The benefits of a long-term ministry
Posted 10 Aug 2020
In this article from the Crossway archives, Stephen Bowen looks at the challenges and advantages of staying in one church long term.
I was ordained in 1971 and retired in 2012, and I spent 33 of those years as the vicar of St John’s Felbridge, a small Surrey village which is effectively part of East Grinstead, a town in West Sussex. It is a long time to spend in one place, and in my retirement I have been reflecting on the positive and negative aspects of ministry of that sort of length.
When I was at Theological College (Clifton, 1969–1971) I was not convinced that the accepted idea of moving on every ten years or so was necessarily right in all cases, but I do not think I had a formulated plan to find one parish and stay there all my life.
I served a curacy in Chelsea and one at St Saviour’s Guildford, and then moved to a third curacy at St Patrick’s Wallington. This was a large and flourishing daughter church in the parish of Holy Trinity Wallington, where I had two very positive years with a wonderful lay leadership team who taught me so much. I had been looking for an incumbency – anywhere! – but there were very few vacancies at that time.
I was very happy at St Pat’s and I thought it might be right to stay there for ever, especially if it became a parish church in its own right (as it eventually has). But in the summer of 1979, the Archdeacon contacted me and asked me to have a look at St John’s Felbridge. I was very reluctant even to go and look. The timing didn’t seem to be right, and my only memories of East Grinstead were of being stuck in long traffic jams on the A22.
However, it seemed that the Lord had other plans, and so we went, my wife, myself and our two little children. I was 32. The parish had never had such a young vicar and were alarmed. We gradually settled in to parish ministry. The Lord blessed us with two more children, and there were ten years between the oldest and the youngest, which meant that school life was always a factor in thinking about the right time to move. I trust that had we been called to move we would have responded nevertheless. But as things turned out, we never did!
Opportunities in long-term parish ministry
There is a tremendous lot to be said for a long-term parish ministry. It is quite remarkable to meet the new intake in the village school and discover that you knew some of their parents when they were children at the same school. It is wonderful when people who have moved away from the village come back years later and find someone in the vicarage who knows them.
Just occasionally there have been particular pastoral opportunities, such as a phone call from someone who had carried a burden all their life of having been involved in the tragic death of a childhood friend in a road accident. Their own child had reached the same age, and the burden had become unbearable. They rang me, and I knew the family of the boy who had been killed – who in fact in the aftermath of the tragedy had become Christians and joined the church – and I was able to reassure the caller that they bore him no ill-will whatsoever. It was a happy moment, and made me reflect that if three vicars had come and gone in the interim, no-one would have been able to help like that.
Staying in one parish for 33 years would be disaster without a commitment to expository preaching. Over the years I have benefited enormously from the ministry of the Proclamation Trust, which encouraged me to keep working at opening up the Scriptures. Thirty-three years is not remotely enough to teach the whole counsel of God. If you were just producing a diet of blessed thoughts week after week, even evangelical ones, you would be bound to run out of ideas after ten years and it would probably be to everybody’s benefit if you moved on.
There are of course dangers in staying in one place for a long time. It is very easy to ge It is very easy to look at every new initiative that is proposed, and say, ‘We tried that years ago and it didn’t work!’ It could be very easy to lose enthusiasm and just get tired, without the stimulation of new circumstances and new people.
Being a small parish with no major institutions or specific links with other parishes, we were never allowed a curate. But from time to time we did take on assistant staff, who functioned as curates, but without being ordained. This was a great experience for me. It was so good to have a younger colleague to share the ministry with, and each one of them brought their own specific gifts.
Considering long-term ministry
Is long-term ministry for you? Don’t rule it out. Don’t take it for granted that the Lord’s plan for you is to move regularly. It may be right for some people, but it may not be right for everyone. There are advantages and disadvantages with both patterns. Looked at globally, a lot of the church’s time (and money) can be taken up with searching for new ministers, and waiting for them to settle in and find their feet, which would not be needed if ministers stayed put! It is rather countercultural in today’s highly mobile society, but that may not be a bad thing.
From the minister’s own point of view, a lot of energy can go into moving, settling in, getting to know people, getting to understand the parish’s history and circumstances, only to get back to where you were in the previous parish after a delay of several years.
Nevertheless, it may be God’s calling to some people to exercise a short-term ministry, but I would like to add my own testimony to the fact that a longer ministry can be beneficial and provide a focus of stability in a fast-moving world. It can perhaps be a demonstration of Christ’s commitment to stay with his people.
A surprising privilege
If I had not stayed at Felbridge for all those years, I would have missed a most surprising thing that happened in my last few years. A certain minister who had served in a big London parish both as curate and Rector over a long period of time came to spend his last few years in the nearby College of St Barnabas. It was a privilege to be able to say that St John’s Felbridge was John Stott’s only other church! It was a little daunting to preach with him in the congregation, but he was always encouraging and appreciative. If I had left sooner I wouldn’t have had the joy and privilege of getting to know him. There’s no guarantee that something like that will happen to you if you stay in one parish all your life – but it might!
Stephen Bowen is now happily retired after 33 years as Vicar of St John’s Felbridge
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