For a few years, I have been working on a book.
Persistently Preaching Christ is about what God has done in and through one particular local church fellowship in Cambridge over half a century1. Reflecting on the ministries of the two men who led the church during that time and considering their priorities has been a fruitful exercise. One thing that has struck me time and again is this: while there are clearly exceptions, long-term ministry in one place has very significant advantages.
Mark Ruston and Mark Ashton served one church family for a total of 54 years between them and, for both men, their ministry at St. Andrew the Great (formerly ‘The Round Church’)2 could be described as their ‘life’s work’. You can no doubt think of many other ministers who’ve done the same sort of thing. Perhaps the Scottish trio — Willie Still (52 years at Gilcomston, Church of Scotland), James Philip (39 years at Holyrood Abbey Church, Edinburgh) and his brother, George Philip (40 years at Sandyford Henderson, Glasgow). How about: Dick Lucas’s 37 years at St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate; EN’s editor, John Benton, who has already clocked up 33 years at Chertsey Street, Guildford; Jonathan Fletcher, who has just retired after 30 years at the helm of Emmanuel, Wimbledon; John Stott, who was anchored at All Souls his entire adult ministry life — five years as curate, 25 years as Rector and 36 years as Rector Emeritus? And there are, of course, many other current ministers who have served for two, maybe three decades and counting.
It strikes me that there are many good things about the ministry of a pastor who aims to be ‘in it for the long haul’ and to give himself to a single ‘life’s work’. I’ve heard some ministers say that they’re not wired up this way. Rather like the ‘golden eagle’ approach from the world of management consultancy, they feel they’re more gifted at swooping in, working out what’s wrong, then prescribing and delivering a solution. Other ministers opt for something in between — a stint of around seven to ten years in one place, perhaps, and then a move to pastures new.
The Bible doesn’t dogmatise about duration of ministry — and we do so at our peril. I don’t think there is anything in Scripture to prescribe how long a minister should stay in one post. Having said that, the words used in the New Testament for church — ‘household’, ‘family’, ‘fellowship’, etc.3 — would seem to imply duration, consistency and long-term commitment. But of course the example the apostle Paul gives us is that of peripatetic ministry — he travelled and moved around and ministered all over the place.
As I worked on Persistently Preaching Christ and read many hundreds of letters and emails from people who had appreciated and benefited from the ministries of Mark Ruston and Mark Ashton, several distinct advantages of long-term ministry struck me. My research and thinking are ongoing and I don’t want to dogmatise, so my list of advantages is in the form of questions.
1. Does long-term ministry provide the best environment for expository preaching?
As I started to compile a list of ‘long-term’ pastors, I was struck by how many of them have a reputation for fine expository preaching. A mere coincidence? Or is there something about remaining in one place, teaching the same group of people year after year, seeking to demonstrate that all Scripture is useful4 which enables the preacher to develop and hone his preaching gifts?
2. Is it best for developing good, solid relationships in the church family?
In Persistently Preaching Christ, Professor Bob White remarks: ‘I well remember Mark Ashton commenting soon after he arrived that it is relatively easy to breeze in and then to leave after a few years. But if you are in it for the long haul, then building and maintaining relationships through all the ups and downs of church family life is what will show the distinctiveness of the Christian way’.5 Staying in one place means that difficult relationships have to be worked at, not run away from. And, of course, there are the ‘ups’ as well as the ‘downs’ — passing the years together means shared joys, common experiences, real friendships. Mark Ashton’s comment from his perspective as a preacher is telling: ‘It is only with time that a minister gets to know and understand his congregation, and to be known and understood by them.’6
3. Does it help guard against reliance on human strategies?
The ‘golden eagle’ consultant can swoop in with lots of exciting new ideas and strategies — but that approach will probably pall somewhat after 20, 30, 40 years. And perhaps that’s a good thing. God’s word is living and active and that’s where ministers will find the wisest ‘strategies’ and ‘ideas’. Another couple of thoughts from Mark Ashton: ‘As time passes in a preacher’s ministry, it gets harder and harder to lead purely by innovation or human energy. … Only by faithfully teaching the word of God will an individual’s leadership stay fresh and revitalising over decades’.7 The minister who is preaching the word of God week in, week out will never run out of ideas and never run out of things to say — because neither the preacher nor the preached-to will ever finish understanding God’s word this side of heaven.
4. Does it help avoid the temptation of careerism?
Mark Ashton’s words again: ‘There may be a few men who are particularly gifted at leading a church through the early stages of growth, and then do best to pass the baton to someone else. But in general the best pastor-teacher will not be the one who is constantly wondering whether he should move on to new pastures or whether there is a better job on offer somewhere else. Patterns of church life which constantly move pastors from one church to another … rarely build a local congregation over the years. It is characteristic of most of the strongest evangelical churches in the UK at the beginning of the 21st century that they have all enjoyed prolonged ministries by their main preachers’.8
Each of us suffers from mixed motives. Might the thought ‘I’ve done all I can do here’ sometimes be a thinly veiled desire to have a more prestigious position?
5. Is it best for growth?
Statisticians tend to consider duration of ministry in terms of numerical growth. There are all sorts of theories about when greatest numerical growth is likely to occur and whether it tails off if a minister stays ‘too long’. But numerical growth is just one factor, surely. How about growth in spiritual maturity, godliness, unity, generosity, evangelistic zeal, perseverance and so on? I’m not sure statistics can measure those things very well, if at all. Under God, what kind of ministry encourages that kind of growth — is longevity better than several short-term stints? Is a strong, united, wholehearted, outward-looking congregation which is devoted to the Lord Jesus likely to emerge, under God, from a string of ministries — or from long-term ministry? Does it also enable a greater ability to look outwards — facilitating church plants and ‘grafts’, encouraging young men and women to train for ministry in this country and overseas, supporting like-minded gospel work in other parts of the country. And is it perhaps even more significant when it comes to building relationships with the wider community?
Of course there will always be times when a move will be the wisest thing. Personal circumstances involving children, spouse, ageing parents, or health perhaps. A pastor may be correct in concluding that he genuinely doesn’t have the necessary gifts or personality to lead the church forward to the next stage. There may be other factors too — perhaps the size of the church or the type of area (inner city, rural?) makes a difference. I’m still asking lots of questions — but my interim conclusion is that there are many significant advantages to long-term ministry.
Mary Davis is part of St. Nicholas Church, Tooting, in south west London, wife of the minister and mum of three children. Occasional editor of Christian books.
1. Persistently Preaching Christ (eds. Christopher Ash, Mary Davis, Bob White, ISBN 978 1 845 509 828) reflects on the importance of the local church, the ministries of Mark Ashton and Mark Ruston over more than 50 years, and includes Mark Ashton’s ‘Eight Convictions about the local church’. It is published by Christian Focus Publications and is available from them direct for £10.99, or from http://www.10ofthose.com for £8.79.
2. The fellowship was initially called ‘The Round Church’ after the building where the church met for many centuries. In 1994, the church family moved to the newly restored building of St. Andrew the Great. Mark Ruston was vicar there for 32 years (from 1955 until his retirement in 1987) and Mark Ashton for 22 years (from 1987 until his death from cancer in April 2010).
3. For example, Galatians 6.10, Ephesians 2.19.
4. 2 Timothy 3.16-17.
5. page 99, Persistently Preaching Christ, as above.
6. page 19, op. cit.
7. page 19, op. cit.
8. page 18Ð19, op. cit.
(This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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