Jack Glasgow preaches at Zebulon Baptist Church in North Carolina. (Church photo)
Jack Glasgow preaches at Zebulon Baptist Church in North Carolina. (Church photo)

Healthy church, preacher produce rare gift: pastoral longevity

Jack Glasgow has been the pastor at Zebulon Baptist Church in North Carolina for 32 years — and he was part-time there for five years before that. Experts say such longevity is very healthy — and rare — for today’s congregations.

By Jeff Brumley

Jack Glasgow has seen things at Zebulon Baptist Church that fewer and fewer modern pastors have seen — or likely ever will see.

Things like shepherding members of his North Carolina congregation from birth to ministry, and others from ministry to their deaths.

It comes with the territory when you preach from the same pulpit for more than three decades, he says.

“We had a young woman who was chair of congregational deacons,” said Glasgow, 58. “When I came to the church, she was in the 4-year-old class. That really is an amazing blessing.”

And also an increasingly rare one, said Bill Wilson, director of The Center for Healthy Churches and a columnist and board member for ABPnews/Herald.

That’s especially true in an age when the washout rate for new pastors is 50 percent in the first five years of ministry. The average pastoral career is just under 15 years.

“That’s a pretty sobering statistic,” Wilson said.

Bill WilsonAnother is that only one in 10 clergy actually retire from local church positions, due both to burnout and to a number leaving the pulpit for teaching and other forms of ministry.

Churches where a pastor has served more than 15-20 years often share one important trait with their pastors, Wilson said: Healthy emotional and spiritual lives.

“These are pastors who set good boundaries, have spiritual depth, come from stable families and know how to take care of themselves emotionally and physically,” Wilson said.

“And they know how to deal with people — they have very good people skills.”

Glasgow spared some time recently to speak with ABPnews/Herald about his longevity at Zebulon Baptist, how he pulled off such a rare feat and his plans for the future.

How and where did you hear your calling to the pastorate?

I was in college at Georgia Tech. I was majoring in economics and probably thought I was going to go to law school, but I was very engaged in my home church, Briarlake Baptist Church in Decatur, [Ga.,] which gave me fantastic opportunities as a college student to exercise ministry gifts teaching Sunday school, recreation ministry, leading Bible studies for youth .... In all of those ministry experiences I was really discovering my passion for ministry and the church and by the spring of my junior year ... I made it public at the church that I felt called to the ministry and planned to go to seminary after graduation.

What church or churches did you serve before finally arriving at Zebulon Baptist?

Zebulon Baptist is the only church I have ever served .... I started here on Oct. 1, 1977, working part-time in youth and education while at Southeastern Seminary. When I finished my M.Div. in 1980, I stayed on while I worked on my master of theology in Christian ethics. Then the senior minister, Dr. Charles Edwards Sr., was called to a church in Winston-Salem [N.C.]. I was the interim for seven months, and at the end of that they asked if I would consider being the senior pastor. I felt that was what God was calling me to be. I became the pastor in November of 1981.

Was the church a very different place, both in facilities and people, then compared to now?

It’s changed quite a bit over the years. None of the buildings that were here when I came in 1977 are here on the campus anymore ..... We built an education building in 1979 and a new sanctuary in 1993, and in 2003 we purchased a shopping center behind the church and it’s now our fellowship hall, offices and adult education spaces .... The size of the congregation has probably grown from a little under 500 to close to 900. Total membership is 1,130.

What about the people you met when you came here — there must have been a lot of changes there, too.

It’s been wonderful to share such a long portion of persons’ lives with them as their pastor. I’ll be doing a funeral this afternoon [April 4] for a beloved church member who was 83 years old .... She was 47 when I came to the church. Her youngest of three sons had just graduated from high school and was a college freshman. I have been with her through all of that. I was there for her retirement and her husband’s retirement and her husband’s death .... It’s amazing to be able to enjoy such a long-term relationship with someone like that.

There were probably people who were children when you arrived, and you’ve seen them grow.

There have been a number of people for whom I was present for their birth, I was the pastor who baptized them, done their weddings and been there for the birth of their children.

How has your ministry been impacted by staff members and ministry interns who have come and gone through the years?

This is a great learning church and affirming of young ministers. But they have also helped me. One of them is Chris Aho, [now pastor at Oxford (N.C.) Baptist Church] who was on our staff for five years in the early 2000s. I’ve always said he was my ‘professor of postmodernity.’ He helped me understand young adults and he really helped me to interpret the culture better. I became a much better minister just learning from him and he was learning about a traditional church from me.

Do you have many colleagues who have your length of tenure in the pulpit?

I’m probably the only one I know who has been at one church for 36 years and pastor for 32. But I am finding tenure is lengthening .... I have a lot of colleagues with 25 or 15 years in the same place. I think that’s a good thing.

Is it good? Can’t long tenures like that get stale for everyone involved?

If you are going to make a long-term pastorate work, then you are going to have to learn how to grow and be creative. ... If you do the same thing every year, you are going to grow stale and the congregation is going to tire. ... The trust in leadership rises over time and the church is able to do some things I couldn’t do if it had had a series of 4- and 5-year pastorates.

How did you manage it?

I never had a time where I felt I had to get out because I wasn’t enjoying the work or the work was failing the congregation. Of course, everyone has bad days and goes through tough periods. ... I have had the ability when maybe things weren’t going that well ... to move beyond that.

Did you consider going to other churches?

I have felt like I have needed to be open to God leading in another direction. ... There have been conversations with several congregations to move on ... and two invited me to preach trial sermons ... in both of those cases, I actually had a meeting with [Zebulon] church members and leaders and asked them to pray for me and asked them to talk with me about where they saw the church and our future if I stay. ... I know every pastor can’t do that. ... In both cases they didn’t do any begging for me to stay but said they felt my leadership was effective and we had a clear vision of where we are going in our future. ... After a lot of prayer I ended up staying where I am called to stay.

Thinking of retirement?

I’ll be 59 in June and if my health stays strong and the congregation is healthy, I can see going until the 65-66 range.