Pastors say long tenures benefit ministries
By Toby Druin
Houston Garner became pastor of Hebron Baptist Church in 1963, the year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Forty years later and soon to be 75, Garner remains pastor of the church located near Bells, east of Sherman.
And he's likely to continue there awhile.
“I'm still in pretty good health,” he said, “and the Lord hasn't released me yet.”
Although pastorates generally are lasting longer, Garner's tenure remains exceptional.
He and several other Texas pastors with long tenures recently spoke with the Standard about their experiences–how they have extended their ministries over multiple decades, what they have learned and how they and their churches have changed.
|Clothing styles and worship styles have changed in the 40 years Houston Garner has served Hebron Baptist Church as pastor, but he's preached the same gospel to people both old and new.|
The key to pastoral longevity for Garner has been “just trying to stay with preaching the gospel and staying out of politics,” he said. “I've got both Republicans and Democrats among my people. I keep away from politics; that's what's broken up a lot of churches.”
The advantage of being at Hebron 40 years, he said, has been in being there long enough to know not only his church members and their children and grandchildren, but also the community. He has been with church members when their children were born, and he has baptized many of those children and then performed their wedding ceremonies.
“The time I've spent here has just helped me to grow in knowledge of the people,” he said. “I've learned to understand them and to be more of a witness than a judge. When you see people in all kinds of situations, if you can just learn to put yourself in their shoes, it helps.”
His own experience of losing a daughter at 15 in a car wreck and going through another daughter's divorce has helped too, he added.
“When you go through those situations yourself and then see others experiencing the same thing, you learn to be a little more sympathetic,” he explained. “I have seen people in trouble and then have seen them come out victoriously.
“I have been in the community so long, I have friends all over the county,” he said. “That's another advantage of being here so long. Last year, I preached 37 funerals, but only seven were from our own church family.”
Time also has helped him move the church toward more mission support. When Garner came to Hebron, he said, the church was giving $4 a month to missions. “It wasn't long until I suggested we should be a tithing church, giving 10 percent to missions,” he said.
The church has been on a percentage giving basis for many years. Three years ago, members decided to build a half-million dollar auditorium and not borrow money for its construction. They moved into the 500-seat facility last Easter.
Ron Durham has experienced two areas of ministry at Columbus Avenue Baptist Church in Waco–almost eight years as minister to college students and associate pastor and almost 23 years as pastor. The church honored him earlier this year on his 30th anniversary. The Waco City Council declared “Ron Durham Day” in the city to mark the occasion, and the Texas Senate passed a resolution noting the anniversary. A letter from Gov. Rick Perry topped off the observance.
The key to his longevity, Durham said, has been a “wonderful, dedicated staff, people who have a team spirit and work well together. No pastor is successful without a good, solid staff.”
His years as pastor, he said, have enabled him to be at Columbus Avenue “long enough to have prayed for some babies at their births to eventually performing their wedding ceremonies.”
“The time has enabled me to minister in so many different times of need–the birth of babies, graduation, marriages, deaths of parents. Ministering to people in all kinds of need and plateaus of life has been a real delightful thing. Through the years, we've been able to develop many long-term friendships.”
And that lends credibility, he said. “I have worked hard to develop trust among our people, and it comes through longevity. My being here this long has also brought community recognition, not only for me, but also my church.”
His congregation's basic needs haven't changed during his 23 years as their pastor, Durham said, but they have been affected by cultural changes, especially in the pressures placed on families.
“Keeping family as a sacred entity is a real challenge,” he said. “The world gets into the church today in regard to the sanctity of the family. We try to place a heavy emphasis on the family. Every year, we honor couples who have been married 50 years.”
Staying up-to-date in reading and study habits presents an ongoing challenge, Durham said. In the latter years of his ministry, he has become adept at researching various issues on the Internet.
“I want to stay current but at the same time preach the old gospel,” he said. “The message hasn't changed with the passing of time.”
