Nearly every time he goes out in public Perry Sanders is treated like a local celebrity.
On a recent trip to the mall in Lafayette, Louisiana, he counted sixty-two people who approached him thanking him for his influence in the city. Even on duck hunting outings he cannot escape recognition. In December, a man approached Sanders after he had finished a morning of hunting to tell him how he had admired Sanders for years.
So what does Sanders do? Was he an actor, local news anchor, or athlete? Actually, he arrived at celebrity status in a very unconventional manner. He was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Lafayette for forty-seven years before retiring in 2006. He also had a television program in the area that broadcast Gospel preaching for more than fifty years.
"It's a wonderful thing to stay a while where you can see people develop and grow in the Lord and develop and mature," Sanders said.
Ben Jones of Jacksonville, Florida, and Richard Oldham of Bowling Green, Kentucky, can tell similar stories of influence in their communities. Jones pastored West Park Baptist Church for fifty-eight years, and Oldham is still pastor of Glendale Baptist Church, where he has been for fifty years.
The average tenure for a Southern Baptist pastor is just over two years, according to Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. But these pastors defy the average and all say long-term pastorates bring powerful results for God's Kingdom.
Oldham came to Glendale in 1957 after pastoring in Lansing, Michigan. He says he never planned to stay for half a century, but God continued to give him a passion for the congregation.
"The Lord just seemed to lead me from one year to the next," Oldham, who is now 71, said. "Of course, I had no idea I would spend my whole life here. God just opened door after door."
Among the highlights of Oldham's time in Bowling Green have been seeing approximately five thousand people baptized under his ministry and approximately 250 devote themselves to fulltime Christian service. Glendale also went through five major building programs under Oldham, including the construction of a Christian school for grades K-12.
When is he going to retire?
"I'll serve until the Lord makes it clear I should retire," he said. "I didn't really plan to stay this long. I've been called by several other churches, but I felt like the Lord wanted me here."
Jones, who retired in 2006, tells a similar story. He came to West Park in 1948 at age 24. A railroad worker at the time, coworkers who were members of the church asked him to fill the pulpit for a short time. Though he never planned to spend his entire ministry in Jacksonville, the short-term pulpit supply gradually turned into half a century.
"When I took the church, they were in debt," Jones, now 83, said. "They were about to lose it. They were about to go into foreclosure. So I went and talked with [their creditors], and I just went to work. They went along with me.
"God bless me, I just went out and went to work. And I don't mean this bragging, but we just filled the house."
When Jones started, the church averaged eleven in worship. Today it averages about two hundred.
Jones says his favorite memories from West Park involve ministering to families with special needs. One night, for example, he was called to the hospital and told there was a baby who would not live through the night. But after praying for the baby, it lived, Jones said.
He can recount many other occasions when he prayed for people with needs but says the basis for his entire ministry was teaching the Word of God to the people.
"I just kept my head in the Bible, studying the Bible, and I gave them the Word," he said. "They knew when they got there they were going to get the Word from the Bible. I wasn't telling about myself. I related stories and things, but I majored on the Bible."*
Sanders said many opportunities came to leave First Baptist, but he never had a distinct feeling that God wanted him to move to another ministry. Though he has preached in every state convention affiliated with the SBC and has a building named after him at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Sanders said his goal was never to become influential or famous.
On one occasion, one of the largest churches in the SBC wanted Sanders to become its pastor. A wealthy member of the search committee even guaranteed him that his salary would be double the salary of the highest-paid pastor in the Convention. But Sanders was not in ministry for money.
"I said, 'Brother, you're beating up the wrong tree. That doesn't have anything to do with the way I'm going to preach. I'm going to be where God wants me to be, and the money is not significant,'" Sanders, who will turn 80 in February, said. "I never have accepted a church knowing what I was going to get until I got there."
Among the highlights from Sanders' ministry in Lafayette were increasing the church budget from $70,000 to $4 million and growing the congregation in attendance from several hundred to several thousand. He also worked with the same minister of music for thirty-nine years.
Sanders tells young pastors that one of the keys to sustaining a successful ministry over decades is practicing what you preach.
"I don't preach anything that I'm not going to practice in my personal life," he said.
On one occasion, Sanders was preaching through the book of Philippians when he encountered a verse that said, "Magnify Christ in your body." In his study, God convicted Sanders that he was overweight and not glorifying God in his body. So he stood before the church the next Sunday, publicly repented of his obesity, and committed to glorify God with his body more fully.
"When I got to that verse, I stepped aside from the pulpit — it was on TV and everything — I opened up my coat, and I said, 'I want y'all to look at me now. You're never going to see me this big again,'" he said. "And in fourteen months I lost sixty-eight pounds."
Another key to a long ministry is having absolute confidence in everything the Bible says, Sanders added. Oldham agreed with that advice, noting that there is no way to be a successful minister without becoming a student of the Bible.
"Don't ever cease studying," Oldham said. "We need to study and preach the Word of God."
Along with studying the Bible, pastors must be men of prayer and love the people, Oldham said. One important way a pastor must demonstrate his love for the people is listening to their criticisms and taking those criticisms to heart when they are justified, he said.
"Keep in mind that other people have good ideas," he said. "Weigh their ideas carefully. Weigh the criticism carefully. If the criticism is just, then change. If it isn't, then don't change."
Jones, Oldham, and Sanders all agreed that preachers must never make their goal to climb the denominational ladder to bigger churches and more important leadership positions. Instead, ministers must make it their top priority to serve God faithfully in the places He leads them, they said.
"When a young preacher comes along, he often says, 'Well, I'm just going to keep walking up the ladder,'" Sanders said. "I never had that intention in my heart. I never wanted to just move up because it was bigger. I just wanted to be where God wanted me to be, and I was always joyful and happy and satisfied."
Oldham added, "I've never thought that ministry was something where you should try to jump up the ladder. I felt that the Lord calls a man and has a plan for his life, and I don't believe that it's God's will for him to go out and try to find a bigger church or a bigger salary. Just go where God leads, and find what God's direction is."
In an age when the norm for pastors is climbing the ladder, looking for greener pastures at another church, and being fired, these men illustrate the beauty of a pastor investing his entire career in one congregation.
As a young pastor myself, having served a small congregation for two-and-a-half years, Jones, Oldham, and Sanders serve as tangible examples of finishing the race of ministry strongly. The continuity of leadership and teaching has made their churches strong and their efforts appreciated.
In reference to his book High Expectations, Rainer rightly noted, "Though new pastors can often implement significant changes in the 'honeymoon' years of their ministry, some changes take time. Rarely will a church transition from a low-expectation church to a high-expectation church in a short period. Such changes require time, and they require the leadership of a pastor who is committed to see the church through these changes."
* Unfortunately, there were no current photos of Rev. Ben Jones available at press time.
David Roach is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Shelbyville, Kentucky, and a PhD candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.