A good friend told me that upon leaving a congregation he had served as pastor, he had two fears: 1.) That everything would fall apart without him. 2.) That it wouldn’t! Now nearly three months removed from my own pastoral work in Pittsburgh, I can identify.
Pastors are called to pour their lives into the people whom they serve (Philippians 2:17) – We are called not only to preach to the people, but to be with them - through the week, through their joys and sorrows. After having that privileged access to their lives, these dear people become hard to leave! Pastoral affection runs deep. But subtly, what is meant to be selfless service and affection can twist in the direction of self-worship. A pastor may come to believe, without admitting or even recognizing it, that peoples’ spiritual wellbeing depends upon his being their pastor. While telling the people to depend upon Christ, he may secretly want them to depend upon him.
In any vocational calling, there lurks a kind of quiet pride that often masks itself as, or hides beneath, genuine love for the people served by our work. Pastors can be especially vulnerable to this pride, and the people in the pew may sometimes unwittingly (or wittingly!) enable it. This attitude props up the pastor as an idol within an assembly dedicated to the worship of Christ alone.
Many years ago I spoke with a Christian man whose pastor was retiring. The pastor had served the congregation for forty years, and the man said: “If he goes, I go.” The man obviously loved his pastor, but he had bent that appropriate affection into a dangerous shape, something jagged which could cut and weaken the congregation as it prepared to be without its beloved minister. Such distorted affection always threatens congregational unity, because it posits a particular man and his ministry as indispensable to the congregation’s well-being. But only Christ fits that description. He alone is indispensable to the wellbeing of the church, and therefore to any congregation of Christians. The Pastor should labor to see the congregation fully renewed in the image of Christ, not made according to his own image and patterned after his own preferences. The risen Christ sends to His people pastors and other servants (Ephesians 4:11-16), and each of these servants is sent to represent Him, to minister in His name, and if and when He decides, to move on.
In any form of work, the belief that we are God’s indispensable means of getting something done reveals our being infected by the insidious love of self. Our self-exalting inclinations become ideological termites, eating away at genuine love and labor. Soon, our understanding of our work and the people whom we serve trembles toward the disastrous collapse that always completes self-worship.
The truth is, none of us is indispensable to any particular calling; none of us is entitled to any particular capacity of service in Christ’s kingdom. And that fact is freeing! It allows us to put our hands to the plow of our current calling, without clutching it vice-like as if the work would fail were it taken from us.
We can trace this liberating truth back to the very root of our relationship to God. If you are a Christian, did God need to save you? No; He chose to. He did not need to build a people by the redemptive work of His Son, but He chose – and even promised! - to make us His people, all according to His inscrutable wisdom, His infinite authority and His inexhaustible grace - not at all according to what we deserve or could compel Him to do (Ephesians 2:1-7-8). Even before creation, God was doing just fine without us! (John 17:5).
At the same time, if you know Christ or ever come to know Him, know this: He did not want His church to be without you. In His sovereign grace, the Father has deemed you indispensable to the full body of His redeemed people from every age. And as eternity touches history, you have work, and works, to do. You labor as His child and He will see to it that this divinely designated work is accomplished (Ephesians 2:8-10). Immovable in your standing before the Father, the Lord moves you along the path He’s laid out for you, in and out of circumstances and responsibilities, in and out of people’s lives, until the day He ushers you into His presence and the presence of your Christian family from every age, our pilgrimages having finally come to an end. Confusion and heartache result, for us and others, when we equate our immovable position in Christ with our movable positions of service in His kingdom.
While we are in this world, our participation in kingdom work is at once dispensable and utterly necessary. God could get His work done in the world by other means, but because He’s chosen to use us, our participation is vital. At the same time, the Lord of the harvest moves His people in and out of various parts of His vineyard, at all times knowing and advancing plans too deep for us to fully penetrate and too wonderful for us to fully imagine. The Lord maneuvers His workers in a way which makes clear the fact that He is the One at work within us. He arranges His work force so that He, not the laborer, receives the praise and adoration for work accomplished.
Whatever job or social position you currently inhabit, the Lord did not want this particular calling to be without you . . . for now. He has a purpose for you to fulfill in whatever work you do, vocationally or otherwise. God could get this work done without you, but for now at least, He’s chosen not to. What comfort and strength that truth brings as we face daunting tasks which make us especially aware of our dependence upon the Lord! At times, we are painfully aware of seemingly crippling weaknesses which threaten our labor and those who are to benefit from it. If we occupy our vocational positions legitimately, not having gained them by sinful means, then in moments of fear regarding our fitness for the job, we may warm our shivering hearts with these words: “The Lord put you in this position.”
In the pastorate, such situations are the stuff of life. As I faced them, the Lord gave me profound comfort as I thought back on my ordination by my Presbytery. These men were in many cases older and in all cases more experienced than I, yet they cast their votes of confidence and gave their personal encouragements, telling me that they really believed the Lord wanted me in the pastorate, that often terrifying position, among people who did not deserve to bear the brunt of my many inadequacies. The Lord put me in that position; He gave me that privilege. And now as I miss my church family dearly, and as I resist the almost irresistible urge to dive right back into their daily dealings, I gain profound comfort in knowing that this same Presbytery, with love and wisdom equal to that shown through the process and on the day of my ordination, officially brought my pastorate to an end. The elders agreed with me that my work among my dear church family was done as a new field of labor was opening. Despite my pride’s objections, I know that this maneuvering is good for the church I served, and I’m so grateful for the time the Lord gave me and my family among them.
When our time in a particular field is over, the Lord lets us know as we seek Him through prayer, His Word, and the counsel of godly, mature Christians (James 1:5ff, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Proverbs 11:14). We can follow His leading – though some of us need to be dragged a bit! – knowing that the people whom we leave behind are in very capable hands, His hands – and that despite what we may have felt at times, their welfare was never really in our hands to begin with. We were privileged to be part of God’s work with them in that particular way for that particular time, but the eternal God continues to move time and His people onward. We may rejoice in the fact that He is through His indispensable people and their vital/dispensable work, always advancing His glory in this world, bringing all things into subjection to His indispensable Son (Hebrews 2:7-9).