Ending well

“Everything has to come to an end, sometime”. So wrote Frank Bauman in The Marvelous Land of Oz, a sequel to The Wizard of Oz. Bauman was simply echoing the well-known proverb, “All good things must come to an end” – for nothing lasts forever. Or if we want to draw upon the Scriptures: “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die” (Eccl 3.1-2).

What is true of life in general, is also true of the Christian life. Every Christian group or organisation – has a limited life. Over the last fifty years of Baptist ministry I have been involved in starting up three organisations. The first was ‘Mainstream: Baptists for life and growth’, which together with Douglas MacBain I cofounded in 1978: it had a powerful influence on the Baptist denomination in the late 1970s and 1980s, but eventually it petered out. The second was the Richard Baxter Institute for Ministry (later renames Ministry Today UK), which together with some friends I founded in 1994: it published Ministry Today, the at the time the only British interdenominational journal devoted to the practice of ministry, but that folded in 2018. Then in 2013 along with my friend Paul Goodliff we launched the College of Baptist Ministry with a concern for the well-being of Baptist ministers, and that too will formally close next year.

Compared to beginnings endings are not easy. Beginnings are often marked by a sense of excitement, while a sense of loss and sadness often accompany endings. There is always more that we could have achieved. But then, is that not true of life in general? When the day comes for us to retire, for instance, there is often a sense of sadness associated with not being able to complete all that we felt God had called us to do.

Yet endings are part and parcel of life. The important thing is that we recognise the time to move on. In the words of Brazilian novelist, Paulo Coelho:

It is always important to know when something has reached its end. Closing circles, shutting doors, finishing chapters, it doesn’t matter what we call it; what matters is to leave in the past those moments in life that are over.

Ellen Goodman, an American Pulitzer prize winning columnist made a similar point when she wrote: “There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit’. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage or a relationship is over – and let it go. It means leaving what is over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.”

Strangely churches are not always good at endings – we find it difficult to close down a much-loved meeting or group. Yet at the heart of the Christian believing is the conviction that death is the necessary prelude to resurrection. To bear fruit for Christ some things have to die for something new to emerge.

Precisely what will emerge from the closure of the College of Baptist Ministers, I do not know. Some might say that the ‘new’ is to be found in the Baptist Union’s recent launch of a scheme for continuing ministerial development. Much as I wish this new initiative well, I am convinced that there remains a place for a body independent of the Baptist Union representing the interests of ministers. Hopefully, in God’s good time that may become possible.

In the meantime the Board of the College of Baptist Ministers wants to make what Ellen Goodman called a ‘graceful exit’. Rather than just close, we decided to bless our members – and others more generally – by producing a 50,000-word ‘legacy’ volume. Entitled A College of Peers, it tells the story of the College, and includes documents we produced over those years (for example, a relatively short and helpful code of ethics which others responsible for ministry would do well to emulate). However, the heart of A College of Peers consists of a selection of letters sent out to members every month dealing with a wide range of ministry topics (including two contributions on church life during and post-Covid). The final section is devoted to two ‘in memoriam’ pieces written by myself: the first on Servant Leadership and the second on Christian Worship seen through the lens of 1 & 2 Timothy.

A College of Peers will be produced as a hardback in the New Year. Complimentary copies will be sent out to all our members. However, there will be an opportunity for others to get a copy provided they put in an order by 31 December. It will cost £10 (including post and packing) for those in the UK , while for those living beyond the UK – we are willing to make a specially tailored deal. If I have whetted your appetite, then send me an email today!

To return to where I began: “Everything has to come to an end, sometime”. The challenge is to end well. As Henry Wordsworth Longfellow rightly declared, “Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending”. So when the time comes and an organisation needs to ‘die’, let me encourage you to end well – even if it is just having a good party to say to everybody ‘thank you and good-bye’.

One comment

  1. It reminds me of a poem of Heinrich Heine, much quoted at retirement parties and other “parting” occasions:
    Stages by Heinrich Heine

    As every flower fades and as all youth
    Departs, so life at every stage,
    So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,
    Blooms in its day and may not last forever.
    Since life may summon us at every age
    Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,
    Be ready bravely and without remorse
    To find new light that old ties cannot give.
    In all beginnings dwells a magic force
    For guarding us and helping us to live.
    Serenely let us move to distant places
    And let no sentiments of home detain us.
    The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
    But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
    If we accept a home of our own making,
    Familiar habit makes for indolence.
    We must prepare for parting and leave-taking
    Or else remain the slaves of permanence.
    Even the hour of our death may send
    Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,
    And life may summon us to newer races.
    So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.
    Translated by Richard and Clara Winston in: The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi), page 444
    Wie jede Blüte welkt und jede Jugend
    Dem Alter weicht, blüht jede Lebensstufe,
    Blüht jede Weisheit auch und jede Tugend
    Zu ihrer Zeit und darf nicht ewig dauern.
    Es muß das Herz bei jedem Lebensrufe
    Bereit zum Abschied sein und Neubeginne,
    Um sich in Tapferkeit und ohne Trauern
    In andre, neue Bindungen zu geben.
    Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne,
    Der uns beschützt und der uns hilft, zu leben.
    Wir sollen heiter Raum um Raum durchschreiten,
    An keinem wie an einer Heimat hängen,
    Der Weltgeist will nicht fesseln uns und engen,
    Er will uns Stuf‘ um Stufe heben, weiten.
    Kaum sind wir heimisch einem Lebenskreise
    Und traulich eingewohnt, so droht Erschlaffen,
    Nur wer bereit zu Aufbruch ist und Reise,
    Mag lähmender Gewöhnung sich entraffen.
    Es wird vielleicht auch noch die Todesstunde
    Uns neuen Räumen jung entgegen senden,
    Des Lebens Ruf an uns wird niemals enden…
    Wohlan denn, Herz, nimm Abschied und gesunde!
    Hier geht es zur englischen Version von Hermann Hesses Gedicht „Stufen“.

    And – the more brutal version, Wisdom of the Dacota Indians:

    The tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians passed on from one generation to the next, says that when you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.
    But in modern business, because heavy investment factors are taken into consideration, other strategies are often tried with dead horses, including the following:
    1. Buying a stronger whip.
    2. Changing riders.
    3. Threatening the horse with termination.
    4. Appointing a committee to study the horse.
    5. Arranging to visit other sites to see how they ride dead horses.
    6. Lowering the standards so that dead horses can be included.
    7. Reclassifying the dead horse as “living-impaired”.
    8. Hiring outside contractors to ride the dead horse.
    9. Harnessing several dead horses together to increase speed.
    10. Providing additional funding and/or training to increase the dead horse’s performance.
    11. Doing a productivity study to see if lighter riders would improve the dead horse’s performance.
    12. Declaring that the dead horse carries lower overhead and therefore contributes more to the bottom line than some other horses.
    13. Rewriting the expected performance requirements for all horses.
    14. Promoting the dead horse to a supervisory position.

    Working on our Church History of the last 150 years, concentrating on the last fifty years at the moment, I find some activities we should have terminated earlier, thus saving a lot of energy for the next step of – then – neccessary activities.
    Thank you for the text of today.

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