The Choice to Stay

By Gordon Sebastian

Long pastorates were definitely not part of my resume early in my ministry. For the length of stay in my first four pastorates, I counted months rather than years. I stayed six months at my first church, 24 months at my second, 15 months at my third and 30 months at my fourth.

However, at Mount Calvary FWB Church in Hookerton, North Carolina, I was able to start counting years. I managed to stay five years. Then it happened again. I resigned. But this time I resigned to pastor a different kind of church, a mission church in Wilson, North Carolina.

After unloading our furniture for the sixth time and getting settled in our new home, I experienced an entirely new burden—to stay. That’s right. I told the Lord I was tired of moving and wanted whatever grace I needed to stay and grow up with my congregation. It would be sometime later before I realized the burden to stay came from the Lord.

As Paul explained, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). Thus, began my 35-plus years of ministry at Peace FWB Church.

But was my choice to stay so long a wise one? What benefits, if any, have there been for making one church a life-long ministry? At 70 years of age, I can now look back and see at least five tremendous blessings I received for sticking it out at one church.

Family Stability and Security

One of the sad discoveries I’ve made over the years while holding revivals in churches across the country is the plight of ministry families. So many have never stayed long enough in one place to get settled and established. What a terrible toll it takes on both the pastor’s wife and kids when they are jerked up every three to five years and moved to another location to serve.

Let’s be honest. Pastors who continually move from one pastorate to another usually do so because they are not allowed to have the pastoral authority they need to lead. But here’s the kicker. That authority can never be gained by moving to another church.

You have to stay in one church long enough to build credibility for yourself, to restructure the organization (most of our churches are not structured for pastoral leadership) and to out-maneuver or out-live those traditionalists who oppose anything that progressive pastors offer.

The tragic results on the families of church-hopping pastors are not difficult to discover: wounded wives and bitter kids. They’ve only seen the worst in the churches where Dad pastored. They’ve been exposed to explosive business meetings, disgruntled church members and Dad always being put down. Worse still, the lack of respect they constantly witness for their father begins to affect their respect for him.

Being at Peace FWB Church for over 35 years has provided my family a security that many pastors’ families have never known. My kids have no memories of bad business meetings or their dad being treated with disrespect. Instead, they remember being part of just one church family, one that loved them and nurtured them as their own.

The result? My wife has no wounds to be healed, no people to forgive and no reasons to avoid serving alongside her husband. Hilda looks forward to services in the church where she’s been a member for over half her life. All three of my children are serving the Lord, two of them in full-time ministry. Even my six grandchildren are active in the church with one preparing for the ministry.

Framework for Personal Maturity

In the early years of my ministry, those church-hopping years, I wasn’t doing much maturing in the Lord. I didn’t have the time. I was too busy starting, stopping and restarting; too busy adjusting and readjusting. And like most of my peers back in the 1950s and 60s, I was getting much of my sustenance to keep going from various Bible conferences across the country.

That’s what called my attention to my problem. Most of the successful pastors who preached at the conferences had one thing in common. They all had been at their churches a long time, some for their entire ministry. So after moving to my sixth pastorate, I asked the Lord to help me spend the rest of my life at this mission church in Wilson, allowing me to see the church increase and flourish, and give me time to grow up and mature.

Remaining in the same church and in the same town for over 35 years has forced me to face many of my own personal demons and deal with them. Being part of one community and one congregation for any length of time will challenge a pastor to build some character.

After a while, the real you comes out. You can’t hide your real self forever. So in this kind of setting, I found myself forced to be a better husband, a better dad and a better pastor. That meant going before my congregation more than once asking them to forgive me and pray for me. That also meant doing the same with my family.

Familiarity with My Community

I don’t suppose this would be the case in Atlanta or Nashville, but I can’t go anywhere in Wilson without being recognized. This was the case when I’d been here 10 years. How much more is it so after 35 years. Whether it’s Wal-Mart, the mall, the restaurant or the hospital, it’s always the same.

Someone will wave or call my name or come over and speak to me. Maybe it sounds a little vain on my part, but to be honest, I rather like it. And, too, it really comes in handy at times.

For example, during our building program, the building committee asked me to see if I could pull some strings downtown to get a problem solved that was holding up our construction. I was to treat the mayor to a steak dinner and then ask for his help.

However, the following week, when I spoke to the mayor, he responded, “Preacher, you don’t have to treat me to a steak dinner. Because of what your church means to Wilson, I’ll gladly take care of this problem.”

Favor with My Congregation

Yes, it does take a while, but after many, many years it happens. You grow older. Your dark hair turns gray and you slow down. That’s when you really become a father figure to your entire flock. They trust you. You’ve earned it. You stayed.

They can’t imagine their church without you. You are the only pastor they’ve ever known. You led them to Christ. You baptized them. You dedicated their babies. You married their children. You buried their parents. You were always there when they were in trouble or needed advice.

Now if you make a blunder, they overlook it. Wow! Had you pulled that one when you first became their pastor, you would have been in serious trouble. But that was then. This is now. In short, they know how much you love them. You proved that by never leaving them.

Now when there’s talk of your retirement, they get a bit disturbed. They want you to stay on a little longer. “Pastor,” they say, “you still have a lot of years left in you. No one would ever believe you are 70.”

Fulfillment of a Pastor’s Dream

Did I see visions? Did I have dreams? Like most young pastors, I imagined what it would be like to have a growing, thriving church. In fact, from time to time I preached that same sermon I preached back in 1966 when I first came to Wilson: “What Kind of Church Do I Dream of.” However, over the years my vision has grown. Therefore, my sermon has had to grow as well.

Today, Peace FWB Church has a paid staff of five full-time ministers, five secretaries, a bookkeeper, three janitors and a nursery director. We are engaged in a $4 million building program that will provide much-needed classrooms, several offices and a 1,200-seat auditorium.

Last year without any fundraising or stewardship drive, Peace Church took in over a million dollars and is averaging $22,000 a week in offerings. With nearly two families a week joining our church, the first three months of this year, our drive-in attendance averages 650 and our total attendance 775.

I recently told someone, “Here I am on the eve of my retirement, and God is giving to this pastor the best years of his entire ministry.”

What a fulfillment Peace Church has been to my dreams. I’ve surrounded myself with a staff of men who have strengths in the areas where I am lacking, men who are much responsible for the success I now enjoy.

Included on staff is my own son who came to us with four years of experience in a mega-church in Texas and who works to see Peace Church duplicate many practices that made his former church so successful. He, along with the other ministerial staff, has done everything possible to make my work easier by assuming much of the workload. I’m not even directing the building program.

I tell people in town when they ask if I have retired, “No, I’m not retired. I’m just tired. All I have to do is just show up to preach.” Of course, I do more than preach sermons.

What young pastor wouldn’t want what God has given to me? It’s a dream come true! But it never could have happened had I not chosen to stay.

About the Writer:Reverend Gordon Sebastian pastors Peace Free Will Baptist Church in Wilson, North Carolina. Reprinted by permission from The Witness, November–December 2002 issue, publication of the North Carolina Association of Free Will Baptists.