25 years

When my father had been flying crop dusters for 25 years, he decided to hang up that part of his career. He sold that part of his business, including the airplanes used to apply agricultural chemicals. He also sold the fixed base operation at the airport, in order to make the business he sold large enough to succeed. One of the two partners who bought that part of the business eventually bought out the other one and had a long and successful business. His sons still operate the airport in my home town.

When my father had been selling farm machinery for 25 years, he said, “25 years is long enough for any venture.” He sold his machinery business, leasing company, feed store and the inventory of new and used farm machinery. He also sold his franchise.

My father never officially retired. He was always starting some kind of new venture. His years in the farm machinery business overlapped with his years as a crop duster. When he sold the farm machinery business, he kept a truck and a tractor and other equipment that he used to go into the roofing business with one of my brothers. He remodeled a house. He managed rental properties.

My father died young, before he reached the age of 60. I think that he lived most of his life with a sense that he might die young. When he started flying, it was a risky business and many pilots were lost in accidents. At any rate, he was a realist about life and death and he did not expect that he would live to old age.

Because my father sold his flying business before I began my career, all of my career has taken place after many conversations I had with him about how 25 years was long enough for any venture. His sense that one ought to go to work, make a contribution and then move aside so new leaders can emerge has stuck with me and been in the back of my mind for all of my working life. Now that I am in my 25th year as pastor of this congregation, and I have announced that this will be my last, it looms large.

Of course, there is nothing magic about 25 years. It is a good, long time. It isn’t a bad span for a career, though a bit short for most. There are plenty of other ways to count the span of a career. The US military offers significant retirement benefits after 20 years of service. There was a time when Methodist pastors were moved from one congregation to the other on an average of every four years. I have plenty of colleagues who have built entire careers without ever serving a single church for a decade.

When I began my career, a professor warned me of the “four year itch” After spending four years in high school, four years in undergraduate school, and four years in seminary, many seminary graduates served their first congregation for four years and then began looking for a move. My life didn’t quite line up with those ways of counting. I spent only 3 years in high school and though I spent 4 years in seminary, I completed my master’s program in 3 years and invested the 4th year in earning a professional doctorate. But my professor was right. I did have a sense that it was time to move after four years in the parish. Fortunately, I resisted that urge and served seven years before moving on from my first call. At the time we began our careers another mentor said that three years would be sufficient parish experience before going into specialized ministry. I seriously considered that path, but have never regretted not following it.

When we left our first parish, we accepted the call to become pastors in a mid sized congregation that had a history of conflict with pastors. The previous four pastors had left on uncomfortable terms and three of the four had left the pastoral ministry after serving that congregation. We resolved not to end our pastoral in that manner. We set the goal of coming to the end of that ministry on positive terms and leaving the congregation feeling good about themselves and their ability to attract leaders. We served that congregation for a decade. In that time the church grew, and, after years of preparation was launching a major remodeling and addition to the physical building. It was a good time to leave the congregation feeling good about themselves. The era of conflict with pastors was behind them and now, a quarter of a century later, it has not returned.

When we came to this call, we had no sense of how long it would be. We had teenage children and hoped that it would be our call long enough for them to graduate from high school. It was. They did. And we continued to feel called to this ministry.

Now there is a unique feeling to the work that I do. On the one hand there are lots of anniversaries in my work. Next week will be our 25th Thanksgiving. Our 25th Christmas will follow. My lawn mower has survived 25 summers of mowing without the need of major repairs. On the other hand, I am aware that there are many things that I am doing for the last time. As we plan our Advent worship, there is a sense of finality about it. I may not be planning Advent worship at this time next year. After a career of moving most of our family’s Christmas celebrations to the week after Christmas day, I may be available to celebrate with family when Christmas 2020 comes around. In the summer, I received my annual datebook and planner from the denomination and thought with nostalgia, “this could be the last one of these I’ll ever have.”

Change is not mostly sad. I am filled with excitement about new possibilities that are opening up in my life. We are beginning a new adventure and have no idea where it will take it.

If you enjoy reading my journal, rest assured. I only started posting daily essays to the Internet in 2007. That’s only 12 years ago. I’ve got a lot more years before I will have been doing that for 25.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!