Pieces of Our Journeys
We each have a longer story to tell, of prayers and leaps of faith and God’s astounding provision. But we’ll start here. Ask us more, would you?
In 2007, at age 55, Tom read the book Halftime, by Bob Buford, and began to think about finishing well at Shiloh Community Church (EFCA), after 20 years as its founding pastor. Three years later, Tom resigned and now serves as a pastor to pastors for EFCA West, encouraging other pastors and their boards to think through healthy transitions.
After reading Halftime, each year while on my vacation I would resign in my heart from the church and allow God to rehire me. In the meantime, I kept my eyes open for a young eagle on our staff to take over. I began to share the pulpit more and allow the cream of my staff to rise to the top. When I was offered the opportunity to work for our EFCA West region, I knew that was my sweet spot.
I strongly encouraged my church board to look at a couple of qualified and gifted guys from within the church to take the baton from me. I recommended one to be the lead pastor and the other to be the teaching pastor.
This didn’t fit the traditional model: forming a pulpit committee and looking outside the local ministry for a candidate. Yet the elders were ultimately convinced, based on these reasons I presented:
- The church was getting older and needed younger blood. The two guys I had picked to potentially follow me were both in their 30s. My hopes were that younger leadership would attract a younger crowd.
- It is difficult to follow a beloved founding pastor, because the new pastor finds himself having to compete with the past. Using known commodities who are already in the church and familiar with the culture would create a much smoother transition.
- Churches of our size often go 18 months to three years without a pastor during the search process, so even if these two young men weren’t chosen, they would offer considerable stability during the interim.
- Finally, based on the principle that Paul had modeled with young Timothy, I had poured my life into these two young men and believed it was time to empower them to lead.
The board began interviewing the two young men from our staff. Soon, they were ready to make a recommendation to the congregation—my recommendation—which was overwhelmingly approved.
I left the church for six to eight weeks, creating space for the new leaders to establish their identity. Seven years have passed, both pastors are thriving, and the church continues to show great health, sporting a younger congregation. I still continue to have a mentoring relationship with both pastors.
“As pastor, I subconsciously made decisions that were more about preserving my own power than they were about the health of the church.”
Looking in the Mirror
How did things get so bad? I asked myself as I listened to a dear friend vent about the horrible state of his church. His venting hit a nerve because it used to be our church. I was the former pastor.
Both our hearts ached during that conversation as we realized that the person who had followed me was just not equipped to lead. It was a classic case of being in over his head. Over time I watched the church become ill almost to the point of death. It was one of the most painful things I ever experienced.
I had left the pastorate in a healthy place—or so I thought. In hindsight, I realize I was just as much a contributor to its illness as the pastor who followed me. He certainly was culpable, but I had made critical errors.
First, I pastored like I was going to be there forever. But after a decade of service, I felt a strong sense to move on and the perfect opportunity came my way. I now realize that church leadership should not be treated as if it is eternal; in an instant God can reassign me. I now lead with this in mind.
Second, I tied my identity to the pastorate. It’s no secret that a church takes on the personality of its pastor. But it’s unhealthy for all involved for the pastor to tie his identity to the church. Our identities should be in Christ. Pastoring is what we do, not who we are.
Third, I subconsciously made decisions—as I now realize—that were more about preserving my own power than they were about the health of the church. It’s what naturally happens when your identity and pastoral role are one and the same.
The last error was a by-product of the first two. Because I assumed I would be there forever and grounded my identity in the pastoral role, the success of the church hinged totally on my leadership. I did not lead collaboratively. Even if the next pastor had been an amazing leader, he would have faced many troubles, because I had left behind a leadership void of epic proportions.
However, we serve a God of resurrection. Our church not only survived, but it is also now thriving. I just wish I had pastored that church with my replacement in mind. It would have made for a much smoother transition.
God Will Not Forget Us
Back in March 2005, Lance and Suzanne Lefler, with a core group, planted Anchor Community Church (EFCA) in Long Beach, Calif. In November 2012, the Leflers announced plans to leave Anchor to pastor a church in Mexico City. Ron and Jeanie Cash are close personal friends, and Ron serves as one of Anchor’s three elders.
