dream catcher car trip

A Plea to Progressive Pastors: Stay Put.

by Kenneth McIntosh

Once in awhile I get asked by acquaintances in my town, “How are things at the new church?” The question comes because I’ve served two congregations in Flagstaff, and folks who haven’t seen me in a few years still think of First Congregational as ‘Ken’s new church.’ I don’t qualify that phrase ‘new church’ when I answer, because I likewise think of First Congregational as my new church. And yet…when I look at the plaque on the sanctuary wall, listing  the pastors who’ve served here, the longest tenure on record is five years, and I’m almost to my fourth year, so I’m actually one of the longer-tenured ministers at this church.

Historically, five years is not a long pastorate. In the 17th and 18th centuries, ministers were expected to answer a call to service and then remain at the parish of their calling until death. One of my favorite spiritual writers from antiquity, Thomas Traherne, said : “It is no small matter to Dwell in community or in a congregation, and to convers there without complaint, and to Persevere Faithfully in it until death. Blessed is He that hath Lived there well, and Ended Happily.

A millennium before Traherne, one of the greatest influences on Western Christian thinking, Saint Benedict, added a fourth vow to the monastic calling. Monks were already expected to take vows of purity, simplicity and obedience: Benedict added to that ‘stability.’ He explains in his monastic rule: “We vow to remain all our life with our local community. We live together, pray together, work together, relax together. We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledging one’s own offensive behavior, giving up one’s preferences, forgiving.” There’s universal wisdom in Benedict’s appeal.

This call for continuity in one’s place is especially vital for Progressive churches in our time. James Wellman, Professor and Chair of Comparative Religions at Washington University, recently published a blog with the provocative title Is there a Future for Progressive Christianity? on Patheos.  I am sorry to say that Professor Wellman’s research leads him to answer in the negative.  Surveying the landscape, he finds precious few growing Progressive congregations. His take on decline is interesting: he notes that the most influential and successful Progressive ministers are leaving local congregations to pursue careers writing and speaking in other venues. Examples are Rob Bell and Brian McLaren (of course there are exceptions to this—i.e., Molly Baskette ). Wellman points out that Progressive Christian leaders seem more enthused about spirituality –in-the-world than they are about churches as institutions insofar as it’s easier to be successful as a speaker/ writer-at-large than as pastor of a local congregation.

There’s a real allure to this way of thinking. My editor keeps pointing out that while church attendance in America is declining, there’s increased demand for our books on spirituality from a Christian perspective. Why not leave the ecclesial sinking ship and focus on a broader audience? One of my closest friends in spiritual leadership has left working in churches and has no desire whatsoever to return to such employment, finding it much easier and more rewarding to be a speaker-and-writer at large. And another (possibly related) trend: while congregations are declining, the demand for chaplains in the workplace is currently growing, which explains why a number of my previous fellow pastors are now working full time as chaplains. For ministers who remain committed to local parish ministry there is a draw to seek greener pastures in other pastorates. I’m sympathetic: some of them have ‘pastor killer’ churches that are impossible situations, and some are burnt out casting themselves against the granite of congregations unwilling to change.

And yet, there is need for pastoral longevity in local congregations.  Thom Rainer points out that the average US pastor stays less than five years, and lists reasons why transitions are not good for churches (his research is not limited to Mainline churches, but I believe these observations nonetheless apply to Progressive congregations): Six Reasons Why Longer-Tenured Pastorates Are Better.

Most pastors would welcome a magical ingredient that would help their to prosper, yet they may overlook the simplest ingredient for success: stability. It’s a repeated observation—and one I confirm from two of my four experiences as minister—that one’s ministry deepens and becomes more effective after year five at a church. It can be tough to stay in a difficult situation, but it’s rewarding not only for the minister’s personal growth but also for the benefits to the church. In our rapidly changing Post-modern world, the ancient admonitions of Saint Benedict and others may be truer than ever: inasmuch as we can, we Progressive pastors need to stay put.