The Keys to a Long-Term Ministry

 

​​ The Keys to a Long-Term Ministry

Terry L. Johnson

​​ As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, (1 Timothy 1:3)

 

Twenty-five years or more of ordained ministry in a single place is something of a milestone in our day. Gone are the days when the relation between a pastor and his church was viewed like a marriage. Pastorates in Puritan New England lasted 30, 40, and 50 years. Even ineffective ministers were retained because severing the pastoral ties was thought to be too disruptive of the peace and stability of the church and community.1 Today’s average ministerial stay has drifted down to 3-5 years on average.2 Yet many of today’s most noteworthy ministries have been characterized by longevity: Frank Barker at Briarwood Presbyterian Church (40 years), John MacArthur at Grace Community Church (43 years), Rick Warren at Saddleback Church (32 years), and D. James Kennedy at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church (47 years). Roland Barnes and William Harrell may not be headliners but each has labored faithfully and fruitfully, the former in Statesboro, Georgia, the latter in Norfolk, Virginia, each for 31 years.

 

The Apostle Paul tells Timothy to “remain” in Ephesus. He doesn’t say how long he is to do so. Yet something is to be gained by staying put. The Apostle doesn’t elaborate. Perhaps we can begin to provide some clues. We believe in long-term ministry and would like to identify several keys to achieving one.

 

Long-term ideal

When I graduated from seminary I wrote to my supporters that I wanted to follow the examples of J. M. Boice at Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, and William Still of the Gilcomston South Church, Aberdeen, Scotland, both in biblical exposition and in ministerial longevity. At the time Boice had been at Tenth for 13 years (of what would be a 30-year ministry) and Still at “Gilc” for 36, of what would be a 52-year ministry! I wanted to go to one church and stay put. I believe it is good for a church to have long pastoral continuity. I believe it is good for a pastor to be able to baptize, marry, and bury his members for generation after generation. I believe it is good for a pastor to be able to preach the whole counsel of God to his people, and preach the whole Christ found in all the Scriptures (Acts 20:27; Lk 24:44-45). To do so comprehensively takes years. I believe it is good for a church to have continuity in its theology ​​ and philosophy of ministry over many years. I believe it is good for a church to avoid the disruption that comes from months of raising a pulpit committee, searching for a pastor, calling that new pastor, and getting him settled into his new position. I believe it is good for a church to avoid the disruption that comes from adjusting to the new pastor’s personality, gifts, taste, emphases, and convictions.

 

After five years of difficult ministry in Savannah, J. I. Packer looked across my dining room table and said, “Terry, I trust you will continue here for at least ten years. You can’t do anything in less than ten years.” I thought my wife Emily would burst into tears. He was right. Digging deep foundations take time. Erecting a lasting edifice takes time. However, it is doubtful that one will stay long-term in a place if one does not bring to one’s calling the ideal that to stay for a lifetime is a good thing. Providence may lead otherwise; one’s stay in a place may be unmistakably hindered. However, the ideal is crucial to longevity.

 

Clear philosophy

Second, it is important that one bring to the ministry a biblically-rooted and theologically-driven vision of what one intends to do and why. This should be communicated to the congregation while one is still a candidate. I am astonished at the mismatches between churches and ministers that regularly occur. A traditional Presbyterian church calls a top-notch preacher . . . who is planning on having a rock-n-roll worship service. How does it happen? Why? I was called to the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah at the age of 31. I made many mistakes and was unwise in a number of ways. One mistake I did not make was in failing to tell the pulpit committee, the Session, and the congregation just what I would do and would not do. I was as straightforward as I knew how to be. What shape will a ministry take? What will it emphasize? What kinds of sermons will it feature? What type of music will it favor? What will be the mood or tone of the services? What will the public service look like? I am emphasizing the public ministry because it is on the basis of the minister’s effectiveness in his public (as opposed to private) ministry that his ministry will rise or fall.

