Looking Back on What Mattered Most

ministrypeopleNearing the end of my pastoral ministry of 39 years at Mayfair-Plymouth, I find the people of my church reflecting very little on any achievements I’ve accomplished among them. Mostly, they reminisce about the relationship I’ve had with them.

I don’t hear them saying, “I remember that amazing program you launched and how…” Instead, I hear them saying, “I remember the time you said to me…” Or, “Remember the time we were on that camping trip and you…”

Tim Keller, in his book Center Church, writes that in the large church the skill of preaching is very important, but that in the smaller church it’s the one-on-one relationship which gains the preacher the respect to be heard.

In An Unhurried Life Alan Fadling asks concerning the standards by which we measure success in ministry, “Do our conversations about ministry revolve around growing numbers of participants, successful programs or other easily measured outcomes? Or do we tell stories about particular people who are responding to Jesus, stories of seeds of gospel truth sown in people’s hearts that will grow into fruit of Christlikeness?” (An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling, 2013, IVP, loc 360)

I know, we need programs and projects. These are the tangibles of ministry. Yet, these are but the vessels, the plate and the chalice, that hold the body and blood of Christ we share through relationships with His people.

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capon

Robert Capon

A quote from Robert Capon, as I found it in the blog of Tullian Tchividjian here.  A much needed reminder!

“I think good preachers should be like bad kids. They ought to be naughty enough to tiptoe up on dozing congregations, steal their bottles of religion pills…and flush them all down the drain. The church, by and large, has drugged itself into thinking that proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God. What preachers need to do is force it to go cold turkey with nothing but the word of the cross–and then be brave enough to stick around while [the congregation] goes through the inevitable withdrawal symptoms.

“But preachers can’t be that naughty or brave unless they’re free from their own need for the dope of acceptance. And they won’t be free of their need until they can trust the God who has already accepted them, in advance and dead as door-nails, in Jesus. Ergo, the absolute indispensability of trust in Jesus’ passion. Unless the faith of preachers is in that alone-and not in any other person, ecclesiastical institution, theological system, moral prescription, or master recipe for human loveliness — they will be of very little use in the pulpit.”

The Passing Parade of Parishioners

treelake1This 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)