility of the body of Christ. Consequently, a pastor’s challenge is not to do the work of ministry, but to encourage, exhort, and assist others in doing the ministry.

Pastors maintain their ministry vitality by maintaining their personal growth

Someone said pastors must take care of themselves, for no one else will. People will often unwittingly take advantage of pastors. Ministry in the small church is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If pastors are not careful, ministry can suck the emotional and spiritual energies from their lives. Pastors need to take time for their own personal rejuvenation. While they may think working 80 hours a week is spiritual, ultimately it is a mark of pride and will eventually lead to burnout in ministry (and unhealthy families and marriages). It is easy for pastors to think they must do everything, for if they do not, it will not get done. What they forget is that the health of the church does not rest on their shoulders, but on the person of Christ. He is the Messiah, not the pastor. God calls pastors to a Sabbath rest because they need to refocus on God in a hectic world. God also knows pastors’ limitations and their need for weekly rejuvenation. Pastors need to take days off. They need to take vacations to maintain their emotional and personal vitality in ministry. Their people deserve it, and their families demand it.

Finishing the Race

It would be convenient if pastors could establish a set number of years to serve a church before they move on. But such convenience is not reality. If the small church is to be healthy, it needs committed leadership — individuals who are willing to remain for however long God calls them to the church. Leaders who are not lured away by greener pastures, are not quick to quit when conflicts and problems arise, and are not ready to bail when they receive unjust criticism. They remain steadfast and faithful, firmly focused on God’s calling on their life and His will for their ministry. Longevity is staying in the church until God makes it clear that one’s ministry is completed.

Glenn Daman

GLENN DAMAN, D.Min., is director of the Center for Leadership Development, Stevenson, Washington. He is author of Shepherding the Small Church, Leading the Small Church, and Leadership Development in the Small Church: A Guide for Building an Effective Board.

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