For the last 22 years I served the Village Church of Lincolnshire in the northern suburbs of Chicago with Sunday attendance of about 175. In all those years that number didn’t change much. That, for me, was a problem because I could not escape the sense that my success as a pastor depended on our church getting bigger.
I shouldn’t put it this way, but the competition was tough. I’d tell friends, “I pastor in the land of the giants”—huge, multi-campus congregations all around us. When I was new there, a pastor friend warned me, “That giant sucking sound you hear is Willow Creek.” To be perfectly honest, I never really wanted to pastor a big church, I just wanted to preach to a lot of people. But we never even made it to two services.
When I came I assumed that if I did my job well God would give the increase and, in a way, he did. We had unusually high turnover, sometimes 20 percent in a year, mostly due to students, corporate transfers, and retirees coming and going. Generally, people didn’t leave because they were unhappy. During one five year stretch we lost 261 people in our church directory and we gained 261. We were always saying goodbye and hello.
I realized that instead of bemoaning the constant farewells of wonderful brothers and sisters we had to have a healthier perspective so I reminded our people again and again that we were putting our fingerprints on all those folks—especially the students. Then they’d go on to other churches in other parts of the world taking with them the unforgettable touch of our congregation.
Some of my leaders felt I wasn’t aggressive enough in reaching out to the community. Perhaps they were right. I still smart over a comment from one leader I very much respected who told me of another church’s growth and then said bluntly, “I’m embarrassed by our church.” Yet usually, when I fretted over our situation our elders pointed to all the signs of health and God’s blessing. Our people loved Christ and served one another. We took holiness seriously and prayed together. People who came in often said, “This feels like home.”
Ever so slowly I learned to be content. Church size, I’m certain, is overrated and is surely a damaging benchmark for pastoral success. While it is necessary to evaluate our reach and our welcome, pastors are called primarily to be shepherds and the tasks of shepherds are to feed, lead, and guard the flock God has entrusted to us; not the ones he hasn’t. I often hearken back to something Dallas Willard said: “Pastors need to redefine success. The popular model of success involves the ABCs—attendance, buildings, and cash. Instead of counting Christians, we need to weigh them. We weigh them by focusing on the most important kind of growth … fruit in keeping with the gospel and the kingdom” (Leadership Journal, Summer ’05).
I confess that I always harbored the hope that one day, if we remained faithful, people would just start coming through our doors in bunches, wide-eyed, whispering, “Can it be true?!” We’d just stand back and be amazed. But when I came to retirement early this year that had never happened.
In recognition of my retirement our people gave us a wonderful “Fare Lee Well” evening. At its conclusion Susan and I were given a large, framed picture. When we pulled back the covering it was a two-foot-high thumbprint—mine, actually. Then we were told to look very closely at the whorls, loops and arches of the fingerprint and there in tiny type were the names of over 1000 people who had been part of our congregation during those 22 years! At the bottom was the inscription, “Thank You for Leaving Your Fingerprints On Us.”
No two ministries are alike, I know, but take heart, dear brothers and sisters. Be filled with the Spirit and faithful with the Word. Leave your fingerprints, and Jesus’, on them.
Be ye glad!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He is the author of Feels Like Home: Reflections on the Care of Souls and Pastoral Graces: Reflections on the Care of Souls (Moody Publishers), as well as being a frequent contributor to Preaching Today and CT Pastors. To learn more about his Pastors' Gatherings visit www.leeeclov.com.