Twelve years in one church

Is it possible to be in one church more than a decade and still be happy and successful? Here is one pastor who says Yes, speaking from his own experience.

Norman Versteeg is pastor of the Garden Grove Seventh-day Adventist church, Garden Grove, California.

What does it feel like to stay in one church so long? That is a question I often hear, especially now that I have established an unofficial record for length of service in one church.

It all began at Walla Walla College one winter when the Lord asked me to do something both ridiculous and impossible.

He asked me to become a minister! I tried to tell Him that He had "dialed the wrong number," but He assured me there was no mistake. So I took the theological course, because God asked me to. Anyone but God would have had "better" judgment.

Once I became comfortable with the idea, however, I knew what I wanted in the ministry. There would be the necessary evil of internship. After that I expected to serve in a pastorate for a couple of years, but my long-range goal was to do something important—to be a conference evangelist.

So what actually happened? I did, indeed, serve my internship. It was in Federal Way, Washington, where I remained three years. I was then asked to pastor the Bremerton district. After four years there, John Osborn, from the Southeastern California Conference, twisted my arm to move south. What! Move to that "evil" land and associate with southern California Adventists! That was something I had vowed never to do. I had been told southern California was where Adventist pastors "lost their way." But on August 1, 1968, I arrived in Garden Grove.

More than twelve years later, I am still in Garden Grove. The church has changed; I have changed. The church has grown from 340 members to 1,120. It was a pain to endure a $750,000 building project, but it was a thrilling pleasure to reach 1,000 in member ship. It will be an even greater thrill to reach 2,000.

My role has changed, too, in the twelve years I have served this church. In 1968, / was the staff of the church. We now have four conference-employed ministers and six self-supported or local-church-supported ministers. I have had to adjust from trying to do everything to doing a few things. The change has been both painful and rewarding.

In 1968, shortly after arriving at Garden Grove, I baptized some children. Since then I have officiated at their weddings and led in dedicating their infants to God! "In loving relationships we experience life's deepest meanings and greatest joys," a college teacher used to say. I know now what he meant, because I have not been forced to be a temporary shepherd. Ask any sheep how that works!

There are times, of course, when pastors should accept a call or a request to transfer within the conference. From personal observation and from listening to administrators, I have come to some conclusions:

A pastor probably should move when he feels it is time. When a pastor is no longer challenged in a pastorate or has contributed all he can, then perhaps he should move. To be in a pastorate while hoping that a call will soon come is not a productive or joyful time. The church members can sense when this happens, even if it is not verbally communicated. Lack of vision, enthusiasm, and long-range planning are symptoms that the pastor is not where he wants to be.

There are times when the members in a local congregation are convinced it is time for a pastoral change. When significant numbers of the membership feel this way, the pastor will have a difficult time communicating the gospel or leading the church in fulfillment of the gospel commission. In such situations it may be that the pastor needs to move. But how much better it would be to avoid such difficulties by prayerfully considering how to build good rapport with members, rather than planning to move when problems arise! How tragic when the majority of members feel their pastor should move!

Many times pastors are asked to move to "greater responsibilities" or "more-important positions." Although we should be willing to be assigned where our talents can best be used, this is often not the real reason for the transfer. Often such moves are voted in order to keep an "excellent young pastor from accepting a call outside our conference" or to satisfy the ego of one who is eager for a larger church. How many of us would be thrilled to move to a church with one third the membership of our present church?

A pastor is sometimes asked to transfer at a time when such a move is very difficult for his wife or children. The security of the pastor's children is often threatened when they are forced to cut important ties. Should we not be able at least to consider the possibility of arranging our priorities in the order the Scriptures assign God, family, church, and world? Happy pastors with happy families and good rapport with administration accomplish much more in God's work than those who, along with their families, have barely recovered from one move when another is under way.

What can pastors do to have longer pastorates?

1. Make long-range plans.

2. Love people and let them know it.

3. Say No to some calls outside your conference.

4. Let your conference administrators know what you and your church members are planning.

5. Be as eager for a greater challenge as you are for a promotion.

6. Give your church members the privilege of planning long-range goals with you and of working together to achieve them.

What can administrators do to have longer pastorates in their fields?

1. Move fewer pastors who are doing well where they are.

2. Remember that a pastor may develop as rapidly in one long pastorate as in three short ones.

3. Don't become paranoid about pastors becoming too influential by staying too long in a single church.

4. Although it isn't easy, try to solve problems instead of transferring them.

5. Be reluctant to call men from other conferences who have been in their present position a very short time.

6. Give pastors the freedom to develop a specialized ministry to meet the needs of a particular area.

7. Consider the feelings and wishes of the pastor and the congregation he serves when a move is contemplated.

Numerical growth, long-range planning, and spiritual nurture of members should cause longer pastorates. And in turn, longer pastorates should encourage numerical growth, long-range planning, and spiritual nurture of members. God forbid, however, that we should stay in one place simply because the committee cannot find another church that will accept us! God forbid that our lack of vision and poor relationships with people will be what others hear most of our ministry. In some cases either remaining or moving would be a disaster!

God wants His local congregations to grow. He expects us to plan well and thoroughly, and to stay long enough to follow through our plans. He doesn't want to hear us groaning that we are a poor, unpopular, persecuted little group that can't grow. Big is not always bad, and small is not always sacred. I want to serve a still larger congregation. But I believe that God wants me to do so without the expense and hassle of moving. There is a more rewarding experience than moving to a large church—becoming a larger church!

How can it happen? Share with God a quiet place, some time, and your undivided attention. Together you can make plans that will bring unthinkable results. God will be happy; you will be happy; and the conference committee will be happy. God did not call us to retain the status quo. Dream big, plan carefully, and pray much. You may be one of the pastors to discover that a long-term pastorate (with the prospect of translation at the end) offers much more than a transfer to a larger church in another conference.

How does it feel to be in the same pastorate for twelve years? It feels great! I'd much rather belong to people than to a moving van, to a spiritual family than to a "movement."


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Norman Versteeg is pastor of the Garden Grove Seventh-day Adventist church, Garden Grove, California.

April 1981

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