Our Eyes Are on You, Lord

Thoughts on Pastoral Succession

Pipeline 2017 Conference | Nashville

I thought it might be helpful to the greatest number of you if I looked with you at the experience of succession at Bethlehem Baptist Church through three different lenses. We’ll call the first lens “The Outcome of God’s Work,” the second we’ll call “The Rule of God’s Word,” and the third we’ll call “The Sovereignty of God’s Sending.” And the banner I want to wave over these three perspectives is “The Sweetness of God’s Blood-Bought Grace.”

The reason I wave the banner of the sweetness of blood-bought grace from the outset is because almost any retelling of a process that has turned out relatively well will give the impression that things were done with less conflict, less sin, less confusion, less uncertainty than is in fact the case.

Blood-Bought Grace

Last Monday, I got out my files on transition and looked at 48 different items covering the final two-and-a-half years of my ministry at Bethlehem. They brought up again all the emotions of frustration and uncertainty and dead-end streets and personal conflict and relational stress. And they brought tears of joy to my eyes as I saw the hand of God mercifully, graciously, tenderly weaving the completed fabric of 33 years of pastoral ministry.

So please know that as I tell the story, wherever it sounds too simple, too easy, too free of controversy and conflict — you’re probably right. When all is said and done, we owe every good in our lives to the blood-bought grace of God.

And I do not use the phrase blood-bought lightly. It comes from my favorite verse in the Bible, namely Romans 8:32 — which teaches that everything good that comes into our lives as children of God is bought at the cost of the blood of Jesus: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” The logic of that verse is the most beautiful logic in the universe.

Since God did not spare his Son, but gave him up to torture and death for the sake of all who believe, therefore he will most infallibly and invincibly give us absolutely everything we need in order to get us to heaven and glorify his name. Which, as Paul says three verses later, is a promise that will take us through tribulation, and distress, and persecution, and famine, and nakedness, and danger, and sword. Because it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (Romans 8:35–36).

So, if anything good happened at Bethlehem Baptist Church in the process of succession, or if anything painful happened that God worked for good, it was undeserved by anyone at that church — especially me — and was bought for the bride by the death of the Groom. That’s the flag that flies over these three perspectives:

  1. The Outcome of God’s Work
  2. The Rule of God’s Word
  3. The Sovereignty of God’s Sending

The Outcome of God’s Work

Through this lens, we are looking mainly at the effects of God’s work. What are the facts? What actually happened? My first day on the payroll of Bethlehem Baptist Church was July 1, 1980. The last day on the payroll was March 31, 2013. Just short of 33 years. I was the fourteenth pastor in the 148-year history of the church in downtown Minneapolis. I was 34 years old when I came, and 67 when I left. It was the only church I ever pastored.

“Strong and healthy transitions grow in a certain kind of soil.”

On November 30, 2010, I met with Al Mohler, Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney, and Ligon Duncan from 9am to 4pm in a hotel room in downtown Minneapolis. They had come together partly to do some planning for Together for the Gospel (T4G), but asked to spend the day with me, precisely to interact about succession plans at Bethlehem. Their insights and encouragements marked the beginning of my serious efforts to put a succession plan in place. Never underestimate the value of friends in the ministry and what their counsel can mean for you. God speaks infallibly only in the Bible. But he speaks truly through Spirit-filled friends.

At my encouragement, the Council of Elders appointed a succession sub-committee as the nerve center for all our thinking and planning. I read Bob Russell’s book on Transitions. I called Elmbroook Church in Milwaukee and talked with Scott Arbeiter about the transition from Stuart Briscoe.

The Antioch Moment

On April 5, 2011, I introduced the elders to what we thought we should call our “Antioch moment,” based on Acts 13 where a major leadership transition was about to happen while they were fasting and praying. Paul and Barnabas were set apart by the Holy Spirit for a new work of missionary activity. I called them to six weeks of concerted prayer. The next Sunday, I preached on the Antioch moment and said that part of that moment was leadership transition. Nothing would happen soon. We did not know what the process would be. I intended to be at the church as long as it took to see the church strong in new leadership. I called them to join the elders in six weeks of focused prayer for guidance. That was April, 2011.

