I recently had the privilege of honoring one of America’s great pastors – a wonderful co-worker in ministry, a powerful force for good in the city of Los Angeles, and dear friend of mine. Bishop Charles Blake has pastored West Angeles Church in the heart of L.A. for forty-six years! That’s what you call “putting down roots” in a congregation and city. There aren’t many pastors who’ve cared for one congregation for that long. (One of my 6 mentors served his church in Dallas for 50 years.)
A big reason why many churches are plateaued and declining is because they change leaders every few years. There’s no way a church can grow healthy and strong if the office of the pastor has a revolving door. What would happen to a family that got a new daddy every 3 or 4 years? The children would have massive trust issues from not knowing who they count on, and all kinds of emotional wounds, including a fear of abandonment, poor self-esteem, and a suspicious attitude in every relationships. When so many pastors move around every few years (or they are forced to move by their denomination) it’s no wonder many churches are weakened by conflict, cliques, gossip, and distrust.
Usually in a church, the first year for a new pastor is the ”honeymoon” – everybody tries to get along and be happy. (Actually it’s not really a honeymoon, just suspended judgment!) The second year for new pastor, he starts to be criticized by people who don’t like his new direction for the church. The seven last words of the church are “We’ve never done it that way before!”
By the third or fourth year, somebody has to leave… either the pastor leaves, or those who are dissatisfied leave. From 35 years of coaching pastors and mediating church conflicts between members and their pastors, I’ve seen this over and over: When the pastor leaves, the problems stay. (They’re left for the next poor pastor to deal with.) But if the pastor stays, the problems leave. Either the problem is eventually solved, or the problem-creators move to another church. It’s sad that one study showed that the average pastor gives up and leaves because of 7 vocal critics.
When I planted Saddleback Church 35 years ago, I made a public commitment to our first members to stay as their pastor – through thick and thin – for 40 years. God willing, I intend to keep that commitment. It has not always been easy. I’ve wanted to resign on many Monday mornings. But like my marriage vow, I made a commitment to God that I do not take lightly.
Looking back, and then looking at all the good Saddleback has accomplished around the world, I’m grateful that I never gave up on my calling or the vision God gave me, or the precious people he placed under my care and leadership (1 Peter 5:1-3, Heb. 13:17). But I’m even more grateful that God never gave up on me, because I’m not the same man I was when Kay and I started the church 35 years ago. While the church was growing, God was growing me.
God is a systematic God. He created the solar system. The Animal Kingdom and Plant Kingdom are systems in a finely balanced environment. Your body is a collection of systems – digestive, respiratory, nervous, skeletal , circulatory, and other systems. Just as God designed your body to function around nine systems, the Body of Christ, the church, is designed to function around 5 biblical systems.
While pastoring Saddleback, it’s also been my privilege to assist and train other pastors in setting up the biblical systems of fellowship, worship, discipleship, service, and evangelism. At last count, I’ve served over 440,000 pastors from 164 countries. In every training program, I’ve told pastors the same thing: I can teach you the personal character (Psalm 78:72), the biblical purposes (Matt. 22:37-40 & Matt. 28:19-20), the New Testament structure (Acts 5:42), and the necessary skills (Eccl 10:10), that will grow a congregation, but I cannot teach you how to do it quickly!
To grow something strong and healthy takes time. When God wants to make a mushroom he takes 6 hours but when he wants to make an oak tree, he takes 60 years. So here’s the question: Do you want your church to be a mushroom or an oak tree? If you want it to last, you can’t grow it fast. True discipleship takes time.
One thing that I’m not a fan of are published lists of the “fastest growing churches.” They reinforce short-term thinking. But strength, not speed, is what matters. No one cares how long it took Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel. What matters is its lasting beauty. Fast-growing churches don’t impress me. I could teach you a dozen ways to attract a crowd fast, but a crowd is not a church!
What impresses me are the number of disciples in small group fellowship, active with the spiritual habits, serving in ministry, and being sent out on mission. You judge the strength of a church not by its seating capacity but by its sending capacity. Yes, we’ve baptized over 42,000 adult believers, but just as importantly, Saddleback Church has over 40,000 studying the Bible each week in small groups, over 27,000 members serving in what we call bi-vocational ministries, and has sent 24,869 of our member to serve overseas in 197 countries. You can’t do any of that quickly!
You have to stay put and be patient. There are instant crowds, but no instant churches, and attendance is only one of a dozen vital signs of a healthy congregation.
There are too many advantages and benefits of staying in one place for ministry than I have space to mention in this post. But here’s one benefit I’ve witnessed over and over: When you lead with love and integrity, your ministry gets better every year. But if you don’t lead with love and integrity, it gets worse and more difficult every year. You can pretend to love people for a few years, but you can’t fake love for 35 years! The people figure out if you are legit, because there is never a moment when they aren’t watching you, and testing your credibility.
If you are a leader, people are constantly doing a “credit check” on you before they invest themselves. People want to know 1) Does my pastor love me? 2) Does he practice what he preaches? and 3) Does he lead by example, making the first sacrifice? The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. And if a pastor does that humbly and consistently year after year after year, the people will follow you anywhere… even if it means charging hell with squirt guns!
I don’t have space to explain the background and reasons, but one time the members of Saddleback church voted unanimously by anonymous ballot to purchase a $13 million dollar piece of property – without knowing the purchase price, because I had said two words: “Trust me.” Of course I would not have even attempted to suggest that in the early years of Saddleback. But after a 20 year track record of love, sacrifice, wise decisions, and a willingness to own up to my mistakes and weaknesses, I had earned their trust.
Bishop Charles Blake is that kind of leader. For 48 years he has been able to impact Los Angeles in ways no other pastor I know has because he stayed put! In 1 Timothy 1:12, Paul said “I thank God for putting me into the ministry.” Ministry is received, not achieved. It is a gift of God’s grace. And if God puts you into ministry, then must stay put, until he announces other plans for you!
And if you’re a pastor who could use some fresh perspective and encouraging coaching for your church, this November 10–13, I’m going to teach an invitation-only, four-day intensive called New Hope For Your Church. I’m going to share everything I’ve learned about pastoring since I wrote The Purpose Driven Church twenty years ago. I’ll share the mistakes I made (so you can avoid them), the lessons I’ve learned the hard way, and most important of all, the biblical steps to revitalizing a plateaued or declining church.