When Lance and Suzanne shared with Jeanie and me about the call they had received from Union Church and asked for our prayers, we couldn’t miss their barely concealed excitement. It became evident that they were being led to the ministry in Mexico.
Because the Leflers have young children who spilled the beans, Lance had to inform the whole church much sooner than we had originally planned. It was, initially, shocking news, as Lance was the only pastor many of our congregation knew.
I, of course, was sad to think I’d be losing such a close friend and partner in ministry. However, I was also confident that as He was leading Lance to another field of ministry, He would not forget us; He would not leave us orphans. In fact, I had great confidence that He already had another leader in mind for Anchor.
About this same time my son, Brandon, an EFCA pastor, introduced us via the Internet to his friend Mike Gunn, a former EFCA pastor. (Mike and his wife, Donna, were serving in Turkey and were about to come off the mission field.)
Mike later told me that right before I contacted him, he had been wondering where they were going to land stateside, and that Donna had assured him that there was no reason to worry; God’s will would be revealed regarding their next steps. Only a few hours later, he received my email.
We brought Mike and Donna over from Turkey to meet our congregation and to spend a week with us. Four weeks later, we voted unanimously to call Mike as the new pastor.
Far from leaving us as orphans, God had used this whole experience to prove His providential care.
“When our pastor and his wife left, I felt great sadness, ambivalence and disconnection for a season.”
Grief and God’s Clear Direction
Cher Lorentz and her husband, Mike, have been members of Watertown (Minn.) EFC for 33 years and close friends of their former pastor and his wife since Paul and Emery Kling arrived 29 years ago. After six months preparation and a wonderful farewell, the Klings left the church on January 1, 2014. Read Emery’s story in “Holding Onto Jesus.”
When my dear sister Emery first shared that they weren’t the ones to take the church to the next place God wanted it to go, she and I wept and laughed and prayed. But, oh my, I’ve felt great sadness, even a sense of grief. There’s also been a significant amount of what-now? emotion, which included ambivalence and disconnection for a season.
For our church’s other leaders, there was a huge sense of loss, too, and at first disbelief, then some acceptance. Paul intentionally helped us through the time with his sermons, newsletter and conversations. Paul and Emery invited each of the leadership teams and their spouses to their home to thank them and talk about the future. It was a heartbreaking, challenging time, and still is, in many ways.
The elders determined to pursue an interim pastor for at least a year, to give time for the grieving, prayer and transition process.
Slowly, for me, there’s grown some excitement and anticipation for the next season ahead. But because Paul and Emery are among our closest friends, that loss has left a huge hole in so many parts of our daily life.
A New Posture
After Raleigh planted Valley EFC (Vacaville, Calif.) in 1979, it grew steadily from 35 people in a rented storefront to more than 1,000 attendees on a 20-acre property spanning multiple buildings. But then the ’90s brought a series of tragic events in the life of the church, and Raleigh overspent his emotional energy and leadership equity. By 2005, he and the rest of his leadership team were asking hard questions.
I still felt called to pastor the people of my community. But I debated whether I would serve them better to continue running with the baton of leadership until I dropped, or to hand it off while I could still cheer on the next runner.
There’s a lot I could write about the next two years, as we developed policies and considered different succession scenarios.* But in July 2009, our elders invited our youth pastor, Jeremy White, to step in as lead pastor, and I began my new role as teaching and equipping pastor—an area of need where I have a passion.
Before we set out on this journey, my wife and I made a covenant with the Lord outlining how we would respond to scenarios that might arise. The Holy Spirit has used that covenant to keep me in my lane.
Also, the role of mentor has been a helpful posture. As a mentor to Pastor Jeremy, I wait to be asked for my advice and don’t assume a confrontational coaching role. I have also discovered how valuable Jeremy’s private respect and public esteeming of me has been to my soul. Our mutual respect for each other in areas of theology, teaching and shepherding, as well as a public esteem of each other, has elevated us both in the eyes of the body.
