I’ll be completing 2 years of ministry at Signal Mountain Baptist Church next week. I know this because our church secretary reminded me of this fact last Monday plus our staff looks for excuses to have lunch together. Celebrating anniversaries is one of them. We also recognize foreign holidays if it meets our purposes. It’s true that time flies, especially when you have three small children as I do. It’s wonderful to mark the passage of time by seeing the changes in Cally, Lucy, and Matt. No matter what happens at church, they are eager to have their Daddy come home. I am trying to enjoy the moment.
This is the third time I’ve been a pastor. Each church has been similar in size but different in temperment. It’s a wonderful thing when the personality and philosophy of a pastor and congregation mesh. There are many aspects about our church that I appreciate, but none more so than the mission and ministry mindset of the people. Our church is pretty well-informed bunch in regard to denominational matters, and some of our members are leaders in their professional fields. They bring their skills and leadership into the church, and for the most part this has worked out well. Their are times, however, that I find leading the church to be akin to herding cats.
I wish I could say that the churches I’ve served have experienced astronomical numerical growth. That has not been the case, and in each situation I’ve struggled with the dynamics of population and demographics. My first pastorate was in a rural setting with no population growth unless you count calves that are born to farmers down the road from the church. It was a very stable environment, and even though we had folks join the church the overall attendance increased only slightly. It was a pleasant surprise, though, that I got to baptize quite a few young adults.
My second pastorate was a downtown situation in a transitional neighborhood, which is another way of saying that the church changed from a community fellowship to a commuter congregation. The racial demographic changed, as the apartment complex that once held many members became a “housing project.” The church didn’t change with the community around it. Many of the buildings that had been zoned residential had been changed to commercial, so this also played a factor. We had members “drive in” from all over town and the church even changed its name to reflect the idea of being “centrally located” in the county. The church had been in decline for 50 years, peaking in the ’50s and going down the other side of the Bell curve ever since. We had young couples join while I was there, but it seemed like I was doing a funeral a week. It took an emotional toll on me. Nothing I seemed to do could change reality. I tried to get them to look at relocating, but the love of the building prevailed.
Now, the third time around, I’m in a community church where the folks who attend actually live around the building. It’s a new phenomenon for me, and for the most part one that I enjoy. The population of the town has remained steady for several years, so there hasn’t been a significant number of prospects moving in. Plus, our town is transient in nature, in that young couples move in for a few years and relocate based on new job opportunities. We’ve seen some numeric growth, but not an overwhelming increase due to a new pastor. It’s been slow and steady, which I think benefits us in the long run.
There are pastors out there who are known for “growing churches.” This label is a ticket to be punched at larger congregations along the ministry route. Many pastors work just as hard as others but don’t experience the numeric growth due to location and other factors beyond their control (laziness is not one of them). The eureka moment for me has been learning that there are churches out there who “grow pastors” and are good at it. This is their ministry. It doesn’t matter who the pastor is, there won’t be much growth and the church has developed a comical viewpoint that says, “we were here before you came, and we’ll be here when you leave.” It’s nice to know where you stand. This mentality can be crippling for ministry I know, and may contribute to shorter tenures. It can be reassuring for the laity because their existence doesn’t rely totally on the pastor. Pastors can learn a lot from these kinds of churches that will benefit them in larger churches down the road.
I went back for the 100th anniversary of my first pastorate and discovered the church had had 40 pastors during their century of existence. This reality didn’t seem to bother the members, as they had come to accept their role as “putting a saddle on” young preachers. I benefitted from their graciousness, too. If I had had a bad experience then, there’s no telling where I’d be today. The same is true of many pastors, I’m sure. There are churches who will always give the pastor more than he can give them. I remember vividly what the Deacon Chairman said to me in the parking lot of the church after services one Sunday. I’d only been there about a year, and was the only pastor they’d had with a Ph.D degree. He said, “Danny, we know you’re not going to be here long, but we want to take care of you while you’re here.” The latter part of that statement kept me from fretting about the former. I’m only now realizing its power and meaning for a young, inexperienced, pastor who really didn’t know much about ministry.
It’s a wonder that churches put up with the poor excuses for preaching and ministry that inexperience bring. I’m deeply indebted for the love, patience, and understanding of that first church in getting Lori and me off to a good start in ministry. Even though I wasn’t able to grow that church a lot numerically, its members were instrumental in growing me. I’ll always be grateful.