The Hide of a Rhinoceros:
Making the Case for the Long-Term Pastorate
By Richard L. Dresselhaus
It was devastating.
A malcontent in the congregation had conducted an 18-month anonymous letter-writing campaign critical of church leadership, and I was at the eye of the vindictive assault.
Then one day a bulging manila envelope arrived from Tim LaHaye, a fellow pastor in San Diego at the time, containing the cumulative work of the anonymous letter-writer. My heart sank as I realized how widely the toxic material had been circulated.
But the cover letter caught my eye, and finally my heart. After explaining that he was returning these “in-house” materials unread, he made this poignant comment: “An old minister once told me that if you are going to make it in the ministry, you need to have the hide of a rhinoceros.” And then this cryptic and unforgettable tag line: “God bless you, Dick, as you grow yours.”
How does a pastor stay in one place for decades? There are countless ways, approaches, and techniques, many of which are helpful and good, but it boils down to this: grow a thick skin.
Pastoral ministry is not for cowards. It takes fortitude, determination, and nerves of steel. Ease and comfort are not the companions of the shepherd of the flock of God. Anonymous letter-writing campaigns and such will be encountered along the path of ministry. How a pastor fares during these times will set the parameters for pastoral tenure.
I wish I had a dollar for every time I have been asked: “Dick, how did you last for so many years as the pastor of San Diego First Assembly of God?” The meditative moments I have spent pondering this question have birthed the principles outlined in this article.
Or, put differently, here are some principles that will facilitate the growth of that most important “hide of a rhinoceros.” In the process, the case will be made, hopefully, for the long-term pastorate.
But wait. Maybe there is no need for such deliberation. Perhaps long-term pastorates are the norm and this subject is irrelevant.
Brace yourself. Nothing could be further from the truth. Go to the Barna Group Web site (Pastor’s Profile), and see for yourself.1 The median number of years pastors have served in their present assignment is four. Other stats suggest maximum effectiveness does not occur until around the seventh year. The point is irresistibly clear: Most pastors leave before they achieve their maximum impact in ministry.
Most will agree that the subject is crying for attention and is replete with a sense of urgency.
Six points of argument make the case for the long-term pastorate:
Long-term Pastorates Diminish The Impact Of Personal Disappointment
It is virtually impossible for me to recall a time in 45 years of pastoral ministry when I was not battling disappointment, a sense of falling short, of letting people down, of failing to reach goals or achieve objectives.
When pastors stop the clock at any of these moments, the disappointment seems crippling. But when pastors focus instead on months, years, and decades, the hurts of the moments are swept away by the passing of time.
Let me personalize it a bit. Repeatedly I have reviewed the stats for a given Sunday and felt the cause was hopeless; but, when I saw that single Sunday against the backdrop of decades of ministry, the picture began to change.
When evaluating goal achievement at the end of the year, it is tempting to ignore the progress of the decade and focus only on the shortcomings of a given year. The long pull matters. It is winning the war that eclipses the isolated battles that may be lost or won along the way.
One benefit of hindsight is that the valleys are lifted and crooked places are made straight. The criteria used for measuring ministerial effectiveness become increasingly more accurate and reliable. The perplexities of a given moment are diminished and minimized by the trustworthy verdict of passing time.
I spoke earlier of an 18-month period when I felt devastated by a small group of critics. Admittedly, and to my embarrassment, I experienced despair during those trying times.
That was 25 years ago. Now the whole event has a different flavor. Twenty-five years have filtered fact from feeling, and emotion from reality.
What if I had called it quits 25 years ago? What if I had allowed the pain of the moment to obstruct my long-range perspective? What if I had decided that my energies and patience were spent? I would have allowed a moment to rob me of the gift that decades have brought.
I argue for the long-term pastorate. I grieve when I see the premature resignation of a gifted minister. I want to shout: “Hold on. Hang in there. What is a day or two, a month or two, or even a year or two in light of a 40- to 50-year lifetime call to ministry?”
I also am a realist. Sometimes the Lord’s assignment is short. Sometimes a pastor has no control over things that happen. There is a right time to conclude an assignment. (See the article, When It’s Time To Leave, page__.) Leaving can be as much a step of obedience as staying.
The fact remains, many pastors leave their assignment prematurely and by doing so miss the incredible opportunities longevity can bring.
Long-term Pastorates Facilitate The Attainment Of Long-Range Goals
In the early 80s, my wife Elnora and I decided to plan the rest of our lives (tentatively and generally). We established goals relative to retirement resources, education, travel, and other significant life priorities. At that moment, I realized how important it was to immediately begin working on a doctorate. The bracketed time for our projections (1980–2000) was limited. If I wanted some years for application, I needed to get started quickly. The work at Fuller Seminary helped revitalize my vision and prepare me for the later years of pastoral ministry. I firmly believe continuing education is imperative if a pastor is to be effective in a long-term pastorate.
