Sunday my family made a significant announcement. We are relocating from Corpus Christi, Texas to Nashville, Tennessee. I’m concluding my time at the Kings Crossing Church of Christ and getting started in a couple of months at the Tusculum Church of Christ. As my family shifts into a transitional season, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my relationships with elders over the years and wanted to share a few thoughts.
Limits of Ministerial Training
On the one hand, I’m thrilled at all the opportunities that exist for ministers to grow in their theological education. We have ready access to universities, workshops, books, etc. that can help us grow rapidly in our competency for the tasks of congregational leadership. I have been able to make substantive contributions to all the churches where I’ve worked largely because of the education and training I’ve received.
It is easy for a minister with some training to feel entitled to do or implement whatever he or she thinks is best, especially in a context where elders do not possess similar training or education. There are sometimes perfect storms for conflict where an elder’s work or educational background might drive their methodology to be quite different than the minister’s ideals. I’ve seen this work out to be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on individual situations.
It’s easy to see how a minister could grow indignant over something he perceives as handled poorly, or at least handled in a way that goes against the accepted wisdom for proper methodology. It’s easy to see how elders could get frustrated with a minister who wants to go about things in a way that would make little sense in the context of their own vocations. Open, kind communication helps with all of this, obviously, but it doesn’t mean the potential for pointed differences isn’t somewhat intrinsic to the arrangement.
Why Ministers Should Remain Humble
Even so, despite whatever training or experience ministers bring to the table, I think a good deal of humility is appropriate on the minister’s part.
At the end of a minister’s tenure, it is usually the minister who leaves and the elders who stay. Despite all of our best ideas and intentions, we can always move out of a situation if we choose. Whether you’ve implemented good and healthy things or you’ve created significant conflict and division, it is always the elders left holding onto the remains.
It’s the elders who have to decide whether to continue and how to continue whatever you’ve implemented. It’s the elders who have to lead the congregation through the challenging process of finding your replacement. It’s the elders who have to walk with the people you may have chosen to harm if you leave in a “blaze of glory” or with one-sided stories to make yourself look like the hero or the victim.
To accept a role as a minister means being given a sacred responsibility and a lot of trust. A group of shepherds is inviting you to help shape a flock for which they must give an account of their governance. Sure, you have some ideas about what you’d like to see. But especially in a pre-existing church, there were already a lot of people choosing to be part of this church before you got there. At best you’re a contributor, but it doesn’t all begin with you.
In new settings, we owe it to the church to study them, to learn about them, and to let them show us what it is that they’ve loved about being part of this particular congregation. We shouldn’t be anxious to implement our perfect conceptualized model on a pre-existing body of believers. It isn’t unreasonable at all that a church might want you to be around for several years before they would entrust you with larger change initiatives. Are you really suited to suggest changes before you’ve come to understand deeply the nature of the group you are now serving?
Similarly, as we leave, we owe it to the churches we serve to do all we can to make transitions as loving and peaceful as possible. It’s God’s church anyway. It’s hard to imagine many justifications to escalate tensions or stir up conflict that aren’t simply a matter of a minister’s ego.
I’m not saying that there aren’t occasions where a minister has genuinely been treated badly. I know plenty of heartbreaking stories. Awful as the reasons for your departure may be, I still think the right move for any minister is to try and be a person of peace, especially because your demeanor is a big part of a congregation’s transition.
Despite whatever version of our stories we want to tell, whether things have gone well or have gone poorly, we have to own our part in contributing to how things are. None of us succeeds at everything. None of us sees everything come to fruition in exactly the ways we thought it might. None of us deserves total credit for the successes, either. But what about those you leave behind?
For any and all who jumped in and worked alongside you, the appropriate response is gratitude.
For those who were a voice of encouragement and wisdom to help you in your role, the appropriate response is gratitude.
For those who entrusted you with a place of influence and power to shape the minds and hearts of God’s people, for the opportunity, the appropriate response is gratitude.
For those you leave holding onto whatever you’ve created, even if you haven’t gotten along with them sometimes, for this difficult work they will be doing after you’re gone, the appropriate response is gratitude.
Even for those who have been critical and opposed you, those whose conduct you wouldn’t want to mirror in any way, you can still feel gratitude for what they gave you an opportunity to learn.
All is Grace
When it comes to being a church leader, all is grace. All is a gift. None of us deserves such a privilege, nor should we feel we have a right to our position. It is both right and reasonable for us to accept such opportunities with gratitude and humility, because when we are done, it is God to whom we must give an account for how we treated his little lambs. It is God who has been working our life circumstances together for our good so that despite ourselves, our fledgling efforts can be the things that God uses to further his Kingdom. What an undeserved honor.