Part 4 of series: Letting Go of a Church
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So far I’ve mentioned seven factors that are helping me let go as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. They are:
1. My Conviction that the Church and I Need to Move On
2. My Observations of What Happens When a Pastor is Too Involved with a Former Church
3. My Personal Support System
4. Physical Distance Between the Church and Me
5. I Love My New Job and Have Plenty to Do
6. A “Boundaries Covenant” Between Irvine Presbyterian Church, Los Ranchos Presbytery, and Me
7. My Advance Communication to the Members of Irvine Presbyterian Church
Today I’ll finish up this list with three other factors.
8. My Confidence in the Leadership of Irvine Presbyterian Church
Most of the authority in a Presbyterian church is given to the Session, the board of elders and pastors. The pastor has specific and unique authority only over the content of the worship service/preaching. Otherwise, authority resides in the Session.
Irvine Presbyterian Church has always had outstanding Session leadership, and this is just as true today as it was when I was pastor. If anything, I can envision new pastoral leadership contributing to the growth and strength of the Session. My confidence in the current leadership of the church certainly makes it easier for me to let go.
Since I’ve been gone, the leaders have made a few changes, some of which have touched things I put into place when I was pastor. Though I would confess to moments of wistfulness about a couple of these, I fully support the actions of the Session. I know their integrity, their wisdom, their prayerfulness, and their heartfelt desire to honor God in all they do. Thus I believe they are doing what’s best for Irvine Pres. Plus, I’m well aware that churches need to change, and that a pastor’s departure usually allows for necessary change that the former pastor just couldn’t lead.
9. My Confidence in the Interim Pastor of Irvine Pres
In most cases, when a senior pastor (which Presbyterians simply call “pastor”) leaves a church, an interim pastor leads the church for a year or two. In my experience, most interim pastors are older, experienced pastors who aren’t yet ready to retire, though some people are called to interim pastoring when they are younger. They bring lots of wisdom to their interim task, which they understand as helping the church get ready for fruitful ministry under a new senior pastor.
I didn’t know the interim pastor of Irvine Pres until a few months ago. But I have come to have the highest regard for Pastor Rick Hull and his leadership. This began when he interviewed me by phone prior to his accepting the call to come to Irvine. I quickly sensed his passion for Christ, his love for the church, and his excellence in leadership. My high regard for Pastor Rick grew as we got to know each other personally. And my confidence in his leadership has grown further during the past few months as, from a distance, I have watched him lead the church by his preaching, pastoral care, and administrative efforts. I am grateful to have passed on my pastoral torch into such competent hands.
I realize that not all churches go the interim pastor route. And I’m sure there are times when an immediate change from one installed pastor to another works well. But I am an energetic proponent of interim pastoring because I have seen it work well in so many cases, including my own. Irvine Presbyterian Church was founded by Ben Patterson, a man of distinctive strength and charisma. I’m not sure the church would have been ready to accept me as its pastor were it not for the interim leadership of Pastor Jim Hewett.
10. A Reminder of Whose Church is Irvine Presbyterian Church
In one sense, the church to which we belong is “our church.” Similarly, the church where a pastor serves is that pastor’s church. For sixteen years and three months Irvine Presbyterian Church was “my church.”
But it’s terribly easy for pastors (and prominent lay leaders as well) to say “my church” with a meaning that isn’t right. We can begin to feel ownership for a church that goes beyond appropriate stewardship. We can see “my church” as that which I control, even as that which contributes to my own glory. When this happens, both pastors and churches are in grave danger.
Irvine Presbyterian Church was never my church in the sense of ownership. It always belonged to Jesus Christ, and to him alone. All Presbyterians should acknowledge because the first section of the Presbyterian Book of Order makes this abundantly clear:
G-1.0100 1. The Head of the Church
Christ Is Head of the Church
a. All power in heaven and earth is given to Jesus Christ by Almighty God, who raised Christ from the dead and set him above all rule and authority, all power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the Church, which is his body.
Christ Calls the Church Into Being
b. Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission to the world, for its building up, and for its service to God. Christ is present with the Church in both Spirit and Word. It belongs to Christ alone to rule, to teach, to call, and to use the Church as he wills, exercising his authority by the ministry of women and men for the establishment and extension of his Kingdom.
Christ Gives the Church Its Faith and Life
c. Christ gives to his Church its faith and life, its unity and mission, its officers and ordinances. Insofar as Christ’s will for the Church is set forth in Scripture, it is to be obeyed. In the worship and service of God and the government of the church, matters are to be ordered according to the Word by reason and sound judgment, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Christ Is the Church’s Authority
d. In affirming with the earliest Christians that Jesus is Lord, the Church confesses that he is its hope and that the Church, as Christ’s body, is bound to his authority and thus free to live in the lively, joyous reality of the grace of God.
During my tenure as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I was mostly aware that Christ “owned” the church and I was simply his servant and steward. Surely there were times when I held the church too tightly, but inevitably the Lord helped me to loosen my grip. (Photo: from a stained glass window in the sanctuary of Irvine Pres)
Leaving my pastoral position at Irvine Pres has, more than anything else, forced me to remember whose church it is. It isn’t mine. Never was. In fact, Irvine Presbyterian Church doesn’t belong to the staff, or the elders, or the congregation, or the presbytery, or the Presbyterian Church USA. It belongs truly and solely to Jesus Christ. What’s true of the whole church is true of Irvine Presbyterian Church in particular: “It belongs to Christ alone to rule, to teach, to call, and to use the Church as he wills” (G-1.0100b).
In the end, I will be able to let go of Irvine Presbyterian Church because I acknowledge that it is now, as it always has been, in the hands of Christ. My concerns for the church and my love for its people will lead me to pray, acknowledging that Christ alone is head of this church, and that his will alone is what should be done. Thus letting go is, for me, ultimately a matter of trusting God more. It’s an occasion for me to grow in my faith as I let God be God.