The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Advice on moving on

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Should a pastor ever answer a call to move to another church? Within our Reformed Baptist churches in Zambia, there are only two of us older pastors who have not moved churches yet. If any of the others wrote such a blog post I am sure some readers in our church circles would think it is self-justification. Since the other older pastor does not have a blog, it just hit me this morning that I am best placed to clear the air on this subject—at least for the Zambian Reformed Baptist constituency.

So saying, Conrad Mbewe writes another Letter from Kabwata about the hows and whys of pastoral moves. While some of it is evidently coloured by local concerns, there is a much wisdom and straight talking here.

UPDATE: A friend graciously contacted me off-blog to query the apparent blanket endorsement that I had given to the post above, and prompted a more thoughtful comment.

First of all, I do appreciate particular elements of Conrad’s post. Having had to work through issues relating to calls to other congregations, this is no theoretical matter to me, and I was grateful for Conrad’s robust response to some of the more unhelpful opinions bandied around at such times. For example, I can find no justification in Scripture for the notion of the pastor-church relationship as in any way analogous to a marriage (even taking into account the fact that the Great Shepherd of the sheep is also the Bridegroom to his bride; I do not think that the second illustration transfers to the under-shepherd of a local church), and to use that analogy insinuates a degree of unfaithfulness and betrayal on the part of the pastor in question and ‘the other woman [church].’ It is not a matter of a permanent and indissoluble bond, though that is not for one moment to undermine its durability or dismiss its significance.

Furthermore, I appreciate Conrad’s discussion of that sense of “inward disturbance” – a concatenation of outward and inward prompts suggesting that the ultimate Overseer of the church may be shaking you loose from one place with a view to moving you to another – and the need to consider it carefully, taking counsel from trusted friends. I do think that when a soldier receives a posting order from his commanding officer, he is to obey it.

I also believe that the matter of a righteous investment of a particular man’s gifts and graces is a central concern. We only have so many (so few!) talents to invest for our Master, and it would be a sin, perhaps arising from a false humility or a lazy cowardice, to turn one’s back upon the opportunity for that investment. A man should invest all he has wherever he is, and if his gifts end up making room for him elsewhere, then that must be taken into account in considering the time and place of his investments.

In addition, I do think that there are occasions on which the financial care of the pastor and his family may be taken into account. Of course, it is possible for this to take place on an entirely carnal level, and I am far from persuaded that mere financial reward should ever drive a man’s consideration. However, when a church is neglectful of a man – the 1689 Confession states that “it is incumbent on the Churches to whom they Minister, not only to give them all due respect, but also to communicate to them of all their good things according to their ability, so as they may have a comfortable supply, without being themselves entangled in Secular Affairs; and may also be capable of exercising Hospitality toward others; and this is required by the Law of Nature, and by the Express order of our Lord Jesus, who hath ordained that they that preach the Gospel, should live of the Gospel” – then it may be part of his consideration of how he is to fulfil the mandate he has to “provide for his own,” though financial hardships may be part of the price paid for faithfulness in his charge, either because of non-culpable inability on the part of those whom he serves or sinful culpability by opponents of the gospel who use poverty as a weapon against a faithful man.

I was also intrigued by Conrad’s treatment of the potential breaking either of a man or of a church (or a mutually assured destruction) when a man’s usefulness in a certain place comes to an end. While he suggests that this may be because of stubbornness and resistance to the truth on the part of the church, it might also be because of a change of conviction on the part of the pastor that prevents him from continuing with integrity (for example, a man pastoring a baptistic congregation who comes to paedobaptistic convictions, or vice versa, without the congregation shifting with him with sincerity and without browbeating), or indeed a decline of capacity (many men have built up a church gradually, and then gradually dismantled it as their gifts for public ministry decline, with no-one who loves them enough to point out that the time has come to reconsider their position, or perhaps with not the humility to accept it). I agree that a faithful man must consider whether or not he is still able to be of any use, or whether a consistent fruitlessness because of an unwillingness to heed the Word of God may be the occasion on which he shakes the dust from his feet and moves on.

With all that said, I am compelled not to go along with every aspect of my older and wiser brother’s assessment. I wonder if Conrad’s view of the pastorate as opposed to eldership may be informing his view somewhat here, as well as a genuine failure to recognise that his particular gifts have given him a wider ministry than others might and should have. Conrad’s view of the pastor seems to be that he is first and foremost a servant “in the universal church,” a calling that cannot be limited to a local congregation: “it is important to see your pastor as, first of all, God’s servant to the wider church.” All a local church does is to provide a platform upon which his particular gifts are recognised and operate.

It is in this respect that I must part company with Conrad to a degree. It seems to me that, Biblically speaking, the local church is the very sphere in which pastoral gifts (whether those of a preacher or of an elder who teaches and shepherds without having a vocational ministry) are assessed and validated. Not least, there is a danger that a man recognised in one sphere might become a sort of roaming pastor or preacher-at-large without any ties or accountability to the church of Christ. How can you have a shepherd without sheep? A man is made a pastor and preacher by Christ and recognised as such by and within a local church (whether they then use his gifts primarily within that congregation or recognise that his gifts require some sort of expression without that immediate local body). There does not seem to be sufficient weight given to the local church in Conrad’s model. I am not suggesting that the pastor’s convictions must always and only be governed by the corporate opinion or depth of feeling, but – in addition to knowing the mind of Christ and the convictions of the man – there are also the attitudes and actions of the two congregations involved which must be taken into account.

My attention was helpfully drawn back to the experience of Benjamin Beddome, pastor of Bourton-on-the-Water Baptist Church in the mid eighteenth century. Having considered an appeal to him to quit his church and take the pastorate of another he refused. Robert Oliver records, “Beddome’s final refusal is interesting. . . . He appealed to the writings of the great Puritan John Owen, who declared that ‘such removals only are lawful, which are with the free consent of the churches concerned, and with the advice of other churches or their elders with whom they walk in communion.’ Beddome added: ‘if the prospect of greater usefulness is in itself a sufficient plea for the removal which you press, then it would be impossible for churches of a lower rank ever to be secure of the continuance of their pastors.’”

Beddome consequently wrote to the seeking congregation saying: “If my people would have consented to my removal (though I should have had to sacrifice much on account of the great affection I bear them) yet I should have made no scruple of accepting your call. But, as they absolutely refuse it, the will of the Lord be done. I am determined that I will not violently rend myself from them, for I would much rather honour God in a much lower station in which he hath placed me, than intrude myself into a higher without his direction” (History of the English Calvinistic Baptists, 26-27, see also 41, 47-48).

In all honesty, I cannot find that this is, in itself, a Scriptural absolute. As I have searched the Scriptures myself, it seems to me that there is a definite moving and directing of the Holy Spirit as the Head of the church manages his Father’s holy household in all its particulars. There is also a degree of consensus that often develops within and across the parties interested, but there is also a great deal of scope given for wisdom given from above to be exercised by all those involved. In short, I do not think it is ever an easy decision, but I hope that – where the Lord is genuinely at work – there will not only be a growing conviction on the part of the individual man that this is the will of God for him, but that divine direction will be received and acted upon by the churches involved, even though one might (hopefully, should) do so with great sadness and some resignation, and the other will do so with joy and relief and expectation.

So, all that to say, thank you, Conrad, for a stimulating post, but I hope you do not mind a little push back from a little brother. And thank you to my other friend who prompted me to make all this more explicit. Another helpful perspective might be gained by reading through David Murray’s post on “Why I left my congregation,” which includes a pointer to a book which I hope to read before too long: Handle That New Call With Care by David Campbell (DayOne).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 30 December 2011 at 21:47

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