I was impressed with how everybody approached everything. There were no easy choices. Nobody had any preferred axes to grind. Everybody around the table was mature, committed, giving, thoughtful. And I was comfortable in my discomfort. This is what I asked for, after all.
A bit of explanation is in order. When I came to this church, I told God, Just once in my career, I want to catch a wave and ride it all the way into the beach. Just once. I wanted to stay, oh, six years, and see the congregation respond to my leadership, and all that. Within a year or two I amended my prayer to seven years. Seven years and I would be ready to move on to something else.
Well, I have been at my present appointment for seven years next month. And I am acutely aware that I could leave at any time. I have accomplished just about everything I set out to do. I entered on a wave, rode the wave all the way to the end, and now, as attendance and participation is in a bit of transition, I could leave -- and I would always be "the pastor." You know, the guy who always did everything right, that all his successors grind their teeth when they hear about. If I had asked for a change of appointment last December, I'd be moving now, probably with a nice raise, and be going out with all my flags flying, a winner.
But a year ago December, I asked my District Superintendent to keep me on for a few more years. I also asked for permission to bring on a student associate. Part of this, to be perfectly honest, is because I'm not ready to move yet. In the original plan, I was going to ride the wave all the way into the beach, then retire or go part-time, following my wife's career until she was ready to retire. But that was when she thought there was going to be some "up" in her job, and that she would stay with that company until retirement. She lost that job last year, and spent several months unemployed. She now works for less money, lower benefits (and, to be honest, less stress). But that means we're still dependent upon my salary and benefits for our overall situation. We're trying to develop our holler for a retirement home, and I'd like to settle down in a few years, but I don't know . . .
That said, that's not what's kept me here. I'm a very goal-oriented person. If I just marked time because I didn't want to move, I'd go buggy, and probably soon turn everyone off and be putting out all sorts of fires. No, if I'm going to stay for a while, I want something to accomplish. So what I pitched to the DS was this: I'd stay and lead them to the next stage of where they need to be, then leave them better than I found them.
You see, they keep rolling right up to the next level in attendance and participation, then rolling back. They don't know how to be the next size church. But with the fixed costs of staying in business and other things catching up with them, they can't just stay where they are. Either they all decide to make the trek UP the mountain to the next base camp, or they'll wind up abandoning their position for someplace lower down. They can grow, or they can decline -- but staying where they are is not an option.
Meanwhile, all the Church Growth experts say that in a long-term pastorate, the pastor's most productive years are years 7-10. So that's what I'm aiming for. I have their trust. They know I love them, and have always told them the truth. If they won't believe me now, they never will; and they might not believe the next guy if I left. Oh, they'd get an artificial zap of energy from the Goodbye-Hello routine and checking out the new pastor. But their long-term situation can't be fixed by just starting over the cycle again. They don't need to hit Reset, they need to go up a level, shift up a gear. So I am staying, gambling on God and the chance that they'll follow me to where they need to be.
Back to the Finance Committee meeting. I've always felt uncomfortable with talking money, especially when the biggest set of costs on the table are ministerial salaries, benefits, travel, etc. But even though I was out of my comfort zone, I felt so calm. We're all friends. We all love God and our church. So we sat down and talked real to each other for an hour and fifteen minutes.
We didn't come up with any magic bullets. Some painful choices lie ahead. I don't know if we'll make it where we need to go. But nobody's talking crazy, and nobody wants to eat the seed corn. This is the first step: we've actually got a functioning committee that's starting to talk about giving and spending and managing -- and who understands that this is primarily a spiritual issue, not a financial one.
As much difficulty as we're in, I know God is with us. Whatever happens will work out. So I'm not protecting myself; I'm speaking the truth in love. And we just might see some really groovy things happen at the ol' fruit stand. Pray for us.