Our church has been going through an Inter-regnum period in these last few months. This period in the life of a church is the time between a vicar, rector or pastor leaving a church for whatever the reason, and a new one being appointed.
A friend sent me an email the other day expressing how she had been praying for our future vicar to bring in some changes/improvements, which are in line with what God wants for us all. Since the process of appointing a new vicar for our church started, I have been asking myself many questions. One of them being: Why is it that apart from the instances when a person gets too old or too ill for the job, or someone is found to be guilty of a crime, a pastor or a vicar feel they must suddenly and abruptly, in many instances, leave a church with much unfinished business and take on the unfinished business of another church elsewhere? Why is it that in some denominations this decision is even imposed by someone in a higher role in the church hierarchy? Why is it that some genuinely and some using it as an excuse and a weak cover at that, resort to the justification of: “It is God’s will for me to go elsewhere”?
I was brought up a Catholic and although I no longer believe in denominations or any other concept which seeks to set a group of Christians above others based simply on their own interpretation of scripture or a particular set of religious practises, I have to say one of the things I liked about Catholic parishes was that whoever was the parish priest in any particular church was there for the long haul. I am talking about 30/20 years ago. I don’t know whether things have changed, but this was certainly the case when I was a child.
Church growth is not the only principle which conditions and determines the way a church functions and which ruthlessly transforms the heart of Christ into a well thought out, men controlled and business-like operated enterprise; an enterprise which leaves pastoral care at the bottom of the list in the initially cherished “Vision Statement”, which so often subtly evolves into the more business orientated “Goals and Objectives Statement”. It seems that periodically appointing a new leader to not only run but in many cases also manipulate the heart of a church, which sucks the Spirit out of it in the process, also reminds us of the workings of a multinational corporation who seeks to always look for the best next candidate for the job. My question is: If these men and women claim they were anointed, appointed and led by God in the first place to lead a particular church, why would then God consistently and periodically decide to move all these people around to pick up where someone else left off, often to actually do a worse job than the previous person? Does that sound like God’s perfect plan for his people? I think it has men’s inner wish to control and manipulate written all over it. Forgive me if I speak out of turn here. Perhaps if anyone is reading this and you know that this practice of moving priests and clergy around churches is biblically supported, you would be kind enough to send me the opportune scripture for me to ponder on and pray over. It is one thing to move around spreading the gospel, and it is quite another to fly from church to church, all of which are made up of people that in its majority already know of the gospel.
The world does not need more leaders fighting for first place, least of all in the Body of Christ, the Church. The world needs shepherds to care for those who can’t care for themselves. The Church needs men and women who do not believe to be exempt from Jesus’ words: “If anyone wishes to be my disciple, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” The Church needs to have shepherds at the helm who are not prepared to abandon the sheep when they most need him. The Church needs to have shepherds at the helm who inspire congregations to display love and unity towards each other by first living those principles out themselves. How many churches have you come across or heard of where there are disagreements, fallouts, and as a result its members walk out of the door to try out their luck in a new church? Are we surprised when we see that those in charge of such churches and who have been given the privilege and authority from above to fill such a role can with the blink of an eye pack up and go to pastures new, when they no longer feel in control or when mistakes have been made and relationships broken and it is easier to walk away from it all than to pick up that painful cross and plead on your knees for God’s strength, not your own, to work through those challenging circumstances and seemingly insurmountable struggles which Christ humbly faced before us?
Didn’t the resurrected Jesus challenge the apostle Peter (in John 21, 15-19) about the nature of his love for him after he and the disciples finished eating by saying?
“Do you truly love me more than these?” – “Yes Lord”, he said, “You know that I love you”.
To which Jesus said: “Feed my lambs”
Again Jesus said, “Simon (Simon Peter) son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes Lord you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger, you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
We know from the Greek language that the first two times Jesus was questioning Peter about his love for him, he used the word “agape” for love which means self-sacrificial love. In other words, Jesus is getting to the heart of the matter, challenging Peter about whether he is prepared to go the full length for him, or whether he will give up at the first, second or even third hurdle. Will he get to the finish line? He even warns him that at the end of his journey, if he follows him, someone else will dictate where he will go and lead him where he does not want to go. Am I right in saying that most priests, vicars and pastors may interpret this as a license to leave a church, because as they feel called by God to start in another church, they may have to relocate, start afresh in a new place and make new friends and so on? Does this sound like the kind of “place” where one does not want to go? Does it sound like the kind of sacrifice that Peter went through at the end of his journey of faith for following Jesus or are his words of fore-warning more about actually loving Jesus and feeling indebted to him to such an extent that the challenge is not leaving what you know, but staying where you are when things get hard, when you no longer feel you have it in you to take a congregation to the next stage and you know that you are going to have to get on your knees and 100% rely on God’s power and strength to get you to the next mountain top?
And doesn’t the inability of many Christian brothers and sisters to reconcile their differences and display an unconditional love towards each other lie in this very fact of the lack of accountability and the ability to suddenly take flight that the church leadership enjoys and displays? If the shepherd is to lead the sheep, surely it must lead by example. Why shouldn’t members of a congregation leave a church and try a new one when they see those with authority over them do exactly that, when things are no longer going the way they planned or hoped for? Why should members of a church stick around to solve problems and fallouts, to try and make a new go of things, to heal open wounds and to in essence display the Christ-like love that they claim to admire and represent in the world? Does it surprise us that the world sees us as hypocrites, if as Christians we cannot be bothered to pick up that cross, deny self, swallow our pride, and give everything we have to ensure that we honour Jesus Christ by fighting to the end for a love for each other which will overcome any hurt or circumstance, a love which is infallible, relentless and unbreakable, a love which will show the world that it is not the idea of Christ, but Christ himself who lives in us and gives us that supernatural power and strength to stick around when every human bone in us is pulling us to run away and by doing so confirm to the world that we are no different to them, for we too lack the courage to fight to the end for those things that most matter to us, or do they?
In the eyes of the world, marriage is regarded as a temporary commitment to love, support and honour each other until things start to get tough. One out of two marriages in many Western countries ends up in divorce today, and although many of these end up for legitimate reasons like abuse, adultery, etc. the majority fail because like church members and church leadership, men and women keep hopping from one to the next in the hope that the next time things will be better, smoother. And so, although as self-declared Christians, we rely in the word of God to assure us that we are in this world but not of it, the real test remains in the ability to turn the other cheek when we feel hurt, the ability to forgive and seek reconciliation instead of retaliation, and the sheer determination to not give up and to learn to live in harmony and unity despite past hurts and some obvious and painful differences. The challenge for a spouse, pastor or a congregation is not to get going when the going gets tough, but to stay where you are and to fight your way through adversity resting in the promise that much blessing awaits those who persevere, those who endure to the very end.