I heard somewhere recently that the median tenure of all Unitarian Universalist ministers these days is now somewhere in the neighborhood of three years. That seemed a little short to me, until I realized that we were talking about the MEDIAN and not the "average" (or arithmetic mean); and that when I looked back at the 13 different congregations (not including random preaching gigs) I have served full or part time over the past quarter of a century, the median tenure of MY ministries is only 22 months. By way of comparison, my predecessor here at FRS has only served two churches in that same period of time: this one (from 1977 to 2001) and now (in retirement) an informal interim ministry at a nearby congregation. Combine his career with mine and the median becomes...22 months. But the average would be closer to 40....
This certainly wasn't at all what I expected when I first signed up for this kind of work. My two earliest mentors in ministry were the two longest tenured ministers in the denomination at the time of their respective retirements: Peter Raible served University Unitarian Church in Seattle for 36 years, while Rhys Williams was the minister of the First and Second Church in Boston for 40. Years, not months. And I know for a fact (because they both confided it to me) that one of the reasons Peter worked as long as he did was that he was hoping Rhys would retire first (so that Peter could pass him), and one of the reasons Rhys worked as long as HE did was that he was waiting for Peter to retire and give up!
Still, the appeal of long-tenured ministry remains alluring. There is something (I'm told) about officiating at the wedding of a child you christened, and then christening THEIR children (and, yes, eventually even burying the grandparents) which gives meaning to our work that simply cannot be found in any other way. It adds a whole new dimension of understanding to Leon Hopper's classic dichotomy about "being" a minister and "doing" ministry. At the end of the day, ministry is not about credentials, or education, or even a closet full of the appropriate clothing and a calendar crowded with "sacerdotal functions." Ministry is really about a relationship -- and we earn the privilege of calling ourselves "ministers" one person as a time, as they honor us with the distinction of calling us THEIR minister.
As someone with a fairly significant exposure to the world of academia, the difference between that understanding of "tenure" (as lifetime job security) and what I see in the ministry is striking. Settled clergy in our movement are supposed to enjoy "indefinite tenure" (in that we serve for no fixed term), but the truth of the matter is that we always serve solely at the pleasure of our people, who (over the short term at least) can often seem like a pretty fickle bunch. Yet they also hunger for the kind of community and authentic relationships that are increasingly rare in this ever more mobile, transient, "throw-away" consumer society we have managed to create for ourselves. And this is a job which can simply never be "outsourced."