Pastor Shawn Hannon
Hope Lutheran Church, Arcade, NY
Last week a parishioner called to tell me that her father had passed. We were waiting for the news, and it was met with an equal amount of peace and hope as it was grief and pain. After she broke the news she said, “There’s only one problem. His pastor’s last day was last Sunday.” (He died, and she called on Friday). “In terms of the service,” she continued, “I’m not sure what we are going to do.”
The church and the former pastor had done everything right. There are boundaries that must be maintained in times of transition. The church had an “emergency pastor” on standby, but this person was unavailable for the service. It happens, but for this family and for this church, the complications of this period of transition were mounting.
In the end, I ended up presiding at the service. I was grateful for the opportunity to preach resurrection in the face of death. I always am, but as the service concluded I felt a genuine grief for the church. In the same way this family would be grieving and adjusting and weathering the days ahead, so too this church was at the beginning of a challenging transition.
And they are not alone. This Sunday I will be preaching at 3 services in 3 hours at two different churches: 8:30 at one place, 9:30 at another, & 10:30 at the first again. A local church who we partner with and have great affinity has been without a called pastor for a year now. Even finding someone to fill in is difficult. Let alone finding their new pastor.
As church leaders we knew this day was coming. A lot of pastors are retirement age. Churches are growing smaller and cannot afford to keep pastors or call pastors as they have in the past. Young people who can go into anything other than the ministry, often are. And what we are left with is churches in a constant state of searching with a revolving door of temporary pastors and higher church governances (districts, synods, dioceses, etc.) that do not know how to help.
Your church may already be experiencing this, and if not, your church may experience it soon. If that’s the case I simply wanted to write this article to let you know a couple of things.
#1: We see you. We, the rest of Christ’s church, see you and care that this is happening to you. Ultimately, we are one body and your pain is our pain. If there are ways other churches can support yours in this time of transition, ask them.
#2: Process your grief. It’s not only expected that you will embark on this transition with grief, it’s healthy. But like the grief of losing a loved one, it is so important that you process that grief and work through it.
#3. Do not put your ministry on hold. God still has a mission for your church, and that mission is about a lot more than taking care of the people who are already there. When the pastor leaves and we ask what the essentials we need covered are in this transition, typically the list is preaching Sunday morning, visiting the shut-ins, and being available when we get sick. They are all about us. Churches that focus their ministry, even during transition, simply within are hastening their own death.
#4. Raise up leaders. God’s church undeniably needs good leadership. Moses left the Israelites for a minute to go talk to God and came down to them worshiping a golden calf. Leadership matters, but the leader God is calling to your church may already be there. Empower one another. Develop leadership.
#5. Get creative. With or without a pastor, God’s church is changing. We are in the middle of the most significant shift in what the church looks like in any of our lifetimes. This vacancy may actually be fertile ground to try something new, and this transition may in fact be the perfect time to give some new ideas a go.
I have more to say, but I am already over my word count. So I’ll simply leave you with a reminder that transitions are a part of life and, when they are navigated well, are good for us. Life is full of death and resurrection moments on our journey so that we are ready, individually and together, when the ‘big one’ comes. If you are in transition, may you experience God’s presence and guidance every step of the way.
For more inspiration and insights from Pastor Scott and Pastor Shawn’s past columns, please visit www.jamestowngazette.com and click on the Faith Matters page. The Jamestown Gazette is proud to present our county’s most creative and original writers for your enjoyment and enlightenment.