When I’m having a get-acquainted conversation with someone new, it’s common for them to ask what I do. “I’m a Baptist pastor,” I reply. They will usually ask the name and location of my church. Then comes the big one, “And how long have you been there?”
It’s a reasonable question. People ask because pastors move fairly often and it’s helpful to know if he is a newcomer or is well established in the community. However, I answer reluctantly, since I know my answer is rare, almost shocking. “You may find this hard to believe, but I’ve pastored Beacon for fifty years.” Surprise crosses their face. “Fifty years! I don’t think I’ve ever known a pastor who’s been at the same church fifty years.” But that’s the truth.
Why have I stayed so long in one place? Here are a few of the reasons.
An Unusual Congregation
Many pastors don’t stay long because the church loses interest. You’ve heard about the pastor who resigned for health reasons? Yes, the church grew sick of him. But for whatever reason, the Beacon congregation has continued to encourage and support. A few times a discontented individual tried to instigate a coup, but by God’s grace, never gained traction within the church. I have served a church that has communicated love and a desire that I continue. By God’s grace, that’s what I have done until, surprisingly, fifty years have come and gone, and I’m still pastoring the only church I have ever served.
A Supportive Family
I cannot honor my wife, Marti, enough for her faithful support over these years. I’ve known pastors whose wives did not appreciate their calling, and I don’t know how they continued. They have borne a heavy burden that I have never carried. Marti has been my strongest supporter and a true partner in ministry. I wouldn’t have lasted long without her. She never complained about long hours away from home, nor suggested that I was neglecting my own family to shepherd others. No doubt because of their mother’s attitude, our four daughters were equally supportive. I remember asking one if she found it hard to be a preacher’s kid. Did she resent seeing her friends’ fathers spend more time with their families? Did she find it difficult to live “in a glass house” with people watching her every move, hoping to find something to criticize? “No,” she replied. “I considered it a privilege to have a father devoted to the ministry of God’s Word. I’m proud that my dad’s a preacher.” What more could I ask to keep going for the Lord?
Our church has employed a number of staff members over the years. Apart from a few exceptions, most have been hard working and devoted. Book-keepers, secretaries, custodians, ministers of youth, music, visitation, education, and pastoral care have been true yoke fellows who pulled their load with joy. Our church would not be what it is today without such a dedicated staff. Our deacons have also contributed significantly to the strength of this ministry. We currently have fifteen deacons, faithful men who are dedicated to the Lord and to His church. They are largely responsible for the orderly operation of Beacon, dedicated volunteers whose rewards in heaven will, no doubt be great. We are blessed to have scores of other volunteers who teach classes, sing in the choir, usher, operate the sound and video equipment, tend to babies in the nursery, serve on our safety team, perform maintenance, and the list goes on. Without such faithful helpers, no pastor could last long. The heavy load would soon overwhelm him. But with faithful workers, both employees and volunteers, the work runs smoothly and this pastor has been able to serve enthusiastically for many years.
In the early years, I allowed the urgency of the immediate to crowd out the essential. As I wrestled with the impossibility of meeting every expectation, I made a commitment to re-order my priorities. I went to the congregation and asked for their help. “Folks,” I said, “I cannot give sufficient attention to the ministry of the Word and prayer unless I discipline myself in regard to my schedule. I need to devote mornings to sermon preparation. I need you to promise not to interrupt my study time unless you have a genuine emergency. My afternoons and some evenings will be given to office work, correspondence, phone calls, counselling, administration, staff and elders meetings, in-home visitation, and radio recording.” The Lord has given us an extensive radio ministry, six days a week on more than a dozen stations. My responsibilities are great and cannot be managed unless our congregation understands my God-given priorities and assists in fulfilling them. Thankfully, the church received my appeal better than I imagined, and thereafter, I have been hard-nosed about not allowing interruptions to my morning study time. God has honored this commitment and I have been able to continue without the problem of “burn-out,” experienced by many pastors.
In my opinion, burn-out is not so much the result of long hours and hard work, as it is the tyranny of trying to meet too many expectations. When every member has a different idea of what pastors should do, and when pastors try to satisfy all these expectations, they are bound to burn out. One man can’t do everything. Burn-out results from the impossibility of fulfilling everyone’s expectations and the fear that the church is unhappy that you are not meeting every desire. This causes mental, spiritual, and physical exhaustion. The solution is for the pastor to fully understand his God-given priorities, communicate them clearly to the church, and for the congregation to help him fulfill his primary task of publicly ministering the Word. Others can attend the myriads of legitimate needs within every church, but the pastor must give himself primarily to the ministry of the Word and prayer.
It took me awhile to understand that pastors need some time away. For the first several years, I would not allow myself to be out of the pulpit a single Sunday. I missed important events in my extended family and turned down invitations to preach because doing so required that I step away from my own pulpit. I never took a full week’s vacation. I sometimes worked seven days a week, and when I did allow time away, it was at the most, a few days during the week, so that I could be back on Sunday. Ah, the energies of youth!
Eventually, I realized that what I believed was God-honoring dedication did not reflect a proper understanding of Scripture. Christ removed Himself and His apostles from their busy ministry to get much needed rest and I realized that I must do the same. As our church grew and added staff, we established a written policy of paid holidays and vacations. I learned the benefit of time away, and I always came back better able to minister.
Recently, as I returned to the pulpit from vacation, a man who has been worshipping with us a short time said, “That was a really good sermon. You should take a vacation more often.” “I’d be happy to,” I replied. Vacation allotments are based upon the number of years of service, and with my long tenure, I receive five weeks vacation each year. I take them all with delight, and sometimes wish for more. Whenever Marti and I discuss the question of retirement, it’s usually within the context of being able to travel a bit more freely. However, I am not ready to retire yet, so I take full advantage of a generous vacation schedule, thankful for the refreshment these occasions provide, and eager to plunge back into the work when we return.
According to two excellent doctors, I should have died more than twelve years ago. Instead, God has given me good health at age seventy-five, and I want to give these extra years back to Him by faithfully preaching His Word. Ultimately, that is the reason for my long tenure. God brought me here, has protected me from the attacks of Satan, has given me favor with the church, renewed my strength, and sustained my enthusiasm for preaching. That’s the one reason above all others why I am still going strong. It’s His providence and I am grateful to be a recipient of His amazing grace.
First published in “The Beacon Beam,” August 2023.
G. N. Barkman received his BA and MA from BJU and later founded Beacon Baptist Church in Burlington, NC where has pastored since 1973. In addition, Pastor Barkman airs the Beacon Broadcast on twenty radio stations. He and his wife, Marti, have been blessed with four daughters and nine grandchildren.