The Seven Year Itch

After many years of being in the Ministry profession, through experiences of your own, and observation of others, you get to know and understand the cycles. There is a definite pattern that emerges if you study enough churches and their relationship with their pastors. Its something I call the ‘Seven Year Itch”.

Traditionally in Baptist Circles the pastor is given a 3 year ‘term’ or in secular terminology, a 3 year ‘contract’. At the end of that term, unless the Pastor is really ineffective or irritating, they are normally given another term. Many Pastors don’t get offered a third term, nor do many want to serve a third term. In past church cultures the Pastor would get tired of the church, possibly feel their time was up and the church may have similar thoughts.

The problem with this is that I have seen that it often takes seven years for the Pastor to get to know the people in the church, the wider community, and even themself. It takes seven years to decide what needs to be done in a church! I know that sounds like a long time, and there is much that can be done within seven years, but in order for deep transformational change to take place, seven years is the preparation time. Unfortunately the truth is most churches don’t want deep change, even if they need it, and many pastors don’t want to take the personal risk needed to institute it.

As my second term was coming up, and I was contemplating life and my ministry at Bedford Baptist Church, I had decided that after my experience in the US, I wanted to choose my pain. And I chose the pain of deep transformational change. This meant I had to make the decision that it was worth the risk of losing my position at Bedford Baptist, in order to be given permission to see deep change occur. So as the meeting to decide whether I would be re-appointed came up, I deliberately tied it into the vote I was asking the church to take on our constitution. This was not some minor changes to the constitution, but sweeping changes to the whole identity, leadership model and even culture of the church. The culture of the church effects how you operate within your constitution, and the constitution affects your culture. I was attempting to change both!

I prepared a lengthy and comprehensive document of what I wanted to see happen at Bedford.
We would sell all the property and look to build a purpose built theater.
We would radically change the constitution to reflect the purpose driven model proposed by Borden, which meant effectively the Pastor would lead a group of Ministry Team leaders, appointing them himself, and be held accountable for results, not methods, by a board elected by the church members.
I would no longer have a term, but either pastor or church could terminate the contract with 3 months notice.
In hindsight it was a mistake on my part to also include the ‘open Baptism’ clause which meant anyone who was not fully immersed as an adult could become a member if in all good conscience they did not wish to do that. This clause caused as much angst as all the other points combined, and was not essential in my mind, but include it I did.

The meeting was reasonably tense, although good natured and was a turning point in the life of our church. Although we were not voting on all these changes, we were only voting on my reappointment, I had stated that if reappointed, these were the changes we were going to implement. The vote went my way by the barest of margins, 1 vote the other way and I would have been out. To put that in perspective, I believe 12 people voted against my reappointment. That means I knew 12 people did not want me to stay.

In order to continue in ministry at Bedford I knew I had to take the verse the Holy Spirit had impregnated in my soul to heart.
Hebrews 13.6 So we say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”
For me this was an exhortation to leave behind my need to please people, and be determined to please God. What did God want for our church? That it would not be focused on its own needs, but on the needs of the wider community. We were going to heaven, but unless we started to become a missional community, our wider community would not be given the same opportunity.

So I focused on the many people who did want radical change, rather than those who did not, and I pressed on.
I now knew that my unless God decreed otherwise, or I messed up, or the people messed up, I was tied to Bedford Baptist Church, married if you like. This meant I did not want her to stay as she was, I wanted Bedford to become a Church we were all proud of, and happy to invite our friends too.

For many years the church had been known as one which chewed up and spat out pastors. Now the most unlikely of people was going to be the longest serving of them all. A rather niave and compliant young pastor, who was idealistic and positive, while relatively inexperienced.

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