In his book, The Trouble with the Church: A Call for Renewal, (1965, Harper & Row) German Protestant Theologian Helmut Thielicke tells this story:
A very well-to-do church councilman had invited me to tea in his very fine and tastefully furnished home. I expressed my regret that during the war even this gem of a house had not been spared by the bombs, leaving only a small portion of it standing (though this had now been beautifully restored). His reply was, “Don’t talk about regret. Even in this loss I experienced the grace of God.” And the first thing I thought was: ‘How devout this man is, how humble he is — and what a superficial and sentimental way to have addressed him!’ Then he went on to say: “God left me with just enough room so that I did not have to take in any refugees after the war.” I shall not now expatiate upon the shock which this alternating hot and cold shower of statements produced in me. I confine myself simply to making this theological point: The man was really devout, he worshiped and prayed, and he was really concerned with the social and ethical aspects of his business. But obviously it had never occurred to him that the housing shortage had anything to do with one’s relationship to God and our neighbor. … His spiritual house stood apart, separated from and unconnected with the rest of his life.
The purpose of this story is not for you to consider whether there is a gap between your “spiritual house” and the rest of your life. Rather, I include this story to point out how some people can fail to see what is obvious to others.
For example, as congregations go through transitional times between pastors, some see and use these months to address issues that may be potential points of conflict, and others jump right into their search process for a new pastor without much reflection.
Some congregations are like the fellow in Thielicke’s story: they are missing the obvious.
For 26 of the past 38 years, I have been blessed and privileged to serve as a senior minister. In my two most recent pastoral roles, I joined congregations after they completed a deliberate transition process.
Each employed a minister who was trained to serve a purposeful short-term role between ministers and was not a candidate for the permanent position. The church agreed to consider potentially sticky matters related to identity and vision during this short-term relationship.
This role of being intentional about the time between pastors emerged in the 1970s and begs the question, “How did we fail to see the importance of this time for so long, one that is now so obvious?”
A wise congregation is willing to ask and answer difficult questions. Further, it welcomes legitimate observations that require church members to take an honest look at their church’s health and guide them to initiate necessary changes through open conversational processes.
This deliberate process allows a church to study itself regarding identity, vision, worship perspectives, staff and pastor profile strengths. All issues that can be addressed during the transition will enhance the start of the next minister and extend that person’s tenure.
After the hard work is completed during the transition, the congregation is ready to move forward and receives the new minister with clarified identity and vision. If the congregation truly invests in the challenging conversations that are essential to spiraling forward, it will create a new culture passing through a season of prayerfulness and renewal.
Entering into these situations has enabled me to invest my first years of ministry in some touch-points that promote congregational health and vitality:
Culture — An open culture with clear boundaries of influence and positive energies
Fellowship — An intentionally relational
community open to every person
Worship — A desire to deepen relationship with God for kingdom purposes
Discipleship — An expectation of spiritual maturity to become obedient servants of God
Ministry — An outward focus on living and sharing God’s good news revealed in Jesus
Stewardship — An investment of resources in the kingdom of God through networks and partners
Leadership — A commitment to balance and nurture servant (missional) commitments
I am thankful these two congregations chose to be deliberate about using their time wisely, and I am thankful for the two ministers who led them. The next time your church finds itself in a transition, please invest in the health of your congregation and your next pastor by redeeming the transition time.
To me, it is obvious. I hope you can see the connection. BT
—Dennis W. Foust is completing his third year as senior minister of St. John’s Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C.