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Archive for May, 2011

A pastor’s farewell

Posted by Ron George on May 29, 2011

My strength is made perfect in weakness, by Katherine Gruender

The preacher said farewell today after just a year with this congregation. Things just didn’t turn out the way all had hoped.

He picked a passage he thought would preach: 2 Corinthians 12.1-10.

“It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows — was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”  (NRSV)

Destitution of Service, by Mark Lawrence (2008)

It sounded a lot like he was being generous in defeat. He was thankful, he said, for the year he’d spent among this flock, thankful that God was in the worship and ministry of congregation. He made a vague joke about office hours, but it had a bitter edge, as though this was one of the silly pieces of business that stood between him and his detractors. There probably were other issues, too, but it left me wondering what possibly could have happened to drive this gentle man away from a congregation after just one year? The numbers game? Had he dared make changes the noisy few didn’t like? Did he royally piss off the wrong people? No matter now. His departure imminent, his point this morning was clear.

I hope you’ll forgive my weaknesses, he seemed to say, all those ways that I failed to serve you; but you see, God in Christ Jesus is revealed in our weakness as the power of divine love to change the world. Maybe you wanted something else, someone with more of whatever I lack; but I am who I am, not someone else. To become someone else, I would have to be untrue to myself as I know myself in Christ and as I am known by God. That would be living a lie, and it never works, even when it seems to be working; ultimately, it unravels, the lie is exposed and I am even more broken than before.

I pray God will forgive us all for the ways we’ve managed to hurt each other over the past year, he seemed to say. Perhaps I was the thorn in your flesh, perhaps you were the thorn in mine. In any case, we are yet one in Christ Jesus, whose grace fills us and gives us power to heal and to be healed. This sermon seemed so sad in light of today’s scripture lesson. Where was the courage? Where the willingness to be content with insults, hardship and persecution for the sake of Christ? The preacher seemed content to leave so that another may take his place next month. The congregation seemed content to let him go. No one rose to say, We wish you’d stay. I heard no thanksgiving for his ministry in the prayers of the people. It was divorce by mutual consent, the saddest kind of all, the kind of a marriage that might have worked had the parties had only just enough courage to let God rush in and reconcile all in all.

2 Corinthians 12, Artist unknown

Love your new pastor, the preacher admonished his congregation. Make him and his wife of two years feel welcome. Get acquainted, and then let them into your hearts, and not just at church on Sunday. The subtext seemed to be, Don’t let petty issues undermine and diminish your next pastor as they have undermined and diminished me. He didn’t say it, but he didn’t have to. It was written all over the sad smile on his face and the tone of resignation in his voice.

Typically and sadly, those who needed to hear this sermon weren’t present, as those who were present expressed their affection for the preacher in no uncertain terms. There was a standing ovation after the sermon. Lip service? Who knows? The persistent fact is that this pastor wants out; and so, for the second time in a year, this congregation finds itself in transition.

New pastors come full-bore into their new congregations with visions and revelations of the Lord. They dream of success in fulfilling their vocation, and most do not measure success by counting the house. They seek manifestations of the Body of Christ in the congregations they lead, and it is their heartfelt desire that all members of their congregations discover and fulfill their vocations as well. They seek a full measure, shaken down and overflowing, of God’s grace in the lives of those who come to church for whatever reason, only to find themselves “truthed” by God in Christ Jesus, converted and fallen head over heels into that sacred mystery we call the Trinity. Every new pastor seeks the household of God on earth as it is in heaven.

New pastors make lots of mistakes and missteps, regardless of how considerate they are of congregational habits, good and bad. They are charged with oversight and leadership, but for months or even years after they’re called, they are the least knowledgeable people about how their congregations’ family systems work. In short they are vulnerable, especially susceptible to criticism; and it is unconscionable for any member of a congregation, let alone a cadre of members, to subvert a new pastor by balking at every initiative or the slightest suggestion that – gasp – we might need to change something.

I hope the new pastor of this congregation takes to heart his predecessor’s choice of today’s scripture lesson; indeed, it might be wise for him to ponder it daily as he learns the ropes and avoids the pitfalls of his new charge. And may he embrace the courage to fulfill this passage as it relates to his pastoral ministry: “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

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