Ministry Monday: How Soon is Too Soon to Move On?

I got a call from my friend Rick last week. The pastor of a medium sized church on the east coast, Rick seemed discouraged. “I’ve managed to be successful in shrinking my church in the years since I’ve been here” he said. His church is still far more than a mere handful. But the fact that fewer attend today than when he first came has prompted Rick to question whether it is time for him to make a change. He is coming to the area for a visit in a few weeks and he wants to talk it over with me.

 I am not sure what I should tell him. Rick is a good pastor, at least, by my estimation. He is serious about his work. He cares for his flock. He isn’t afraid to say the hard thing when it is necessary. He is a man of integrity. He is a church builder not a career builder. The word I would use to describe him is “steady.”

 Unfortunately, steady is not very appealing to today’s church. We would rather have dynamic instead. Ours is a Corinthian age which prefers the silken color and flash of Apollos to the plain cloth and reliable stitching of Paul. I suspect that Rick’s ministry is more in the Pauline tradition.

 Pastors often leave one flock to serve another. Some do so because they sense a call from God. Others because they have been forced by circumstances or the ill will of the congregation to make a change. A few are building their resume. How do we know whether we should stay or go? Some years ago I heard Warren Wiersbe say that there are no small churches, no big pastors and that it is always too soon to quit. I think Wiersbe is right. It may be time for my friend to move to a new field of service. But it is too soon for him to quit.

 What would you say to Rick? How do you know whether it is time to move on or not? Are the attendance figures enough?

P.S. Beware of Mondays. I’ve sent more resumes out on Monday than any other day of the week! Many years ago a wise mentor told me to never make a life changing decision on a Monday.

Ministry Monday: The Future of Ministry

In a recent blog post, William Willimon proposed ten theses about the future of ministry (http://willimon.blogspot.com/2010/04/ten-theses-about-future-of-ministry.html). A Methodist bishop, Willimon looks at this issue through the lens of the mainline church. He expects mainline Protestantism to continue to experience numerical decline and to continue being pushed to the margins of culture.

The solution he proposes is theological. “The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will need to find a theological way through the intellectual death of theological liberalism (“Progressive Christianity”) and the cultural compromises of traditional evangelicalism (the IRD and evangelical Protestantism’s alliance with the political right)” Willimon observes.  The best way forward is mission related not methodological. Willimon explains, “The mission of the church will take precedence over internal maintenance, real estate, fellowship, therapy, pastoral care and other factors that have driven the church in recent decades and have contributed to our decline.”

Willimon’s ten theses make me wonder how conservative evangelicals would answer the question, “What is the future of ministry?” How would you reply this question? What does this mean for training institutions like mine that seek to prepare students for future ministry?

My Tribe

This past Sunday my wife Jane and I visited a new church. Actually, we visited a church that we used to attend that moved to a new location a couple of years ago. It’s complicated. So is our history of church attendance over the last 17 years. A history that I won’t bother to describe in detail. I will say that it has involved a series of sojourns with congregations that have lasted several years and then usually seemed to end badly. Let me put it this way, if my marital life was like my church life…

I think you get the picture.  

Neither of us is proud of this. Nor do we entirely understand it. When I left the pastorate for the classroom, I was convinced that my previous vocation had prepared me to be the perfect church member. My experience as a pastor was still fresh and I was re-learning what it was like to be on the other side of the pulpit. I envisioned myself enjoying the best of both worlds over the next few years, exercising an extended ministry to the church at large and being ministered to by a faithful pastor and finding new friends among a supportive congregation.

 Instead, Jane and I spent the next several years feeling like strangers. Out of place, I realized that while I was no longer a pastor, I wasn’t a typical church member either. The church’s leaders, for the most part, kept a respectful distance. Perhaps my vocation put them off. Nobody wants a Bible college professor in their Sunday school class. Not even me. Maybe I seemed stand-offish and unfriendly. I do have one of those faces. I think the pastors felt that since I had once been a pastor, I didn’t need a pastor myself (they were wrong). But here I go, telling you more than you really need or want to know.

For years we have largely blamed ourselves for this struggle. We have been convinced that the problem is us. It must be our fault. We have expressed our grief to God, repented weekly and tried to soldier on, doing our best not to “forsake the assembling” of ourselves together. All the while living a kind of gypsy life, moving from congregation to congregation (I warned you that my story was a sordid one).

Which brings me back to last Sunday. As I said, we visited a church that we used to attend. Actually, it was the first church that we attended when we moved to the Chicago area. What impressed us the most was the sea of familiar faces that greeted us after the service. But not the familiar faces we had expected. Those we recognized were not the people we met when we first began attending the church seventeen years ago (they were nowhere to be seen), but people we had met in the host of churches we have attended over the years. This was my tribe–a band of restless wanderers looking for a spiritual home and finding it hard to settle.

I know what I would have said about this back in the days when I was a pastor. I would have preached a sermon about lack of commitment and used the illustration about the pastor’s “silent sermon.” You know the story–the one where the pastor visits an absent church member and sits in silence before the fireplace. He separates a burning ember from the rest and the two watch as it burns low and flickers out.

I have my doubts whether this old story is actually true. But if it is, I think that pastor, though well intentioned, might have done better to say a word or two to his “backsliding” church member. Perhaps ask him what he had seen in his travels the previous week. Sometimes all it takes to make an ember burn brighter is a little breath.