Saturday, August 16, 2014

Seasons of ministry

Last Sunday, I had a very unique preaching experience.  I was asked to share the sermon with a pastor and his spouse who were sharing with their congregation that they have decided it is time to retire.  Pastor Ray Merritt and his wife Ginny shaped their part of the sermon time around the theme of "For Everything There is a Season".  Referencing the beloved passage from Ecclesiastes, Ray shared of his experiences with bee-keeping and the way that the plants and flowers change as winter melts away for Spring then summer and autumn, so we humans have seasons in our lives.   Recently, he found himself reflective about his ministry and assessing his own sense of the seasons of life.

After his reflections and similar sharing from Ginny, I was invited to share some thoughts on how the church members could move into this time of changing seasons:

Let me begin by saying thank you to Rev. Merritt for calling the American Baptist Churches of New York State to be with you today.   As he prepared to make this announcement, Rev. Merritt wanted to ensure that the church heard two things today:   news of his decision to retire and the opportunities that are available to your congregation in planning next steps.

Admittedly, the first news of the retirement is something that you are absorbing in the moment, a word shared with the whole congregation, and therefore, whatever I say this morning will be necessity heard with hearts and minds appropriately directed to the word of Rev. Merritt’s retirement.  In other words, this moment may be a bit like other times when you have heard big news:  everything afterwards will seem like a big blur, a haze of “was there something else said today?” or “Who was that other guy who spoke to us?”

As a pastor, I know firsthand what happens when a pastor accepts a call to a new ministry.  We feel elated, excited that God is at work in the midst of the congregation and our own lives.  There’s a rush of uncertainty, new names and faces to remember, learning how Baptist churches work (y’know, learning the rules that are written and the rules that are unwritten, but are best followed, once you figure them out!). 

For a pastor and family, the decision to depart, especially when a pastor’s ministry is approaching retirement is a difficult word to share.  You struggle to understand if now is the time, or if it is really the word God is giving you in this moment.   For the congregation and the pastoral household, it’s a time to realize that “for everything there is a season”.   Understanding that the time ahead of you as Rev. Merritt’s final Sunday approaches, you are all encouraged to consider what you are feeling in the midst of the moments.  

It is healthy to understand that a pastor’s departure is a time of grief and celebration, a saying of “Good-bye” as well as sharing “I remember the time when Pastor Ray said or did this…” type moments.   It’s a time to sum up, to evaluate and to bless one another, pastor and congregants giving thanks to God for this season of ministry and then being willing to say, “Farewell”.   For after Ray and Ginny leave, you will be calling another pastor, just as surely as you had to call other pastors over the decades to be in service here.  “For everything there is a season”, including the times a pastor serves and then leaves, maybe after years or decades, but none the less, we arrive and depart, things done and undone, blessings and frustrations, trials and triumphs, struggles and moments of grace all wrapped up into the life and times of a church as well as a clergy’s pathway of serving here, and then serving there, and now coming to a point where we can say, “Bless you as you go into retirement.”

In terms of “next steps”, let me remind you of the American Baptist way of handling pastoral transition.  As with every aspect of our denominational life, the local church has the right to call whomever they choose to serve as a pastor.  The Region and national denomination have resources and suggestions for how to go about a good, healthy pastoral transition, yet the pace of a search and call of a new pastor is in your hands as a congregation.  We can provide materials and staff support to assist your church leaders in forming and carrying out a search committee.   I work extensively with the 294 churches of our ABCNYS Region to ensure that when a pastoral transition occurs, the best possible resources and support are available to churches.   The Region depends on your church to say, “Yes, please help!”, so I encourage you to have some conversation in the near future about what your church bylaws say about pastoral searches and invite me back to come and share with you about the “best practices” available for churches in transition, especially on a day after you’ve had a chance to absorb the news Pastor Ray shared with you this morning.

 The Region can assist you with possible candidates to serve as an interim pastor.  It is very helpful to have a clergyperson called to serve you while your congregation thinks about what’s next for your church’s mission and seeks a pastor fitting these needs.   There are pastors who have sought out special training to serve as transitional or interim pastors.  Such ministers are available around our Region as well as through the Transition Ministries program in Valley Forge (aka M-A-L program).  Such pastors can engage your church in ongoing conversations about your church’s past, present and future, help you identify areas where you need to grow and learn, and know how to move forward rather than two steps back when it’s time to call a new pastor who will serve for years, maybe a decade or two, yet will be just like Ray, or myself, or any other minister:  serving for a season.

 Churches can find an interim time as a time to grow, yet many want to rush ahead.   I suggest that you would be well served to think about an interim time where a transition pastor serves for at least 18 months.  In that year and a half, the interim helps you look critically at the church and its needs, the search committee is formed and spends time gathering up needed information, and then hopefully  candidates can begin to be reviewed, interviewed, and then a clergy woman or man is decided as the next pastor.   We can provide you with a great resource: “Calling an American Baptist Minister”, which provides helpful insights and tips into the various stages of a church transitioning from a departing pastor to an interim time to what steps are needed to have a successful search and call process.

Let me say as I must throughout any church’s transition: slow and steady will win this race.  More often than not, anxiety drives a church to want “quick fixes” and “fast answers”.  Let me assure you that no church has ever really found that to be the best answer, or even an answer they would later on admit held much water.   Breathe deeply and let the Spirit guide you, or otherwise, you’ll always be running fast and wondering why you have no focus or sense of fulfillment that you’re making wise decisions.  The Region has worked with eighteen search committees since the first of this year.  No situation to my knowledge has benefitted from anything other than intentional planning, listening for God and one another and trying to be “in transition” rather than “on the fast track”.

Together with Rev. Pat Robinson of the Fransego Association, who assists me as part of the ABCNYS Regional Enhancement Team, I will be working with your church leadership to ensure whatever you need is met through the time ahead.  I am glad to return in the near future to meet with church members or the lay leadership who are decided to be the ones helping start up this search process.   Again, you will be the people most involved with making decisions, but please know that the Region is here to support you and help you find this to be a transforming, renewing experience for your church and its ministry and mission.

As I close, let me invite up Ray and Ginny so we can offer a prayer for them and for your church.  

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