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How to Thrive in a Long-Term Pastorate
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Roger Hernandez Interviews Dwight Nelson

“When I was interviewed by the Michigan conference to come to PMC I was 30 years old. The person doing the interviewing asked me: "So, Dwight, how long do you think you will stay?" Since our previous pastoral assignments had lasted an average of 2.9 years, I was at a loss for words. I looked at my wife and neither of us knew what to say. I thought about it for a moment and responded: "I’ll stay 7 years". They all looked at each other and said: "Yes. We’ll take it."”

It’s been 32 years since that day. Dwight Nelson continues to pastor (and thrive) in a university campus church. I sat down with him for part two of the series on pastoral longevity. Here are five principles I gleaned from him: 

1. Ministry is like holding a butterfly in your hand.
Ministry is like holding a butterfly. You can look at it, enjoy its beauty, but if you squeeze it you will destroy it. It’s not yours. It’s not about you. You are just a steward of its beauty for a season. You are successful at the same location for over thirty years for the same reason you are successful for one year. Understand it’s not about you. You have been given a gift. Enjoy it while you have it, however long that is.

It all starts with your relationship with God. If the pastor is not connected to God he can fool the people for a while but not for long. Your decision making when considering a call is also rooted in that relationship. One of Dwight’s mentors and prayer partners taught him a valuable lesson: “Unless you hear otherwise, His previous order still stands.”

2. I get to reinvent myself. That’s great!
Two advantages of long term pastorates:
-Life cycles. I get to minister to people from cradle to casket. Getting involved in people’s lives and seeing them mature, grow, cry, laugh, and a host of other experiences that I can enjoy over the long haul.

-Opportunity for reinvention. This is probably the one he got the most excited about. There is a common denominator I have seen in pastors that thrive. That is the desire to pace themselves but not to settle. They are always asking the questions: What’s next? How can we be more effective? What’s missing?

3. I get to reinvent myself. That’s hard!
The best things in life are often the worst things in life. The activity/person/occupation that causes you the most joy can also cause you the most pain. I sensed that for Dwight it was difficult to see a part of his congregation leave and establish very close by a ministry, which stated desire was to connect more effectively with the same demographic Dwight was trying to reach, namely young adults. That was probably one of the times in his life that he had to do some real deep soul searching and process emotionally what he already knew intellectually: this is about Jesus. Not you.

Out of those difficult, soul searching times, came (as it often does for all of us) a renewed vision, compacted worship service, and a clearer understanding of mission and growth.

4. Speak to 20 something’s. Let the world look in.
I asked Dwight how he balances the need to speak to his local congregation while at the same time using the platform he has been given to speak on important issues of the day. More than 20 years ago when the TV ministry started, they made a conscious decision: They were going to minister to the college community, and let the world look in if they were interested. They were. His primary focus is his local flock and if what he has to say addresses the larger issues, then that is an added benefit.

5. Criticism. If it hurts your pride, it means you had pride to begin with.
Dwight has managed to reach countless people. Among them are critics. He has received criticism from some regarding his position on women’s ordination, and from others for believing that Ellen White was in fact a prophet who was inspired by God. After a sermon on the Sabbath he received 2 notes. One congratulated him for the message, the other one believed it was terrible. He showed the notes to an Elder who told him, “Didn’t they teach you in seminary not to read the fan mail till you get home?”

I hope the principles gathered here can help us become better pastors where the butterfly has landed now, whether it be for 3 years or 30. And never tell a conference president how long you will stay. I bet God got a few chuckles out of that one… “He said 7 years? Ok. Let’s keep him there for…”

Roger Hernandez is the ministerial director for the Southern Union Conference. Dwight Nelson is senior pastor for the Pioneer Memorial Church on the campus of Andrews University