It was cold morning in Pasadena but an unusually high number of sleepy seminarians dragged themselves into a classroom for a muffin and weak coffee (this was before "The Starbucks Revolution"). The reason: Eugene Peterson, respected author and "pastor to pastors" was going to speak at the Spiritual Formation breakfast (which, as I have already noted, wasn't much of a breakfast).
To be blunt, Peterson wasn't great that morning. Maybe he needed better coffee to get going, too. The hour seemed to drag on and I remember being disappointed. I had come to hear this man whose books had so inspired and shaped my sense of pastoral calling and now I was leaving with a growling stomach and not much food for thought.
And then, the moderator threw out one last question. I think it was meant to be a simple little wrap up question, to inspire a nice feel-good moment of spiritual encouragement: "Eugene, what one bit of advice would you give to our seminarians today as the make plans to start their calling as pastors?"
His response was utterly unexpected. Peterson: "My advice to you is to spend your ministry in one church. Spend your life ministering to the same congregation. You see, pastors of past generations used to think of a call to a ministry las being ike a marriage. They felt betrothed to their congregations. Seek your calling and spend your life there."
At that moment, the room just went silent. The effect was devastating. Here was a group of maybe 100 pastors-in-training, most of whom had drunk the kool-aid of climbing the corporate ladder. It was the hey-day of the Church Growth Movement. We all wanted to be pastors of big churches and the best way to do that was to keep moving on and moving up every couple of years. But we all really respected Eugene Peterson and he was telling us to abandon that track all together. I found out later that this was a deep conviction of Peterson's. When one of my friends who knows him personally phoned to tell him that he had been called to a little town in Northern California, Peterson told him, "Congratulations, now go buy your burial plot."
Peterson's advice that morning shaped me more than almost anything that I learned in seminary. It slapped to consciousness the ambitions that I had been denying. It made me realize that I was afraid of knowing people too well and what that would demand of me as a pastor. But it also opened my heart to a different kind of ministry, something I really was longing for, something of the past that offered a genuine hope for the church today. The pastor as a genuine community-builder who is deeply bonded to, betrothed to, belonging to a people.
Yes, some of us will need to serve in more than one church, that will be our calling. Some of us need to leave behind churches that are not a good fit for us. Some of us will serve in some churches, only to gain the wisdom and maturity that we need to serve another for the rest of our careers. But far more of us need to recover the blessing of staying put.
Studies show that the healthiest churches in America are those with the longest tenured pastors and I believe that the only truly healthy way for a pastor to live is to stay around long enough for our people to come to really love us warts and all.
When I was called to San Clemente Presbyterian Church I was 33 years old. I didn't buy my burial plot, but I did invite everyone in the church to my daughter's high school graduation. She was 3 months old at the time.