To Be a Misfit in a World of Impermanence

Tim Brister —  July 19, 2007 — 22 Comments

In his book, No Place for Truth, David Wells argues that two features of the disabling of the church are impermanence and marketability.  In the next two posts, I would like to address these two features individually with particular attention paid to my current situation in life.  Perhaps you might be able to relate to some of the things I have been thinking about in this context.  Let’s being with the issue of impermanence in the church.

Providing some a historical backdrop to the current ecclesiological disablement, Wells writes, “Lying between the eighteenth century and our own is a cluster of steadily declining graph lines indicating shorter and shorter tenures, growing pastoral impermanence, and increasingly shallow bonds between pastors and their churches” (228).  Referencing Daniel Calhoun’s Professional Lives in America, Wells draws attention to the some specific points in the declining graph lines:

* In 1670, the average pastoral tenure was twenty years.

* In 1810, the average pastoral tenure was fifteen years.

* In 1830, the average pastoral tenure was five years.

* In 1860, the average pastoral tenure was less than four years.

What these plot lines reveal is a paradigm shift in pastoral ministry that has continued to mark the church today.  In the old ministerial paradigm, Wells explains, “It was typical in the eighteenth century for a church and its ministers to enter into a compact that was sometimes legal in character but always morally binding and generally understood to last for the duration of a minister’s life. It was possible for a minister to move from one church to another, but only with the consent of both the original church and the surrounding churches or those in the presbytery” (229).  Indeed, it was often the case that “given the closeness of these ties, it is not surprising that the rhetoric associated with calling a minister was similar to that of a marriage ceremony; the forms spoke of the church and the minister being ‘united’ to one another” (230).  On the other hand, Wells explains that in the new ministerial paradigm, “The terms of the contract had been reduced from life to five years at the most and sometimes to as little as one year, and from this time forward partings between churches and their pastors became commonplace and almost expected. The links between pastors and churches became as thin and tenuous as the links between audiences and the circuit riders or wandering evangelists who visited them” (230).

As a twenty-eight year old man, I find myself entrenched in a culture of impermanence.  Very little seems to have enduring value these days.  Indicative of this reality is the fact that this blogpost will have a likely lifespan of less than twenty-four yours in the blogosphere before it is replaced with another article or two.  I can look in my father’s closet and find clothes he has worn since the day he was married; I look in my closet and find clothes I have worn a handful of times before they were out of style.  While going through my dresser drawer last night, I found a random collection of cell phones that are seemingly replaced with every seasonal contract renewal to stay abreast with the latest telecommunication features.  The hairdo’s of today will become fashionably taboo before your next visit to the barber shop.  In light of this, one can easily see how this cultural ethos can become the status-quo of a church that has become culturally captive to tragic and pervasive reality of impermanence.

When I was a student at the University of Mobile, several of the ministerial students would travel across the state of Alabama and preach in various churches on what was called “M-Days.”  A local association would coordinate with the area pastors to allow us to preach in their pulpit, and a special offering was given for International Mission trips taken through UM.  A distinct memory I have during this time of my life was preaching a “M-Day” at a church which has had 52 pastors in its 78 years of existence.   You don’t have to be a math major to know that the average tenure of the pastor was less than two years.  As the Director of Missions drove me back to our meet-up, I was notified that this phenomena was not peculiar to this church but had become the norm for many churches in that area.

The implications of pastoral impermanence are huge, and I couldn’t begin to elaborate on all of them in this post.  What I do hope to convey is a heartfelt desire to be an unapologetic misfit in this world of impermanence.  In earnest, I am praying that God would lead me to a place after seminary where I can find a home and also a burial plot.  I want to be able to tell God’s people that unless God intervenes, I have come to serve God’s people, give my life away, and die.  Here.  With a clear conscience, I want to spend and be spent for the glory of Christ and the building of His Kingdom through an enduring ministry that is marked with singularity and sacrifice.  Knowing that I am on the brink of making such a decision makes me tremble, pray, and seek the face of God with a sense of desperation and dependency unknown to me.

Over the course of the past six months, I could not begin to tell you how many times people have asked me, “So what are you going to do after seminary?”  And with every question, I have tried to humbly answer, “I don’t know right now.  What I do know is that I want to be prepared to die wherever He takes me.”  If that is the barrios of Brazil, the urban centers of India, rural America, or the church next door, I pray that God liberates me into embracing obscurity and anonymity for the greatness of His name and the salvation of souls.  If, perhaps, God can use me to be an anomaly in the current statistical database of impermanence, then maybe I could help to make this next generation become the new “enablers” who see glory in the Church as never before.   We are living in a day of change, but it could be that the very best change in the church would be the unchanging faithfulness of God-sent ministers who put their hands to the plow and quit looking for greener pastures.  It might just be that the soil God has you trotting upon to be the fruitful ground for a sweaty, life-long laborer in the field of souls.