Carefully and prayerfully established goals are like magnets. They pull pastors along day by day toward the achievement of life’s objectives. It might be said that goals are birthed and then nurtured, and that takes time. Carefully defined goals and applied effort equal success. While true in life’s experiences, it is especially applicable in fulfilling God’s call in ministry.
I have the privilege of friendship with the pastor of a large church in our city. This church began 5 years ago and is now attracting 7,000 worshipers per weekend. He shared with me his plan for the future. He is believing for 30,000 worshipers per weekend in the near future. That God-given goal is pulling him forward in his day-by-day ministry.
Most pastors do not think of goals in those dimensions. For example, I grew up in an Assemblies of God church that attracted 30 to 50 worshipers per week. It was a great church, however, and goal setting in that context also yields a fruitful harvest.
The point is clear. It takes time for a vision to reach fruition and maturity. Our infant granddaughter cannot be rushed in her growth. Growth requires time. The work God has called pastors to do also requires time.
Some pastors have short-changed their vision by their impatience. They have tried to turn an infant into an adult by wishful and unrealistic ambition. Goal achievement requires time, and a long-term pastorate alone provides that opportunity.
Long-term Pastorates Utilize The Possibility Of Community Influence
Several years ago Billy Graham led a crusade in our city. I was asked to offer the closing prayer. Why? Largely because I had pastored for many years in San Diego. When the community was debating the domestic partner question, I was asked by the San Diego Union and Tribune to make a public and published statement on the matter. Why? Because I had pastored many years in San Diego. When a leading pastor in our city was looking for someone to serve as a mentor, he gave me a call. Why? Because I have pastored in this city for many years.
John Maxwell has helped pastors understand that authentic leadership is expressed in influence. There is no shortcut. It takes time — lots of it.
Influence requires more than longevity. Integrity, character, a cooperative spirit, hospitality, friendliness, and selflessness are also essential. But these attendant attributes need time. Influence is fickle. It can easily be diminished and discarded. Only time solidifies and establishes influence.
An associate pastor often concluded his presentation to new members with this story: “I have asked people outside the church if they have met Pastor Dresselhaus.
“They often replied: ‘No, but we have met some of his people.’ ”
The message is clear. A pastor’s influence is measured by its observable impact on the people in the congregation, and this process requires time.
Though not original with me, I have long been a spokesperson for a dynamic principle in pastoral work: Ministry flows out of relationship. Nothing could be more true. This principle is demonstrated in the life and ministry of Jesus, the corroborative nature of apostolic ministry, and the persistent lessons of church history. Ministry with influence is pegged to strong and meaningful relationships, and this takes time.
A long-term pastorate provides the occasion and opportunity for godly influence both in the church and in the community. It is sad to see capable and dedicated pastors terminate their assignments prematurely and miss golden opportunities to exert a transforming influence on people.
Some pastors masterfully make it to the 10-yard line, then give up and never carry the ball into the end zone. The work of pastoral ministry is sabotaged by lack of perseverance.
Remember, influence takes time, and only the long-term pastorate can maximize that opportunity.
Long-term Pastorates Enable The Building Of A Strong Pulpit
I think I can count on one hand the times I repeated a message over 33 years. (You are way ahead of me if you said: “Probably they were not worth repeating.”) The reason is based on my personal commitment to expository preaching. The well never runs dry when pastors let Scripture speak in content, tone, delivery, application, and invitation.
Preparing an expository message is like walking through a riverbed looking for gems. Some gems lie in plain sight. Others are exposed only with careful and persistent effort. In a carefully selected text, some of the most profound truths are just below the surface and require careful search, but the results are well worth the effort.
Haddon Robinson in Biblical Preaching includes this insightful verse:
“I had six faithful friends,
They taught me all I knew,
Their names are How and What and Why,
When and Where and Who.”2
Good advice. Ponder. Question. Imagine. Conjecture. Speculate. Track down the flow of thought. Squeeze hard. Unpack. Only then will it be advisable to draw on the thoughts of others. Do not let the ideas of others obstruct the fruit uncovered through exploring of the text.
The point is it takes time to develop a solid, effective preaching ministry in a church.
Here are two closely related questions: Is it possible to build a great church without a strong pulpit? Second, is it possible to build a strong pulpit without the benefit of time? While there may be exceptions, the weight of evidence falls on the side of a time-nurtured pulpit. Strong pulpits build strong churches, and strong pulpits require time.
