Beginning today and for a month of Sundays I will preach a series of sermons which I am calling “Lessons from the Sinai for a Church in Transition.”
You as a church are in transition between installed pastors. David Bailey, your pastor of twenty-three years has retired, and it is not yet clear who your next pastor will be. For lack of any name at all, let’s just call that future pastor “Not David Bailey.” There is only one David Bailey in the world, and so I am confident in saying that whoever your Pastor Nominating Committee calls is going to be someone other than David Bailey.
Sometimes a search committee will ask me to explain what an interim pastor does, and I often explain one aspect of being an interim pastor by using the analogy of a winetasting. When you go to a winetasting, you sample a number of wines from different bottle lined up on the bar, and the winery gives you something to eat in between each wine, bread, cheese or a cracker. The idea is that you need to cleanse the palette from the last wine in order to properly appreciate the next wine, which is very different from the one you just had.
In David Bailey you enjoyed a fine wine of a pastor. My sense is that your next pastor is going to be another fine wine, but a very different sort of fine wine from David. Some of my work among you as an interim pastor is not to erase your pleasant memories of David, which I hope will stay with you to the end of your life, but to work on your tastebuds, cleansing your palette, and get your tastebuds ready to receive and taste that new pastor, who will be a new but very different fine wine from David Bailey.
As an interim pastor I find that churches in transition are reassured to find out that they are by no means alone in going through transition. Every church goes through transition sooner or later.
The exciting thing to me is that when you read the Bible you find all kinds of individuals and groups who have gone through transitions ahead of us and they have left behind Bible stories about their transitions that help us navigate our own.
My favorite transition stories are from the nation of Israel when they went through their own transition in the Sinai wilderness. Their time in the Sinai was really their in-between time between their old slave life in Egypt, which they had left behind, and their future life of abundance in the Promised Land, which had not quite come into view. You find in these stories a rich treasure trove of wisdom for the transition time, both for individuals in transition and churches in transition, and I want to share with you what I regard as some of the more important ones.
Today’s lesson from the Sinai for a church in transition has to do with the unexpected way that God led the Israelites during their transition.
Bible scholars tell us that it would have been possible for Moses to lead 600,000 Israelites from Egypt into the Promised Land in two weeks flat. Our story this morning tells us that God chose instead to take the people to the Promised Land in the longest way possible. When they leave Egypt and cross the Red Sea and go into the Sinai Peninsula instead of going East straight into the Promised Land, they take a hard right south toward Mt. Sinai in the southern peninsula and eventually go northeast from there to the Jordan River, the door into the Promised Land. Shockingly, it is a route that will take them two years to get to the Promised Land instead of two weeks. It’s a route the story describes as “the roundabout way.”
In our own time a roundabout is one of those things we encounter when we are driving. Virginians call it a “roondaboot.” (Those Virginians! They’re such a hoot!) Some call a roundabout “a traffic circle.” City and county planners call it a “traffic calming device.” Two truths about a roundabout: when you enter one, you can’t go fast, you have to slow down, and you can’t go straight, you have to keep turning.
We live in a world where everything has become so fast and efficient. A world of instant gratification. You order something on Amazon Prime these days and its on your porch before you know it.
So living as we do in that world that puts such a premium on speed and efficiency, the question we might bring to our story this morning is “Why in the world would God choose to lead the Israelites during their transition time in the roundabout way, instead of in the fastest, most efficient way?”
The story does provide one answer. God knows that if they try to go too quickly into the Promised Land, they will get into a premature war they are not prepared to fight, and when they are pushed back, they may in fear try to hightail it back to slavery in Egypt and forget all about the Promised Land. So you could say that the short answer for the roundabout way is that they are not yet ready to go into the Promised Land. God knows them so well and knows that they will need extra time and preparation. As their journey through the Sinai goes on, other good reasons for the roundabout way will come into play.
The interim or transition time in a Presbyterian Church, that is, the time between installed pastors, is a lot like the roundabout way. It takes awhile. As an interim pastor I am averaging 18 months with a church a transition. In my experience the average time it takes a church to produce a good mission study is 6 months, and the Pastor Nominating Committee from its inception to calling a new pastor takes an average of 12 months, though in particular churches either one could be shorter or longer.
This time in transition will be OK for some of you, but not for others. Some of you may grow impatient and frustrated. Some of you may feel that the church has already been too long in the wilderness and on the roundabout way, and news that it may be longer may not be welcome news. In my previous work with churches in transition some church members have been fond of pointing out that when the Methodists lose their pastor, a new one is in the pulpit the very next week. Same in the Catholic church. When a Fortune 500 company loses their CEO, a new one is found within a month. So what is it with Presbyterians? they ask. Why do we take so long to get a new pastor?
I would say, first, that when you talk to members of Methodist and Catholic churches, they will tell you that their own system of replacing pastors has produced mixed results, some good pastors, some bad, some in-between. They rely on a District Superintendents or Bishops to decide which pastors or priests go to which churches, and the higher ups don’t always know their congregations as well as they might and they don’t always get the right match, the right pastor or priest for the right church. So I would not say that the Methodist or Catholic system is superior because it’s faster. Nor would I say that the Presbyterian system is better or worse than others, just different.