When I disagree with Jeremy, I bring it to the Lord, trusting the Holy Spirit to lead Jeremy just as He was sovereign over my leadership. As Jeremy’s influence has increased and mine has decreased, I have been dependent upon Jesus for His humility to replace my pride.
Now five years into my new role, it’s amazing to note how much our church has grown and developed. Mainly, I’m excited at how Jeremy has reached the next generation while we have still retained my own. All ages feel valued as we reach all stages of life. It’s been incredible, too, to see how people who left our church during its rough times have returned.
“I had lived and breathed as a pastor for decades and had thought I would always be a pastor. So I struggled to find a new identity in my new role.”
Changing My Identity
In his 23 years as a pastor, Al served in churches in Illinois, Nevada and Iowa, while also mentoring young pastors in the credentialing process. After leaving First EFC in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in December 2008, he has served as director of pastoral training for EFCA ReachGlobal—developing a team that trains thousands of pastors in multiple countries on four continents.
In fall 2007, I was 55 and very happy in ministry as a senior pastor, but the Lord began nudging my wife and me to consider something new. Actually, Edie had been sensing for some time that the Lord was going to do something different in our lives, but she had no idea what. So we asked the Lord what He wanted for us in (as I put it) our last lap of full-time ministry.
Meanwhile, Edie and I had been on many short-term mission trips, and we had come home often grieved over the weakness we saw in the teaching in national churches. I began to think about training national pastors in the Word so that they could more effectively do what I have loved to do for so many years.
I eventually approached ReachGlobal to see if there might be a place for us. Seven years later we still attend the same church, but now as their resident missionaries. We enjoy amazing support and encouragement.
However, I personally went through a mourning period for about six months after leaving the church. I had lived and breathed as a pastor for decades and had thought I would always be a pastor. I missed the weekly preparation and preaching, and the challenge of shaping the lives and thinking of my people through the Word of God. I struggled to find a new identity in my new role, which at first was not clearly defined.
But God reminded me that He had called me and that all pastors eventually go through this loss at retirement; I just got to do it when I had something significant and exciting ahead. Gradually, my sense of loss was largely taken away as I thought of myself much more as a trainer than as a pastor, and as I gained a new vision for how I could help many other pastors gain the skills to do what I had loved so much.
Leadership From the Inside
It was a hot, sunny Saturday morning, and what I remember most before the phone call was wondering how much longer I’d be doing yard work that day. Then the phone rang, and my world was turned completely upside down.
The news was tied to an event involving our senior pastor, who soon after resigned. Along with all of our elders, I felt shocked, confused and betrayed. Yet as a team we are skilled at navigating turbulent waters, and so we rose to the occasion. Our conviction is that while succession/crisis planning is important, no amount of planning can completely prepare for the fluidity and complexity that accompanies such times. The single most important factor in successfully navigating a crisis is having a leadership team full of integrity that is submitted to God’s Word and the Holy Spirit.
We employed a professional pastoral headhunting firm and agreed on a senior-pastor profile that focused on preaching and mentoring, while turning over administrative details to me as executive pastor. And I stepped up to lead the church in the interim.
Yet after six months, the right candidate had not surfaced. And I had actually come to believe that I must either “lead or leave.” No, I had never aspired to the role of lead pastor, yet I had been invested with such a degree of authority and trust that I realized it would be impossible for another senior leader to come in and for me to work under him.
I ultimately put forth the proposal to the other elders that I be the lead pastor, especially as we considered models that did not require me to do all of the preaching. Once we settled on the idea that I would preach some and that we would hire someone else to round out the teaching team with me, this direction solidified. All elders and pastors were unified around the idea, as was most of the church.
What at first looked like a crisis has instead set our church on a healthier course: not being organized and centered around one person or personality. And we have learned that no one is more vested and interested in our church’s future than those who are part of the church already.
