Longtime readers of this blog know that I have a thing about longer pastorates. I've come to conclude that my life experience and the general state of the American Church necessitates that I strive for and study how to achieve them. I spent a five-week sabbatical reading and thinking about them. I've written numerous posts about why the subject is important to me. Yeah, I consider it kind of a big deal.
The question that I use as a handy reference point to gauge the state of a pastorate goes like this: "What's it like to preach during your tenth Christmas Eve service with the same congregation?" By that point, are you approaching it as a completely routine thing? Do you grumble, "here we go again," and roll your eyes while seeking something new to say? Are you recycling stories or entire sermons by that point? Does the event of Christmas Eve feel special to you anymore? What's your internal monologue and spirit like by that point?
The question has a few different aspects to it, and you can really ask it of anything that happens on a church's calendar year-in and year-out. It's the sort of question meant to evaluate one's relationship to the church, the state of one's creativity, one's sense of call to a particular people, one's sense of ministry in general, and other things I haven't thought to mention. If you've made it to your tenth Christmas Eve service and are still striving to approach familiar themes in new ways, that's a good sign. If you've made it that far and are feeling at a loss or not feeling much in general, that's a much different sort of sign, isn't it?
A month or so ago as I was thinking about this question, it fully hit me that I'll be preaching my eighth Christmas Eve in less than a week. It's not ten, but we're getting closer, and at this point I foresee us hitting ten with little trouble. But for that to happen, our relationship must retain a certain level of dynamism and I personally must nurture a creative energy that allows me to prepare for Christmas Eve and other events with a sustained level of anticipation. If I've learned anything as I've reflected on what makes a longer pastorate work, it's that such things take intentionality; they don't just happen.
As Advent winds to a close, the fourth and final candle has been lit: love. The word is used so often in so many different contexts that it's always in danger of becoming a watered-down catch-all for any number of things. But love can be hard work; it doesn't just happen. It takes vigilance, creativity, and constant nurturing. There are many pastors--active or retired--who at some point stopped trying. It's like they woke up one morning and decided they didn't need to learn anything more about ministry, or technology, or the wider culture and the church's place in it. Inertia carries them to retirement, and then they keep serving as interims or on influential judicatory boards, which can create other problems. I hasten to add that this is not true of all retired pastors, just the ones who've mentally checked out of the church's present situation. I don't know whether pastors who fall into this group ever experienced a tenth Christmas Eve in one place or how they handled it if they did. I suppose that you can love someone without trying too hard in a relationship, but I'm not sure how well that really qualifies as love.
I like to think that this eighth time preaching Christmas Eve will still be a lively and life-giving thing. I pray that our tenth one together is, too. And I pray that if I ever wake up some morning and decide that I don't need to learn anything more that I'll love the church enough to let it go.