(Or, “How you can survive the pastoral transition at your church”)
Psychologists today tell us that stress is an inside job, more of a function of the individual human personality than an inevitable reaction to circumstances. You could almost say that we make our own stress. Two people are strapped into the same roller coaster. One is having a “scream” in the good sense of the word; every twist and turn brings spasms of delight. The person next to him or her is suffering miserably with every horrifying surprise. “God, if I live through this, I’ll never get in one of these things again!” Two people are watching a football game: One is rejoicing with every amazing pass and every almost-immaculate reception. The other groans in agony with the failure of the defense to put pressure on the quarterback and “smother” the wide receivers. Stress is an inside job.
Personally, I find flights on big commercial aircraft to be a whole lot of fun. I’m probably the only 50 something guy on the plane to be having a blast and pressing his forehead to the window so he doesn’t miss a single sight as the world passes below. On the other hand, my only flight in a light plane was really scary. I felt like I was hanging on to the back of a mosquito. I tried to have fun, but I was pretty stressed, because stress is an inside job.
First, a bit of context. The Apostle Paul had founded the church at Corinth. He served as what we would call its “pastor” for about eighteen months. The Corinthians may not have known it, but it must have been amazing to have Paul as their teaching pastor, for he knew more Christian theology than anybody on the planet. Paul was followed in this role by – and I don’t mean this in a negative way – the silver-tongued orator, Apollos. Apollos was a Bible (Old Testament) scholar and a wonderful speaker. Paul, by comparison, described himself as someone whose bodily presence (“stage presence”) was “weak.” In other words, he probably wasn’t much to look at nor was he a spell-binding speaker, he just dished out truth and more truth and more truth. It’s likely that the Apostle Peter – probably the consummate story-telling preacher (as a former fisherman!) – had also spoken at Corinth. It’s even possible that some of the Corinthian Christians had visited the Holy Land during the earthly ministry of Jesus and had heard the Master Himself; no one had ever spoken like Him!
As Paul writes to the Corinthians he is angry with them because of their childish disunity (the overall subject of chapter 1:10 – chapter 4). The Corinthian believers – who were old enough in their faith to know better – were dividing themselves up over which of their teachers they deemed to be the best. Each was saying that they were followers of (1:12 & 3:4) their favorite preacher. Paul is horrified; all Christians should be followers (read “fans”) of Christ alone, of course. Something (immaturity, carnality) is fundamentally wrong with church members who choose sides during or after pastoral transitions! But in the process of correcting them for their divisions, Paul shares (in 3:6-17) three metaphors which illustrate the relationship between God Himself, His churches and the teachers God uses to bring His churches to maturity. There is much to be learned from this wonderful passage but I’m going to confine my comments to pointing out a few truths which can help us to “enjoy the ride” – instead of being miserable – as God moves His teachers in and out of our churches.
From Paul’s first metaphor, the church as a field (3:6-9a):
(1) God’s teaching, church-leading servants are “nothing,” at least in comparison to God (vs. 7). I’m not attacking somebody’s self-esteem here; this is what the passage bluntly says. Paul and Apollos are only “servants,” compared, in fact, to migrant workers, who never seem to get a lot of acclaim in any culture. (A bit south of us here in central Wisconsin, migrant workers live in old trailers and what look like barracks.) Paul wasn’t suggesting that church leaders should be treated with disrespect – see I Thessalonians 5:12,13 – but rather that the credit for the growth (of any kind) of any church, be given to God alone (vss. 6 & 7).
(2) The servants of God – whether they know it or not – are “one” in that they are a part of the same process and working for the same boss. The vital thing is the one purpose (vs. 8), the spiritual and numerical growth of the church/crop for the glory of God.
(3) It is the sovereign (He’s a king!) God who moves these servants in and out of the field as He sees fit (vs. 5). There is much mystery here, of course. Even if the Pastor leaves “in a huff” or is chased out of town by “huffing and puffing” board members, ultimately, it is God Himself who moves His servants from one field to another. Does He use the foolishness of men to do so? I’m afraid so, but ultimately, the providence of God (God’s benevolent meddling in our lives for our good and His glory) is responsible for these sometimes dramatic and often controversial changes. Do you have the faith to believe this, and enjoy the ride? Can you trust God, even when you don’t trust the church board? (Your own personal answer to this question is “key.”)
(4) These field-worker servants of God will be rewarded properly by God for their work (see 3:8, 12-15 and 4:5). We don’t need to worry too much about the injustices done to our former pastors (though this doesn’t excuse them); the unheralded and unrewarded laborer will be properly compensated by God Himself (see 4:5) when the rewards are handed out. It is not your job to mete out justice upon the church leaders whom you believe did wrong.
From Paul’s second metaphor, the church as a building (3:9b-15):
(5) In the sovereign providence of God, His workers are moved in and out of the leadership of His churches for the sake of their special giftedness. Some are builders who begin with the foundation laid by others. Paul knew he was a foundation layer. (I tried that ministry – we call it church planting today – and failed. Today I’ve found my niche as a remodeler of churches.) When we’re having a house or other building built, we’re not likely to cry or get angry when the plumbers finish their work and the electricians arrive, or when the electricians finish their work and the finish carpenters arrive. I’m not suggesting there’s no place for grieving over a pastor whom we miss; I am saying (with Paul), that our grief can be tempered by the realization that God is the wise general contractor who moves differing pastor/sub-contractors in and out of His churches because special times in the life of a church call for special gifts. Part of the task of any pastor-search committee is to determine what kind of field-worker/sub-contractor their church needs next. Has God moved your pastor on to another building site because his work at your church was finished? Can this truth help you to enjoy the ride you’re on at your church?
From Paul’s third metaphor, the church as a temple (3:16-17):
(6) The field/building/temple that we field-hand/sub-contractor/temple priests are working on is holy because it belongs to God and because it is indwelt by the Spirit of God. Those of us who destroy temples (churches) with our ineptitude or sin will be severely dealt with by God. No church-destroying preacher (or board member or generic church member) will get away with his negligence. God will destroy those who destroy His “temples” and He will reward all faithful workers perfectly with their motives (see 4:5) taken into consideration.
I often encourage Christians to “get out of the driver’s seat” of their lives and let God take over. We should all be like the little child who enthusiastically jumps into the car with mom or dad without even needing to know where the car is headed. Can you trust God enough to relax, roll down the windows, feel the wind in your face and enjoy the ride? Can these six principles from I Corinthians help you to trust the One who is fully in charge of growing His church? Can you pray the following prayer with the many Christians who have prayed it before you?
“God, you have every right, and my permission, to re-arrange my life and my church, at any time, in order to fulfill Your plan, for Your glory.”