Being the 80th pastor in a pastorate that goes back 185 years puts an interesting perspective on ministry. Like most pastors, early in my ministry, I tended to see what I do in a church as an isolated segment of time and space. Most of us, I think, discount much of what happened before we arrived and aren’t overly concerned about what happens after we leave.
Very quickly, I learned that a smart pastor needs to know something about what happened before they arrived. The present is shaped by the past and unless we know the past, we can’t work effectively. I was pastor in one congregation which insisted that they didn’t want anything to do with evangelism. Given that being evangelists on one of our basic tasks as believers and churches, I was somewhat surprised at this revelation. After some digging, I discovered that the real difficulty was a certain approach to evangelism that was part of some painful experiences for the church.
Based on that historical understanding, I helped the church develop an outreach program that was actually quite beneficial to the church and community. As long as we didn’t call it evangelism, the church was enthusiastic in their support.
As a result, I discovered that it is good for a pastor to know what happened in the past. The past helps shape the present ministry. Sometimes, the present ministry needs to work to correct or modify the past. Other times, we can build on the past–rather than re-inventing the wheel by doing all the stuff that has been done before, we get to build a cart on the wheels prepared in the past.
And when you are the 80th pastor, there are a lot of things from the past. It might be easy to dismiss anything beyond last year as ancient history but listen to people long enough and you will hear and see the effects of those long ago events. At a Bible study recently, some of the members recalled the pain and turmoil associated with the ministry of a previous pastor, pain and turmoil that still hurts a bit after forty years. At some levels, I have to be aware of this ancient pain in my ministry.
In another Bible Study session, someone talked about the love and compassion they experienced from a former Sunday School teacher. Heads nodded from the others who remembered that teacher–and several were eager to tell her story to the relative new-comers in the group whose experience didn’t go back the necessary 50 years.
So, I am the 80th pastor in one place–and in the other set of congregations, I am at an even higher number although no one I know has a complete list. But given that this other pastorate goes back to about 1780, that should put me into the low 100s, based on the 2.3 year average of the younger pastorate. While it might make sense to say I really only need to be concerned about the former pastors up to the age of the oldest members, that isn’t really true
Occasionally, I talk to someone who passes on the family story of old Rev. So and So whose actions in relation to their long dead grandparents kept their family in or out of the church, depending on the nature of that long ago event.
My ministry in both places is built on the foundation of all these previous ministries. Sometimes, I have to apologize for and undo some of what came before. Sometimes, I get to renovate and update what came before. And occasionally, I inherit a really good working thing that I don’t need to touch but which makes my ministry much better. My ministry is also built on the foundation of all the elders, deacons, choir members, organists, Sunday School teachers, ordinary members and community members affected by what went on before.
I am the 80th in one place and well over the 80th in another. I have been called by God to serve these congregations for a time. What I do will become part of the next pastor. It makes sense to me now to be aware of the past–remembering where the church has been helps is determine what to do now to get to where God wants us to go.
May the peace of God be with you.