Pastor for Life

At the Council of Nicea, the gathered leaders of the church agreed upon a number of canon laws in addition to the Creed that they formulated. Canon number 15 is particularly interesting and reads as follows:

Canon 15
On account of the great disturbance and discords that occur, it is decreed that the custom prevailing in certain places contrary to the Canon, must wholly be done away; so that neither bishop, presbyter, nor deacon shall pass from city to city. And if any one, after this decree of the holy and great Synod, shall attempt any such thing, or continue in any such course, his proceedings shall be utterly void, and he shall be restored to the Church for which he was ordained bishop or presbyter.


As we discussed this in class, we weren’t sure exactly what kind of disturbance and discords were happening at the time, although we came up with a number of good ideas. However, regardless of the events that necessitated this kind of a law, we were taken aback by the vast difference between this and normal Christian practice today.

Have you ever known a pastor who stayed at the same church for the entirety of their ministry career? They certainly exist, but rarely. It seems much more common for pastors to move from one church to another after a few years, or even to take a job at a small church to get their feet wet in order to eventually move on to a larger congregation.

My professor, Marc Cortez, suggested that the church at this time took very seriously the relationship between a pastor (or bishop as they were called at the time) and their congregation. So serious, that once they accepted the call to lead a church in a particular city, they were committed there for life, for better or worse. There is something about this type of radical commitment that resonates very deeply in me. I wouldn’t want to make it a rule, and would not be entirely sure of how to practice it today, but a deep commitment to proclaiming the gospel to and shepherding one group of people in one place for a lifetime sounds like an incredibly rich situation for growing in following Jesus in community.

I wonder what this would look like in American evangelicalism today. If this kind of commitment to a particular group of people was THE choice for pastors, or for those who wanted to minister and lead in the local church, how many would take the plunge?


Obviously there are a great many differences between the church then and our churches today. A great many factors would stand in the way of this kind of rigidity. However, if this is one side of the spectrum, are we not far on the other, and not in a place of tension in between two extremes? At best, pastors look to the Holy Spirit for direction and discernment when the question of moving on to another church or opportunity, while at worst, a pastor might feel no commitment to a congregation whatsoever, and seek only personal advancement. However, for those pastors who are seeking to follow Jesus in all that they do and to be faithful ministers of the gospel, it doesn’t seem like staying with one congregation for their entire ministry career is seen as much of a priority.

So, at it’s best, is the current model an example of people more in tune with the Spirit moving them from one ministry context to another, or is there something more to this idea of longevity of service in one context? Has the pendulum swung too far from this sort of radical commitment so that pastors might up and take a position at a new church in a new place because of better weather, higher pay, or more skilled musicians?


15 thoughts on “Pastor for Life

  1. I think when a pastor knows they will live and die in a given city it creates a greater resolve to focus on that city, that church. Often many pastors move from place to place and they have the right to do so, but I think less movement would be impressive and it could stabilize more churches.

      • I know this is one canon law that was not always strictly followed, but it would be interesting to see what kind of change (if any) both positive and negative, resulted from this principle.

        I think even for many who view the pastorate as their God-given ministry, there is a tendency to feel that call very generally, but not to a specific group of people. So a seminary student might follow God’s gifting and leading in their life to prepare to be a pastor, but might feel that it doesn’t really matter where, as long as they can find a church that will support them and their ministry.

    • I really like your last sentence Brian. Trying to apply something like this as a law today would be an utter disaster, but if more pastors had a long-term mindset of commitment, I think it could produce an impressive change in their ministry.

  2. This is common in the non-White American church. I have more experience working with African American churches, but there is very little movement in those churches. In fact I have heard on multiple occasions from African American pastors that one of the biggest problems in racial reconciliation among churches is the movement of White pastors. (That and White para-church organizations hiring Black pastors away from the local church.)

    • That is fascinating! Do you have any theories as to why?

      Have the pastors you’re hearing this from say why the movement of White pastors stands in the way of racial reconciliation in the church? Is it merely because they don’t stay in one place long enough to accomplish it? How do the two things you mentioned contribute to the status quo and prevent racial reconciliation? I’m not suggesting that they don’t, I’m just quite interested in hearing more.