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  • I hope that he sends you to Muscle Shoals! Come die with us! 🙂

    Great comments. Seeing the fruit of our pastor (Jeff Noblit) being at FBCMS for 26+ years has really helped me to see what this entry is talking about.

  • I was 28 when I came to Milford, MI and have pastored in the same church for 21 years. I’ve had the privilege of mentoring a 5 year old on the road to a 25 year old youth minister, and actually knowing the families for whom I do funerals. I am a part of the local community, and am largely anonymous outside.

    We continually struggle with a sense of failure when we do not participate in the name game, because we are so terribly influenced by standards produced in a world where God is ignored. But I am quite sure that the new heavens and earth will be populated by people unkown in the world that no longer exists. Thanks for your post, and here’s a prayer that your followership will be remarkable in the sight of God.

  • Scott W. Kay

    Timmy, I am blessed and impressed by your perspective, especially as a seminary student. I can only pray that your (our) tribe is increasing. I especially appreciate your attitude to be prepared to die wherever God sends you. What a mark of maturity and serious-mindedness about the holy task of ministry to God’s people. May the Lord bless you with a joyful ministry, for it sounds like someone is going to get blessed a wise minister of the Gospel – in you.

  • “Over the course of the past six months, I could not begin to tell you how many times people have asked me, “So what are you going to do after seminary?” And with every question, I have tried to humbly answer, “I don’t know right now.”

    Tim, how encouraging to hear this. I’ve been asked this for the past 7 years (that’s how long I’ve been in seminary!) and have had the same answer as you. Yet, the Lord is faithful to direct us in His calling. We are to be faithful to serve where we are now!

    Thanks bro.

  • Thomas,

    Yes, Jeff Noblit is a wonderful example of an elder misfit. I also think of Piper, MacArthur, Al Jackson (Lakeview Baptist, Auburn), and many others. Thank God for such enduring ministries!


    Great words. Reminds me of what Wells says about the New England pastor in the 18th century:

    “It was in this role, then, that the New England minister in particular acted as the focus of the town’s life, dispensed its moral teachings, organized much of its life, and became an integral part of many of its families. Having a minister functioning in this role transformed a mere community into a town, and it gave the minister a public role to play in the exercise of his ministry.”

    We need more permanent fixtures in the heart of the city. There’s much to be said about a minister and a physician of souls who can say that he was there at their birth as well as their death. Every aspect of pastoral ministry is impacted when a minister finds his “success” not in a resume or career but in persevering love and faithfulness to the covenant community which he was called to lead.

  • Scott,

    Thank you brother for the kind words. Writing something like this feels like I am peeling back my heart and letting it just come out (in other words, “pant”). The theme of this post is overwhelming to me, and I pray that the Lord could encourage others as I have been encouraged by men like you. Thanks again.


    Angie has had her baby yet?! It’s about time isn’t it? Yeah, while I would like to say that I know exactly where I am going and what I will be doing, in my case that would be simply presumptuous and short-sighted. However, in light of God’s providence in dealing with me and the promises of God’s Word, I rest in God’s purpose for my life, knowing that my times are in His hands. In the meantime, I pray that for us, God will be our portion in the land of the living, and that we will be satisfied with the daily bread as He takes in the journey that requires faith and not 20/20 vision.

    P.S. Tell Maddie and Libbie I said hello. 🙂

  • Excellent observations. I am in my first pastorate and have been here for 10 years. I too have had the pleasure and profit of seeing those who are young grow into adulthood, be married, and begin to bear children. I find it a particular blessing to realize that there are many children here who are 10 or younger who simply do not do of any other pastor. Such a weighty responsibility and what a true blessing. Yet, I cannot count the times I have been tempted to leave. Part of that is the very culture we live in pressing in upon me, part of it is simply my sinful tendencies against contentment. There is a conviction that each man must bring to a church that he enters as pastor. And that conviction will be quickly tested as he ministers the Word to God’s people.

