I am in my last days as senior pastor of our church. It’s been a season of final meetings, final services, final get-togethers and farewells after twelve years of ministry.
Someone asked me, “is this your last Sunday?” To which I replied, “I hope not!” It may be my last Sunday of pastoral ministry at this church, but I hope to have many more Sundays!!!! Nevertheless, a season of ministry is ending, and I’ve been reflecting on the theme of letting go and entrusting the church into His hands.
Most of us are instinctively better at holding on then letting go. Letting go is never easy. In pastoral ministry it may involve giving up position, influence, direction, privilege, a key pulpit, being in the center of a community, etc..
The longer you pastor a church, the more tempting it is to take ownership of what is there. After all, you have left your imprint. Expanded ministries, church plants, land, new buildings are sometimes there because of your vision and leadership. At times you want to hold on tightly. Even worse, with enough changes and years that bear our mark, we might be tempted to think, “but this is my church, I helped build it to what it is today…..” and we take the wrong kind of ownership.
On top of that, parishioners encourage this kind of thinking by the way they sometimes talk. The will say, “well, I go to Mark’s church, or I go to John’s church, or I go to Don’s church.” But the truth is, (and every pastoral transition drives this home), it is not nor never has been our church. Christ is the rightful head of the church. He raised it up by his grace and gospel and Holy Spirit. We are mere stewards who watch over it for a little while. But the day inevitably comes when, for one reason or another, we have to let go and hand it back to him.
Part of ending well is keeping this truth in mind for your entire ministry. It is not yours. It is his. Even from the beginning, you must prepare your congregation for this day. You do this by continually exalting Christ and not yourself so that it is truly a Christ-centered church and not a pastor-centered church. You do this by practicing the art of “letting go” during ministry. If you are leading something and capable people come along, let it go and let them loose, so that you can focus on other things.
Not only that, we all know that the more pastor-dependent a church gets, the more ministry gets bottlenecked. The outflow actually narrows. Isn’t our job “to equip the saints for the work of ministry?” so that the church is unleashed and the body is built up (Ehpesians 4.12)? Aren’t we to keep training people and working ourselves out of a job? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of having churches fall apart when we leave, that they are in such good shape that they are prepared for, not a disastrous but a great transition so that the work goes forward because there is a strong team in place?
Part of a good finish is entrusting the church back into Jesus’ hands because he has called you to let go and do the next thing on his agenda for your life.
That is exactly what happened to Paul when he met one last time with the leaders of a church he planted. Acts 20 tells us of his last encounter with the elders from Ephesus. The church would go on to become a very influential church that is repeatedly referred to in the New Testament. In this last encounter with its leadership Paul said, 32 “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” He then reviewed the ministry that God had given to him in Ephesus. He knelt with them and prayed. Then it says “they all wept as they embraced him and kissed him” and accompanied him to his ship.” And he let go.
This should be a comfort to departing pastors and congregations alike. The work is bigger than we are. We are simply called to be stewards—faithful on our watch. And when he calls us to our next assignment, entrust the work into His good hands.