Next I would say we Presbyterians work out of our own unique history with our own churches, and what we have decided for ourselves, based on our experience, that what is best for our churches is that churches need some space, some distance between their pastors. In some cases, like yours, they need time to grieve the loss of a beloved former pastor, what we interims call the “BFP”, or in other cases churches need time to work through their anger over a pastor they feel betrayed them. No matter who the last pastor was, we Presbyterians believe the church needs time and space and some distance to come to terms with their feelings toward the last pastor, whatever those feelings happen to be. This is especially true for churches, like yours, who have recently had long-term pastors. You have 23 years of history and thoughts and feelings to process.
In our experience as Presbyterians it doesn’t usually work well for a church to try to rush to get another pastor in quickly, just as it doesn’t usually work for us as individuals to get out of one relationship for any reason and jump right into another one quickly, what we often call a rebound relationship, and we all know that rebound relationships don’t usually work out that well. We really need time first to process the old relationship so we can fully embrace, that is, give ourselves completely to, the new relationship. And that, of course, takes time.
Another thing that takes time between installed pastors is helping a church figure out together who they are uniquely as a church apart from the last pastor. A pastor comes and is influential in the life of a congregation, though the reality is that some new things a pastor brings stick in a congregation, and some things don’t. So at the end of a pastorate, a congregation has to ask: what stuck from that pastor and what didn’t? Who are we now? And who are we going forward without our last pastor?
It’s been our experience as Presbyterians that the better a church in transition knows itself, the more likely it will be to call the pastor who will be best for them in that time and place.
Let me tell you a story. Years ago I was home one night watching TV but really not paying much attention, and a new TV commercial suddenly came on that did get my full attention. It was a commercial for a new internet dating/matchmaking site called EHarmony.com. What really got my attention was not the Eharmony service—not interested, I am very happily married, thank you very much, not wanting to date someone other than Molly—no, what got my attention was the Eharmony spokesman. He was a kindly looking older white-haired man named Dr. Neil Clark Warren. His name and face seemed so familiar, and then I suddenly realized he was one of my former seminary professors at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. Unknown to all of us seminary students, Dr Warren, who had advanced degrees in both theology and psychology and was a practicing marriage and family therapist, had been working on this business possibility on the side while he was teaching us at seminary. I was in mild shock seeing all this.
Anyway, because of my seminary connection to Dr. Warren, I went to his website just to find out what he had come up with while he was teaching us. And I learned that if you wanted this matching service and were willing to pay for it, you had to first answer 500 questions about yourself—500!-- and your 500 answers became the basis for matching you up with others who had also answered the 500 questions. My first reaction was, “Boy, Dr. Warren, aren’t you nosy!” But eventually it dawned on me what Dr. Warren’s premise was for his matchmaking business. He believed that the person most likely to find the right life-partner for themselves was the person who knew himself or herself best. The more you know about yourself, the more likely you will be to get into relationship with the appropriate person for you.
Years later, when I took interim pastor training, I suddenly realized that what was true for people who were being matched up with others by Eharmony.com was true for churches as well. The churches who know themselves best are the churches who consistently end up with the appropriate pastor for them in that time and place.
And so as an interim pastor I am all about taking time during the transition period to help a church really know itself, to say clearly who it is and, in some cases, who it isn’t. You have done that through your mission study, and I am supplementing that study with interviews of elders, deacons, staff and members of the congregation. Ultimately a church’s self-knowledge enables a Pastor Nominating Committee to confidently say to a pastoral candidate, “Look, here is who we are as a church. This is what we feel called by God to do in this time and place. Here is where we’re going. If you can help us as a pastor to be who we are and help us do what we feel called to do, and if you can help take us to where we’re going, we are very interested in you becoming our next pastor. If not, maybe another church would be more suitable for you.”
I remember reading Greek history both in college and seminary, and two of the great Greek maxims that came out of the high point of Greek civilization were these: “Everything in moderation” and “Know thyself.”
John Calvin, the great church reformer, and our spiritual forefather as Presbyterians, would not disagree with the advice to know thyself. He began his master work “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” by writing “Nearly all the wisdom we possess consists in two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves”, and he went on to say that each informs the other.
Coming to know God and yourself. You see, that’s the part that takes time and cannot usually be rushed.
An interim pastor colleague once sent me a greeting card in the mail that I have since framed. It pretty much sums up the message that all of us interim pastors are trying to convey to our churches in transition. The card offers six short imperatives: “Slow down. Calm down. Don’t worry. Don’t hurry. Trust God. Trust the process.”
In our speeded-up world, you as a church in transition may wonder if there isn’t a shorter, more efficient, better way of replacing your pastor. Then you enter the strange world of the Bible. We meet there a sometimes strange God, our creator, savior and sustainer, who says in Isaiah 55 “My thoughts are not your thoughts; my ways are not your ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
We meet in the Sinai the God who does not share our enthusiasm for speed, who does not always share our other modern values, and challenges us to exchange our values for his, values that include a preference for the long, slow way of transforming us and our churches into who we were meant to be. Today in our scripture we meet the God who invites us on an epic journey: “Come with me. Let me lead you in the way I once led the Israelites through the Sinai--in the roundabout way.”