By Jeff Chitwood
I reached two milestones in my life at about the same time: turning 50 and being at the same church for 25 years. Those milestones began a journey that would last a couple of years. A
nagging question had settled in my heart and mind that would not go away: Does God have somewhere else he wants me to serve? Things were going well at the church, and I had no yearning desire to follow what some perceive as the ultimate success in ministry—go to a bigger church. But that burning question caused me to seek God in a new way.
I was comfortable where I was in life. I had a nice home, and my wife enjoyed her job. Our younger daughter was in junior high school, and our older daughter was building a life of her own from her home in our town.
I remember the night at a leadership retreat when I got down on my knees and prayed, “OK God, I guess I am really open to whatever you have in store for me. Let me know. PS, Be as specific as possible!”
About a week later I received a call from a church 1,200 miles away wanting to know if I knew of anyone who was open to moving to a new ministry. I told the caller I didn’t have a name but would let him know if I heard of someone. As soon as I hung up the phone, it was as if God tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, what was it you prayed last week? Are you ready to listen or not?”
The next morning I called the church back and said, “Well, I don’t know where this will lead, but I am open to whatever happens.” Seven months later, I was in a new ministry in a place I had never thought about moving to.
The transitional period is a crucial time on both sides of the leadership spectrum. For the leadership of the church, it can be a time of uncertainty. A longtime ministry builds a sense of security and direction for the church. For the minister who is leaving, it can be a very tough time emotionally. He is leaving a place where he has built relationships and invested a large portion of his life. How both parties lead during a time like this can make a big difference for the church and the minister. Leadership lessons can be learned in every situation; here are some I learned as I experienced this transition.
Leaders lead best in transition when there is a “partnership in the gospel.”
The relationship the leaders and minister have before a transition is vital to a smooth transition. Too many ministers have a “me vs. them” attitude in their relationship with the leaders of the church. Too many leader boards have an “us vs. him” attitude in their relationship with the minister.
What is God’s model? Paul described it well when he wrote, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:3-6). Paul’s relationship was one of partnership. That is the best model for leaders.
The leaders and the minister need to share life together and have the same heart for the kingdom and the church. That means you spend time together outside of monthly meetings. That means you pray together other than just at the opening and closing of a meeting. That means you spend time in the Word together other than just listening to the sermon and the Communion meditation.
Leaders lead best in transition when they have vision for the kingdom, not just “my church.”
It is very easy to begin to see things as “my church” and “our church” rather than God’s church. After being at the church for 28 years, I wrestled with the question of what was best for it. Had I led the church as far as I was capable of leading it? Was it fair to the church for me to stay just because I was comfortable?
On the other side of the leadership spectrum, I worried about what the leaders would think. Would they be “mad at me” for leaving? The church was getting ready to enter a capital campaign to raise money for a second campus. What would my leaving do to that campaign?
Thankfully I believe a “kingdom mind-set” prevailed on both sides of the leadership spectrum. The key is found at the end of the Philippians passage quoted above, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Good leaders understand it is God’s church and he will prevail. If leaders think the well-being of the church is completely on their shoulders, then “their church” might just fail. But when leaders have a kingdom perspective and know that God is in control, things will work out much better.
I was thankful the church had a “kingdom perspective” and gave their blessing to my following what I felt God was doing in my life. The leaders also went forward with the plans that had been laid, and God blessed those plans because it was about “his” church.
Bless and Move on
Leaders lead best in transition by giving God’s blessing and moving forward.
We’ve all heard about ugly divorces and stories of court battles, screaming and hollering, tears and hurt feelings. Unfortunately, some of those are also present when a minister leaves a church.
When I shared what was happening in my life and the decision I had made, the leaders supported my choice, my family, and me. Their response made a tough decision easier and was yet another confirmation of God’s leading.
It is so important for leaders to support and encourage a minister, even when it might mean leadership will have to take on more responsibility. The church sent us off with its blessing and encouragement.
In Philippians 1:9 and 10, Paul again adds perspective for us, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” Paul’s prayer should be the one a minister prays for the church and leaders when he is leaving. Paul’s prayer needs to be the prayer the leaders pray for the minister. It is God’s timeline, and the minister and leaders should both be advancing to the ultimate goal: “Discern what is best . . . be pure and blameless until the day of Christ” (NIV, 1984).
It has been about two years since that transition took place. As I look back on it, I better realize that God does direct and guide. Just as I have faced new challenges and experienced new blessings, so has the church I left and the one I now serve. In both places new relationships have been built, new leaders have been developed, and new horizons are being explored. Timeless principles of God’s Word teach us timeless lessons: (1) be “partners” in the gospel; (2) have vision for the kingdom, and not just “my church”; and (3) give God’s blessing and move forward.
Jeff Chitwood ministered with South Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois, for 28 years, 13 as youth minister and 15 as senior minister. During that time, the church grew from 500 to 700 in attendance. In 2010, he followed God’s call to Anchor Christian Church in Bonita Springs, Florida. Since then, Anchor has begun to experience growth, added a new worship service, expanded the Bible school, and become involved in community outreach.