Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Length of Stay

My church loves me.

That's not to toot my horn, so much as to celebrate a good relationship. At least, that's how I meant it.

Last night I got together with my Pastoral Relations Committee. Without going into anything of a sensitive nature, which is the sort of stuff that Pastoral Relations Committees are entrusted to talk about, I came away with a re-affirmation that my church loves me. And not just me, but us. The Coffeefamily. They love Coffeewife without expecting her to be my associate pastor. They love Coffeeson's energy and curiosity.

And they love me. And this morning I'm really, really thankful about that.

We mostly talked about my sabbatical. Nothing really sensitive there. I went over my goals and itinerary and how I plan to saturate the congregation with notices that I'm going and what I'm doing and why sabbaticals happen.

I spent a lot of time talking about my goal related to long-term pastorates. I even shared the common statistics: pastors and churches typically don't do their best work until years 8-12. But the common length of most pastorates is 3-5 years. They seemed surprised by the first statistic. Their reaction to the second was much more interesting.

I pastor a church that is used to those shorter pastorates. Since the late '50s, the average length of a pastorate here has been 5 1/2 years. Yes, out of curiosity one day, I sat down and did the math. I shared this with them last night as well, and there was a certain amount of acceptance, of "fessing up," as it were. This resulted in some lamentation about a controlling culture that the church has known over the years; of a Pastor-Sized church acting like a Family-Sized church.

By the time I got here, that culture was passing away. Some may still walk in, look at us, and make some assumptions, but reflecting back on my time here I haven't experienced the sorts of things of years' past that were described to me last night. From what it sounds like, the tide began to shift back in the early '90s when an interim came in who was willing to be rough-and-tumble with them in order to get them to face some important things. I'm considering sending this person a note of thanks.

Hey, did you hear that Real Live Preacher resigned from his church the other week? That's a big deal for people who follow his blog. It's a big deal in part because, you know, he's Real Live Preacher. It's a big deal in part because he's been pastor there for 17 years. 17 years! From what little I know and assume about Baptist pastors, they seem to stay longer at churches anyway. I still can't fathom it.

And here's the other thing: when I read down through this entry where he shares the news, do you know how he keeps referring to his church members? He keeps using the phrase "my friends at Covenant." Friends. Call the Pastoral Boundaries Police!

But seriously, that was the most striking thing to me about what he wrote. After 17 years, a pastor is bound to have some friends in his/her church. I think it took me maybe a year or two. That just happens. The other night I had a church member over to watch a WWE pay-per-view. It's inevitable. Relationships beyond the sometimes-fuzzy boundaries set out by required workshops just occur. If this is the case after five years, how much moreso after 17.

I think that part of what makes a long-term pastorate happen is real relationship, real friendship. I don't really mean friendship in terms of inviting the whole church over to watch WWE, but I do mean it in terms of letting down some guards that prevent one from establishing trust.

Anyway, as I continue to think about what goes into a long-term pastorate, last night was a revelation. I think that that's my point.

My experience last night was that this church loves me, and is probably going to be okay with the whole sabbatical thing given what I'll be studying and thinking about. My experience last night was also that we came together at just the right time for both of us. And my experience was that my goal of pastoring only a handful of churches in my career is truly possible. Or at least it's starting out well.

Thank God.