The more I talked with my wife and the staff and the elders, the more it seemed wise that the process should move quickly rather than slowly. The elders appointed a search committee of pastoral staff members and lay elders. I would serve on that committee until there were two finalist candidates and then I would step away for the final decision. This gave me significant influence over the process and criteria and final candidates, but removed me from the final conversations so that there would be complete freedom of interaction when everyone knew that there would be discussions of how candidates would be different from Piper and perhaps bring needed strengths where he was weak.

In-House First

The decision was made to look first within Bethlehem’s orbit for candidates. This was owing to the strong and happy consensus that the theology and priorities and philosophy of ministry at the church were a precious reality and should be preserved by a leader who shared this same vision of God — the same Reformed, Christian Hedonist theology, and the same vision for worship and ministry. All these assumptions were open and above board. There were no hidden agendas.

Stunningly, that process of looking in-house first resulted in two strong candidates, both of whom were open to being considered. At that point, I stepped out of the interviewing process, and the committee narrowed the candidates to one: Jason Meyer, professor of New Testament at Bethlehem College & Seminary. Jason had come to Bethlehem in 1998 and spent two years in our institute, before it had become a seminary. Then he went to finish his M.Div. and Ph.D. at Southern Seminary, pastored in Louisiana, and taught college there before we called him back to be a professor.

Now the question became, How do you move from a candidate to the approval by the staff of about 25 pastors, approval by 40 elders, and approval by the church (of about 3,000 voting members)? How do you do that in such a way that everyone feels like they had ample time to consider the candidate and ask their questions and express their concerns?

The Approval Process

In January 2012, the succession committee proposed to the elders a two-step plan of approval by the congregation. Assuming that the staff and elders give their joyful and united thumbs-up to Jason — which they did after lengthy meetings with him and his wife, Cara — the congregation will be given three opportunities to query the candidate before the first vote. He will preach on each campus followed by an open time for Q&A. Anyone from any campus may attend any or all of those.

After those meetings, plus other settings where the people could ask the elders questions, the vote on Jason would occur in two stages. One to install him provisionally as Associate Pastor for Preaching and Vision while I remained Pastor for Preaching and Vision. This role would last from August 1, 2012 until January 1, 2013. A second and final vote would take place December 16 for his permanent role as Pastor for Preaching and Vision.

The first vote happened on May 20, 2012 and the vote was 784 Yes, 8 No on a closed ballot — simply stunning to everyone. He began his ministry as my associate August 1 and did at least half the preaching until the end of the year. It certainly wasn’t the easiest time for Jason, but it was very important for the people after a 33-year pastorate. On December 16, the people voted 546 Yes, 18 No, 5 Abstain. On January 1, 2013, Jason took my title and I took his. He was the Lead Pastor and I was the Associate Pastor until March 31 — my last day.

Stepping Away for a While

Noël and I spent the next year in Tennessee to be completely absent while Jason settled into his new role. We returned a year later and have been attending Bethlehem as members, working full-time for Desiring God, and teaching part-time for Bethlehem College & Seminary. The elders and I agreed to a “Pastor Emeritus Covenant,” establishing the parameters of what I may and may not do at the church, and what the people should not expect of me. This was voted on by the church and is reviewed annually.

From my vantage point in the pew, the church is flourishing. A year ago, we launched a ten-year vision to plant 25 new churches, engage 25 new unengaged people groups, fund and build a building for our South Campus, and strengthen the core ministries of the church. I am thrilled by what I see. And worshiping with the people each Sunday is still the highlight of my week — as it always was.

Those are the basic facts of the transition — the outcome of God’s work in our church. Every step of the way was guided by his hand, forged in the fires of disagreement (usually friendly), tainted by sinful attitudes (including my own), and mercifully blood-bought for our good.

The Rule of God’s Word

Strong and healthy transitions like this grow in a certain kind of soil. I know that good transitions have happened in many different kinds of churches, with lots of different philosophies and cultures and theologies, but I want to describe the soil in which this transition grew so that you can consider whether you think they are important or not. There are four important ingredients of the soil in which this transition grew — all of them expressions of the rule of God’s word in the life of our church.

