A number of my friends are going to think this was written just for them. They will be right.
They've just lost their ministry positions, which had been their existence for the last year or many years. They loved that church and delighted in serving Christ there. And now, they've been cut loose and told their services are no longer needed. They are hurting as though a death had occurred. They grieve, they fear for their future and they deal with anger over how they were treated.
The termination of ministers is reaching the epidemic level. And it shows no signs of abating.
So, this is a word to ministry friends who have suddenly found themselves cut loose. Flockless shepherds. Ministers without portfolio. Called by God, trained for the ministry, employed by a church and then suddenly made redundant. Pink-slipped. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.
God bless you. May He comfort you with His nearness. Hold your head up high. No moping allowed (except in private, maybe on your back porch).
May He speak to you in your pain and minister to you through a few of His most faithful servants. Those who have been there/done that will be of most comfort to you.
In one sense, this is a word to you five years ago. Something we wish we could turn back the clock and say to you back then when things were going well.
We must never get so attached to a specific assignment—a church we serve, a position we love, a ministry we perhaps even started—that we "own" it. We must never feel toward a ministry as though it is us and we are "it." The work defining us. Without this job (or position or ministry) we would be lost.
Sooner or later, we will be giving it up and handing it back to the Master.
A hundred years from now, everyone presently serving churches of all sizes and in all kinds of ways will be gone from their pulpits and offices. It's just a matter of when. Of timing.
"For you serve the Lord Christ" (Col. 3:24).
We must put our eyes on Him and keep them there. But not on our ministry.
He will always be with us; the specific assignment of ministry will not.
He looks for faithfulness, not resumes.
I'm told the story is apocryphal, but I heard Senator Bill Bradley—the former NBA star—tell of getting a hostile note once. He'd taken a controversial position on some issue of the day, and this citizen was upset. "Bradley," the note said, "if you vote for that bill, I will personally come to your house and kill your dog."
Senator Bradley said the guy actually signed his name. So, he wrote him back. "Dear Constituent: I don't have a dog." A few days later, a UPS truck pulled up in the street and delivered a large crate, inside which was a little mutt. The note with it said, "Bradley: Don't get too attached to this dog."
Don't get too attached to anything in this world, Christian. "Seeing then that all these things are to be destroyed, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness" (2 Pet. 3:11).
Don't get too attached to the ministry the Lord gave you, Christian worker. It too shall be taken away. Or you taken away from it.
Better to focus on something—Someone!—who will not be taken away.
"Let us look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith" (Heb. 12:2).
Winfield "Windy" Rich spent the last half of his adult life helping churches as an interim minister of education. He would fly in from his home in Nashville and work with the church for a few days, then return home. Week in and week out he kept up this schedule—training church leaders, enlisting and encouraging workers, helping pastors—throughout his assignment, usually three to six months. At the beginning of his ministry with a church, Windy would announce several times, "I've come to leave." This was to assure them he would not be candidating for a church position or threatening anyone else's job.
I told Windy, "We've all come to leave." In my case, I stayed nearly 13 years at the church he and I served. But while he left in six months, and I hung around 26 times as long, we were both temporary. We were both replaced. The church—the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi, as wonderful a congregation as I was to serve in my 50-year-plus ministry—is still functioning at a high level. The pastor who followed me, Dr. Bobby Douglas, served nearly 20 years. And now Pastor Shawn Parker has logged nearly 15. Each of us "came to leave."
It's the nature of human existence. The brevity of life and the temporariness of everything around us.
—We have seen some in the Lord's work become possessive about their ministry, as though they owned it. Pastors who serve a congregation for decades have been known to do this. They may rule with a heavy hand or a light touch, but they come to feel that position is theirs. And they don't want to give it up when the calendar insists they should.
In recent months, the world watched as a young pastor who had birthed a church and saw it grow into a giant was pink-slipped by the leadership when he developed a problem with alcohol. The leadership did right; the pastor received a just comeuppance. How he dealt with it—how any minister would—tells volumes about his character and his relationship with Christ.
—Pity the leadership of a church which has to forcibly retire a beloved pastor who has outstayed his effectiveness. He served well for many years, but he is past the age when most others retire. But he won't let go. Will not turn loose. Even his family fears for what they know is coming. But no one wants to bring up the subject of retirement, to "bell the cat."
