Pastor's Pastor

Pastor's Pastor: Unfinished business

Pastor's Pastor: Unfinished business

Grappling with the pain and reality of unfinished business in ministry.

James A. Cress is secretary of the Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

When  I heard that 1993 had been designated the Year of the Pastor, my initial reaction ran along the lines of wondering if this was some new method to extract more work from the most overextended group of professionals that I know anywhere. Actually, I was too busy to give it more than cursory notice as I got on with unfinished business.

As pastor of a large metropolitan congregation, wondering if I could make it through the weekend, the idea of a whole year devoted to celebrating my hectic schedule and demanding vocation seemed incongruous. My reactions ranged from "I'm glad somebody noticed that pastors are still out there" to skepticism regarding the motives of those who had dreamed up this scheme.

Now that my assignment has changed, I will lend all my energies to see that pastors are affirmed and strengthened, not just during the Year of the Pastor, but every year. Likewise, I begin the Year of the Pastor recognizing that as I leave my congregation, I leave unfinished business. This is not easy for me.

Several years ago, after a decade as a ministerial secretary, Sharon (my wife and partner in ministry) and I determined that common sense and credibility demanded that we return to pastoring and demonstrate that what we had been teaching and advocating would work in the crucible of church life.

As far as we were concerned, our return to pastoring was permanent and our plans were long-range for our congregation. In fact, if they had been other wise, we would quickly have become discouraged, as "Job's friends" united to declare that our career was over and that we could have done nothing more catastrophic to ourselves than to exchange the security of a union position for a pastor ate.

Nevertheless, despite our assurances of satisfaction with our church and re minders to our colleagues that pastoral ministry was what I had trained for and loved, the question was implied Why would anyone wish to pastor if he or she could do something (anything) else? And frankly, there will be those who now say "We told you so" when they discover that we have accepted this assignment--our new global congregation--to serve pas tors and their families.

My response is simple. I know where my next assignment could be--once again pastoring a congregation. And that would not be a disgrace! Rather, pastoring is a privilege of grace!

My recent pastoral experience has provided something I missed in itinerate evangelism and departmental work--the opportunity to see longer-term progress in the lives of individuals. What a privilege to work with a family as they build themselves back from the brink of divorce. What fulfillment to see individuals struggle with the conflicting demands of society and salvation and end up making the choice for Jesus. What a joy to see an inactive or former member return to fellowship and hand the treasurer his first offering to "finish the work."

In fact, I am convinced that church administration anywhere would take on a whole new flavor if it was bathed in the reality of those who were fresh from the field, while those who had served long and well were recirculated through congregations. What a blessing their talents would be to those churches, and what a perspective they would bring with them when returning to administrative duties. The Holy Spirit might surprise us as to how well business could be handled in the interim.

Which brings me back to unfinished business. I face lots of that these days. All my theories about how well a predecessor should leave the facts and files for the incoming pastor are being challenged by the realities of releasing the routine business of my church, coping with guilt feelings because my members--who are themselves grieving the loss of their pas tor--cannot get the time they want with me right now, and attempting to grasp the scope of new responsibilities. All the while we are faced with the mundane duties of selling a house, packing and moving, and answering just one more phone call.

So instead of every file being well documented and carefully written for the next pastor, I resort--while I drive--to recording cassette tapes that may be listened to or ignored by the pastor who will replace me. And the realization that some one will indeed take my place is also part of the pain of unfinished business. The next pastor should and will replace me in the lives and affections of my members, and that pastor has the right to be disinterested in what I would prioritize and may choose even to discard the labor of love I am crowding onto those tapes. Further more, despite my care in recording these personal perspectives, I must grapple with the fact that my own plans, projects, and dreams for my church now become unfinished business.

Then in the midst of praying for my church family, even as I struggle with the pain of abandoning them, God provides me one more gift of grace--the needed reminder that none of us are indispensable, that the work will go on, that my congregation will flourish, and that His abundant grace will be sufficient despite unfinished business.

The Holy Spirit reminds me that in embryonic Christianity, Jesus could have done the work of ministry much more effectively than the 11 apostles and few dozen disciples He entrusted with the establishment of His church. Jesus left unfinished business at His ascension. He risked the future of the whole church on just those few. He prayed for them. He agonized over them. But He still left them.

Perhaps our Lord knew something about unfinished business. Perhaps He knew that the best way to accomplish His priorities was to release the gifts of the Spirit to those whom He left and concentrate on empowerment for the long-range objective.

So as I leave unfinished business in Georgia, please pray with me for the long-range goal. Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus!

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James A. Cress is secretary of the Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

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