Next March I will have completed 21 years as the senior minister of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford. Needless to say, over these 21 years I have developed a very close bond with my church. For 21 years I have given myself to my people. It’s been hard graft. It’s been tough – not least in the opening years of my ministry. True, it has also been exceedingly rewarding. Indeed at times I almost feel guilty at the way in which God has blessed. Even just this past Sunday people have been exceedingly kind to me.
Now I am coming toward the end of my ministry here – and I confess that I find it difficult. I find it difficult emotionally to let go of my people. With my mind I know that I must let go – there is no other option. But as the church, with my encouragement, begins to focus on the future, there is a degree of sadness that I am no longer in control of the church’s future. For months now, on the agenda of every leadership team meeting and every church meeting there is the final item – ‘the transition’. At that point I have to walk out of the room and leave my leaders and my members to talk about the search for their next senior minister. Already the church has put together a person profile for my successor. Indeed, in the last month or so the church has actually begun the process of considering ‘names’ of possible senior ministers – and nobody has told me who these people might be! Today I was at a meeting of regional team leaders, who together form the so-called national settlement meeting: I was tempted to find out from them how the process of settlement for my church was going, but I managed to resist the temptation.
In some churches, of course, ministers are actively involved in choosing their successor – they call it ‘succession’ planning. At this stage I can now understand why this can appear to be an attractive option. I feel, for instance, that more than anybody else I know the church and its needs; I feel I know the kind of leader the church requires; and, of course, I know many of the ‘names’ that might be in the frame for taking over from me. And then, of course, there is the fact that this is my church – the church I have loved and cared for over the years – the thought of somebody else taking over and messing up all that I have sought to achieve, appals me.
And yet, in my heart of hearts, I know, that it is not right for me to engage in ‘succession’ planning – it is for the church to choose my successor. At the end of the day I need to trust them – and of course to trust God. For the fact of the matter is that Central Baptist Church is not ‘my’ church – it is God’s church.
I was reflecting on this, when my mind went to the way in which Paul described his relationship with the churches of Galatia. Using a very intimate metaphor, he describes them as “my little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4.19). Here we see the true heart of a pastor – we see the costly love Paul had for his churches. But, the metaphor breaks down: for the pain of childbirth does not lead to Paul’s implanting his life in his converts, but rather the life of Christ – Paul gave his all in order that the nature of Christ was formed in those whom God had entrusted to whom. Paul may have looked upon his converts as his children, but he never expected them to call him “Father” – God alone is our Father.
In one sense Paul was incredibly possessive over his churches. He cared for them deeply. And yet he did not want to see his converts dependent on him, but rather grow into maturity in Christ. For, it is his church, and not ours.