 

Then, stick to the vision. Don’t be driven about by every wind of pragmatism. Is the vision anchored in biblical universals? Then it should be immune to “success” motivated alterations. We’re not saying that one can’t learn over the years and adjust the vision accordingly. We are urging that adjustments are more like tweeking than an overhaul, given that one brings to one’s calling a fully-developed philosophy of ministry at the outset. The result will be that the church will eventually cease fighting over what the church is to be. Those who have another vision will look elsewhere. Unity and peace will emerge. Those who remain will be there because they share the vision and are happy. A happy people make for a long pastorate.

 

Indoctrinate

Put in place a number of programmatic means by which to convince the membership of the biblical/theological/philosophical foundation of the church. My vision was that of a historically Reformed ministry. At first blush the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, with its classically Reformed architecture and large, solid-mahogany central pulpit, balcony with choir and organ in the back, looks like a place where historic Reformed worship would be easy to implement, if indeed it was ever unimplemented. However, the fact is that when I began my ministry there in January 1987, there was not a single member who would have identified himself or herself as Reformed in theology or ecclesiology. There were large numbers of mainline Protestants and a significant number of Columbia Bible College evangelicals. But no one was self-consciously Reformed.

 

Moreover, none of the classic elements of Reformed ministry were present. The congregation knew nothing of lectio continua Scripture reading, of sequential expository preaching, of metrical psalm singing, of a full-diet of Scripture-based and enriched prayer, or frequent communion. Facing all the difficulties of a downtown church in a decaying urban setting, the congregation was slowly dying. Attendance averaged 238 in 1986 in a facility that seats over a thousand, even plunging into the 130-140 range during the summer months. Sunday School attendance was under a hundred. Only a couple dozen of the faithful returned for Sunday night. Hostile factions were bitterly competing for larger pieces of a shrinking church-pie. As one of Savannah’s most popular doctors said of his visit to the church in the mid-1980’s, “It was the sorriest excuse for a church I’d ever seen.” The facility, though magnificent, was deteriorating. Desperate to grow, the congregation called an inexperienced 31-year-old to lead it out of its troubles, thinking that youth would attract youth, and the church’s decline would reverse.3

The problems we faced in 1987 were not unlike that of any church attempting to teach the Reformed faith and implement Reformed ministry and worship. I needed to convince a partially indifferent, partially broad evangelical and thoroughly unreformed congregation of the truth of the Reformed faith and the importance of Reformed ministry and worship. We needed as well to attract and retain new members, as would a church-planter. Neither the existing congregation nor those who joined had any appreciation for either the Reformed faith or Reformed worship. Neither was there a model of a church of our size and stature practicing a Reformed ministry anywhere in our region. We were without examples to follow. The need, then, was to build a consensus in both the existing congregation and the new members, a consensus that embraced both the Reformed faith and the ministry and worship that flows from it, without dividing the church or driving off significant numbers of members in the process. How was this done?

 

Worship services

Without a doubt the key to the successful implementation of Reformed faith and ministry has been the public services themselves. When led with urgency, fervor, and an economy of language, the services are their own best argument. When given a range of choices (e.g. newsletters, books, pamphlets, special classes), 89% of a sample survey of our congregation conducted in 2007 (20 years into my years in Savannah) said that attending services was the most important factor in convincing them of the value of historic Reformed worship.

 

Historic Reformed ministry has what we believe is a “self-authenticating” character. There is a “well, of course” quality to its elements: of course we should read Scripture in our worship; of course a proper sermon should explain a text of Scripture; of course our prayers should echo the praises, confessions, thanksgiving, and petitions of Scripture; of course we should sing psalms; of course the Lord’s Supper should be frequently administered. All this makes perfect sense. Who would have thought otherwise? When ordinary folks hear strong congregational singing of biblical texts, or hear a nuanced reading of Scripture, or hear a carefully applied biblical exposition, or hear impassioned scriptural prayer, many will find the experience convincing, as I did as a young man, and as many in our congregation have. “This is what we are supposed to do in worship,” they will say, as they witness the word sung, read, preached, prayed, and administered. They will want neither to move the church in a “liturgical” direction nor in a “contemporary” direction. There is no substitute for well-led services morning and evening each Lord’s Day, to convince those unfamiliar or ignorant of the ministry of Reformed Protestantism.

