One of the collection of churches that I serve has connections with a couple of buildings that were formerly used as part of our pastorate. One of them we still own and the other is sort of collectively owned by the community. We hold occasional services in the buildings but neither has been in regular use since I have been in the area and my history here goes back a long time.
For a variety of reasons, some major renovation work was done on the community owned building this past summer. Part of the reason for the work was that it was needed but the primary impetus for the work was the desire to have it looking good for the wedding that was happening there this summer. We decided to hold a re-dedication ceremony for the building as one of our special events this fall.
In the course of preparations for the service, several of us got involved in historical research. Through a friend, I got a copy of a letter to a Christian magazine describing the dedication of the building when construction was completed in 1855. Another church member dug through some records she had and came up with a list of pastors.
She brought the list up to date and then informed the Bible Study group that I was the 80th pastor for that collection of churches. Given that the churches were formally established in 1832, that means that the average pastoral stay was 2.3 years, according to my calculator. Practically, the average stay would have been less–there were several periods when the churches didn’t have a pastor. When the building whose renovations we were celebrating was dedicated for example, there was no official pastor–the church members looked after the pastoral duties.
In the 185 years of existence, this collection of churches has had ups and downs. In their early history, they had some serious expansion. From a group meeting in one community, they planted congregations in at least 5 other communities, complete with buildings, Sunday Schools, choirs and all the trimmings that go with active, growing congregations. While none of the buildings are huge, most can seat 80-100. I won’t say they can do that comfortably because anyone who has ever spent time on old rural church buildings knows that old church pews are not known for comfort.
Early Baptists seemed to believe that comfort was somehow vaguely sinful. Couple that with the fact that most people worked hard and if they sat down for any length of time on a comfortable seat, they would fall asleep and you get a pretty good understanding of why the pews were so uncomfortable.
So, for 185 years, there have been Christians meeting in these buildings, discovering and showing their faith. Sometimes, they had outside leadership–but never for very long and therefore never with any real consistent direction and vision. When the average stay of a pastor is less than two years, there is a lot of changing emphasis as each new pastor comes in with new ideas to set the church and the world on fire for the Lord–or at least catch the eye of a bigger congregation.
In the end, that means that most of the credit for the survival of these congregations belongs to the people who sat in those pews week after week and whose faith expressed itself in a variety of ways. Sometimes, they got stuff wrong. Sometimes, they got things right. Sometimes, they did the right thing because it was the only choice. This particular group of churches, for example, were one of the first to call a female pastor which was a pretty innovative step for a small Baptist congregation when it happened in 1974.
So, I am the 80th in a long chain of pastors. I don’t know how long I will be here–I past retirement age recently and so I know that there is a limit to how long I will be here. I hope to stay beyond the average stay. But regardless of how long I stay, I need to remember two things. First, the church survives because of the church, not because of the pastor. And second, both the church and I are doing what we do so that God may be glorified and his light shine in the world. If we do that, not much else matters.
May the peace of God be with you.