Russ Dean: An Anniversary
View from the Corner Office.
We unloaded the U-Haul trailer on a Monday morning. It was packed to the gills with boxes filled with books. There were a few pieces of office furniture, a couple lamps, some art to hang on the walls, a few do-dads to set about. The Pastor’s office was the big one on the right, the one with the executive-size desk and a full conference table. The Associate Pastor’s office was small but adequate, down the hall on the left, the one with the hand-me-down desk and no table. As we started parceling out the loot, we reasoned that as a 30-something white guy everyone would understand that I was the pastor (they’d seen that before), but not everyone expects their pastor to look like Amy, so maybe she ought to go in the big office.
She did take that office, and she performed the first baptism and the first baby dedication and took the lead in the first communion… The message was subtle but sure: she’s not an Associate or the “Assistant Pastor” (I hate that). She’s the Pastor. It seems to have worked.
Twenty-one years later I’m still happily tucked away in the corner office. They call her “Pastor #1” (for lots of good reasons), and they understand that whether “#1” or “#2” shows up, the Pastor has been there. It doesn’t matter if it’s for the hospital visit, the Admin Committee meeting, the counseling session, the funeral, the wedding, the sermon. They understood that at the beginning.
And for twenty-one years.
I googled “average tenure of a Baptist minister,” and the numbers are all over the place. I’ve heard everything from 18 months to a few years, but whatever it is, the average is a good bit less than two decades and counting. Since we celebrated that anniversary last week, I’ve been wondering why it is that most of us don’t last, or choose not to stick around, at least not long enough to do the baby dedication and the wedding – for the same person!
A long time ago I was taught that churches, just like people, have personalities, their own unique DNA. It’s probably true for organizations of all kinds. Some churches just won’t (can’t?) keep a pastor even long enough to hear three different Easter sermons. On the other hand, our steeple has only seen five pastors in 71 years. There was the almost-32-year founding pastor and the 4-year “unintentional interim” who followed him (that often happens after long tenures). Then came the 11-year pastorate and the 9-month “ooops!” Between all those ministers there was a little time for each search process, and then came the pair of married, co-pastors, October 1, 2000.
Some churches couldn’t keep a pastor 21 years if they tried, and some pastors don’t even try – maybe because “church” really just means “congregation” (The same thing is true for the YMCA and the Arthur State Bank and Clinton Elementary School… an organization is really just its people.) and tenure requires relationship, and relationships are just difficult, out of the church and in the church, on both sides of the pulpit.
So, there’s the DNA thing: some (people and churches) are just more patient… more forgiving… more generous… more understanding… more longsuffering… more focused on relationships than results, people than products… And there’s the integrity of commitment – like a good marriage, it’s not about falling in love but saying “I Do,” again and again and again.
There’s nothing necessary about long tenures. I understand the logic of those denominations that move their pastors about, intentionally. There could be some real advantages – because what I know about being in one church for long enough for your kids to start and finish in the same school system, is that after two decades-plus, well… we know each other! If there was ever any notion about the pastor being anything other than just one of the rest of you, the whole human bag of bones, well, that quant ideal disappeared a long time ago. After 21 years, they know us. Really know, the real us. They’ve been inspired. And disappointed. They’ve been challenged. And bored. They’ve been charmed. And offended. (And after 21 years, well, that whole “inspired and disappointed” thing goes both ways! It’s just life.)
When October 1 rolled around this year, it seemed safe for me to say that we found a church with long-haul DNA. I think it’s safe to say there’s some of that in my own genes, too. My daddy was at the First Baptist Church for almost 27 years, so I got to experience that kind of good church (good people) and see that kind of good pastor (good people), one who doesn’t just preach a few years’ worth of recycled sermons or stick around just until the honeymoon wears off, one who doesn’t sound or act any different on a Friday night than he does on a Sunday morning.
Yes, I think the DNA thing is clear, so as we start another year together, the promise we make to our congregation is that we’ll be the real people they hired a very long time ago. Disappointments and all.
I can only trust that a promise will be enough to see us to 22.
(Dr. Russ Dean is a graduate of Clinton High School. He and his wife, Rev. Amy Jacks Dean, also a CHS graduate, are co-pastors of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte.)