10 Things I Want To Say To My Former Congregations

1. It was very hard to leave you

I get attached to people very quickly, and so the prospect of leaving a congregation of people I love was not something I could easily do. I remember my final service (joint service) at St. Andrew’s (Beeton) on May 26, 2002 as if it were yesterday. I remember blessing each child personally. I remember Fiona Allan’s solo, “Give Me Jesus”. I remember how the tears flowed freely. The same kind of emotion accompanied our departure from St. Giles Kingsway, but in this instance it felt as though our grief and tears began many months before the actual transition. In both cases, we left behind many individuals who were like family to us.

2. Don’t be afraid to fail

When I began as a pastor, at age 25, I was fiercely afraid of failure. I’ve since learned that the greatest ministry risks are often accompanied by the greatest ministry rewards. I’ve seen things that shouldn’t work succeed–because God was in them. We have been conditioned to plan and evaluate using worldly measurements, but often God’s math is different. And, even when an initiative does fail, I have always learned valuable lessons in the process, which made the attempt worthwhile.

3. I’m sorry

I’m reluctant to count all of the mistakes I’ve made in ministry, but one regret in particular stands out among the rest. Those who know me recognize that I hold my convictions firmly. My regret is that I think the manner in which I held, and articulated, some of those convictions offended, and even alienated, some of the church members I was charged with shepherding. I owed them more grace than I demonstrated. For that I am sincerely sorry.

4. Don’t sweat the small stuff

For whatever reason, congregational leadership has a natural drift toward things of secondary importance. “How many pies do we need for the bake sale?”, “What colour do we paint the nursery?”, “Who moved the piano?” are just a few of the common examples that jump out from my experience. The most unusual example of this emerged from a meeting with the president of the congregation’s women’s group, who called to say that we needed to talk about a “huge problem”. Turns out, the “huge problem” was that one of our adherents was drinking too much milk(!) on Sunday morning, which was threatening the congregation’s weekly milk supply. Most of the time the small stuff can be easily resolved without taxing the mission of the church, or the energy of other church members. Don’t major in the minors.

5. Cling to Jesus

If someone were to ask me the key to fruitful ministry, my immediate reply would be, “Cling to Jesus”. Jesus said as much, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). My experience has confirmed this. My proximity to Jesus, and my dependence on Him, is the most important variable for how effectively I lead others as a pastor. Clinging to Jesus isn’t just for pastors, it is vitally necessary for every follower of Christ.

6. Plan ministry for those you haven’t yet reached

My earliest example of this was when I was given a tour of St. Andrew’s, Beeton. I had asked to see the nursery and was led to a room with no toys or books. Instead, the room was full of cabinets and boxes—basically “junk” that no one was quite sure what to do with. I asked why the room was in this condition and the answer I was given was, “We don’t have any babies here.” My reply was, “And we’ll never have any so long as the room remains in this condition.” I give the leaders of St. Andrew’s, Beeton, full marks—they not only cleaned out the room, but went on to renovate and create a larger space for children who had not yet come to us. In business, you sometimes hear people say, “Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.” Similarly, I think congregations should “dress” for the role they want to play, not simply for the role they are already playing.

7. Forgive one another

An unwillingness to forgive another church member can be one of the most damaging things to the health of a local congregation. I have seen this too often. A congregation can be doing many things well–the preaching might be good, the music might be excellent, the Sunday School may be effectively ministering, but if members are at odds with one another it can undo the good being done elsewhere. Jesus never said, “They’ll know you are my disciples if you gather to hear an effective preacher.” He never said, “They’ll know you are my disciples by your music program, and by your children’s program.” No–Jesus said, “all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:35). It is massively important, if someone in the church has offended you, or performed under your expectations, that you forgive them.

8. Resist the status quo

I don’t know what it is that causes congregations to want to keep doing things the same way, forever and ever, amen. In a world, where change is constant and sometimes rapid, there are a plethora of local congregations doing ministry exactly the same way as they did 20, 30, 50 years ago. This is a huge mistake. It has been said that the final words of a dying church are, “We’ve never done it that way before.” I’m not talking about changing the message/the gospel, but I am referring to the delivery of your ministry strategy. Try new things–as Paul put it, “become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1Cor. 9:22).

9. Be generous toward those outside the church

During my first year in Nassau, the focus of the leadership was to improve what we were doing inside our walls. Our growth during that year was marginal. In year 2 and 3, we changed our focus and intentionally invested time, energy, and resources in those outside of our fellowship. Primarily, we invested in the local orphanage for teens, Ranfurly Homes, and in the neighboring community to the south of us, Bain & Grant’s Town. (I’ve written about one of the effects from that investment here.) Our congregation is currently growing far beyond our expectations. It is a counterintuitive, God-thing, that the more we invested outside the church, the more we grew inside the church.

10. I loved you more than you likely realize

I’m not an overly emotional person–at least not in public–and I’m not very adept at conveying to others how I feel about them. For this reason it is important that I take the opportunity within this post to tell you that “I love you”. More than you’ll likely ever realize. It was common for me to go through the church photo directory and to pray for each family, photo by photo. I resonate with Paul’s words to the Philippians, “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:8). Being your pastor was never a job for me–it was my passion and my great delight. Thank you for the privilege of calling me, for a season, to be your pastor.

A Time To Be Silent

If you have visited this blog in the last year, you would have immediately noticed that I haven’t been posting anything new. My posts went from less frequent in 2011, to intermittent in 2012, to scarce in 2013. In light of the myriad of posts I made between 2008 and 2010, I wrestled with what was behind my reduced passion for posting. Do I make a connection between my diligence in posting and my final years as Pastor of St. Giles Kingsway? And given the immense satisfaction I’ve had with ministry in Nassau, why so few posts? I don’t have a comprehensive answer for the change in my posting patterns. The best answer I can give comes from a single verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything…a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecc. 3:7).

For a Pastor who enjoys speaking and writing, I’ve sensed a call in recent years to listen more than I speak, and to read more than I write. Perhaps this is for a season, or perhaps it is a part of God’s transformative plan for me. Time will tell.

Recently, I have felt my passion for writing return, and I’m glad about that. For example, in my sermon prep, instead of labouring to add to my “word count” to make my sermon long enough, I’ve been having to spend considerable time reducing my word count so as to not unduly lengthen Sunday worship! I’ve also had something on my heart, which I want to transmit in a post–a message to my former congregations. From Jan. 1998 to June 2002, I was the Pastor of a 2-point charge, St. Andrew’s PC in Beeton, ON and Fraser PC in Tottenham, ON. From June 2002 to June 2010 I was the Pastor of St. Giles Kingsway PC in Toronto, ON. I think about those ministries often. Later today I intend to write a post entitled, “10 Things I Want To Say To My Former Congregations”. After a season of blog silence, I feel as though it might be time to speak again.