How long should a pastor remain in a particular parish? Twenty years ago, the conventional wisdom was seven years: Years one through three, the pastor accrues leadership capital; the fourth and fifth year are his most productive; by year six he has worn out his welcome and it is time to shepherd a flock in greener pastures.
Today's church growth gurus argue for longevity. They observe that all successful churches have at least one thing in common: a long-term pastorate.
Almost twelve years into my present pastorate, I'm going with the gurus. Good things happen in the life of a parish when the priest puts down roots. The people in the pews get to see their pastor grow as a Christian and his example seeps into the hearts of all who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
An enduring relationship between a flock and their shepherd has a lot in common with a lasting marriage. Husbands and wives who see marriage as a marathon and not the 100 yard dash learn what it means to forgive seventy times seven, bear one another's burdens, wash one another's feet, and even be crucified for one another.
In good marriages, spouses pray for each other and they fight fair. They don't bail out when the going gets tough, and they don't go looking for something better when their marriage hits a temporary slump. I have learned far more theology from my wife than I will ever learn from a thick trade paperback filled with footnotes.
After two-and-half decades into the great adventure that began in the church choir in Jacksonville, Florida, my wife and I both know that God was, is, and always will be the Holy Celebrant of our union. Has it all been peaches and cream? If you're married, you already know the answer to that question. But through it all, our time together has made good on the promise given to us at our wedding: we have gone from being two persons who believed in God to living as a couple in communion with Him.
Priests and parishes who gut it out through the tough times and honeymoon in the good times receive similar blessings. They live out the virtues of forgiveness, mutual sacrifice, and unconditional love. They are no longer hearers but doers of the word. "Christ is in our midst" moves from cliché to reality.
What can the parish priest do to avoid the "seven year itch?"
Stop being a careerist
Seminary conditions us to believe that every priest should aspire to be the dean of a cathedral. God willing, all clergymen will live long enough to realize that the acceptable icon for the height of ministry in our era is not found in the pulpit of a mega-church but in service like Mother Teresa performed. (Besides, do you really want to spend the rest of your life doing things like serving as the toastmaster of the "Pan-Slobovian National Dinner-Dance?")
Love your parish where they are
After courting my wife I knew that she was a person who enjoyed intellectual pursuits more than household chores. (Today she is in law school and a cleaning lady visits our home every other week.) Jesus didn't expect Peter to be anything other than an impetuous, sometimes clueless fisherman, and He knew what He was getting when He called Levi the tax-collector to be an apostle.
Every daytime talk show reminds us that the only person that you can change is yourself. So, change! Learn to pray. Find a niche (missions, youth ministry, writing, pastoral counseling, whatever) and run with it. Spend the energy that you would waste wishing your parish were different into making yourself different, spiritually and professionally. Your parish will appreciate the fact that you've stopped nagging them, and the people who authentically want Christ will be inspired by your example.
At the very least, be moral
Even some clergy hold the misguided notion that adultery can be mitigated if a priest claims that his marriage is unfulfilling. Spare me. Adulterous priests deserve the boot. Unfortunately, when they get what they deserve, their parish, in fact the entire Church, suffers the consequences.
Find a suitable spouse
When I got married, I was a Navy pilot. But I didn't marry one of the ladies hanging around the Officers' Club at happy hour.
Parishes need to know what they want in a priest, the same way that most of us know what we want in a spouse. While the Church in America is blessed with many vibrant communities, there are plenty of parishes that are content with being private ethnic clubs that are open for business a couple hours on Sunday morning (unless there was a evening wedding the night before, in which case hardly anyone shows up for Church). If you're one of the slack communities, please don't say that you want a young, energetic, and American born priest that will grow ministries. After three months, he'll be miserable and so will you.
Stop running off priests
Parishes that have had more priests than America had Presidents need to wake up and smell the coffee. No young man who left a good job and schlepped his family to seminary (where he presently endures three to four years of forced re-entry into adolescence) dreams of coming to your church. Trust me. He alreadys knows your reputation. Instead, value the priest you have today and start working together. Be affectionate.
My wife appreciates it when I give her a random hug and kiss, do the dishes, or bring home flowers. Priests need affection too. Clergy serve the Church out of love. They respond to positive strokes with even harder work. As in marriage, abuse makes a person emotionally withdrawn and eventually drives him away.
Get help with your authority issues
In a society that has deconstructed most authority figures (police, teachers, and politicians are now "donut eaters," "chumps" and "crooks"), priests stand as one of the last remaining lightening rods for people who resent their fathers. At one time or another, every priest will suffer at the hands of people who need to pick up the phone and make nice with their dads.
I've had enough of priests who self-justify being made into scapegoats with the words "Jesus suffered, so must we." I'm sorry, but Christianity teaches that Jesus was crucified once and for all as the perfect and complete expiation for all of humanity's sin.
Experience has taught me that suffering finds every priest, and the time spent on my knees, weeping like a child has made me a better Christian. At the same time I'm not Christ. Rather than turning priests into whipping boys, some of the faithful would do well to invest in 10 or 20 hours worth of therapy.
Last Sunday, Columbia's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church broke ground on a new sanctuary. We have outgrown our present worship space. The faithful drop by my office daily for pastoral conversation, counsel, or confession. A new batch of folks is preparing to join the Church. We have strong givers and even stronger leaders. Sure, I know there are probably some folks that wish I were dead, but I'm fairly certain that there are times during my years of marriage when my wife or kids might have hoped for the same.
Serving the same parish for a dozen years has given me the same gift that my wife gives me every day of our married life. Ups and downs have obliged me to live out the Gospel and forgive, forbear and sacrifice. Challenges have forced me to learn how to pray. Struggles have compelled me to place my life in the hands of the Master.
I've still got plenty of rough edges but I pray that the faithful have seen that I've grown both as a Christian and priest as we have labored together. They wouldn't have this witness if I had cut and run during the tough times or if I had succumbed to the temptation of trading up to a more prestigious zip code or job title.
Like my relationship with my wife, serving my parish has taught me more theology than any book could. When a priest and his flock learn to go the distance, it's a marriage made in heaven.
Rev. Aris P. Metrakos is the pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He is frequent retreat leader and speaker for both teens and adults. Prior to attending seminary, Fr. Aris was an aviator for the US Navy. He travels annually to Romania to help the Romanian Orthodox Church establish ministries for Romanian youth. You can contact Fr. Aris at FrMetrakos@orthodoxytoday.org.