What to do when your pastor leaves (or when anything outside your plans happens)

Dear Harbins Family,

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I know Sunday came as a difficult blow to many of you when Pastor Steve announced that the Lord is moving he and Heather into a new phase of life and ministry away from Harbins. There were many tears and broken hearts. That is to be expected. Pastor Steve and Heather have poured their lives into our lives for many years and our hearts have been knitted to theirs. Some may even wonder how can something so painful be from God? Isn’t it best for ministers to stay with their flocks forever?

Sometimes. But not always.

Sometimes God gifts a people with a special servant for a brief season to lay down important teachings and foundations before God moves him on to a new assignment. The departure of the minister makes way for God to raise up new leaders to carry the torch and for the congregation as a whole to build on the foundation that has been laid.

imagesThe Apostle Paul, whom we often regard as someone who was constantly roaming around and on the move, was actually led by God to minister in Ephesus and stay put there for three years. He had an incredible and fruitful ministry there. Yes, there were trials and difficulties along the way, but Paul remained faithful, pouring his life into the Ephesian believers. Paul unabashedly says,

…I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:20-21)

In fact, Paul wasn’t interested in just teaching certain aspects of God’s truth to people, focusing on his “hobby horses” or the “easier” portions of God’s revelation, instead, he says,

I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. (Acts 20:27)

And,

…for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. (Acts 20:31)

Paul gave his all to the Ephesians for three years; he held nothing back. There is no doubt that the Ephesians absolutely loved and cherished having someone as godly, as loving, as kind, as gentle, as the Apostle Paul, minister to and shepherd and guard them. There is no doubt they became deeply attached to Paul and had deep affection for him.

And yet the time eventually came where God directed Paul to leave.images

That’s when the tears and heartbreak came. Indeed we are given a powerfully emotional scene in Acts 20 where the Ephesian elders pray with Paul as they send him out. We are told that,

there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again… (Acts 20:37-38)

It was a painful parting, yet it was all a part of God’s plan.

What do we do now?

The parting of a beloved pastor who has served and ministered to us in so many ways can cause a wide range of emotions: grief, confusion, anger, and even fear.   Often churches are tempted during such times to become anxious for themselves and for their church. We feel as if the ground beneath us is giving way and we long for stability and security. Probably the church at Ephesus felt similar things. So how do we, at Harbins Church, respond to something that is very different from our own personal hopes and desires and plans?

You know the answer. But if you’re like me, it helps to hear someone else encourage us to embrace what we already know.

The way that we weather the storms of life is to take shelter in the only strong, reliable, safe refuge we have, which is a God who knows us, loves us, and is 100% for us and on our side. Are you feeling like the times are unstable?  That you lack the strength and wisdom to move forward?  That the best days are behind you? The Scriptures tell you that,

…he will be the stability of your times, abundance of salvation, wisdom, and knowledge; the fear of the LORD is Zion’s treasure. (Isaiah 33:6)

Are you anxious and weighed down with many cares? The Psalmist tells you to,

Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved. (Psalm 55:22)

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 Do you feel the need for protection? The prophet Nahum reminds you that,

The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him. (Nahum 1:7)

 Do you lack peace? Isaiah reminds us that the real battlefield is not in our circumstances but in our mind and thoughts. He says of God,

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. (Isaiah 26:3)

Do you feel that darkness surrounds you? Did you know that in reality, if you are a child of God, you are actually surrounded by God’s love and faithfulness? The Psalmist says,

He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. (Psalm 91:4)

Have you cried out to God in prayer, pouring out your heart to Him, and laying before Him all of your requests and desires? Even your requests and desires regarding the departure of a pastor you love so much? If so, Jesus has told you how your Father will respond.

Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11)

Jesus promised that your Father would respond to your prayers, and that in exchange for your requests He would give you nothing but good things! God will always give you exactly what you ask for…..or something better!

And here is where we need to trust God when He says,

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

We have our own thoughts and ways. We have our own ideas of how the script of our lives should be written. But because God’s thoughts are higher than ours, and He sees reality more clearly than we do, often He will erase what we write on our scripts and put in something else, something He knows is better, even if we can’t understand it. That’s where faith comes in. That’s where our hope in His faithfulness comes in.  That is where we must join the prophet Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, who saw and endured difficulties that most of us will never face. We must declare in faith, with Jeremiah,

imagesBut this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:21-24)

We hope in God because we know He is good, we know He is faithful, and we know that He knows what He is doing, even when He ordains something to happen that goes against our script and plans.

Hopeful expectations

imagesAs painful as Paul’s departure from Ephesus was, only time would tell the good that God would work through it. The Ephesians, in releasing Paul, unknowingly would participate in the spread of the gospel in unlikely ways to unlikely places. The good news of Jesus Christ would reach the ears of Felix, the Roman governor (Acts 24), to the evil king Agrippa (Acts 26), and even to the very heart of Rome (Acts 28, Phil 4:22). Indeed it is during this post-Ephesian period where Paul experiences an incredibly fruitful period of writing Scripture, including what many say is his greatest theological treatise of all, the mighty book of Romans.

What’s more, after Paul left Ephesus, God would not leave the Ephesian church alone. He had good plans for them. Indeed, Paul’s departure would lead to God raising up others to lead the church in the days ahead, including a timid, inexperienced, but promising  and godly young pastor named Timothy, to whom Paul would entrust some of the most important doctrines of the Church in the epistles of 1 & 2 Timothy. And to this church Paul would write the book of Ephesians, a masterpiece full of the truth about salvation, Christian identity, and spiritual warfare.

Of course, like every church, Ephesus was not without its problems and challenges, but we also know that God empowered this church to remain faithful to sound doctrine and the truth, to be bold in the face of dangerous false teachers, to be faithful during times of persecution and difficulty, not giving up, and to be steadfast in the labor of the Lord’s work.

But during that tearful departure, neither Paul nor the Ephesian church knew the good plans God had for them in this difficult situation.

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God has good plans for Harbins Church too. We don’t know exactly what they are. We just know they are good plans and things we would never dream up on our own. Thank God that He is the author of the script.

So, as we process everything we heard Sunday from Pastor Steve, know that it is appropriate to weep, it is normal to feel pain and heartbreak, and it is good to grieve. But it would not be good if that were all we did. As the People of God, we must also put our hope in God. As ones who know God, we are to, with great expectation and trust, look forward to the good that our Father has in store both for Steve and for us. If the Bible is telling us the truth, then there is no question that what is happening is for the maximum good and benefit for everyone involved and for God’s maximum glory.  Therefore, there is great reason for abundant, joyful hope.

If it seems odd to be sad and hopeful at the same time, remember that the Apostle Paul himself describes the Christian as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” (2 Cor 6:10). There are things that happen (like persecution or painful goodbyes) that remind us that we are not in heaven yet and so we are sorrowful. On the other hand, we know that our good God is actively working even in the most difficult of situations for our good, and therefore we always have cause to rejoice and be thankful.

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For the LORD God is a sun and shield…No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly. O LORD of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you! (Psalm 84:11-12)

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Demer