On this day one year ago I received a phone call from an esteemed elder in a Baptist church over 50 miles from where we were serving the Lord. It was a conversation which had clearly been preceded by prayer, thought, and planning on the part of the elder team he was representing. The terms were plain and unmistakable – they wanted me to consider leaving my charge of ten years and come to pastor the flock that they were responsible for. There had been other such phone calls from other places in the past, and I responded in the way that I had become accustomed to – I would take a couple of weeks to pray and come back to them.
In the interests of candour: I did not expect this approach to proceed much further than that.
One year later: I have now served my first three months in this new charge.
In this post I want to provide some basic co-ordinates of how that decision was reached by me and by my family, in the hope that it might be of help to others who find themselves in a similar position in their own ministry. One of the things which I felt through the weeks and months of seeking the Lord’s will was that there were few short form resources to consult in terms of what I should be thinking about and considering. What follows is not a catch-all for every ministry transition, but a record of some principles which helped me through a process which blessed and challenged me thoroughly. Our process of discerning the Lord’s will entailed months of deliberation which defy capture here. I am also intentionally ignoring the later elements of the process around a pastoral appointment – for example membership voting, terms of service etc.
Pay no mind to the colour of the grass
A call to the pastorate of another church is not the final trumpet, and a new ministry position is not an entrance into the Final State. No call is an invitation to heaven, but to a different context where the irreplaceable joys and inexpressible trials that come with serving Christ will be experienced. On the flip side of this, no present joy in a ministry is a mandate to make no move, or to give no thought to relocating.
There is a temptation to prioritise the comfort of the familiar (‘I must stay’) or the novelty of a different place (‘I must move’) in terms which are almost entirely secular. Situational issues (unless they are chronically resistant to any alteration/are taking a severe mental and emotional toll on the pastor) are not the grounds on which to stay or go. Looking back on the decade of ministry in the church I previously pastored, there were key times when circumstances were difficult and where a change (if made available at that moment) would have been tempting. Those seasons invariably passed, however, and with hindsight I was able to see that I was prone to mistake birth pains for death throes; often the hardest moments in a ministry straddle the threshold of new and unexpected graces from God in the work.
The colour of the grass is utterly irrelevant, as very often the fence simply divides common soil which bears the same chemistry, potential, and limitations. There is a place (see below) for taking a good audit of where one has been in ministry up to the point of an approach, and what potential there is under God for taking things forward. This, however, is thinking of a different stripe than insisting on being a settler because we are comfortable, or a pioneer because we are bored.
Take much stock of the souls of all concerned
One of the things that has come home to me with fresh force during the past year is how enormous the responsibility of pastoral work is. Only when one begins to contemplate the possibility of leaving does the complex network of relationships and dependencies which make up a ministry come to the surface. One word dominated my practical thinking about a ministry move during the months in which seeking guidance was a live issue: stewardship. What an extraordinary weight comes with accepting the delegated shepherding of the souls of people, and what gravity there is in considering whether to remain among those with whom you already share such bonds of love, or go where others are asking for care and counsel.
Other stewardships converge in this area – particularly for those pastors with a wife and/or family. I am deeply conscious that the souls for whom I will give most strict account are those who are entrusted to me in my own household. Dr Peter Masters’ counsel that a married man with children cannot seek the Lord’s will about ministry location as though those relationships were not already part of his guidance has helped me so much over many years -it is both liberating and confining.
This kind of stock taking externalises the call to a pastorate, and emancipates the pastor from a kind of pseudo-prophetic thinking where he has become the fulcrum for all the purposes of God, or where his own sense of fulfilment is the benchmark of whether to remain or leave. During the months of seeking guidance I had to constantly remind myself that nothing I was doing at that moment was insignificant, and that nothing I was being asked to consider was without weight. It mattered that I thought and prayed and audited carefully, because the welfare of so many within my circle of stewardship counted on me not making a light or knee jerk response.
That conviction also made the decision much more collegial, in terms of immediately involving my wife and our responsibilities as parents, in every aspect of the decision to be taken. At a later stage it also entailed prayerfully involving our children in discussion and pursuit of what the Lord might want for us. This was an unmixed benediction.
This approach also gave me reliable soil samples of how far things had come during a sustained pastorate, and what kinds of opportunities might be presented by a new sphere of work. The concern had become less with how I felt about putting down roots or digging them up, than with what God could be doing by retaining me in or releasing me from present responsibilities. The details of those considerations are strongly within the bounds of pastoral confidentiality, but they gave a sense of substance and measurability to what was being prayerfully proposed to us by the approaching church.
Listen with care to the counsel of the Lord
This is by no means the last resort in considering a call, but is the ecosystem in which all of the other elements of our guidance live. Guidance is a contested area in Christian thought, and sincere people differ on how God makes his will known to us. The extremes of both views on guidance can lead to the merely mechanical on one side (‘if I have been approached, that is the call’) or the pseudo-messianic on the other (‘I am the Servant of the Lord and all of Scripture speaks of me!’). The absurdity of both extremes demonstrates the difficulty of finding a good model for hearing what God wants.
For my wife and I, maintaining the consistency of spiritual disciplines was crucial to the whole process. We didn’t want to start a Where’s Wally? approach to knowing what God wanted -seeking to see the name of my present charge or my future charge in every jot and tittle of Scripture, or written into the fabric of the physical objects of the universe. We kept pace with our normal Bible reading schedules and passively listened to what the Lord was saying, allowing him to continue to speak more by precept (the flow of his revealed mind and will) than through crisis (looking for ‘the verse’). This listening was greatly aided by the other areas of consideration around the nature of pastoral work, and the concept of stewardship. What did God have to say to us about these matters, what confluence was there between what we were hearing from him, and what we were seeing in our context? This is a complex process which likely defies good description, but there was a sense of feeling unforced in listening to what the Lord was saying.
Interaction with trusted friends and colleagues also helped in this listening process. I found that single-shot conversations on the issue were best avoided, preferring to clearly put the issue before those I approached, and then revisit the it on multiple occasions, and from multiple angles. This delivered me (and those I spoke with) from the feeling that what was being sought was endorsement of a pre-formed opinion (either way) rather than involvement in a slowly forming conviction about what God wanted. Questions from these individuals were particularly profitable, in terms of really weighing what was being asked of us as a family, where our ministry was, and where it was going etc.
All of the foregoing pays no attention to some implicit aspects of considering a call. There are, of course, exploratory conversations to be had with the elders of the church making an approach, and vital spiritual and practical details that must be covered. What matters more than those kinds of interactions is the position of the pastor’s heart in terms of hearing what the Lord wants. Understanding demographics, doctrinal distinctives, local church history, ministry team dynamics etc., can richly inform the issue of stewardship, but without the underpinning principles above the capacity for having corrupt motives is fearful.
One year to the day from that first approach I send this post out into the world, in the hope that it might bless and encourage others who have just set the phone down on a life-altering conversation about ministry. We have traced God’s grace in our guidance, and his astonishing providence in all of the details that followed accepting a new charge. The process of knowing what we were to do stretched us a family, but that stretching experience made more room for knowing God and proving afresh his unwavering faithfulness. May you know that same joy in the journey you are taking also.
For further reading
For me, the most helpful treatment of the wider issues of considering a call is David Campbell’s excellent ‘Handle that New Call with Care’ from DayOne. It is brief enough to read when the normal pressures of ministry continue during the process of seeking God’s will, but detailed enough to force sustained thought on how to make a good decision .