I read an article in the Christian Century lately about the blessings of a long pastorate, and I couldn’t help but think of my predecessor at First Baptist, Dr. Jim Flamming, who was here for 23 years as pastor and who now serves the church as Pastor Emeritus.
While some pastors have trouble stepping aside after being with a church for so long Dr. Flamming has been the model of gracious transition. He stayed away from a church he loved for a year after his retirement, and only returned at my insistence. Even then, he has left plenty of room for me to establish my own pastoral role in the church, and has been a faithful supporter, cheering me on from the pews.
I asked Dr. Flamming to preach in my absence recently knowing that he would do a good job and believing that the church would enjoy hearing him again. More than that I wanted to underscore the principle that we honor those who have served us long and well, and make room for them in the church even after their retirement.
After all, I hope to be the Pastor Emeritus of Richmond’s First Baptist Church some day.
Here’s an excerpt from that Christian Century article. Enjoy it, and the next time you see Dr. Flamming in the hallway give him a hug…from me.
Staying power: Reflections on a Long Pastorate
by Martin B. Copenhaver
I have served as senior pastor at the same church for 18 years. The members of my congregation no longer ask how long I am going to stay, probably because they assume I will stay until I retire (which is a good thing because I assume that, too). Eighteen years is not exactly a towering pinnacle, but it does provide some interesting views. So much looks different from the time I first started.
After all, much has changed over the course of those years, not just in the congregation or in the surrounding culture but in how I see the congregation as well. When I preached my first sermon here at Wellesley 18 years ago I was overwhelmed by the sight of a largely anonymous sea of faces. Now, after so many years, there is hardly a trace of anonymity to be found. As I look out at that same congregation, I am still overwhelmed, but for an entirely different reason—now I see so much. I am overwhelmed by the familiar.
Now I see not just the faces, but faces over time. I see a face traced with grief, and I also see that same face from an earlier time when laugh lines spread like beams of light from the corners of his eyes. I see the young mother trying to keep her son still in the pew, and I also see her when she was a restless teenager herself. I see the potbellied man, and I also see him at an earlier stage when he was fit enough to run a marathon. These days, more often than not, I am confirming teenagers I baptized as infants or young children, which feels a bit like picking up a corner of time, peering inside and seeing it in all its dimensions.
I can even see people who are no longer there. When I stand in the pulpit and look out at my congregation, I can see the deceased husband of the woman who now comes to worship alone. I can see the man who somehow ended up with the church in the break-up with his partner, but I can see the now-absent partner as well. And there is a pew that may be full today but still seems somehow empty because the family that used to fill it has moved across the country. It is like what interpreters of art call pentimento—the reappearance in a painting of an underlying image that had been painted over. In a pentimento one can see both the old and the new somehow together and at the same time.
A pastor who is new to a congregation will not be able to see a pentimento. A new pastor is not able to see the older layers or the people who are no longer there. That kind of pastoral vision comes only over time.
The layering of time adds thick texture to both individual narratives and the narrative of the congregation. After 18 years I not only know the back stories, I also know the back stories of the back stories. I know who has a difficult time getting along with whom. I can sense when a particular person is out of sorts, because I have seen her in enough contexts to be able to sort out the range of emotions reflected on her face. When one person says he is overwhelmed I know not to take it too seriously because he is often overwhelmed, and when another person says she is overwhelmed I take notice because this is something unusual for her.
To be sure, after all this time a sense of been-there-done-that can creep into some of my pastoral duties. This year’s stewardship campaign is numbingly similar to other campaigns. When writing my annual report, I am tempted to lift whole paragraphs from reports from previous years. And after 18 Christmas Eve sermons I have pretty much said all I know to say about the nativity. The congregation, however, becomes more interesting over time, much as a good novel becomes more interesting as each chapter nuances character development and plot in ways that are not possible in shorter literary forms.
I am convinced that the best preaching is done by pastors in their own congregations. That is because preaching is highly contextual. It benefits from deep and nuanced readings of three complex entities: the biblical text, the wider world and the congregation. The best preaching, in my experience, stands at the intersection of all three. A visiting preacher may be able to exegete the text and analyze what is going on in the world with brilliance, but an extra dimension is added when the preacher knows the congregation, particularly over a period of years. Harry Emerson Fosdick was fond of saying, “Preaching is sometimes like trying to put drops into someone’s eyes out of a ten-story window.” Preaching to one’s own congregation over time may not change Fosdick’s image, but it shrinks the distance. When you know a congregation well, you feel like you are preaching at much closer range. The drops are more likely to find their target.
And, of course, after all of these years the congregation knows me well, too. They know my gifts and how those gifts can be put to optimal use. They also know what gifts I lack and have learned over time how others can help shore up my ministry where it is weakest. They can follow my train of thought, often arriving ahead of me, and they are tuned in to my sense of humor. They know a good deal about my passionate commitments, and they know all too much about my pet peeves.
Most important of all, over time my parishioners have learned they can trust me: I will listen without being judgmental; I will keep confidences; I won’t bear grudges or play favorites; my judgment is largely sound; for the most part, I will not say or do something that is harmful to the congregation. Most pastors are trustworthy in these basic ways, but in congregations like the ones I have served, trust is earned over time, sometimes over many years, one pastoral engagement at a time…
(Read the rest of the article at http://www.christiancentury.org)