It was a Sunday morning. My heart was pounding. My hands were sweaty. I had grown to deeply love the church during three years of serving among them as their pastor. My mind raced through all the joyful and tearful moments we had shared together of births, deaths, funerals, and baptisms. I was acutely aware of the ways they had supported me while completing my seminary education. We had formed profoundly meaningful bonds during our short time together. I took a deep breath and said to myself these words of assurance, “be calm […] be confident […] be compassionate […] be in Christ.” Alongside others in lay leadership, I shared the difficult news that soon I would be leaving to serve a different congregation and that they would be receiving a new pastor.
Having now been through my first transition as a pastor from one church to another I have learned some important lessons along the way. During this time of transition, several very helpful resources were placed in my hands to help guide me and other lay leaders through practical steps of leaving well and arriving well, one of these being Robert Kaylor’s book Your Best Move: Effective Leadership Transition for the Local Church. These tools offer very practical insights that can help create important “to-do-lists.” I have discovered though that in transition I struggle with balancing all the “to-do-lists” and my prayer life. Knowing this about myself I have made a conscious effort to keep prayer a central priority as I work through all the “to-do-lists.” The result has been a newfound practicality in the power of prayer during a pastoral transition. Please understand that my intent is not to trivialize prayer by suggesting that one only prays for these reasons. Rather, I see these practical benefits more as a result of prayer that is first motivated by a sincere and humble desire to seek the presence and wisdom of God.
Prayer has helped me to understand my context of ministry.
Learning new names is often a daunting task for an incoming pastor. During the transition period I began praying for members of the church by name even before my first Sunday. This has been the most effective way for me to memorize names and to learn how families are related to one another. Through learning names and relationships of people in the church I am beginning to see how these relationships form the context that shapes the culture of the congregation. In addition to praying for church members by name, I try to remember to frequently ask the question, “How can I pray for you?” The benefit of asking this question is that I learn what is on the minds and hearts of the people I minister among. This has been a most valuable way of discovering the context of ministry in a new setting.
Prayer has helped me to own my limitations.
It has been my experience that when I stop to pray I immediately sense a nagging tug to get up and go do something important, as if praying is not doing something important. I have a habit now of holding a wooden cross in the palm of my hand. Holding a cross in my hand is a mechanism that helps me to calm the restlessness in my soul and reminds me that prayer is doing something important. I am reminded that this vocational work is holy work and that I am not Jesus. I have limitations. I am not anyone’s savior. The most important work I can do for anyone is to carry them and their needs to Jesus the Good Shepherd and Savior of the world. This realization has encouraged me to develop healthier patterns of self-care and to identify spiritual gifts of others in the congregation in order to seek opportunities to develop and employ lay persons in ministry to share the load as partners in ministry.
Prayer has helped me to act upon faith.
I am very much a novice in ministry. However, I have experienced enough to know that ministry is hard. As rewarding as it is, the rewards of ministry often come through overcoming challenging situations of spiritual blindness against opposing principalities and powers. It often involves standing in the gap between the ways of the world and the Kingdom of God. The outcome is uncertain and the mocking voice of fear can overwhelm the soul. Keeping prayer central during this transition has reminded me that there are unseen realities and unknowable outcomes. Prayer helps me to trust God with what is unseen and unknowable. Through this sense of trusting in God I have a stronger faith to discern and to act upon God’s leading from a contemplative posture rather than a reactive one.
Below is a meditation I wrote on prayer during this season of transition. I hope it encourages others who respond to the call to enter vocational ministry.
When all is well, pray it through.
When troublesome times cast dark shadows upon your way, pray it through.
When doubts and fears assail your soul, pray it through.
When voices of criticism fill your thoughts, pray it through.
When all seems to be a hopeless mess, pray it through.
When tempted to give up and walk away, pray it through.
When you feel abandoned and alone, pray it through.
When anxious thoughts cause you to have sleepless nights, pray it through.
When you are overwhelmed and exhausted, rest, and pray it through.
When all is once again well, pray it through.