Don’t judge us, but one of the ways Janet and I have been surviving the pandemic is by watching movies. They are often old familiar movies, with happy endings and inspiring themes.
Ron Howard’s excellent “Apollo 13″ was on again not long ago, and we watched it for at least the sixth time. Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris, inspired me once again in an exchange with the director of NASA over the distinct possibility that they may lose the capsule and the three astronauts aboard. The director says to another person downstage: “This could be the biggest disaster NASA’s ever experienced.” Kranz overhears this, and with steely-eyed missile man stare says: “With all due respect sir, I believe it is going to be our finest hour.” The rest, as they say, is history. It indeed was one of NASA’s finest hours, though not one anyone wanted or planned.
Without pushing the narrative from “Apollo 13” too much, I believe that churches in a time of pastoral transition can find that same sort of steely resolve and turn a time of uncertainty and challenge into a time of renewal and change. Like the NASA team, most churches are not wanting to go through this sea of change; but, with courage and leadership, it can be a fine hour indeed.
In my opportunities to walk with churches in a time of pastoral transition these are some of the good things that I have seen happen:
There is something about transition that breeds a fresh opportunity for folks to offer their best selves. I have watched people grow and find new servant leadership roles because of the time without a pastor.
I’ve seen church staff step into the challenge and emerge with a greater sense of place within the church and a better understanding of their own deeper gifts. Committees and current leaders can be called to move from established routines toward a new and visionary leadership role.
I certainly have seen the power of the transitional moment empower all sorts of church leaders to become convinced that our church does indeed matter and we need a fresh blowing of the spirit to find what is “next” for us. I have also seen heroic changes made in the church that have been previously ignored, or at least passed off for “someone else” to do.
I have seen churches grow exponentially in their ability to talk and listen to one another in a pastoral transition. There does need to be a commitment to well-planned and deep congregational conversations to see this kind of healthy growth in communication.
Listening to one another talk about congregational dreams, strengths, challenges, and purpose can become a springboard for renewed community and purpose. Old wounds can be bound up, new voices drawn in, bullies and dysfunction can be dealt with, cobwebs and secrets cleaned out, and God’s Spirit can be felt in new and powerful ways. All because the people of God are listening to and working with one another again.
Hopefully, truth is told regularly at church, but there is something about the time without a pastor that can make the church even more willing to see the reality of their situation, whatever that might be. One universal reality is that churches are having to adjust to different and even threatening times. It is possible to see a church in transition shake themselves from unrealistic views of today’s challenges and embrace the journey of facing the realities of the continued journey ahead.
Transition time can provide that space for honest family talk about decline in attendance, shrinking money, creative building usage, staff shape and assignments, and now pandemic challenges and opportunities. It is remarkable how addressing the truth out loud, without a pastor, can breathe new courage and consensus in a church.
New and Deeper Relationships
It has been interesting to watch new friendships and deeper trust emerge from the foxhole of transition. There is something about the deeper communication, the common mission, and the whole transitional adventure that can end up with folks loving one another more. In fact, I would say that may be the most wonderful thing that can come from the time a church spends without a pastor.
Our Finest Hour
I am not naïve, there are horror stories about churches during a pastor search. I certainly know that there is no guarantee that any of these good things mentioned above will happen. In fact, a transition could be the biggest disaster a church has ever faced. That is, unless some folks find the courage and unity in Christ to say: “We believe this will be our finest hour.” With that kind of resolve, and trust in God’s leadership, good history can indeed be made.