“The Advantages of a Long Pastorate”: A Century Old Reminder from a Lutheran Pastor

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In the February 19, 1918, edition of The Lutheran Witness, an article by Rev. Paul Schumm of North Dakota appeared that argues the advantages of a long pastorate. The article is reproduced in its entirety below. 

A recent issue of the weekly paper published in the village where the writer of these lines resides contained an announcement that the local Congregational church had decided to retain its pastor for another year. To Lutherans this sounds strange, but incidents of this kind are not at all a rarity among many of the church bodies in our country. Some of these even insist on a change of pastors every five years, some every three years, some every two years, and some every year. At the meeting of the conferences one of the chief businesses is the parceling out of charges as the offices are parceled out in the newly elected alderman’s district.

It is not our intention at present to enter upon a discussion of the sinful indifference which is thus manifested towards the divinity of the pastor’s call. We would remark, however, in passing, that they who so flagrantly sin against the ordinance of God need not expect much blessing from an office which is continually hampered in its work by their own contemptuous treatment of it. It is rather the purpose of this paper to point out some of the advantages of a long pastorate.

It is conceded that there are pastorates which should be cut short. If the shepherd continually feeds the flock with the poison of false doctrine and will not desist, his ministrations are not to be tolerated, his pastorate can scarcely be too short. If a pastor leads a scandalous life, living in gross vices and continuing therein, an end is to be made of his unprofitable labors, however brief the pastorate may have been. It is also true that there may be peculiar reasons why one, even after a short period of work in one charge, must leave it for another, either larger or more important field, or because of reasons of health must accept less strenuous work. Peculiar conditions must be judged according to circumstances and love. But after making all proper allowances for unusual conditions, we still are convinced that, as a rule, a long pastorate has great advantages over a short one.

In the first place, it will take a pastor a year in most cases to take a thorough inventory, if I may use the word, of his congregation. The mere business of becoming acquainted with his people in his parish or congregation will absorb a large part of his time the first year, and a mere acquaintance of a minister of Christ with his people is not sufficient if he is to do proper, wholesome pastoral work. A physician must be acquainted with the condition of his patients before he can supply the needed remedies. Think of a pastor speaking to one of his members in trouble, in sickness, in case of a death. Will it not be of the greatest value to him if he knows the past history of this member of his flock, if he knows something of the visitations, the battles, the trials that this person has been subjected to? Is he not to give to some of his members the milk of the Word and to others the meat? Are not some to be instructed in the first principles of the oracles of God, and others to be led to active work in responsible positions? Other things being equal, a man who is acquainted with his people. with conditions in the congregation, and with the neighborhood of his church, will do better work than one who requires much time to grope his way through darkness because he is unacquainted with all these things.

Again, whenever a change of pastors takes place, some time elapses, as a rule, between the day when the former pastor ceases active work and interest in the congregation, and the day on which his successor takes up the study of his new surroundings. In the mean time the young people especially and vacillating members, who are found in every congregation, are exposed to the subtle attacks of errorists and of the world. At times vacancies may be prolonged, and thus irreparable damage may be done. There are cases of congregations that have suffered severely, and which never entirely recuperated from the ill effects of the months and years of neglect arising from frequent changes of pastors.

One argument which is at times advanced in favor of frequent changing of pastors is that it gives the people something new, and freshens their interest in church-work. But who does not know that novelty soon wears off? After hearing the new pastor once or twice, those who are gadding about for novelties will be satisfied, and will relapse into their former indifference. Even the most sensational evangelists, however freakish their manner, however strange their antics, however entertaining their few stock phrases, cannot hold the crowds longer than a few weeks. Many of the very men who have given much time and money and labor to efforts to stir up new interest by frequent changes of evangelists and pastors are the ones who are most disgusted with the results.

We are not theorizing; we are saying something which the experience of nearly two thousand years bears out. It is this: To do real successful church-work means to feed the flock of Christ, give each one his portion in due time, apply the Law and the Gospel to each case, proclaim both these elements of God’s Word publicly from the pulpit, and then defend this flock earnestly and zealously against the false prophets that go about in sheep’s clothing, but are wolves within. If this is done by one who has the ability to do it in a field of labor with which he is familiar, the fruits will not be missing. Weeds grow overnight, but the growth of a profitable harvest is a matter of diligent preparation of the soil, careful sowing, patient waiting, untiring cultivating, and prayer to the Lord of the Harvest to grant the fruit in due season. Every pastor who has done missionary work, not for a year or two, but for many years. knows that marvelous results cannot be expected in a short time. Inexperienced or impatient missionaries often leave their fields of labor because results did not come as early as they expected them. Our mission boards have often complained that it is just these frequent changes which make the proper growth and development of the work impossible.

And then this dare not be overlooked: If a congregation is to work in harmony with the pastor, it must have confidence in him; but confidence is not the growth of a few days. We do not call a man reliable when his reliability has never been put to the test. Of the circus actor we expect immediate, wonderful stunts. Of a faithful pastor we expect guidance through life. He is not merely to entertain us, he is to save them that hear him—save them from eternal damnation, save them from their own undoing, save them for heaven and everlasting life. We want a reliable guide for such important business.

God has often punished those who followed their own whims, likes and dislikes, instead of His Word and direction in managing the affairs of God’s kingdom. It has not rarely happened that a change of pastors which was expected to improve conditions had the very opposite effect. Misunderstanding the people, mistaken in the diagnosis of the ailment, erring in the selection of the remedy, the new pastor, who has tumbled head over ears into the half-settled difficulties left by his predecessors, has often brought disaster instead of relief.

Long pastorates, we are glad to say, are the rule in the Lutheran Church. It is not at all rare to find Lutheran ministers, especially in the Missouri Synod, who have been in one church for twenty and more years. In our large cities, we are confident of that, we will find many Lutheran ministers with long pastorates to their credit.

The Congregationalist has lately called attention to noble examples of pastors who faithfully served the same people for the span of many years. It mentions Joseph Adams, who preached at Newington, N. H., for nearly sixty-eight years; Israel Loring, who officiated at Sudbury, Mass., for sixty-seven years; Solomon Stoddard, who served a congregation at Northampton for sixty years; Timothy Edwards, the father of Jonathan Edwards, labored as pastor at Windsor Farms, Conn., for sixty years. It then calls attention especially to Dr. Robie, who recently died at Greenland, N. H., at the age of ninety-seven. He had served the same people for sixty-five years, and only death put an end to his activities. It writes: “Only two or three of the present inhabitants can remember when his tall and impressive form was first seen in their streets. ‘We feel that he belongs to us all,’ was the common saying.”

In his last days this pastor baptized the great-grandchild of one of those who first welcomed him. Our restless, changeable age needs to be taught the lessons of fidelity to duty, of perseverance in well-doing, of self-effacement in the interest of service; we need to flee from the circus methods of such men as Billy Sunday back to the faithful, diligent, untiring work of the husbandman in the vineyard of our Lord.

Anamoose, N. Dak.                                                      PAUL SCHUMM.

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