Feature

Sticking But Not Getting Stuck

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Nineteen people assembled in semicircle rows of old folding chairs on the gymnasium’s worn tile floor. There were plenty of empty seats. The tired, decommissioned school had been vacant for more than a year, but it was our only affordable rental option.

We were four couples and a few students planting a church in a blossoming suburb of Chicago, aptly named Bloomingdale. Our little flock had just gotten acquainted. We were young, lacking experience and resources but resolute about reaching our growing community.

Would our underwhelming group go forward? Would we eventually worship in a more appealing place? Graduating from having to lug in our equipment and set up before the service each week would be nice too.

Committed to Stay

At a leadership conference in the early months of our church plant, I listened to a seasoned leader’s passionate plea. He invited Christ followers to live out a marathon runner’s kind of steadfast commitment in their local church. He urged the pastors and lay leaders present to be devoted shepherds for the long haul and not mere “hirelings” for a short run.

To the young pastors dotting the room, he offered a challenge: “Commit to stay at your first church for at least 10 years.” My reaction? Ten years seemed like a long time, especially when I was 25 years old. Could I lead our fledging flock that long?

Still, the “stay-10-years challenge” made sense to me. Ten years seemed like a reasonable timeframe to see the church plant stabilize and begin to forge a positive reputation in the community. We stayed and so did a lot of our small core.

My Tireless Tutor

In a few years, it became clear that staying with the same church family would give my wife, Marina, and me immense joy. We had front-row seats watching people come to Christ and then slowly mature in their faith. This blessing is extended to any lay leader or pastor who will stick with the same flock.

In 2018, Bloomingdale Alliance Church celebrated 40 years of helping people know Jesus. Photo courtesy of David Riemenschneider

Staying church members and staff get the privilege of working together through the inevitable bumps of change and growth that pop up as time parades by us. Personally, I did not learn in seminary about navigating a congregation well through change. At 25, I had plenty of idealism but puny realism about what enduring loyalty to the same flock meant. Then our flock launched into a straining building project that became my tireless tutor.

For two years, our young congregation painstakingly learned how to work together through the hassles of settling on building plans, raising the scary amount of finances needed, and then enduring that stretched-out construction phase. I am grateful for what the wearying experience taught me.

We eventually made it out of our rundown rented space before it was bulldozed for a super-size drug store. Then a few years later we launched into another major building project. I was a little more prepared for it this time.

Trust Capital

Long-term leaders have the unique potential to use the “trust capital” they have gained over time to persuade the flock to keep moving in the right direction. For example, they can effectively encourage the church family to keep reaching out to newcomers as a high priority.

When the benediction wraps up the service, it’s easier to launch into a conversation with friends than to seek out strangers. The window is brief since visitors generally slip out the door quickly. But prudent long-termers can continue to model making the most of these opportunities and effectively influence others to do it as well.

Need to Flex

There are numerous potential liabilities for long-term lay and staff leaders. Longstanding leaders tend to become more “set in their ways” the longer they stay. Sometimes they (we) feel like they have labored years to get the church program the way it should be and prefer to keep it that way. But staying lay and staff leaders need to flex for the honor of Christ and the health of the flock.

In our congregation, that younger generation we prayed so hard would someday emerge and lead eventually introduced many God-honoring changes. I thank God for them and the changes, even though it has been uncomfortable at times. Some of the other longtime leaders and I had to face down the reality that different can be good and that the methods of young, new leaders can often be better.

Risks of Staying

Stay-in-the-same-church people risk cooling off in their zeal as time slides by. At intervals, they may need some full-dose encouragement to rekindle their vigilance and the follow-through of their original vision. They may need some recalculating back to a humble, learner’s attitude toward God’s fresh leadings.

Bloomingdale has been offering Day Camp as a free service to the community for 40 years. Photo courtesy of David Riemenschneider

Long-standing leaders can drift. Over time, a noble passion to grow God’s church can morph to an ambition to fill those empty chairs on Sunday mornings. (We have had a lot of empty chairs at times.) Or it can become a fixation to build that bigger sanctuary (to have more empty chairs to fill). Pride can slip in and yank a leader off task.

An overreaching pastor or board member can leverage his/her influence to rally the board for a new staff position which appears to be a great idea (and seems to be God’s will too). But the move descends into an unhealthy pushiness of a longstanding leader misusing his/her trust capital. Unfortunately, long-term leaders are susceptible to becoming stale, short-sighted, stubborn, and even self-willed.

Hit the Refresh Button

What are we to do to avoid these missteps? We keep seeking God’s ways and not get stuck on our résumé of past experiences. For me, regular soul-searching prayer retreats and a weekly men’s prayer group with high accountability have often rescued me from myself.

Seeking out the unedited feedback of two mentors—a successful, Christ-honoring businessman and an older pastor—have been life changing. They have regularly delivered poignant reality checks concerning some of my bright (but not so good) ideas. These men have encouraged faithfulness and reminded me to serve Christ’s Church for His honor, not mine.

The bottom line? A God-seeking and long-standing commitment to our local church community makes a huge impact on the ministry of the church and the health of the people in it. But we, the people and the pastors, need to keep hitting the refresh button for God’s ongoing leadings. He often nudges us to stick with our local church family for its sake and for ours, and He lovingly rebuffs our tendency to become complacent and get stuck along the way. Longevity leaders humbly keep leveraging their influence for the honor and growth of Christ’s Church.

Church and Family

Marina and I found lifelong friends in our long-term commitment to our church family. Anyone who sticks with his local church can discover the same, whether he stands behind the pulpit each weekend or sits in front of it. Many of our closest friends are a part of our church family. We have raised our kids together. We have helped raise each other’s kids together.

Pastor David Riemenschneider (left) participates in a baptism at Bloomingdale (Ill.) Alliance Church. Photo courtesy of David Riemenschneider

Staying in the same church has also had a positive impact on our children. Half a dozen caring adults became role models to our two sons as they grew up. Their Sunday school teachers and Awana club leaders became the mentors with whom our sons regularly connect to this day.

Our sons, now in their 30s, and their wives have served as leaders in our youth programs for a decade. What a blessing Marina and I enjoy as we have watched them now doing for the next generation in our church what was done for them years ago!

In Retrospect

As those first 10 years slipped by, we connected with our church family and our city. We settled in for a second 10 years. Then we enjoyed a third decade. Now that we have completed a fourth decade, Marina and I, Lord willing, hope to go a few more years with this flock we love as long as they want us and we are contributing to the big mission.

We have no regrets about staying in one church. We thank God for His faithfulness despite our flawed leadership along the way. We deeply appreciate our church family that has journeyed with us so long, though after 40 years some are now in heaven. They became the village that helped raise our sons.

I am also grateful for the admonition that day to a green, idealistic young pastor. I pass along the same challenge I heard many years ago: Whether you are in the flock or on the staff, try to stay at your church for at least 10 years. You’ll probably have a more satisfying experience with church, a better ministry to others, and a better family life too. You may also discover that you will gladly stay much longer.

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