Have you read that “The average pastoral tenure in a church is 3.6 years?”[i] Or, were you aware that 38% of pastors have considered quitting full-time ministry this past year?[ii] How does a pastor persevere when the country has been ripped apart by division? How do we process those who have dropped out of the church in our hearts? How do we continue when our own family struggles with the demands of the church? How do we persevere in ministry over the long haul?
Dave Peterson is a great person to offer insight into our questions. I write that because he is retiring this spring after 42 years as the senior pastor of Centreville (Michigan) Baptist Church. Before Dave’s pastorate, Centreville’s pastors’ average length of service had been only a few years. But, of course, that says a lot; the church has been around for 170 years.
In 1980, Dave began his career with little experience, a wife and a piece of paper saying he graduated from Bethel Seminary. He intended to stick around for a couple of years and move on like the 39 pastors who preceded him.
But God had other plans. His wife began to work at the library. He started serving on the school and library boards. Their family grew, and Dave fell in love with his church and community. He was all in.
He ministered out of his calling, not for the numbers. His church was small. He wasn’t pastoring for the salary or the parsonage either. He had to get another job teaching at the local community college.
Yet, God opened doors and poured out his gifts. People came to faith, grew in Christ, got baptized, and served.
Yet small-town ministry has not always been easy. Some members moved away, some passed away, some divorced and some left the faith. That hurts when you have invested your time, energy and prayers into people. But, ultimately, God is the one who builds the church, and the gates of Hell won’t prevail against it.
I have enjoyed getting to know Dave through a group of Converge MidAmerica pastors who come together around Converge’s vision and to start new churches and strengthen each other. He has shared with me his story of God’s grace and faithfulness and a bit of advice for us pastors.
What helped you persevere in ministry all this time?
“In reflecting on encouragement to persevere over the years, the Lord has repeatedly used 1 Corinthians 15:58 in a variety of ways as an encouragement to stand firm. It has been the word God has brought to my wife and me in times of discouragement.”
What has been the most influential book for you in ministry besides the Bible?
“Ten years into ministry, I read the book Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome by Kent and Barbara Hughes. It was powerful. Hughes laid a biblical foundation that numbers are not the best way to evaluate success. A more biblical way of determining success is dynamic prayer and the impact on the community. Whatever size of church you are, you can have both [of] those things.”
What would you say if you were to offer two keys to longevity in ministry to a young pastor?
“Expectations kill us. We get unreasonable expectations, and we suffer when they are not met. Instead, look to God for your expectations ― not human expectations.
Another piece of advice is to love the people. There was a time when people said don’t get too close. Don’t establish relationships. I think you should be genuine and honest with your people. You are going to be close to people. And one of the ways we could stay is they have reciprocated that. Share in the heartaches.”
What advice would you give those who are considering rural ministry?
“Settle into the community. Be involved in the community. For a long time, you will be an outsider. People are all related, and you run into each other.” You will be in good company. Jesus was an outsider, too, ministering in big and little towns.
When it comes to bi-vocational ministers, what counsel do you have?
“Your other job needs to be seen as a secondary thing. Your primary responsibility is the church ministry and preaching. The church board needs to be in agreement with that. It can be a way to connect to the community. Life is becoming expensive. The alternative is to close [the church].”
I am so thankful for Dave and his legacy as a follower of Christ, husband, father, pastor, and community leader. His words are apropos.
The Apostle Paul, as he finished up his ministry, wrote some parting thoughts that relate.
Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began (2 Tim. 1:8–9).
Paul and Dave’s words challenge us. We must remember that we are not alone in our struggles. We are in this together. Let us thank God for the grace at work in Dave, Centreville Baptist Church, and Converge. And let us join Dave and Paul unashamedly pressing into our calling for God’s glory, the spread of the gospel and our joy.