By Greg Marksberry
An old rock tune poses a quintessential question with the lyric, “Should I stay or should I go?” Every servant-leader, paid or unpaid, has wrestled through that quandary at some point in ministry. It is an intensely personal matter that requires sincerely seeking God’s will to resolve effectively. But it also requires an honest assessment of our personal makeup, maturity, and motives.
Personality profiles indicate most people are wired with a preference for stability and the status quo over change. Variously referred to as “peaceful/phlegmatic,” the “golden retriever,” or the “S” (steady) profile, by some estimates it is the dominant personality type accounting for as much as two-thirds of the general populace.
So it seems most people need to learn the discipline of going, or risk-taking, more than the discipline of staying. It’s true people sometimes stay in a place of service or position of leadership waiting for a miracle when the miracle is waiting on them elsewhere. However, with the average tenure for preaching ministries in America at about five years, and about half that for youth ministries, the bigger need in church leadership is for stability.
The Benedictine way of life may have something to teach us here. Benedictines are known for their vows of fidelity, obedience, and stability. Their vow of stability represents a lifelong commitment to a particular community. These leaders choose to limit themselves to one place and one group of people for their entire lives.
Such strong commitment to stability proclaims a certain rootedness, a kind of contentment sorely needed in our culture today. It promises faithfulness to the community and its needs. It foregoes the desire to run when things seem frustrating, boring, or hopeless.
Recently two well-known ministers retired following long-term ministries spanning decades in their respective churches. Bob Russell and Wally Rendell are “poster children” for the discipline of staying. I’m confident these two great Christian leaders could cite many examples of the compounding effect their investment of life and love and years had on the congregations they served. And, I wouldn’t be surprised if their staying also deepened their own personal and spiritual development as well.
Church leaders commonly challenge participants in weekend worship to “unpack their bags” and commit to genuine community. We know how important authenticity and accountability are if real growth is to happen in a person’s life.
In the financial world, savvy investors discipline themselves to avoid reacting to a market’s volatility because they know the advantages of staying with their investments for the long term. Certainly some situations stifle our effectiveness, and God has the prerogative to call us to new fields of service at any time. But how often do church leaders limit the return on their investments in churches, communities, and in their particular callings because they’ve not learned the discipline of staying?
Here are a few keys for staying that financial investors refer to and that we’ve noticed apply in ministry as well.
Investors develop discipline in order to weather cycles in the economy. They avoid turning paper losses into real losses. Discouragement, difficulty, and self-doubt will come. Anticipating such things is the first step in staying the course in order to maximize long-term gains.
Those who’ve made the greatest contributions in life have often survived seasons of extreme difficulty. Shakespeare points this out in Julius Caesar, “Even so, great men great losses must endure.”
Discouragement can set in when we face outside opposition to our work. Nehemiah experienced a downturn when his enemies threatened war and plotted his assassination. Yet the walls of Jerusalem were restored because he disciplined himself to endure the threats. His classic retort is in Nehemiah 6:3, “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down!”
Difficulty can arise from outside or within. One painful period in our church came only three years after launch. A disgruntled leader led a divisive petition drive and used harsh words to openly criticize fellow leaders. Although only a few families left the church, there were moments in which I feared our church would lose its ministry vision. Perspective is a result of staying through difficult times; years later, God’s grace is evident in all the parties involved.
Self-doubt also brings downturns. The needs of those we serve and the expectations placed upon us can cause us to feel in over our heads. On one occasion Moses was so overwhelmed he literally asked God to take his life. Perhaps you can relate to his cry in Numbers 11:14, “I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me.” Rather than throw in the towel, however, Moses found strength to stay through his season of self-doubt and as a result learned to delegate and trust. In doing so he demonstrated the next key in the discipline of staying.
Embrace the Cost of Growth
There is always a price to be paid for growth. Investments require, well, an investment! We often associate risk with stepping into a new frontier, but willingness to venture risk is also needed to stay.
The cost of growth is in the reality that the longer we serve in one place with one group the more our flaws and weaknesses are exposed. Leadership inevitably brings a sense of vulnerability in which we feel laid bare before those we serve. During these downturns we may become embarrassed and wonder if it would be easier to start fresh with people who don’t know us so well. But when we extract ourselves from environments that require acceptance for who we are, warts and all, and offer us accountability, we fail to grow. Developing the discipline of staying enables us to work through our core issues.
Hudson Taylor blazed the mission trail to inland China in the late 1800s. In the book, Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, Taylor’s son Howard quotes his father: “There are no shortcuts to planting the church. And suffering, self-sacrifice, and a servant spirit will be prerequisite to faithfulness and success in any setting.” Howard adds, “This suffering, self-sacrifice, and servant spirit will not, indeed must not, stop with the planting. The church needs to be watered and nurtured and matured.”
There is a price to be paid in both starting and maturing churches and organizations. There are no shortcuts to either. We may strap in for the long haul but we must never settle into comfort zones that require little or no sacrifice. Hudson Taylor embraced the cost of growth by pouring his life into reaching inland China. His first wife and daughter—both of whom died young due to harsh field conditions—and Taylor himself are buried in Chinese soil. He embraced the cost of growth that certainly prepared the way for the massive movement underway in China today.
Enjoy the Yield
Stability in leadership helps a church or an organization focus on its mission. Great energy is expended in searching for new leaders every few years. This inevitably creates a loss of focus on the mission as well. However, when leaders stay they help the organizations and churches they serve to achieve clarity in their focus and catalytic energy toward the realization of their corporate vision.
Developing the discipline of staying ultimately produces a return on the investment that extends through generations. The great benediction of Paul in Ephesians 3:20, 21 celebrates the power of God in us that can do immeasurably more than what we would dare ask or even begin to imagine. Paul says the work God does through us will bring glory to Christ throughout all generations.
Could it be that God’s greatest work in and through your life and ministry will be accomplished as you discipline yourself to stay and pour yourself into the emerging generations right where you live?
Greg Marksberry ministers with Heritage Christian Church, Fayetteville, Georgia.