This past Sunday two men of my congregation said goodbye for the last time as they passed through the greeting line. Both are moving away, one is retired and wants to be closer to where his fiance lives, the other is young and is going to pursue his dreams at grad school in another city. I was saddened by the thought that I wouldn’t see them again.
This happens regularly, of course, people leaving the church. Sometimes the leaving is of a more painful nature, a leaving out of anger. I’ve had this happen in recent months as well. Often, this starts as discontent that leads to a drifting away. They don’t like what’s going on with the church and attend less and less frequently without even bothering to tell you. Then too, there are those who leave by death.
I’ve often fantasized about how big our church would be if all the people who’ve moved on for one reason or another hadn’t done so. We’d be one huge church! I’ve also reflected on how many funerals I’ve conducted (over 400) and that if they were all resurrected for a special resurrection service we’d have to set up chairs in the narthex to accommodate the overflow crowd!
In my saner moments I realize I wouldn’t want all of those folks back who left angry, unless they had a major change of heart. Otherwise we’d have to rename the church The First Church of Malcontents. And as far as a resurrected congregation goes, I’m going to have to wait until Christ returns.
On the other hand, our church has had new folks join us, some of them having come from other churches. In a few cases I’d gladly send them back to their former pastor! Sadly, there is far too much reshuffling of the deck of Christians (perhaps a moving of cards from one deck to another is a better metaphor).
The coming and going of parishioners is a part of church life. If someone were to ask me how it’s been for me to have pastored the same church for 39 years, I’d tell them it hasn’t been the same church. In fact, it’s almost an entirely different group of people than it was 39 years ago.
Pastoring a church is much like wading in a river. The water you wade in one moment is different water from what you waded in a moment ago, and will be different water from what you will wade in a moment later.
People join the flock I shepherd and many, for the variety of reasons already stated, will leave it. I will have influence on them, and they on me, for a time, but that time always comes to an end. Though I’ve been at Mayfair-Plymouth for a lifetime of ministry that time is coming to an end with my retirement in a few months. Then it will be my turn to move on.
A congregation is not a still lake but a flowing river. I stand at a bend in that river, ministering for a while where the Lord has had me wade in, but the river stretches on both downstream into the past and upstream into the future, with many branches and tributaries. God’s kingdom is large, spanning both time and place, and I am here for my time in this specific place. Here and now is where I serve. My prayer is that I will have a Godly influence on the people God brings into my life for the length of time He brings them to me.
My prayer for the church I serve is similar to the apostle Paul’s for the Christians at Corinth. “I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you.” (1 Corinthians 1:4-6)