We feel less sympathy toward that old guy who has become possessive and obstinate about his office. He should have been paying attention to his own preaching over the years, and kept his eyes on the Lord Jesus. He has seen colleagues retire from large churches and take smaller "retirement" ministries and do it well. He should have given some thought to this and planned accordingly. Only his insecurities prevented it. And now he is reaping the harvest for his negligence.
—But our hearts really hurt for the younger ones and their families. They were serving well, they felt, and they had so many friends in the congregation. Their children grew up in that church and perhaps were married there. And now they have been terminated.
No one in the church wants to call it what it is—termination—and they dress up the decision with words: "The church is hurting financially and we had to find a way to cut expenses." "The new pastor wants to take the church in another direction." "Your work met a real need for a number of years, but now we need to make some changes."
Often, they even ask the departing minister and his family to submit to a "going-away reception," as though this were their idea. The pain of that is incalculable.
To the hurting ministers and their families who suddenly find themselves with time on their hands and an uncertain future looming before them, we offer the following:
—Some of the greatest and most beloved, most effective workers in the Lord's service have gone through what you are experiencing. So, you're not the first. Welcome to the club.
—You're exactly right that this does not make what happened to you right. But the point is: The Lord is not through with you. He will use this and make you better and stronger, if you will work with Him and let Him.
—No one is asking you not to hurt or to suggest you not grieve or shed tears. You are human and should give yourself permission to feel this loss in a way natural to you.
—Find Matthew 10 and begin reading at verse 16, going through the end of the chapter. That is our assignment, we who serve the Lord. He told us going in what to expect. But the sweetness of God's people, the comfort of His provisions and the glories of serving Him can addict us to our beloved place of ministry. We can forget Jesus said this would be tough, that people can be cruel, that some would even be scourged in houses of worship (Matt. 10:17). Those persecutions are happening all over the globe even as we speak. That you and I have had it far easier should be cause for gratitude and should prompt us to pray for them.
—Personally, I hope you will guard against the temptation to seek legal help to force the church to do more for you. Lawsuits between believers—especially, when we are suing a church—bring shame upon the Lord's work. "Why not rather be wronged?" asked the Lord's apostle (1 Cor. 6:7).
—In most cases, the terminated minister is going to have to help his family deal with this matter. This may be the hardest work one will ever be called on to do. But helping a wife and children to look to the Lord Jesus, to continue loving those church people in spite of what they have done and not to make blanket judgments about all the Lord's churches, will be an ongoing task, one requiring all the strength in Christ the minister can muster. (Mostly, I write as though the terminated one is a pastor and a male; please forgive me my pronouns and make any adjustment necessary. Thank you.)
—You will get through this. Don't be surprised if you find yourself doing a far better, more effective ministry than ever. Some of us who've been where you are later looked back and realized we would never have left the previous place of service for this new assignment voluntarily; that the Lord had to bring us through this roundabout way to get us to this place in life. And we will worship Him for His infinite wisdom and amazing compassion.
—Living well, they say, is the best revenge. And while we will not be seeking revenge on anyone—please!—even so, your standing tall and acting like the Christ-follower you are and then going out to serve Him as a whole, fully capable disciple of the Man of Galilee, that will be the best testimony you can offer. And if you find something in the back of your mind that wants those who cut you loose to someday realize what a truly foolish thing they did, well, that's not entirely bad. Give yourself permission to feel that.
A year after a church cut me loose as pastor, I was back preaching a revival in a nearby church. The congregation was so affirming. The pastor said, "My people are saying, 'Do you mean to tell me First Baptist didn't want this guy? What is wrong with them?'" I loved it, even though all I did was smile. We're human, too.
—You can do this. You can get through it, even though for a little while you may have to take secular employment to provide for your family. And if you long for a place of service that does not open up, consider starting a neighborhood Bible study in your home. Perhaps God will use that to fulfill His calling in you. Some who have done this have ended up turning their home Bible study into a new church plant. And then ...
When you start a new church, and you are the pastor and you've done it your way, be careful not to "own" the church. According to Matthew 16:18, it's His church and He will build it.
After all, you will be turning it in at the end of the day. So, be faithful.
After five years as director of missions for the 100 Southern Baptist churches of metro New Orleans, Joe McKeever retired on June 1, 2009. These days, he has an office at the First Baptist Church of Kenner, where he's working on three books and trying to accept every speaking/preaching invitation that comes his way.
This article originally appeared at joemckeever.com.
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