On Monday morning, February 11, the world received the shocking news that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning because of “advanced age.” According to his official statement, Benedict declared, “Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Even the Vatican was caught unaware as there has not been a papal resignation in almost 600 years. The College of Cardinals must now hold a conclave in order to find a replacement by Easter. Benedict is one of the most theologically gifted popes and has advocated traditional Catholic views both dogmatically and socially. As the he was admired by many, Church members are left wondering why a position traditionally held until death would be abandoned for the sake of “old age.” However, perhaps Benedict’s decision is more commendable than not as he is clearly focused on the needs of the Catholic Church and recognizes his own physical capacity for ministry.
In 2 Samuel 21, in fighting against the Philistines, David grew weary and was threatened by a descendant of the giants, similar in size and strength to Goliath. During the battle, David’s men swore to him that he “shall not go out with [them] to battle any longer so that you do not quench the lamp of Israel” (v. 17). Even to his servants, it was clear that David no longer had the power to fulfill a king’s role: to lead the men into battle. Because David did not step aside, he was pulled from battle. Later, David forced a census of Israel to determine the number of people under his rule and stirring up God’s anger. Instead of entrusting himself to the prophecy that his people would “number the stars,” David feared the loss of his power and determined his reach according to his own means. As a result, 70,000 lives were lost and Jerusalem was nearly destroyed under God’s wrath, only later saved by his mercy. Perhaps from this passage we can infer that perhaps Benedict has taken his cue from David by doing exactly the opposite.
Ministry leaders, Catholic and Protestant alike, have the opportunity to learn from Benedict’s decision because it demonstrates that it is indeed possible to “overstay one’s welcome” in a ministry position. Benedict’s physical capabilities have naturally diminished with age but, unlike David, he is aware of his predicament and is leaving the role open for others more qualified. Leaders must realize that with their large number of commitments, there will come a time when keeping that balance may not be possible.
A ministry leader must know his or her limits before those limits are established by someone else, possibly damaging the ministry itself and sending the leader into a spiral of despair. When David’s ability for leadership was questioned, he sinned by losing is trust in God’s work. Benedict, on the other hand, has seen the end of his ministry and is leaving thoughtfully for the betterment of the Catholic work in general.
So we all must reflect and ask ourselves, what are our limits? Where is the point when the balance between work and ability is tipped? Is there the possibility of a successor who is able to build upon the work that you are no longer able to carry to full capacity? Perhaps in having the foresight of Benedict in putting God’s people over our own ambitions, we will see the very ministry we left behind grow in ways that we never imagined.