      • What I keep hearing from Black pastors is that they don’t trust White pastors. In general, African American culture is more relationally focused and White culture is more positionally focused. So when White pastors move, there is very little relationship that gets passed on to the new pastor. And after a while, especially if the African American pastor has invested much time in the relationship there is a level of discouragement.

        Also in the African American church the pastor is invested with a lot of authority (sometime far too much), so without the pastor’s approval there is very little movement. If church members of both churches can make progress relationally, then there can be reconciliation progress, but without the organizational approval it is mostly individual relationships.

        As to the White parachurch issue. In general, the para-church organizations are trying to do go things. They want to increase staff diversity, they want to hire proven leaders and they want to reach out to African American church. But by taking established pastors that have real leadership experience, they remove a rung from the traditional mentorship system that has worked for generations in the African American church. This leaves fewer good mentors in the African American church, and can create a level of jealousy that can hinder the work of the para-church organization.

        Rarely does this seem to be intentional harm, it is just the way that things end up.

      • Thanks for the additional thoughts. That is an interesting dynamic that I had not considered in this issue.

        Are you referring here to general racial reconciliation, or to specific issues between two churches?

      • More General. But most of my experience is in internal denominational issues. So I think that adds a wrinkle that may not be present in all cases.

  3. Given the overwhelming political import of the church and the office of bishop in the time of the Council of Nicea, it makes sense that the routine movement of church leaders posed a very real threat to the local and regional political stability of an area. (This accounts for much of the tensions around the appointment of Chrysostom from Antioch to Constantinople, and the subsequent battles between he and the N. African bishops) It could be devastating to an area to lose a politically powerful bishop–esp. if he had the ear of the local civil government, or the Emperor or Empress. I can imagine this was not good for the local church.
    Sheep can’t handle hearing a different “voice of the shepherd” every 3-5 years–they won’t trust such hirelings.
    Today, with our culture becoming increasingly post-Christian in fact and nature, I wonder if the days of the professional, ladder-climbing, opportunistic pastor are passing. If both our pastors and our congregations genuinely viewed themselves as exile communities, instead of chaplains to the culture, there would be much less ministry shopping, and more heart-felt commitment to community. I fear that what is really happening today is simply a re-arrangement and re-shuffling of pastors and church-members that often gives the appearance of growth (even numerical) but in reality is just a re-cutting of the static “pie” of the church in a community. How revolutionary it would be if more pastors simply said, “Come hell or high water, this is where you’re going find me for the rest of my life.”
    I read of one pastor who was called to a troubled church in a little valley town in California. They’d been through too many pastors, and had little left to give to “another new guy.” He and his wife immediately purchased their grave-plots in that town’s cemetery, as a testimony to their desire and intent to remain for the rest of their lives in that place. That’s pretty bold stuff!

    • The thing that keeps coming back is a lack of commitment to community. Whether on the part of the pastor, or on the part of the people attending a church. There is a commitment to Christ, but not to a particular group of his people.

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  6. I have to admit that for the first time in my Christian walk I truly feel drawn to the church I attend. It is nothing like I would expect but God is at work there on many levels and He has actually given me a love for the church, not just one or two people.

    @luke, it’s interesting that you mention commitment. I recently posted an article about what we should be doing in looking for a local church body.

    Is our ministry (mostly speaking from a lay perspective) to our congregation enough to make us stay in that place? Are we too consumed by the needs of our life and not by the Kingdom? Can we trust God to place us into congregations that He has made us for?

    • I’m so happy to hear that you guys have found such a church, and that God has given you that kind of love for it.

      Those are some tough questions in your post…especially as you guys are considering what is next in life. I’m confident that nearly all of us are too consumed by the needs of our life and not by the kingdom. I’m not sure that it follows that we must necessarily stay in the local body that we are in, but what beautiful things to be wrestling with! I know there are times when seeking the kingdom means leaving a wonderful church, but so few have this high a regard for the local expression of the Body of Christ.

      In answer to your first question, I think it is and should be enough, but it is not necessarily the only good option for the future, or even the best. There are many ways to serve God, and many ways to seek his kingdom, even by pursuing a career, or by returning home. Obviously I don’t know your situation the way you do, or the motives and goals involved in staying or going, but you’re most certainly asking the right questions.

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