When a Great Pastor Leaves

Our church is approaching a time of transition. God has called our senior pastor to take a position at another church. Our pastor has served for five years. Our pastor has loved the people. Our pastor has wept with and for people. Our pastor has prayed with them. Our pastor has married them and buried them. Our pastor’s preaching is faithful to Scripture. Our pastor’s wisdom is beyond his years. Ours is a great pastor; he is our great pastor.

Or, “was,” I should say. He is no longer our pastor. In his sovereign wisdom, God has moved him. It may seem strange for God to do so. We are not a church in decline. All glory goes to God for the fact that our church has steadily increased in membership in a time when many churches are experiencing decline. Not only are we growing but we are growing diversely. Moreover, no bitter strife exists among the staff nor has giving declined dramatically. We are a growing, healthy church. So, why now? Sometimes a pastor leaves and it is a mutually desired outcome. Everyone is happier. There are, however, situations like ours. The timing seems strange but God is sovereign. He declares, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORDFor as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9, ESV).

In this post, I want to deal with three realities, three truths we need to keep in mind in the days to come. In the second post, I want to highlight some of the positive aspects of the situation. In the third and final part, I want to provide a vision for what I think our focus should be in the coming days. What does an individual or a church do when a great pastor leaves? There are three realities which we meet (or “collide”?) at this point.

1. He was never our pastor. Yes, in one sense, he was our pastor; yet, in another sense, he was not our pastor but the Lord’s. We expect our pastor(s) to consider themselves accountable to the Lord Jesus Christ above all others. We payed him, but we did not purchase him. Peter writes as such: “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed . . . but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:18-19, ESV). Pastors are often admonished to remember that the flocks they shepherd are God’s flock. “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care” (1 Pet 5:2, NIV). We are God’s flock. Pastors are told, “It is not your flock.” True. And we would do well to remember the converse. He is not our pastor. He does not belong to us but to the Lord. Jesus can move his servants when and where he chooses. He can and does because of the second reality.

2. Jesus is Lord of the church. The church belongs to Jesus. He is the head of the body, the church, and his the bridegroom of the church. As Lord of the church, his servants are his to move. Remembering this is important because if we trusted our pastor to follow God’s call while he was here, we must trust that he is following God’s call when he leaves. If God has led him away, then we ought to rejoice that the will of the Lord is done. We should also rejoice because as Lord of the church he has not forsaken ours. Pastors come and go but the Lord remains steadfast and sure. With Jesus as the Lord of church, we can and should be encouraged to have the most gracious, loving Lord looking out for our good. He truly is the Good Shepherd. This leads to the third reality: Jesus is our only real hope.

3. Jesus, not a pastor, is our rock. Micah Fries, a pastor whom I follow on Twitter, tweeted the other day: “Too often pastors are emotionally dependent on their churches & churches are dependent on their pastors while no one is dependent on Jesus.” It was a timely and needed reminder for me. Indeed, through the following days, we have a greater opportunity to exercise a greater dependence on Jesus, not a pastor or a staff member. Sometimes God strips away the things that make us comfortable, or give us confidence, so that we have greater, stronger confidence in him.

This thought gentles my soul because at times I feel like a giant tree has been uprooted. A storm has extracted it and left a massive hole. But God does not uproot and leave the hole empty. He fills it with himself; he fills it to overflowing. And we should not be shocked to learn that this tree that we hold so dear, that we mourn, that has been precious to us and beautiful in our sight, is made of plastics and wire–not real. God plants himself in our lives and grows in us, growing a living, vibrant tree. I am not saying this is true of everyone or as a church as a whole, but in the departure of our pastor, the Lord has shown all those areas where I was leaning on the pastor more than Jesus. God has unearthed those secret chambers where my faith was in a man and not the God-Man.  Jesus–our rock! “The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Ps 18:2, NIV).

In the coming days, we are blessed with the opportunity to exercise greater faith in the Lord Jesus. It is a chance to drown in grace. Let us take this opportunity to grow in our love for the Lord Jesus. May we see all that we have in him, all that overflows to us and for us.

In the next post, I will cover three positive aspects of our pastor leaving. Check back next week!

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