 

Inquirers’ Class

All of our new members are expected to take our Inquirers’ Class. It consists of seven sessions in which we move progressively, pyramid-like from the church catholic (a mini-history of the Christian church), to the church Protestant (the five so-called “Solas”), to the church Reformed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the broad base of catholicity we progressively get more narrow, viewing our distinctives in the context of our shared heritage and theology with all of Christendom. The last four sessions zero in on Reformed doctrine, ministry and worship, ethics, and piety. We’re not afraid to compare and contrast what we believe and practice with others. When new members join, they join with a certain understanding and conviction regarding our church. People who have a different vision either don’t join or join understanding what they’re getting into. We don’t require doctrinal agreement to join the church – just five simple vows, only two of which are doctrinal (I am a sinner and I am trusting Christ alone for salvation). Yet we do want them to understand who we are and what they can expect.

 

Officers’ Training Class

This class is for officer candidates (though open to all men in the church) and is offered bi-annually. It consists of an inductive study of the Westminster Confession of Faith and so, like the Inquirers’ Class, places worship and ministry (as described in I.6, XXI-XXII and XXVII-XXIX of the Confession) in the broader context of a comprehensive survey of Reformed theology. One hundred fifty-two men completed this class in our first twenty-five years. Today these men form the backbone of the church. As far as can humanly be discerned, these men ensure that the Independent Presbyterian Church will continue faithfully to preach the Reformed faith and practice historic Reformed ministry into the distant future. Were I to drop dead tomorrow, I believe that they would know exactly the kind of man needed to replace me.

Pastor’s writings

I print the weekly Sunday morning sermon manuscript. I write a monthly newsletter article. Occasionally I preach topical sermons. We have collected many of those articles and sermons and made them into pamphlets and books for the use of our congregation and beyond.4 We recommend that pastors write for their congregation what they preach to their congregation. Pamphlets provide a handy resource to which church members can turn to solidify their convictions regarding the theological and philosophical foundations of our ministry. Some of these pamphlets have grown into books.

 

Reformation & Heritage Sundays

Each year we observe three historic services, one recalling our Reformation heritage, the other two our Georgia and Scottish heritages. The first of these we instituted. The latter two we inherited. Frankly, three such services is a bit much. However, we have attempted to redeem them by adapting historic Reformed orders of service for use on those Sundays. We rotate the use of two of the following on an annual basis: The Genevan Form of Church Prayers (1542), Knox’s Form of Prayers (1556), the Book of Common Prayer (1552), the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God (1644), and Richard Baxter’s The Savoy Liturgy (1661).5

 

The value in using these historic orders has been to provide perspective. Today’s Christians are able to see first-hand what previous generations of Christians have understood about ministry and worship. The depth and substance of these services can be eye-opening. At the conclusion of one such service in a church with a rather informal Sunday night service, an older member came to me and said, “I wish we could do this every week.” Since every generation tends to absorb uncritically the bias of its own era, a breath of liturgical sanity from the past can play a valuable role in stimulating a reassessment of the liturgical present. Openness to reassessment is exactly what we need as we attempt to restore historic Reformed priorities today.

 

I have also used these occasions to preach Reformed distinctives: the so-called “solas,” “The Five Points of Calvinism,” “The Practical Difference Calvinism Makes,” and so on. Officer installation Sundays I preach on Presbyterian church government. Prior to baptisms I explain the covenantal basics of infant baptism. When we administer the Lord’s Supper, I explain our theology of the eucharist.

 

In addition to the above, periodically we have offered Sunday School classes dealing with theological and liturgical issues, and have from time to time promoted publications in our bookshop as well as recordings of classic hymns and metrical psalms.

