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!

Pastor, You Labor Not in Vain

War, Not Busy Work

In high school and college, instructors often gave us what was obviously busy work. This work served no other purpose than to keep us busy until the class was over, or it was assigned so we wouldn’t have a night free from homework. Ministry is not busy work. Ministry is front line, full assault mode spiritual warfare.

Ministry is war and, because of this, good men—great men—can grow weary. War takes a toll on a man. “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers,” says José Narosky. General William Tecumseh Sherman once said, “War is hell.” But ministry is war against hell, not as if to win the war, but to squash rebel skirmishes of the already-defeated foe.

Paul reminds us of this in 1 Corinthians 15. Towards the end of this consummate conspectus of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, we are told that death has been “swallowed up in victory,” and Paul asks, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Death is defeated. Sin has no sting. Hell has no power. Satan and his hosts are once and forever rendered defeated because of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Then in v. 57 Paul writes, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The costly victory achieved was a matter of life and death, the definitive act of the saving aggression of God forever winning the war.

This makes it all the more staggering that God gives us the victory. It wasn’t a cheap victory because it was won through the death of God’s only Son. And, yet, God just gives it away. God gives us the victory. It’s worth noting that the word “give” in the Greek is in the present tense. God (continually) gives us the victory! Whenever you need victory in your ministry, God gives it.

Resurrection Application for Pastors

The Apostle Paul, never one to let the indicative truths of the gospel go without some imperatives, tells us what we are to do with this victory. What are we to do in response to the victory God gives to us? “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58). Notice Paul begins this verse with “therefore,” indicating Paul’s conclusion to his preceding thoughts. The indicative of God’s victory through Christ’s resurrection has real ministry application.

Be Steadfast, Immovable

Paul exhorts his beloved brothers to stand firm, being immovable, like the blacksmith’s anvil. Think of what an anvil endures—fluorescent metal, rhythmic hammers, and creative violence—and the anvil stands firm. It takes the beating, endures the pressure, and survives the heat. It gladly accepts each stroke. The blacksmith molds the other metals, but the anvil remains unchanged, steadfast and immovable.

We have enough pastors and ministers who are like the metal the blacksmith fashions. A little heat and a little pressure and they change, becoming something more suitable to the whims of another. We don’t need more soda can pastors. We need anvil men. Anvil men do not bow to whims or winds. They do not fold under a beating.

It’s not that anvil men are stubborn or refuse to admit they are wrong. It’s that they endure. They are steadfast and immovable because of what Christ has done through this death, life and resurrection. Would you commit to be an anvil man, not swerving from God’s truth and the gospel? Will you endure? I pray you do.

What are we to do, then, if we’ve committed to being steadfast and immovable? Paul gives us two tasks to do as we remain steadfast and immovable, indicated by the two participial phrases at the end of v. 58.

First, he says to be “abounding in the work of the Lord.” This abounding actually refers more to the quality of work than quantity. The idea of abounding is that of excelling or achieving a high standard. Paul removes any ambiguity about quantity, or timing, by saying that we should be doing the work of the Lord “always” or “at all times.” In ministry it is not only about enduring but doing well and being faithful to the end. The resurrection doesn’t mean we passively endure but that we actively live out the implications of the gospel and live them well.

Secondly, Paul says we should constantly remember that our labor is not in vain. Hear Paul’s words: your labor is not in vain. Let this be an encouraging balm for your heart. The word “vain” is the same word used throughout 1 Corinthians 15. Paul means that our labors are not empty. They are not pointless and devoid of effect. Because of the resurrection, you can endure and know that your work matters, the furthest thing from busy work. The spiritual sweat has a purpose. Hear me again. No, hear the Apostle Paul again. No, hear the voice of God in inspired Scripture. Your labor is not in vain.

Be Encouraged

More than anything this encourages me and I pray it encourages you. Paul says your work is not in vain “in the Lord.” The Lord resurrects our efforts and makes them fruitful. You may labor in obscurity in the eyes of man, but the Lord sees and knows. Your labors are not in vain. The victory is yours; he gives it to you. Let the resurrection of Jesus be the foundation of your confidence. Be steadfast, immovable, excelling in the work of the Lord. You may toil in difficult circumstances, but it’s not in vain. Ministry is war and the victory is ours, therefore let us labor all the more.

Let your hearts be encouraged! Your labor is not in vain!

Originally posted at For the Church.