Lessons on Ministry Longevity From a Longtime Pastor

When I became a pastor 13 years ago, I quickly realized the dropout rate among pastors is high. Statistics vary, but I’ve personally known several pastors who left ministry for one reason or another.

Sometimes we forget, though, the pastors who’ve persevered in faithful ministry for decades. My friend Dave Lewis is an example.

Dave has pastored the same church for more than 67 years. He began at the Bald Eagle Alliance Church, near Tyrone, Pennsylvania, in 1953 and has never left. I estimate he’s preached close to 10,000 sermons to his congregation, not to mention countless sermons elsewhere. I could be wrong, but Dave may have served his church longer than any other living pastor in America.

When I first met Dave, I asked him about the secret of his longevity. He replied, “The will of God and the grace of God.” His simple answer hints at a profound truth. It’s not God’s will for every pastor to spend his entire ministry at one church. In Dave’s case, however, God ordained that he’d have a lifetime ministry at one church. And such a long ministry is only possible through the sustaining grace of God.

Here are five lessons that I’ve seen modeled in Dave’s ministry.

1. Love People

Dave truly loves people. When I ask about his church members, he has nothing but good things to say about them. “They are the most loving and gracious people a pastor could ever ask for.”

Even after all those years, deep affection remains between Dave and his people. This unique, genuine love is refreshing, and I’ve seen firsthand how it’s manifested in his church.

2. Develop a Passion for Preaching

Dave recently turned 91, but he still has a fire in his belly that drives him to serve and preach the gospel. I’ve only heard him preach once, but it was a solid exposition filled with gospel hope. When we meet together, he always shares either what he just preached or what he’s planning to preaching the coming week. It’s clear he can’t wait to share the riches he’s discovered from his study of God’s Word. Even after 66 years of preaching and shepherding, the fire has not dimmed.

Two years ago, I had the honor of preaching at Dave’s church for two evening services. I was amazed, when we met for coffee several months later, to hear him recite my outlines and main points. I felt like saying, “Dave, you remember my sermons better than I do!” Even when he’s not in the pulpit, Dave models the primacy of preaching.

3. Covet Humility

Dave is a humble man. You will try in vain to find him on the internet. Dave is what we might call “old school,” but he’s a true shepherd and knows nothing of the self-promotion we often see today.

I’m by no means seeking to exalt Dave. He doesn’t want anyone to look to him or to any other man. Instead, he’d have us look to Christ (Isa. 45:22) and his power to save. It’s fine to have good models in pastoral ministry, but it’s unhelpful to try and emulate their ministry success. God calls pastors to be faithful (Heb. 13:171 Pet. 5:1–4John 21:15–172 Tim. 4:2) and diligent (2 Tim. 1:11–12) and to serve with endurance (2 Tim. 4:6–8), knowing the Lord of glory will reward their labors.

4. Pay Attention to Your Physical Health

Dave strives to take good care of his body. Obviously, you’re not going to last as long as he has if you don’t take care of your body. Even at his age, Dave still golfs on occasion. And Dave was playing intramural basketball into his mid-60s. These are just a couple of ways he’s tried to stay active and healthy.

I learned the importance of good health the hard way five years ago. Ministry stress was really getting to me, and recreation and exercise had all but disappeared from my lifestyle. I ended up in the hospital with a serious heart condition that required nearly a year of recovery.

I’m thankful for how Scripture helps us keep the right perspective here. Paul exhorted Timothy, “Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:7–8). The last thing a pastor should do is make an idol out of his body. However, he must take care of himself when it comes to diet and exercise.

5. Read Good Books

Dave is always telling me about the latest books he’s reading and what they’re teaching him. Early in our friendship Dave told me, “Read Bunyan, Newton, Spurgeon, and Tozer.” Dave is a voracious reader, and tends to read widely, but those are his favorite authors.

Looking at Dave’s library, it’s striking how few contemporary authors he reads. Like C. S. Lewis, Dave cautions against “chronological snobbery” and the notion that latest is greatest. Every pastor should strive to supplement his time in the Word with good, solid books.

Only One

Few pastors will ever spend their entire ministry at one church. Dave Lewis is unique, and I praise God for his life and ministry. There are many more pastors who’ve been faithful over the years. Perhaps, like me, you’ve been privileged to know a man like that, but it’s a safe bet most are unknown to the world—except for the people and communities they serve.

We should praise God for faithful men, but if we are looking for the best model to follow, look no further than Jesus. He’s the ultimate good shepherd who laid his life down for the sheep. Every pastor should strive to emulate him, serving in the grace and strength only he can give.

This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition in January of 2020.

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