I was called to the pastorate straight out of seminary. I married my wife. We went on our honeymoon, and then we moved into the parsonage to begin pastoral ministry in a small town in rural Pennsylvania. I did not have a timetable planned for how long I would serve in my first church, but I did not expect it would be twelve years. Yet, God was faithful and we were blessed with over a decade of loving and serving the people in our church. At the beginning of 2018, my wife and I both experienced an overwhelming sense that it was time to move on to another ministry.
Through God’s providence, I soon found myself candidating at a new church. This was such a unique and unusual process. I’ve never read books or articles on what it is like for a pastor to change churches. But three unmistakable truths were reaffirmed to me through the process.
God is Sovereign
It is hard to walk through a transition process without being awestruck at the sovereignty of God. People often speak of God opening a door of opportunity for a different ministry. But after multiple interviews, congregational meetings, votes of approval, real estate searches, and denominational credentialing, it is clear that hundreds of doors must be opened for the transition to take place.
It also becomes apparent that God answers prayer. As we sought the Lord’s leading in prayer, God reminded us that He is the one leading the process. My wife and I prayed a lot, but so did both churches involved. Even though the decision was difficult, every doubt received an answer. It may sound simplistic and obvious, but it must be said again and again: God answers prayer! The words of the author of Hebrews bloomed before our eyes:
“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." (Hebrews 11:6)
We sought the Lord and He rewarded us with His reassurance and guidance. We were blessed with the comfort of knowing that the Almighty rules from Heaven and He was directing the traffic of our lives.
God’s People are Family
This process also reaffirmed to us the familial nature of the church. We spent twelve years with our church family. We loved them and they loved us. We cared for them and they cared for us. Telling my former church of the possibility of leaving was, without exaggeration, the most difficult thing I had ever done. If it weren’t for the overwhelming sense of God’s leading, I would have avoided that conversation at all cost. As humans, we have a tendency to expect the worst possible response to the bad news we deliver. In reality, we received the best possible response to our news. Our brothers and sisters were sad, but also excited. They sensed God was at work in these events. We were loved. We were prayed for. We were encouraged.
I also witnessed a loving concern between two churches that had never met each other. My former church prayed for the decision making of my future church. My future church prayed for grace and healing for my former church, especially for walking through the difficulty of losing a pastor. My future church even desired to reach out and help my former church deal with the transition in any way they could. When the time came to move, members from both churches worked together to help us move to our new home.
Through it all, I witnessed God’s family show grace, kindness, and love to others they could have easily held in contempt. My family had the opportunity to enjoy a farewell meal with our former church family, and a welcome meal with our new church family.
The entire experience put flesh on Jesus’ words in Mark 10:29-30:
“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life."
We strive to follow Jesus and serve Him, and in the process, we are reminded that we are a part of a spiritual family much larger than we could imagine. Through it all, I was grateful that my children had a front-row seat to watch the loving care of God’s family at work in different churches.
God’s Word is Sufficient
Another truth God hammered home to us is that His Word is sufficient. One of the most common critiques of preaching verse-by-verse through books of the Bible is that the preacher is not allowing room for God’s Spirit to lead and speak what is needed at a given time to the church. Yet, through the providential leading of God, I began preaching through the book of Acts ten months before I would change churches. The timing of that study was heaven-sent. When it was time to announce to my former church the news of what God was doing, and before I was officially extended a call from the new church, we were studying Acts 12 and 13. It was especially fitting to study how the church in Antioch accepted God’s will and sent off Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:2-3).
I was sensitive to how the situation bore some resemblance to my situation. I did not want to manipulate or use the Scriptures to advance a personal agenda. I strove to faithfully teach the text without making too many applications to the current situation. Yet, the church connected the dots and found great encouragement and a model to follow in the text. They were thankful to send me off with their blessing for the sake of God’s kingdom. They were able to see a bigger vision of God’s kingdom that extended beyond their local fellowship.
It was no accident that we were studying the book of Acts when we were. God’s Word was more than sufficient to guide us in our time of transition. We do not strangle the leading of the Spirit by preaching for long periods of time through books of the Bible. God was not surprised that this transition would take place ten months before when we started Acts. In fact, He was directing us in that study.
Leaving one church to go to another was not easy. It is not something I would want to do again any time soon. But it affirmed to me that God is sovereign. He reigns on His throne, His people truly are a special family, and his Word is sufficient to lead and guide us through all of life’s ups and downs.