Neal Laybourne is a life-long EFCA pastor, recently retired from the position of lead pastor at Barre Evangelical Free Church in Vermont.
Together, We Are One-Hundred Year Shepherds
A retired EFCA pastor reflects on ministry in New England
“We have to take a picture of the three of you. You have over 100 years of pastoring between you.”
My wife Leisa and I were driving from Vermont to meet with two other EFCA pastors, Dave Young (Westfield Evangelical Free Church in Massachusetts) and Lew Miller (Grace Community Church in New Hampshire) when she made this observation.
An individual person cannot obtain 100 years of experience at anything because we simply don’t live that long. But community is a powerful thing: Dave, Lew and myself all helped plant churches in New England and served in our respective congregations for 40 years. The three of us have worked closely together over the decades in the establishment and development of NEDA, the New England District of the EFCA. It has been an awesome privilege to be encouraged by each other’s pastoral experiences.
We are blessed in New England to have many long tenured pastors—in fact, I consider a pastor new here until they have been in their church at least 10 years. Some of this comes from trying to break through to a hardened culture—it takes time for New Englanders to accept outsiders, especially when they come carrying the message of the gospel. As a Vermont EFCA pastor recently said, “It took me 5 years to convince the congregation I would stay at least 3 years.”
Reflections on four decades of ministry
There is a humility, a confidence and a freedom that the Lord has produced in each of us from ministering in the same place for decades, but it can be hard to explain and sometimes misunderstood. These qualities are rich, worth more than any outwardly recognized achievement and come from gaining a bigger picture of who God is and how He works over time.
The humility comes from seeing that all ministry is totally dependent on Jesus. The confidence comes from seeing how God works for the advancement of His kingdom in every situation we go through. And the freedom comes from knowing it is God who is in control and there is nothing that can stop God’s plan, including decisions we or the congregation makes. With these themes in mind, it is delightful to reflect on some specific ways I have grown as a follower of Christ through my four-decade tenure at Barre Evangelical Free Church.
God has always given me a small group of people who keep me gloriously insecure
Long-term pastors don’t last a long time because everyone likes them or likes what they do. They always face what seems like internal opposition, people within the local church hindering the establishment of new methods of ministry. Pastors can’t simply start over with a new group of people nor should they become a dictator, forcing out any who disagree.
Dave Young first introduced me to the reality that some of our strongest supporters will turn out to be our biggest internal opposition. God brought us together to do more than we could do alone and we need to do the best with those God has given us.
In my 40 years, I’ve seen it a number of times: one of the core people becomes increasingly more distant, going from encouraging cheerleader to disgruntled. For a pastor, especially a church planter, this is an incredibly deep frustration.
But in my experience, this frustration leads to desperation which leads to prayer.
More often than not, God doesn’t remove the person from the congregation or change their mind. Instead, there is a change that needs to happen in our own thinking: we need to focus less on what will be easiest for us and focus our attentions on what will bring more of God to our churches. Giving up when it gets hard is not an option, because in the difficulty, we know that God will meet with us. This assurance has led me to have confidence that whomever God leads to be committed to the church family, He will use in a positive way to advance Jesus’ work in the world. If nothing else, the troublesome members keep me humble as a leader.
Saying or doing things differently doesn’t always lead to better results
Because long-tenured pastors go through similar challenges many times in similar situations with the same people, we see how the results are often very different when we do the same thing. It is not about what we do to advance the Lord’s work, it is about what God does.
Lew Miller and Grace Community Church have broken many of the common rules we are told to observe in terms of buildings, yet God continues to bless them with growth. They built their church building on a dirt road in a small town where there is rarely traffic—you must work to find it. And yet they have regularly been over 85% capacity in their worship services. In 2020, they took the step to start another planned building expansion right when our country went into lockdown (which now looks really wise, given the skyrocketing costs of construction materials and labor). They’re hoping to be able to use the new space by mid-August and have a dedication scheduled for September 12.
Here in Vermont, I have learned that no single evangelistic program results in many life commitments to Jesus, yet every evangelistic effort yields spiritual fruit. Instead of trying to figure out the best evangelistic strategy, working to convince everyone in the church to participate in it or taking endless hours to plan just right, we simply unleash impassioned people to follow where the Spirit is leading them. It doesn’t always need to be the next best thing or most effective tool—God will still be faithful to our small steps of faith.
God is always faithful. After seeing the church I helped plant 40 years ago through to the end of my career, I can say that with full confidence. God is always faithful, but the outward, immediate results are not always the same.
Leading a church is not about finding the perfect way to do church which everyone else should copy. Living out four decades of ministry in the same location, I have learned that the Lord Jesus is always faithful and He is always at work around us—that is my solid rock as the community and the world rapidly changes around me. Regularly seeing God do what only God can do brings a fullness to my life and has been key in my own longevity.
Humor helps the longevity, too. After several decades, I am now the one saying, “But we’ve never done that before!”