Longevity in ministry

July 7th, 2017

This past year I celebrated thirty-five years in pastoral ministry — a personal milestone that, as others noted, was becoming a rarity. At least that’s what the statistics say — and this while others are decrying the reasons that younger clergy are leaving the church.

But I’ve been considering longevity, too; not just my personal longevity, but the disciplines and outcomes that make perseverance possible. I certainly don’t have all of the answers regarding why some manage to stay the ministry course of the long haul (in general) or manage to remain in the same parish for fifteen or more years (in particular), but I do believe there are practices and disciplines that give pastors a fair run at longevity.

Here are a few:


Over the course of time pastors are bound to experience enormous highs and lows. There will be peaks and valleys. No life, no ministry, is either a steady slope upward or downward. This applies not only to ministry, but to relationships, marriage, parenting, and all of the brittle and brilliant aspects of existence.

Those who enter pastoral ministry need to remain purposeful in their work. This doesn’t mean that approach and purpose remain unchanged over time, but there does need to be a consistent purpose, a larger vision, that one remains focused upon.

So often, purpose can not only get sidelined by failures, but by successes as well. It is easy to get sidetracked from one’s primary call when others are offering either accolades or criticisms. Maintaining a vigilance of purpose is vital to longevity of life and one’s particular station. What’s YOUR purpose?


Here we are talking about a number of things. Not just engagement in ministry — staying energized in pastoral work — but also engagement with family, friends, and those pursuits that offer personal fulfillment. I’ve always pursued time with my wife, writing and art. Others may need to pursue those practices and relationships that offer a respite from the burdens of ministry and reenergize the body, mind and soul.

In addition to thirty-five years of pastoral work, I began working out in the gym when I was twelve years old. I have never stopped. This consistency of work and diet have, I know, played a vital role in my health and ability to stand in the difficult days of ministry. Everyone needs more than a hobby—one needs a pursuit or two that can engage our bodies and minds and send us back fresh and eager into the fray of ministry.


Some years ago I took an assessment of my work week and discovered that I was spending an inordinate amount of time in church meetings — usually protracted discussions that took me out of the house for entire evenings. I was also not getting enough rest.

But rest is vital to longevity. Pastors need to take vacation. They need to enjoy “down time” with family and friends. Times, each week and each month, need to be arranged so that others can help. Rest may also involve delegation and, at times, a clear delineation of tasks and responsibilities.

And then, it is also important to take to heart a statement I heard decades ago from a seasoned pastor of nearly fifty years: “There are very few true emergencies in the parish.” Most often, what we categorize at emergencies are actually a plethora of personal wants and needs that some folks simply want the pastor to solve. But pastors are not personal therapists. 

Pastors need adequate rest so that we can minister over the long haul, but also so we have the strength and fortitude to respond to the real emergencies when they arise.


Maintaining a sense of wonder and awe is important for longevity. This includes wonderment in relationships and loves, joy in friendship, and a continued fire for leaning. Nothing elicits ministry burnout more swiftly than preaching the same messages over and over, or leading the same Bible study, or going through the motions of ministry and mission simply to draw a paycheck. 

A sense of wonder is required in any walk of life if one is to remain fresh and vital in affairs of the mind and the heart. Reading new books, discussing new ideas, conversing with others across disciplines — these can all add to one’s sense of wonder. Travel, meeting new people, and engaging in new ministries that are outside of one’s comfort are also important.

Another pastoral colleague has noted, “Pastors who say they are bored are actually boring people.” Indeed, the cure for boredom is wonder, engagement, purpose, and leaving behind the vestiges of what can pass for ministry.

* * *

Longevity doesn’t just happen. There are always practices and disciplines that are needed to engage the body, mind and soul — and keep ministry fresh and exciting. 

That, and a little bit of luck doesn’t hurt, either.

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