“I knew leaving the church would be difficult, but why couldn’t I push past these emotions?”
Holding Onto Jesus
Emery and her husband, Paul, arrived at Watertown (Minn.) EFC in March 1985 and served there 29 years. When Paul resigned at the end of 2013, he and Emery said their goodbyes without knowing where God would lead them next. Emery works for a market research firm while they wait. Hear also from one of their church members in “Grief and God’s Clear Direction.”
“I will stick to Christ as a burr to cloth.” Those are among the last recorded words of Katherine Luther, wife of the great reformer. I’m not on my deathbed, but I have been in a season of loss and have been learning to cling tightly to the Lord Jesus.
This season began early in 2013 when the Lord made it clear that our years at Watertown were coming to an end. In late June, my husband announced his resignation as senior pastor by January 1st. October brought grief when my dear father—whom we had brought from Arizona five years before to live near us—went to be with the Lord. My grip tightened.
January came. We said goodbye to life as we had known it for almost three decades and to the only church home our four children had ever known.
After the whirlwind of holiday and farewell events, I was ready for some rest. Then in February 2014 our youngest son moved out, officially making us empty nesters. As the weeks went by, I felt so much sadness.
I knew leaving the church would be difficult, but we had initiated it and prayerfully prepared for it. Why couldn’t I push past these emotions? Somehow, my hold on Jesus seemed to be loosening.
I’d pour out my feelings every night when I got home from work. As my husband and I talked and prayed together, the Lord helped us to understand the cumulative loss we’d experienced. I am a nurturer; I value deep friendships. With the loss of so many meaningful relationships in such rapid succession, no wonder I felt sadness and loneliness.
Identifying it has helped. Acceptance has enabled me to surrender it and receive the Lord’s comfort and the assurance that He is at work.
Now I can see wonderful surprises God is giving us. For example, my husband and I have gotten reacquainted as a couple, and we’ve been seeking the Lord together in a deeper, unhurried way.
Yes, this transition has been challenging, but it has also been filled with unexpected blessings. And you can be sure that I am hanging onto Jesus as we wait upon Him for what’s next.
I Just Knew It Was Time
Joe and Charlotte Bubar started leading Grace Bible Church (EFCA) in Arroyo Grande, Calif., in 1997. Joe says that in May 2012, when he was ready to make a change, “I wasn’t tired, didn’t feel beat up and certainly wasn’t bored. But I just knew it was time.”
Over the next six months I met regularly with two trusted friends, both leaders in the church, talking first through the “why”—which for me was very subjective, including knowing that, as with kids, you quit playing the game before they get tired of it. I loved the church. I loved these men. And I didn’t want to let go. But it was time.
I had never before left a ministry without being called to another people. I could see, though, that it wasn’t going to be that way this time. But I knew that in His time, we’d see God’s plan. And soon we did.
Charlotte and I now have new opportunities, all of which relate to lifelong commitments: the local church, missions and family.
We soon transitioned into an interim role in another great EFCA church—one that needed some stability, which is part of my core. We’ll be here a year or so, I’m estimating.
At about the same time, I was dialoguing with ReachGlobal and with Radstock, a smaller mission agency, about its work in the Balkans. Grace Bible had worked with Albanian church leaders over the past few years. I’m still trekking to Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, only a little more often, helping churches develop partnerships while continuing to provide “shepherding” for the young pastors with whom I’ve become friends during the past decade.
Then there is “family.” Charlotte’s parents, now in their 90s, live a couple of blocks from us. About the same time these other transitions were going on, their health began to slide off the hill. Paul, who pastored the great Park Street Church in Boston and had become the visitation pastor of our church, was now finding it hard to walk out the door of his own home.
So, a few months after I did, he resigned from his post. With help from other family members, Charlotte and I are doing all we can to make it possible for my amazing in-laws to stay in their own home. And at the same time, I’m pondering how I will handle that last and toughest of life’s transitions.
These changes, to life-places I’ve never been, are not the easiest processes I’ve attempted. But they have been good, very good.