When B.J. Martin first came to pastor South Main Baptist Church in Pasadena, the average cost of a new house in the U.S. was a little less than $11,000; the minimum hourly wage was $1 and the average yearly wage was $4,130; "In God We Trust" was now appearing on paper currency; and the first Guinness Book of World Records was published.
The year was 1955.
When Ron Lyles succeeded the long term pastor of South Main 26 years later, a house cost a little over $78,000; the average income per year was $21,050; the first shuttle was launched; and the word "Internet" was used for the first time.
That was 1981. Thirty years later, Lyles is still serving the members of South Main, keeping things fresh in the pulpit (even basing a recent sermon series on the bible having an "app for that"), teaching his love of the Old Testament, and continuing to build on the foundation Martin left for him -- trust.
The combined, extended tenures of the two pastors is perhaps not a world record but certainly worthy of note, especially when many of their Southern Baptist cohorts stay on average of around 8 years at a given church. "Surely, others can learn from their successful experience," says Dian Kidd, Associate Director of UBA, and then reflects on knowing them both:
Although Dr. B.J. Martin had been retired as the pastor of South Main Baptist Church of Pasadena for a decade when I came to serve at UBA, he was still an active member of South Main, a frequent participant in the life of UBA, and a man of great influence. His quick wit, plain speaking, wise heart, and sense of humor earned my respect and admiration the first time I met him. He served South Main as pastor for over 25 years, and after such a tenure, I'd expect the church's next pastor to be an 'unintentional interim' with a very brief stay. I find it impressive and remarkable that Dr. Ron Lyles who followed Dr. Martin as pastor has now surpassed that record and established a '30 years and counting' record of his own. Two remarkable men. Called by God. Faithful in service. Friends.
In Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, Thom S. Rainer notes a strong correlation between pastoral tenure and church health and effectiveness. Having doubled the members of his congregation, extended the church's ministry to a presence on every continent, and planted local congregations, Lyles is a testament to that truth.
First the big question ...
How does one follow a beloved pastor (and not wind up being a short-termer because "we've never done it that way before")?
Lyles had a quick response: "When I came, I found a climate where the people trusted Dr. Martin and he didn't' take advantage of that. No dictatorial nature. When trust and respect is in place, you work together."
Lyles came to South Main when he had just turned 31 and had pastored churches at the end of college and through seminary. Recognizing the level of trust Martin had acquired, he determined to invest his time in learning who South Main was.
"In my first years, I called every member on their birthdays. I met my deacon group in their own work setting. I was intentional early on to not just be the person our folks see on Sunday morning," he said.
What do you do when the retiring pastor stays?
Though Dr. Martin stepped away from the South Main pulpit, he didn't leave the church.
Lyles identifies three things which have to happen to follow a popular, long-tenured pastor:
The two ministers had a mutual admiration for each other. Martin was affirming of Lyles and was instrumental of his serving on the board at HBU. South Main named Martin pastor emeritus and named a building for him. When they opened a time capsule in 2001 the two pastors opened it together.
"The church itself was very appreciative of our friendship and BJ was nothing but an encourager to me," Lyles explained. "I never got tired of hearing wonderful compliments of Dr. Martin because I knew when I left here those same people would be complimenting me. Anyone enjoying criticism of a former pastor doesn't realize those same things will be said about him one day."
Dr. B.J. Martin died in 2010 at age 92, still a member of South Main Pasadena.
What are needed traits for longevity?
Again, Lyles doesn't hesitate to respond. "Trust and an unwillingness to violate or betray that trust" is a continuing theme. "Once you have it," he says, "it's wonderful, like in a marriage, and you don't want to do anything to cause it to be taken away."
Along with that trust comes genuinely listening to others, assuring the congregation that it's possible to be creatively visionary without having all the answers, and leading by consensus.
"I don't want to be so far ahead of the people that I have to wonder if they are still following. We make turns a little slower and more deliberately, but we make them with more people on board than if you did it more abruptly."
One example of that consensus occurred when a 1989 study of the 12 Keys to an Effective Church and a task force identified accessibility, visibility and parking as issues facing the church. As all were related to location, in 1992 the congregation relocated 8 miles and opened a new facility on Sam Houston Beltway.
"We didn't rush through it. That's my leadership style. We let leaders talk. One of the buildings had been named by Dr. Martin's late wife. Leaving a building where you've baptized children and buried loved ones is difficult. But we had a wonderful celebration. Dr. Martin led the first prayer offered there."
How does one stay fresh after so long?
Long tenures seem to be a matter of course at South Main - the associate pastor of music and worship will soon also celebrate 30 years with the church; the ministers of youth and education have been with the congregation for 17 and 15 years respectively. So the question of freshness is understandable.
Lyles notes that it would be easy to presume "we've heard everything you have" so he is committed to continuing to study and learn to present scripture in fresh, authentic ways. During the fall, he completed a series of sermons from verses that were less than 140 characters -- verses as God Tweets.
The church continues to explore new directions of ministries. The focus was local in the mid-1980s and has become more intentionally global in the last three years. Partnerships are key and the emphasis is on having a presence on every continent.
He teaches Old Testament and Preaching courses for Logsdon Seminary at Corpus Christi, traveling there one day a week, and he writes Bible study materials for Baptistway Press. An avid reader, he keeps bios, mysteries and history books on his Kindle.
Who are your models?
Longevitiy is in the genes. Lyles' father pastored before becoming a director of missions for 26 years. After retiring from associational work, he went back to pastoring and finally retired at age 82.
Lyles often joked, when asked when he might retire, that he couldn't do so while his father was still in the ministry, "I told people it would not be right for my father to have to take a day off to see me retire."
Married since his days as a student at Dallas Baptist University, Lyles and wife Brenda were very intentional with their language when it came to the church.
"We never said, 'He's at church,'" he explained. "We said, 'He's at work.' We didn't want our kids to feel they were deprived of dad because of church. We worked hard with that language."
The tactic must have succeeded. Once while driving his youngest son to his office on a weekday they passed the nearby Sears building and the then preschooler observed, "Dad your office must be near our church."
The father of four commends his family for their commitment as well. Now grown, three of his children are members of South Main. One son is a minister in San Angelo. All are either in ministry or education, following in the footsteps of their parents.
As for a biblical model, the Old Testament professor turns to Nehemiah - who received a guest, heard of a need and took some time before responding. He talked with leaders and did a careful tour of what was needed at night in order not to garner unwelcome attention. He worked with others - 40 some old groups assigned on the wall - working together and at the end, they had a great celebration.
Lyles summarizes the story and then concludes, "Deliberate planning, bringing the group along, meeting the need and then celebrating. I would love to be like him."
Final thoughts ...
"If anyone does see God's hand for planting for the long haul, it is the most fulfilling thing. When a new leader comes he's the preacher for a year or two, you become the pastor over time by showing your care and love for the people. Staying at one place for a long time gives you the privilege of being part of families for the generations.
"The hard work involved and investment in one group of people has wonderful fulfilling benefits. I've dedicated babies, baptized them as children, performed their weddings and dedicated their newborns. That's the most fulfilling thing."
"What Happened in 1955 Inc. Pop Culture, Prices and Events." The People History. 18 June 2006. Web. 2 Jan. 2012. .
Pearson, Steve. "What Happened in 1981 Inc. Pop Culture, Prices and Events." The People History. 18 June 2006. Web. 2 Jan. 2012. .
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