In Irving, Wallace Philpot believes Oak View Baptist Church wouldn't call him as pastor today if he were the person he was 37 years ago when he came as pastor.
“They have allowed me to grow personally and professionally,” he explained.
Like Garner and Durham, Philpot said one of the keys to his long tenure is simply “staying with the stuff.”
“I don't chase after fads. One of our missions did a contemporary worship service, but that's not my bag.”
The advantage to being at the Irving church so long has been getting to know the people more than just casually, to be involved in their lives and touch them at many points of need, he said.
The disadvantage, he quipped, is not getting to preach the same sermons over and over. “You have to keep studying.”
The Irving church was in an established community when he came there, he said, and has had to deal with many changes. The church completed a new worship center two years ago, but along with providing for its own needs, it has become missions-minded, Philpot said. It now sponsors eight missions, including one just four blocks away, and has sent many family groups to the mission congregations to help them get started.
Along with the missions outreach, Philpot said, one of the most satisfying things about almost four decades at the church has been seeing families to whom the church has ministered producing other families.
“We now have grandchildren of our first families serving in leadership positions,” he said.
A church considering calling a pastor it expects to have around for a long time should be careful to find one who is “committed to the word of God for his direction in ministry,” Philpot said. “He is going to have to be willing to love his congregation, and his past record should reveal that he loves his people. He will have to have the ability to enlist the heads of households in the church. If that doesn't happen, it won't happen.”
Leroy Fenton, pastor at First Baptist Church of Waxahachie for more than 25 years, said the key to a long pastorate is “having a pastor's heart and not really being into climbing the ladder of success. Once you have a church of a certain size, you have more than you can do anyway.”
“A long pastorate honors the calling of God, enhances the use of a pastor's spiritual gifts and encourages him to deal with problems rather than run from them,” Fenton said. “There are always financial, family and personality issues. It's good to stay and face those issues. A long tenure also probably helps establish credibility, biblically, morally, relationally and socially.”
The disadvantage, he said, is in getting to the point “where you know so much, where you have become so familiar with what is going on with the people and the community that they feel intimidated by what you know. I try to overcome that by telling people up front: 'Let's talk honestly. I put my shoes on just like you do. I have my own problems just like you do.'”
A pastor with a long tenure also can develop a habit of pre-judging someone's response, he warned. “If you have asked a person repeatedly to teach a class or take some other job, and they repeatedly have turned you down, you might get to the point of not asking them, and that can inhibit the work of God. There is also the possibility that pastor and people can begin to take each other for granted, but the advantages of a long pastorate far outweigh the disadvantages by tons.”
Seminaries could do a better job of preparing pastors, Fenton noted, thereby enhancing the possibility of them serving long tenures. More emphasis should be placed on leadership skills, he said, and also on administration.
“There is a ministry in administration,” he said. “What I was taught was that basically I would have to be an administrator, but shouldn't. I think just the opposite now. Someone has to administrate, set goals and lead the people to carry out the tasks of the church. Those issues are critical.”
His long tenure in Waxahachie, he said, has helped him become a better preacher, counselor and administrator, “but there are probably some things I am worse at.”
To stay fresh, he said, he reads constantly and reads a variety of things–magazines, news reports in all areas, newsmagazines, “anything I can get my hands on to help me know what the issues are.”
Paul Powell, dean at Baylor University's Truett Theological Seminary, offers a unique perspective on long pastorates, having served at Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler 17 years before entering denominational service.
“I'm still burying and marrying people who were influenced by my ministry, even though I've been gone 13 years,” he said. “That's the primary advantage of a long pastorate; you really get to know the people and become part of their lives so you can make a lasting impact on them. You get close to them, and it brings joy to your life and to theirs.”
A long tenure also builds trust so that a pastor can lead a church properly, he said. “Until you have been there a long time, it's difficult to lead a church to do things. They don't want to start something if they think you are going to leave.”
Pastoral stability also helps build a strong staff, Powell said, although he noted it can be a disadvantage for the pastor and staff to grow old together. “It's good if you have both maturity and youth.”