A while back, a friend of mine said to me, in a sort-of-an-offhand way, that she would like to talk to me sometime to find out "what it's like to stay in a church for a long time."
My friend doesn't feel as if she has stayed in one church, or one call for that long, or at least, she hasn't stayed in one place for as long as I have. This is, by all accounts, "a long time."
I will say that at first the question puzzled me, a little. Is staying in one place for "awhile" such an odd thing? And is it a bad thing? Or a good thing?
I have heard people speak both admiring and disparaging words about long pastorates. I've never heard anyone talk about pastors who leave "too soon", although I would think it's as tempting to bail out when we hit a rough patch early on as it is to linger too long if we think that things are going well.
That being said, I think that there are both pitfalls and benefits to a long pastorate, both for the pastor and for the congregation. The pitfalls are easiest to identify: the temptation to identify a congregation too much with the personality of the pastor, the temptation for the congregation to depend on the pastor too much, and the temptation for the pastor to depend on the congregation as well. There's also the temptation to rely on old patterns and things that have become comfortable when those patterns need to be adapted to a new reality.
But, I think there are benefits sometimes, to a long pastorate, to a pastor and a congregation wrestling together, changing together, as in a good long marriage which has weathered many storms and come out stronger. I think there are benefits, if the congregation and the pastor are both healthy, can both look at what they need to do to continue to fulfill the mission in that place. There's the benefit of really knowing each other, being able to get past those first romantic honeymoon years with one another, seeing each other (both pastor and congregation) for who you really are, both strengths and besetting sins, and then looking each other in the eye and saying, "But I believe God has called us to be his people in this place, anyway." There's something good, but really, really hard about that.
So, I'll answer my friend, who asked me, "What is it like to stay in one place for a long time?"
It feels good some days. I know all of the names of the children. I know many of the stories of the people who are here: where they came from, what they have come through. I have seen people come and go; I have grieved and celebrated, seen success and failure.
Other days it feels hard. I have succeeded sometimes as well as failed here. I have made mistakes and had to say, "I'm sorry." I have had to pick myself up and start over. I have had to look at myself in the mirror honestly and admit what my struggles are. Here, the people know me; I can't fool them.
But, sometimes the hard thing to do is the right thing to do.
That's what I 'll tell my friend, if she asks me again.