A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
On the Road Again
March 15, 2018
According to a hit song from the 1980 movie "Honeysuckle Rose," something in us always feels a tug to get “On the Road Again.” Constant itinerancy is not just the lot of troubadours; it was also the normal mode of ministry in the early Christian church. Some Christian traditions still view it as the ordinary pattern for Christian leaders to be regularly on the move. I was raised in the home of a pastor who moved to a new congregation every four to six years, and his was considered a stable ministry. Each of his pastorates was happy, and he was not being relocated by denominational officials; he simply felt the tug of the Spirit to new places of ministry.
Based on apostolic records, we believe that the apostle Paul stayed in one place of ministry never more than three years; usually his sojourn was measured in months, not years. Paul notes that a succession of different leaders may be exactly what the church needs. One plants, another waters, another harvests, but God is the one who makes it all work together fruitfully. (1 Corinthians 3:5-9) Every ministry setting needs different leadership gifts at various stages in its life.
Much good can come of lengthy pastorates. But even in those situations, pastors often testify that a congregation needs a new pastor every five years. The only question is whether the new pastor is the same person with a new sense of vision and direction, or some other pastoral candidate entirely.
The departure of treasured leaders often generated distress in the early church. For example, the elders of the church in Ephesus grieved greatly when Paul left them. (Acts 20:36-38) Parting with beloved ministry leaders is never easy.
Three years ago I grieved in my weekly letter the loss of our beloved Associate Minister Doug Portz to a new call as a regional representative of the Board of Pensions. Today I likewise mourn the loss of our cherished Associate Minister Ayana Teter as she moves on this week also to join the Board of Pensions in its service to our church. She has been a treasured colleague to our staff, and a highly esteemed mentor and ally to many in our presbytery. We will greatly miss her joyful presence and wise counsel, though happily she and her family will remain in Pittsburgh, and she will still be part of our family as a member-at-large of our presbytery.
I must confess, I had some words with our Lord over Doug’s departure. I’ve protested similarly over Ayana leaving us. It has been a joy and privilege to be their colleague in ministry, and I wonder how I can manage without them at my side. Yet in both cases, I am confident that God is working for their good, as well as ours. Our sense of loss is truly great. Our grief is real and justified. Yet…we recognize that this is how ministry in Jesus’ name goes. All ministry is in fact transitional.
How can we possibly view the departures of key spiritual leaders as “good?” We have lost so very much. Yet we need to consider what may be gained, not merely what is lost, when ministry transitions we never expected or wanted are thrust upon us. Could our Lord be at work to grant our beloved leaders new vineyards to tend? And might our Lord be granting us an opportunity to explore new leadership patterns and possibilities that we need, even if we don’t know it?
During Lent we consider the journey of our Lord from his place of acclaimed ministry to his cross. He never stays put, but keeps moving forward to new possibilities and challenges. When some profess a desire to follow him, he retorts, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20) Ministry in Jesus’ name is always on the move.
Some years ago the United Church of Christ adopted a slogan, “Never put a period where God puts a comma.” Churches and leaders that settle in to any status quo are liable to miss the movement of the Holy Spirit, of the God who is always on the move. Where is the Spirit moving us today?
Your fellow traveler,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
Click here for the directory of archived letters and sermons.