 

Our approach, then, has been multi-pronged. Our survey of our congregation in 2007 confirmed what we have observed. Our members by large majorities and across the various demographic categories have joined because of our historic Reformed faith and ministry; they regard our doctrines as biblical and sound; the worship services are their favorite part of the church program; they grow increasingly positive in their outlook over time; they find the preaching and singing (traditional hymnody and metrical psalmody) to be especially appealing; they find very little that they would like to change; they find little attraction in contemporary forms of worship; and they have found actually participating in the Reformed worship services the most convincing apologetic, though other means have contributed. We have been largely successful in achieving a high level of knowledge and conviction regarding the value of Reformed ministry, the truth of the Reformed faith, and in achieving a high level of awareness of and rejection of alternatives to a traditional Reformed church. With respect to various means of reaching these goals, while attending services has been far and away the most effective, the others means employed have also proven effective: pamphlets, books, Inquirers’ Classes, Officers’ Training, Sunday School, and other literature all received high marks from our surveyed members. The conclusion to draw, it would seem, is that a multi-faceted approach is wise, each means reinforcing the other in the overall effort to persuade contemporary people of the truth of the Reformed faith and value of Reformed ministry and its relative superiority to the alternatives. This will make for the long-term peace and unity of the church.

 

Respect

Fourth, respect the existing culture of the church. Admittedly reforming the church and respecting its existing culture is a high-wire act. Yet it is a necessary one.

 

Shortly after arriving in Savannah a member of the secretarial staff urged me, “What are you going to do to make this church grow?” Her church background led her to anticipate an answer filled with novel programs and creative ministry. I gave her an “old school” answer: “We’ll preach and pray.” I took seriously the counsel of my mentor Dr. James Baird, then pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi, who cautioned me: “Don’t change anything for five years.” For the most part, I didn’t. I tweaked the order of service slightly, moving the announcements to before the call to worship. The other changes were equally subtle. I immediately began an expository series on the Gospel of Mark, following Calvin’s pattern of preaching mainly the Gospels and Acts on Sunday morning. Several weeks later I began a second series of expositions on Sunday evening on Daniel, and a third for the Wednesday noon service on James. I also immediately started the practice of selecting as one of our three “hymns” in each Sunday service a setting of a metrical psalm from the hymnal, and identifying it as such in the bulletin in order to help the congregation grow accustomed to singing psalms. Finally I added an Old Testament reading to compliment the New Testament or vice versa, depending on which Testament was being preached. It would be a few years before this reading would be lectio continua or before we would change from quarterly to monthly communion. Yet most of the elements of historic Reformed ministry were in place within the first few weeks or months of my pastorate.

 

However, only those who were paying close attention would notice any change. The public face of the church remained as it had been for decades. The new minister could not be accused of altering beloved patterns of ministry and cherished programs. Most of what I inherited from the past, even those programs I disliked, remained in place and were tolerated by me for years, even to this day. Don’t go in as the guy with all the answers. Don’t project to others that you know it all. Every program and procedure in the church has a name on it. Every change has the potential to offend the author of that program.

Reformed doctrines were preached in the early years as we encountered them in the texts I was preaching. I didn’t mention the “C” word for 5 years in a public service (i.e. Calvin). However, I did preach Calvinism naturally as Reformed distinctions emerged in my lectio continua series. Consequently no one felt that I was seeking to indoctrinate them. They could see that I preached without an agenda driving the content. This made accepting and believing those Reformed distinctives all the more palatable.

 

The mistake that too many pastors make in their move to a new church is that of changing too much too quickly. Each church has its own culture. Too many pastors have driven bulldozers over those cultures, destroying what was sacred, familiar and comforting for many of its older members. One example has been dispensing with the clerical robe. It has been called a non-essential, which, of course, it is. However, identifying it as a non-essential is not the same as identifying it as unimportant. If it w