In 2014 René and I were called to do an interim ministry at a church in Arizona that was started in 2002. The new church in the Greater Phoenix area had had only one pastor its first 12 years. For confidentiality’s sake I will call him Paul.
Paul was recognized across our denomination, the Disciples of Christ, as one of our brightest lights. He left that Arizona church to take one of our renowned “preaching pulpits,” a handful of our Disciple churches across the U. S. noted for our denomination’s best preachers.
While at the Phoenix church, Paul served as a mentor to Bethany Fellows, a group of new pastors fresh out of seminary. He had a pastoral heart and a passion for church growth. He connected with the largest neighboring social service club in the Phoenix area, attracting new members from the club to the church. For a time, he served as the club’s president. Until the church was able to make it on its own financially Paul also worked a second job.
The church was successful enough that about six years into Paul’s ministry, the church proceeded to build a sanctuary, with a capitol campaign and the aid of a major Church Extension loan. The sanctuary served as a multi-purpose room while maintaining its beauty and charm. Paul’s ministry was nothing short of amazing.
But therein lay a problem for the church. The church was faced with the obvious question: “How do we replace him?” Members and friends of the church had reveled in his leadership for 12 years. A number of members who didn’t have a church background never knew any other pastor besides him.
It wasn’t rocket science for René and me to figure out Paul would be a very hard act to follow. When the news widely circulated that we would be the church’s interim, a respected denominational executive rudely said to me, “You better be able to preach.” Besides his tactlessness he revealed what all of us knew: Paul was not going to be easy to replace.
But by this time, I’d learned an important lesson about life and ministry; namely, that, while all of us are irreplaceable, none of us is indispensable. There will always be someone who can do the job we’re doing, likely even better. But in the great scheme of things, we are all irreplaceable. We all possess gifts and graces from God that are unique to us & make us special.
And yet, the temptation for churches and church members is to get caught up in America’s “culture of celebrity” to the point the church becomes so enamored with the character of the pastor it forgets the chief cornerstone of the church is still Jesus Christ!
In 2018 René and I were visiting friends living near Garden Grove, California, where Dr. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral was located. I say “was” because once Dr. Schuller, who had a weekly listening audience of 20 million to his “Hour of Power” for years, retired the church fell apart. It filed for bankruptcy to the tune of $50 million. Despite the fact Dr. Schuller’s son succeeded him as Crystal Cathedral’s minister, the church had been built on the sand of the father’s reputation, and not on Christ, its cornerstone. It wasn’t that Dr. Schuller preached himself. He did not. But the congregation (and the world) mistook him for the church.
As the son of loving adoptive parents, I often heard my mom say countless times, “You’re special.” More children need to enjoy such positive strokes as I did. But here was the irony: I took myself too seriously as a young adult. Being called “special” influenced my call into ministry, but I took it too far even though I was never like Pastor Paul. It took one of my seminary professors in my doctoral program, Dr. Keith Watkins, to bring me down to earth, when he said, unapologetically, “You’re just an ordinary person.” At first it sounded to me like a put-down. But in point of fact he did me a favor. His comment freed me from trying so hard to be something I’m not. I could be happy being just who I am.
When congregations seek a pastor they hope will fit the mold of a former pastor, they are unwittingly making the mistake I made about myself. They are making a mere mortal into an idol, an almost God-like figure. The truth is, as the apostle Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans 3:25, “All have sinned and fallen short of the kingdom of God.” That goes for you, for me, for the church, for every pastor, for all of us.
It isn’t that we shouldn’t aspire for the best pastor we can find and for the best from ourselves. That’s the sin of sloth, spiritual laziness. Our reach should extend beyond our grasp. But alas! Over the years I’ve seen a woeful number of people worship the pastor more than God!
Toward the end of René’s and my ministry at that Phoenix church, René was making a capital campaign visit on a major contributor in the congregation. Mind you, the church was trying to make $14,000 monthly payments on a $1.9 million loan. We had to do something to staunch the bleeding.
During her visit the donor says to René. “You know, as far as I’m concerned, I support ‘The Church of Paul’ our former pastor. That’s why I became a part of the church.” The donor was self-transcendent enough to make a sizable pledge and fulfilled his pledge. But it didn’t take long for him to disappear when the new pastor showed up. She just wasn’t Paul and never could be Paul. But she was great just as she was. Thing is: This donor forgot something vitally important about the Paul he idolized and worshiped. Paul loved that church. Paul gave 12 years of his life to that church. Paul did everything he could to get it going, off the ground, and flying on the wings of the Holy Spirit. But the donor didn’t realize how much Paul loved that church. Paul knew he wasn’t the church. Yet, the donor never discerned the difference.
It’s true: no pastor can be replaced. Besides we pastors have feet of clay, like everybody else. But no pastor is indispensable either. God will send a new witness, a new leader, a new preacher who will have a word from God no one else can express in the same way.
All because God is ever and always doing a new thing in each of us and through each of us, including our congregation. It’s why in ministry and in church we remain on the alert for the excitement of discovering what great thing God might be up to next.
An expectant future awaits SCCC!