The Risk of Staying Put–Thirty Years in One Congregation

By Nancy Karpenske

I promised the Lord early on that I would be willing to go wherever he called me. I would be willing to move on. Then I listened carefully for him to call. I watched the seasons roll by, and waited for him to tell me it was time to move on. Occasionally I prayed, “Could you please call me somewhere else? I’m not happy here.” But the call never came.

It’s been almost 30 years since I became a part of this congregation; I’ve served it mostly as a staff member, although for nearly a decade of that time I was busy being a mom and a volunteer. It is a rare privilege to be able to stay put. But not without risks.

The Disadvantages

The risk of becoming too comfortable. I know the names of hundreds of people, from the elderly to the teens and toddlers. I’m still “the daughter” of many of the older folks who welcomed me when I first arrived. I’ve watched the young ones grow up and marry and have children. I belong.

So I sometimes forget what it would be like to come into this building for the very first time. I never wonder if I am dressed appropriately, or where to drop off the kids. I don’t worry that I might make a mistake during the service and somehow humiliate myself.

I know whom to ask if I need something done right. I know where to find the supplies and whom to call at the last minute. The surroundings are pretty familiar and pretty comfortable.

That leads to another disadvantage.

The risk of depending on my experience instead of God. Because I’ve “been there, done that,” for so many years, I must make a conscious effort to let God be the one who is in charge. He could delegate to me; I’m quite capable and self-reliant, especially with all my experience.

The tendency always exists to take shortcuts, because I’m so familiar with the processes. I don’t need to look at my calendar to know when to book the hotel and speaker for the next retreat. I can pull out my file that tells me every step to take in order to complete the project on time.

So I review my list, make my phone calls, and check that one off the to-do list. I can accurately estimate how much time and energy it will take to accomplish any particular project, because either I’ve done it before, or it’s like something I’ve done before.

But with that familiarity is the tendency to jump into the middle without stopping to ask God whether he might have something different in mind. All too often I have spent sleepless nights worrying about details. Sometimes it seems like God says, “If you would have asked for my opinion or guidance before you jumped into this, you wouldn’t be so stressed.”

It’s a scary feeling to look back at the many times I have pulled off something with mostly human effort. I wonder what the outcome could have been if I had not tried to handle it on my own.

The risk of taking advantage of the ones who love me. People here know me all too well: I don’t eat bananas, and I know endless details and trivia about the book of Esther. I’m never really sure when someone is making a joke. I’m not afraid to speak up in a discussion, but I like to have time to craft a presentation. They put up with my weaknesses and make allowances for them. They give me a lot of responsibility and not a lot of accountability.

It’s because we go back a long way. When the church was smaller, we banded together to accomplish great things. We struggled through some hard times, and we’re still serving God together.

So the tendency is to let me off the hook, make an excuse if I forget to return a phone call or don’t get something finished by the deadline. Now that there are multiple services and campuses, if they don’t see me at one location, they assume I’m at the other one. I could sleep in and it would take a while for someone to miss me.

I don’t really want my friends to just put up with me. I want them to expect that I still can grow and change and overcome faults and idiosyncrasies. I want to be held to the highest standard. I don’t want them to make allowances for me just because I have “seniority.” I don’t want to rest on my achievements. I want to hold on to my integrity.

The Advantages

Staying put isn’t all bad. I’ve realized a few advantages.

Gaining credibility and synergism. When I make a suggestion or get an idea, people know my track record. They know I spend money carefully, meet deadlines, and recruit enough help for the size of the project. They know they can trust me to keep confidences.

I have invested in their lives, not just used them for my ministry. They believe me when I say it’s time to make a change in strategy or it’s worth trying something again.

They also come to recognize that I need help; I can’t do it by myself. They recognize the areas where I’m not too competent, and they contribute what I cannot.

Working through relationship glitches. I haven’t clicked with every staff member. I’ve had little in common with some and butted heads with others. The same goes for regular church members who volunteered with me. Mostly the outcomes have been positive.

I’ve learned to improve my communication skills, so I don’t give the wrong impression or say what I didn’t mean. I’ve found joy in working for a common cause with someone I had hastily misjudged. I’ve discovered that we can work toward a common goal (advancing the kingdom) without necessarily agreeing on every detail.

We can work together because we have the same greater goal. We can work together because we have come to recognize the strengths each of us brings. We can accept and compensate for each other’s weaknesses rather than attacking or berating. We can work together because we have developed a long history of trust and communication. We can laugh about the times we took ourselves too seriously.

Some changes take a long time and require persistence. Some people hear the gospel once and are ready to say “yes.” A woman came to our Easter service last year because she received one of the thousands of postcards we had sent. She felt personally invited. The next Sunday she asked if she could be baptized.

But most people move more slowly. Some folks hang around the church for a long time before they get the nerve to “take the plunge.” I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been shocked to see an individual wading into the baptistery and starting his life over. I had given up and decided that person was too stubborn to ever submit to the lordship of Christ.

Beyond the surprising joy of seeing someone allow his heart to be softened, I relish watching and sometimes having a hand in helping someone grow. It is such a thrill to see someone step out to volunteer for the first time, to take a leap out of her comfort zone. I never tire of watching Christians blossom and begin to bear fruit.

When I read that most ministers move to a different congregation every two years, I feel as if they missed the harvest. The soil they tilled and the ground they planted was just beginning to take root and sprout. Kids I took to camp are missionaries in faraway places. Toddlers I sang with are now bringing their own children to Sunday school. Adults I encouraged to get involved are now leading ministries. I can’t take credit for how they turned out. But how thankful I am that God has allowed me to stay in one place.

Don’t get the wrong idea. Even though I’ve belonged to only one church for more than half of my life, it’s been an adventure with surprising turns and astonishing changes. Some of the changes have been in the church, some in the community, and truthfully, most of them in me. How grateful I am for the friends who have served with me and made up for my inadequacies. How humbled I am that God is willing to work through me and in me and some days, in spite of me.


 

 

Nancy Karpenske, a contributing editor with CHRISTIAN STANDARD, is director of women’s ministry at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado.

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