  • Brother Timmy,
    “In earnest, I am praying that God would lead me to a place after seminary where I can find a home and also a burial plot. I want to be able to tell God’s people that unless God intervenes, I have come to serve God’s people, give my life away, and die. Here.”

    From what I have observed from a great distance for quite some time, – I know, I don’t know you personally, just through your writings – I believe, by God’s good grace, you will do just that. Just think about it, just that one little feature of your ministry may impress two, or three, or five young lads who will some day go out and do the same. To the glory of God.

    Brother Steve,
    I have just started reading Too Great a Temptation, by Dr. Joel Gregory. It’s the account of how Gregory came in 1992 to FBC, Dallas to follow in the footsteps of W. A. Criswell, only to resign twenty-one months later. So far, a fascinating read. What a contrast is your testimony of faithfulness over fame. My pastor has been at the church I attend for over sixteen years.

    I remember reading a post over at the new 9Marks blog dealing with the topic of going and investing your whole life in one ministry. It was similar to Timmy’s post, but not nearly so eloquent and moving.

    Blessings all

  • Hey brother. I am a fellow student at Southern, at Boyce College, and I came to your blog through my great friend Kameron Pugh. Anyways man, I was wondering if you could help me with something if you have the time.

    I am looking to get a digital camera, and I have anywhere from 300-600 dollars to spend on one. I was wondering if you could shoot me the names of a few that you know of that are within that price range. I know you are very busy and if you cannot I completely understand, I am just lost as to what to look for and what is good and worth the money. my little site is and if you want to leave some names of some camera’s on there that would be a great help and much appreciated.
    Thank you for your time brother.
    In Grace,

  • Good post. I feel that “professionalism” has infected the pastorate so that we think that there is a career ladder that we have to climb. The pastorate is not about us.

    I am coming up on my one year anniversary of being a pastor after graduating seminary in May 2006. I’ve quickly figured out that longevity in the pastorate is one of most critical elements of successful ministry.

    So far, my first year has been all about trying to build a solid theological foundation among the people and just trying to build trust and good relationships. A few days before I started last year, an older pastor who’s been at one church his entire ministry told me that he didn’t feel like he really even got started ministering until he’d been there about 4 years.

    It would be a great privilege to serve in one church for 35 years.

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  • Great post, Timmy! Believe it or not, this is one of many reasons I have gone the direction of church planting. The world of impermanence comes from both directions, the pastors and the churches. Pastors don’t want to be in a place for more than five years and churches don’t want their pastors to stay more than five years. This is why men like John Macarthur and John Piper are so rare today, and so impactful I might add!

  • Letitia Wong

    Great blog post! Pastoral positions are the only job I know of that’s not a job, but we treat like a job. Committees review resumes. Churches “hire” pastors and “fire” pastors. The pastor is supposed to fill some job description. Sounds like employment. Only biblically, it’s not.

    I am all too familiar with the politics and conflict involved when churches experience “turnover” in their pastorates. I began to suspect that there was something not quite right about the way pastors came to their positions a few years back when listening to a former pastor (now deceased) admit that although he had been the pastor of his church for a whopping 13 years, the congregation still didn’t trust him and respect his authority.

    Here’s the typical cycle: a church needs a pastor; in the meantime, they get an interim – a committee is set up to review resumes and find prospective hires from all over the country – after narrowing it down to one, a few are called to check out the church – after the church deliberates about this person, a vote is cast – approval (he’s from God!); he’s hired – after a few months to a few years, conflict erupts, and the pastor quits or is fired – the church needs a pastor, and the cycle begins again.

    As a potential future pastor, you need to know that most existing congregations have likely been burned and wounded, experienced division, are rife with politics, and have influential members or deacons that are more in charge than any pastor ever was (or will be). The time elapsed between pastors may rival the time where there is a pastor, which is often where their loyalty and leadership have become foundational to the congregation; interim pastors are forgettable. In a church model where the congregation is set up as the final arbiter of everything that goes on, TRUST and RESPECT for the pastor are two things that matter most but are rarely given.

    Churches should rethink congregational rule. Indeed, the Bible demonstrates quite a different model. Granted, congregational rule worked well 100 years ago here in the US, but yet, that was 100 years ago, and churches HAVE changed a lot since then (much less missional than they used to be). Pastors need to lead, but churches do not follow and routinely use congregational rule to limit pastoral leadership only to what THEY feel comfortable with (in other words, don’t mess with us). Pastors should mess with people–that is the divine gift that God requires men to exercise.