What is better than a long-range preaching program that wrestles with the great themes of God’s Word, that regards the parts of Scripture as equally important, and that creates a spirit of expectancy in the hearts of worshipers?
Wonderfully, in the process, the preacher is also nurtured, built up, and made ready for the next privileged opportunity in the pulpit.
Pastors must let the passion to preach put stretch to their pastoral time line. Passion is birthed and maintained by a serious handling of Scripture.
Long-term Pastorates Energize The Commitment Of Lay Leadership
Imagine the letdown lay leaders feel with the premature resignation of their pastor. Conversely, imagine the energy created by a pastor’s commitment to stay regardless of the obstacles.
It is true: Everything rises or falls on leadership. Argue as one might, it is incontestably true. Put a strong and effective pastor in a church, and growth and progress become inevitable. Choose a weak and ineffective pastor, and lack of growth and progress will become inevitable. In any case, tenure will be the constant with dynamic leaders who build strong churches.
How can lay leaders be motivated to make long-term commitments when pastoral leadership is interrupted for selfish and carnal reasons? How can pastors call lay leaders to a level of commitment that they themselves are unprepared to give? How can lay leaders buy into long-range and ambitious plans for the church if their pastor is unwilling to make the same commitment?
How many times have I heard: “He got us deep in debt and then left. Now we are struck with a huge mortgage, a declining membership, and a cash flow shortfall.” It is not fair. Lay leadership should never be sold a plan and then be left to pick up the shattered pieces of an aborted vision.
A Long-term Pastorate Provides The Benefit Of Continuity
What could be better than to marry a godly couple, dedicate their children to the Lord, watch those children grow and mature, marry those children, and then dedicate their children to the Lord?
Only long-term pastorates afford a pastor this unparalleled privilege. It has been my pleasure to participate in this joyful demonstration of continuity many times.
I have listened carefully to the young people who grew up in our church and then left to pursue educational and vocational objectives. On returning for a visit, they would often comment that it was reassuring to come back to their home church and find clear evidence of continuity.
In a culture where radical change is the norm, it is essential that people find stability and predictability in their church. A consistent pastoral presence is an important part of that equation. A long-term pastor becomes a pillar of consistency in a society of inconsistency and instability. To see that the shepherd is still at the gate is incredibly reassuring and encouraging. Pastor, people are grateful you are still there week after week, year after year, and decade after decade. It builds a sense of continuity and stability into their lives. They say, “Thanks.”
Here is a testimony to the unique privilege that awaits a faithful pastor: “To receive the confidence of people; to know the secrets they have told to no other living soul; to blush with them over their sins and exult with them when the sin is flung under the table; to know their private affairs and to be the sharer of their highest ideals, is to have a joy of which not one of us is really worthy.”3
This blessed opportunity is open to pastors who build trust in their people, and that takes time.
I will never forget this particular moment in our ministry. The church had gifted my wife and me with a 25th wedding anniversary trip to Hawaii. But just before leaving, an inquiry came as to my interest in pursuing the possibility of a pastoral change. The church making the inquiry was large, prestigious, and well known for providing generously for their pastor.
Between walks on the beach, visiting the rain forests, and enjoying delicious meals together, we prayerfully considered how to respond to this most gracious invitation. During those days, I came to this conclusion: There is no church big enough or salary large enough to take me away from my present assignment. In other words, I would not leave for any other reason than an unshakable conviction that the Lord was calling us to change our place of ministry.
It may seem trite and elementary, but that commitment made it easy to decline other opportunities that came along. Put differently, a pastor should never entertain the possibility of a change in ministry location without an authentic and well-validated word from the Lord. Too many pulpits are vacated for insufficient cause or excuses of convenience. The grass may be greener on the other side of the fence, but that is a wholly insufficient reason to make a change.
I do not know if the arguments have been convincingly made or the line of reason set forth with clarity, but a sincere attempt has been made to show that a long-term pastorate becomes an opportunity for a most fruitful, influential, and satisfying life of ministry.
However, if pastors are still unconvinced, take a mental journey across America and visit the largest and most influential churches in the land. What is the one common denominator? What is the one factor that invariably is found? Those churches are led by pastors who have made long-term commitments.
What does it take to make it over the long pull? What does it take to dodge the bullets, navigate the troubled waters, and avoid the minefields that dog the landscape of pastoral work?
Tim LaHaye’s old minister friend still has the answer: “If you are going to make it in the ministry, you need to have the hide of a rhinoceros.”
God bless you as you grow yours.
2. Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 67.
3. W.E. Sangster quoted in Elizabeth Achtemeier, Creative Preaching: Finding the Words (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1980), 58.