Last Sunday was the Johnson’s last Sunday. They moved closer to grandkids. The Sunday before that we prayed for the Thompsons as the military moved them to another country. A few Sundays before that we welcomed college students back to town, knowing that the stay was short. Soon they would graduate and move away.
Such is ministry in a transient area. Almost every Sunday, you look out from the pulpit and catch someone’s eye who you know is moving soon. Your mind floods with memories, you mourn the “what if’s,” imagining the discipleship opportunities lost, you pray that they will make the move well and get connected to one of the churches you’ve recommended. You try not to worry about the thinning pews or to think about the declining budget.
Ministry in a transient area brings at least two particular challenges: relational weariness and an increased demand simply to maintain. Your friends will leave and you will have to work harder than most to keep the status quo.
Pastors in transient areas empathize with Paul when he wrote “all of Asia has deserted me.” (2 Tim 1:15). They’ve felt the sting of lost relationships as not everyone leaves on good terms. They grow weary as churches in transient areas aren’t immune to the church-hopping tendency among the flock. They feel the pressure of pending moves and potential moves among their church body. Towards the end of 2 Timothy, Paul surveyed some of the moves he had seen recently,
For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. (2 Tim 4:10-12)
The pastor in a transient area weeps with Paul as he reads this passage. He knows Demas who still lives in town. He is still Facebook friends with the Crescens and Tituses their church commissioned to another area. Luke alone is with him. He rejoices in the reconciled relationship with Mark. But the relational merry-go-round is tiring. But at least merry-go-rounds don’t leave you.
Transient churches face the constant tension of volunteers, givers, and attendees moving away. There is a geographically assigned hole in your bucket that will continue to drain water. And it is not possible to plug. You simply have to add more water. And keep adding more water.
One ministry mentor in our area shared with me that our churches have to grow 25% each year in order to simply stay at the same level. Grow Sunday attendance by 25%. Recruit and train 25% more volunteers. Raise up 25% more givers. Just to maintain the level of ministry you’ve been doing. Otherwise, you’re shrinking. If you’re not growing you’re both dying and putting more pressure on those who remain.
Amidst the challenges of ministry in a transient area, God gives some particular blessings. Pastors in a transient area get to anticipate who God will send and raise up for ministry. Pastors in a transient area also develop a love for some of the attributes of God which might be more easily assumed in stable environments.
While transient areas mean that people are regularly leaving, they also mean that people are regularly arriving. Just this past Sunday at our small church in Virginia we had two first-time guests who had moved to the area. One from California and the other from Florida. One was military, and the other had accepted a job in our area. God bought them here.
A first-time guest is not merely a first-time guest to a pastor in a transient area. That pastor sees potential and possibility. They imagine the discipleship relationships that person might build in their fellowship. They see the new circles of influence into which God might use this person to get the gospel. They see God opening doors for ministry.
And with every person who moves away from their church, the pastor in a transient area is already praying for the people that God will soon be relocating to their area. The pastor in a transient area sees the headline that the local shipyard is hiring and begins to pray for the out-of-town applicants that God might bring. Transient areas brim with potential. Oh that God would use churches in transient areas for great gospel influence!
Pastors in transient areas also develop a love for God. They are like Titus ministering in Crete. Crete’s lying population (Titus 1:12) provided the backdrop against which they came to know the God who never lies (Titus 1:2). While ministering to your city’s leaving population you will come to know the God who never leaves. You will come to deeply cherish the God who will never forsake you (Ps 55:22).
In Crete, they needed to know that God never lies. In your transient area, you need to know that God never leaves. There is no shadow of turning with him. While you feel a shock of nervousness everytime you open your email inbox, expecting someone to be moving, you feel the firm foundation of God’s faithfulness everytime you open your Bible. Yes, keep ministering in transient areas! Because God never changes.
Consider the Faithfulness of God
In Psalm 107, the psalmist extols the faithfulness of God in the context of the crashing seas of life. He writes of the “stormy wind” (25) and the rising waves on which men “mounted up to heaven” and “went down to the depths.” (26). He describes those riding such waves, “they reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wit’s end.” (27).
Ministry in a transient area can make the most seasoned pastors sea sick.
But, pastor, hear the Psalmist’s closing charge, “Let them consider the steadfast love of the LORD.” (Ps 107:43). The Lord is faithful. His love does not rise and fall with the waves or with attendance trends or contribution and expense forms. In his loving kindness and wisdom, he gives and he takes away. Yes, he does so even with those attending our churches. And in every season, of plenty and need, his love remains steadfast. In all seasons of ministry, pastor, consider the steadfast love of the LORD.