    So, Timmy Brister, what are you going to do when you grow up? Consider what you really want to do in ministry and be open to the idea that, tragically, a church may not allow you to do those things.

    I apologize for being so bleak. There is a happier alternative, but I’m not sure people are so accepting of this. The trust issue is just too big of a hurdle.


  • Sorry for taking so long to reply! Let me try to chime in . . .


    Thanks for sharing your experience, and in particular, your struggle with contentment and the temptation to leave. May the Lord continue to direct your paths and guard your heart as you seek to serve Him and the Church which He purchased with His own blood.


    Thank you, brother, for those generous words. Like Paul, I pray God continually reminds me that “by the grace of God I am what I am.” BTW, I too would be interested in reading about the events of Joel Gregory and FBC Dallas. One of the tragic things I have noticed lately is the difficulty of a succeeding pastor who follows a man who had been there as a permanent fixture. Many do not make it past a couple of years, if that.

  • Brian,

    The question you need to decide is whether you want to go with the point-and-shoot route or get a D-SLR. If you choose to go D-SLR, the entry level Nikon is the D40 which lists for around $520 (which comes with the lens kit). While I prefer getting the camera body and lens separately, this would work to get your feet wet. The thing is, the price of D-SLR’s are really close to the price of regular point-and-shoot digital cameras, but your options are worlds apart. I would go D-SLR if I were you.

    Follow this link to check out the D40 at B&H Photo Video:

  • Mark,

    Amen! Thanks for sharing. Along those lines, I was told that it takes approximately seven years being a pastor before you actually become one, and are given the trust and respect of the people. May God give you great joy as your give yourself away to His people!


    I concur with the church planting part. I also think you could do a “re-church plant” with a dead or dying church, reforming it from within. It may take a longer time, but that’s what pastoral permanence is all about. I think that having a thick skin and tender heart and a spirit of longsuffering are definitely qualities that contribute to an enduring ministry–traits I see in many of the honorable “misfits” today.


    In the short time I have been in ministry, I can relate to much of what you said in your comments. Unfortunately, the chairman of deacons or key Sunday School teacher have more authority and respect than the revolving-door pastor, and part of me asks, “Why blame them?” While both are unbiblical and wrong, I can understand the wall that is built up, and the reservations that a congregation may have as a result of having been a victim of a career-driven or spineless minister. However, on the other hand, congregations can also not grow out of that mentality and continue to inflict harm to themselves and prohibit their pastor from having the platform and opportunity to turn things around. When the congregation finds in a man not a professional or charlatan but a true, selfless, and sacrificial servant of Christ, I believe there is the promise of a new beginning–a promise that is perpetuated by humble proclamation, authentic and transparent exemplary living, and a marriage of conviction and compassion in making change. When I grow up, I pray God helps me love His people in a way that communicates to them that I come with a towel and basin, not a resume or certificate.

  • Great post, Timmy. Thanks.

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  • Very excellent post!!

    Out here in Quebec, Canada where I live, this impermanence is very present in churches less than 30 years old. I would say this kind of situation did not become the norm for our churches, but was always the norm. I am 28 years old too and am being trained for ministry in my home church. I have always been at the same church since I was 1 year old (~27 years). Of course it’s only since I was 15 years old that I decided to come to church on my own will. But my point is this, I have seen 4 pastors come and go to my church. Every time a pastor decided to leave, it was his own decision to leave and the church could not try to convince him otherwise. It is as if the pastor was just doing a career move to put himself in a better position. This is sad.

    But I would like to finish on a positive note. I just a a pastor in our family of churches who had been in the same church for 20 years. This year, he got an “offer” (again almost as if pastorate is just another job opportunity) from another church who was in need. He immediately brought it forward to an elders meeting. They were mad at first to see that another church had just offered something like this to their pastor without approaching the church leaders as a whole. But after a while they asked forgiveness and they considered the offer together. The pastor did have a desire to go pastor the other church, but on only one condition: he would go only if his own church would accept to send him to the church that had made the offer. This was to be decided by a vote of all the church members. If the vote did not pass, he accepted to stay at his church. If the vote passed, he would accept to leave his church and be sent to the other one. His church voted to let him leave to go help the other church and this was done in complete harmony and love. When I heard this, I praised God to see this pastor’s love for his church and the church’s love for him.

    This is a rare thing here in Quebec and I pray that God would use this example as a model for the rest of the churches in our church family.

    Keep on the good blogging!!

  • Thanks Alex for your comment and expressing your desire to serve Christ’s Church in faithfulness!

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