By Mark A. Taylor
New parents sometimes feel trapped. Infants need constant attention, and Mom and Dad may grieve the diminished freedom, increased expenses, and unending on-call status that come with this new addition to their family.
But after only 18 years or so, that son or daughter, now looking ahead at a life of independence, leaves home. He gets a job, and she establishes a household of her own. And some parents discover a new reason to grieve: without that child who was once such a challenge, now the house seems empty and lonely.
Whether pressed by our current situation or nostalgic for a time now ending, we do well to remember a simple fact: Life consists of chapters, each building on the one just finished. Each chapter presents opportunities and challenges of its own. The person learning submission to God embraces the joys and faces the difficulties of every new chapter without wasting time to yearn for what has passed or what is yet to come. But not everyone learns to live with such grace.
This metaphor applies to ministry in particular as well as life in general. Things change in a growing church. The structures, org charts, procedures, and tactics for ministry in a church of 500 may not move that church to reach 1,000. We’ve read about this; we know it’s true, but we may not want to face the changes that must happen if growth is to happen.
This is because these transitions involve people, and usually these are people we value and love.
Tim Harlow examined this when he wrote “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” He spoke of committed leaders years ago who made difficult decisions that moved his congregation forward. But none of those elders is serving today. Some relocated. Some have chosen other areas of service. Today’s tough decisions must be handled by a new crop of leaders.
He described the painful process of saying good-bye to church members not happy with the congregation’s direction or staff members whose skills didn’t match new needs. If the church had insisted on trying to please everyone, it never would have grown.
And dealing with our own personal transitions may be even more difficult. Kent Fillinger’s research for CHRISTIAN STANDARD shows that churches averaging 1,000 or more and led by ministers aged 40-44 grew significantly more than those led by ministers 60 or older. In fact, emerging megachurches (worship attendance 1,000–1,999) with older ministers declined in worship attendance by an average of more than 2 percent in 2016.
Does this mean all ministers over 60 should quit? Certainly not. But leaders of any age must determine when it’s time to close one chapter and open another one. This may mean adopting new strategies, questioning old approaches, searching for new opportunities, constantly prodding oneself and one’s team to find a better way.
And, if the current situation has become comfortable enough that the leader no longer leads with the urgency and vigor that characterized his younger years, he must recognize that a new chapter has already begun. And he must ask what will change to allow this new chapter in the church’s life to accomplish as much for God as the story already written.