Transition Questions and Answers from Pastor John for Bethlehem
How do you feel about Jason’s candidacy?
I am overjoyed. Both at the process and the person. As I heard the results emerging from the various meetings, there were times when I wept for joy. I thought, “God was actually doing this. God is loving Bethlehem. God is giving unity. God is anointing Jason. His hand is on him for this. This is no mere human process. God has been at work in this for over twelve years. (Yes, and in eternity!)”
I will not duplicate here the long list of gifts and graces and competencies that suit Jason for the position. You can read those at the links in the Bethlehem Updates Blog. But a calling to the ministry is not simply equivalent to a sum of competencies. What I have been praying for the elders to have is not mainly the savvy to spot competencies (as important as that is), but, more importantly, the Holy-Spirit-given discernment to perceive the hand of God on Jason’s life for this specific calling. Spiritual discernment is more than gift assessment or competency calculation. Just as the calling is spiritual, the discernment of it is spiritual. That is why I wept for joy.
In my initial conversation with Jason on November 10, 2011, to ask if he were open to being considered, there was an astonishing sense of his readiness for this. It was beyond what I had expected. From that moment on, the sense of his calling has grown.
I joyfully and expectantly commend him to you with all my heart. Not only because of a long list of gifts and graces and competencies, but also because I believe God has chosen him and anointed him for this role. May the Lord confirm this with a hope-filled, happy, unified vote of the Bethlehem family.
What was your role in choosing and testing Jason Meyer?
I was involved in the process until we had narrowed the field to two candidates. At that point, I stepped away. I was not part of the meeting or the vote to narrow the field to one candidate. From that point on, I withdrew from all interviews and discussions and votes.
The main reason is simple: Part of discerning Jason’s convictions, competencies, styles, attitudes, habits, plans, and more, is to ask him how his would be different from those of John Piper. That kind of questioning calls for my absence. Another reason for not being part of the vetting process was that my voice carries significant sway, and in this case, it was better that the emerging unanimity of the elders rise from Jason’s own anointing. It did.
Why are you stepping down from your pastoral role?
- Not because I am weary of preaching. O how I love to herald the greatest truths in the world! I hope to be doing it to the end.
- Not because any staff or elders have urged me to. On the contrary. There has been significant push back over the several years we have been talking about this.
- Not because I love you any less. Or love any less what this church stands for.
- Not because I want to leave the church or leave Minneapolis. I hope to be part of the church and launch my life from this urban home till I need skilled care.
The reason we are moving forward with the succession plan now has to do with a strong conviction that good pastoring is more than preaching. I could still preach. Some have encouraged me to do just that. Just preach. Hand off other leadership responsibilities to others. I do not believe such an arrangement would make Bethlehem a healthy, thriving, mission-driven, aggressively visionary, growing church—which is what she should be!
A disconnect between the pulpit and vision-casting will not work for the good of the church. The pulpit is the main voice of the vision. The vision is hammered out in the grueling labors of countless encounters with staff and elders as biblical truth meets structural, congregational, and cultural reality. These vision-forming, vision-sustaining, vision-finalizing labors require leadership—leadership to keep the vision biblical; leadership to keep the vision energized and joyful and wise and relevant and possible; leadership to keep the vision moving through obstacle after obstacle; and leadership to trumpet that vision winsomely to thousands of members.
That kind of leadership does not happen without one chief among equals leading the way. And that person, in my view, must be the Pastor for Preaching and Vision. The one who heralds the vision and captures the hearts and minds of the people for the vision can only do that if he has paid the price of crafting the vision and winning his fellow leaders for it. He cannot herald a vision with integrity and power that he has been handed on a piece of paper.
With that background, I hope it will make sense to you that the time is right for the succession plan to move forward (with Jason and me overlapping for a season). Until recently, I felt like I could give that kind of leadership to Bethlehem. But now there are at least four factors that cause me to believe that this chapter is almost over. In other words, while I can still preach with joy and strength and fruit, the season of fruitful and effective leadership in structuring this church for maximally effective pastoral care, church-wide discipleship, effective evangelism, strategies for growth, and more, is drawing to a close.
Here are some of the factors that lead me to this conclusion.
1) Most importantly, I am less competent at leading Bethlehem structurally and organizationally than I used to be. For about 30 years, I was usually able to see through the complexities and formulate feasible and exciting plans—always with the help of incredibly devoted and gifted partners in ministry. This is no longer the case. For two reasons: One is that Bethlehem is more complex than it used to be; and the other is that my energies and abilities for this kind of organizational and structural planning are diminished. If I were younger and more focused, I might be able to do what I used to do. But I am not younger or more focused. This is a glorious moment in the history of Bethlehem, and it is not a time for less focus and energy for planning, but for more.
2) There is an ever-increasing pull on my life to be involved in ministry outside Bethlehem. Much of this feels strategic to me for the cause of Christ. While I felt competent and energized to formulate plans for the structures of Bethlehem, this outside pull was secondary. But I sense that this is changing. It seems to me that the Lord is saying: “You have led Bethlehem to this point; it is time to hand off the internal leadership labors to another; I have a few other things yet for you to do.”
3) Writing has always been a calling. But it has been secondary to preaching at Bethlehem and to internal leadership at this church. You have been very generous to me over the years to give me writing leaves. As my years go by I realize that there are writing projects that I think God wants me to finish. This adds to the pull I feel away from the demands of internal leadership at Bethlehem.
4) I want to finish strong. It seems, in view of all this, that it is wise to step down from this role before my weakening leadership competencies jeopardize the amazing potential of this church.
Finally, I have felt confirmed in this by several other factors. One is that Noël agrees that this decision is wise. Her discernment matters a lot to me. Another is that God has given me strong assurance that I am not leaving you without caring for your welfare after I am done. God has, I believe, raised up a shepherd after his own heart for this very season. This is a huge confirmation to me that God’s mercy is holding sway here. He is loving his church well. That is what I long for. I want the work of the last 32 years to be a platform for greater depth of discipleship, and for phenomenal growth. With Jason ready to lead, I believe that is what this transition means.
What will you do?
After the overlap season with Jason, Noël and I and Talitha plan to leave town for a year or so and find a place for writing and reflection. There are several writing projects I want to make headway on. And I want some time and distance before I lock in to any pattern of ministry too quickly. I need to get some perspective and pray and think about the next ten years.
In general I can say that, if God gives me life and health, these years will involve my role as Chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary, and my role as founder and teacher for Desiring God. I love to teach seminary students, and I love to encourage and strengthen the God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated vision of pastors. And I love to write. So some configuration of those loves is what I expect to see.
My life’s calling remains the same: I exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. Pray that I will spend and be spent for this till I can speak and write no more.
What will your relationship to Bethlehem be?
This is delicate. Traditional wisdom is that a long-term pastor needs to make himself scarce lest he undermine the leadership of the new pastor. That’s part of why Noël and I want to leave town for a while.
But with the guidance of the elders and staff, I hope that our membership can remain at Bethlehem and that we can worship here when we are not committed elsewhere. It is not biblical to become a “free agent” accountable to no church. In other words, if, in the next years, I were to move in any direction that would bring reproach on the name of Christ, this is the church I want to discipline me.
I do not expect to have any official role in leadership in the church. Nor do I think this would be wise. My “elder” gifting and call should be expressed, I believe, not through active membership on the Council of Elders, but, at their commission, in the roles of teaching and preaching outlined above. In other words, my place at Bethlehem will be very low profile as Noël and I enjoy worshipping with you and sitting under the anointed ministry of Jason Meyer. If at any time, we or the elders felt this was an unhelpful arrangement, we would do what’s best for the church.
How do you feel?
Overwhelmed with thankfulness for God’s faithfulness for 32 years, and for his provision for the next season under Jason. Sorrowful for my personal and ministerial failures of the last decades. Affectionate for you, the people I have loved and served. Confident that God has greater things in store for you than you can imagine. And for us. For the Christian, the best is always yet to come. Always.