1. God’s word led us to establish a plurality of elders at the church.

When I came to Bethlehem, there were no officers called elders. There were 24 deacons and one pastor who was an ex-officio member of the deacons. There were 11 standing committees created by annual elections that required competitive ballots. This was a prescription for a weak, unspiritual, and divided church because there were not that many spiritually qualified people in the church to put on all those ballots.

“I tried to model absolute honesty and candor and forthrightness and vulnerability before the people.”

My approach to change was to lead the nominating committee year after year in studying the Bible on what spiritual qualifications for leadership are. I showed the deacons year after year that there are two lists of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3, not just one: elders and deacons. We saw that every church whose leadership is described in the New Testament has multiple elders. I showed them historically that all the Baptist documents earlier than one hundred years ago prescribed elders and deacons for churches. This is not Presbyterian. It is biblical. Meanwhile, from the pulpit I am simply modeling what it means to find meaning in Scripture and bring our lives under its beauty and joy and authority.

At the end of ten years, the deacons were all persuaded, the people were mostly persuaded, and we voted on a new constitution with a council of elders as the teaching and governing body of the church, of which I was one voting member with no more official authority than any other elder. This structure has served the church with great effectiveness for over 25 years now. And this was the leadership structure that was clear and strong to guide the transition process when the time came.

2. God’s word led us to formulate a higher doctrinal standard for the elders than for the newest member of the church.

This took another ten years before we actually put it to a vote by the people. When I came to the church the “Member Statement of Faith” was all there was. It was the denominational statement of faith. I would call it a very broad and imprecise affirmation. There was no higher standard for the eldership. They did not have to have any more clarity or unity than the most immature member who could sign this statement.

I think the New Testament assumes that new converts to Christ will know very little about what the Bible teaches. And you don’t have to become a theologian to be born again and be grafted into the body of Christ. And if Christ has accepted us, it seems to me that the local church should also.

But the New Testament also teaches that the elders — that is, the teachers and pastors of the church — must have a higher standard of doctrinal knowledge and biblical competency. First Timothy 3:2 says that elders must be “able to teach.” Titus 1:9 fleshes that out like this: “He [an overseer] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”

Therefore, there should be a huge difference between what is expected of the elders and what is expected of new members in the church when it comes to knowing the whole counsel of God, believing it, and being able to handle the word so as to effectively apply it to people’s lives.

You may wonder, “Well if you think it’s that important, why did you wait twenty years to create an “Elder Affirmation of Faith”? Here’s the catch in a congregationally governed church: if you aim to bring about a council of elders who are deeply united in what the Puritans called the “doctrines of grace,” and in a biblical, complementarian view of manhood and womanhood, and in their belief that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, then you also have to persuade at least two-thirds of the people that that’s a good idea, because they have to vote for the constitutional change that makes that Elder Affirmation of Faith mandatory for all future elders. That’s what took twenty years of preaching and teaching.

And that’s the kind of united eldership and people who were ready to say, “When John Piper is finished, we do not want a sea-change in theology. We love the sovereign God we see in the Bible, we love his sovereign grace in salvation, we love that spiritual, Christlike men lead our church, and we love the truth that the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever.”

3. God’s word led us to nurture a culture of honesty and candor and vulnerability.

Here’s the apostolic pattern that inspired us (2 Corinthians 4:2): “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”

I tried to model absolute honesty and candor and forthrightness and vulnerability before the people, in the pulpit, at the elder meetings, and in the all-church strategy meetings. No fog, no spin, no evasion, no fudging, no double-talk, no half-truths, no distortions. Truth, truth, truth. And if we don’t know, we say we don’t know. We don’t blather on trying to conceal our ignorance or error. That’s what I mean by vulnerability.

If you succeed over the years in cultivating this culture among your leaders, the people will trust you. They won’t put you above the Bible or above criticism, but their feeling toward you will be: “Our leaders tell us the truth.” This is good soil for growing a strong and happy transition.

4. God’s word led us to nurture a culture of writing papers to make our cases before the elders and the people.

Papers that state the proposal, give an explanation why it’s needed, offer some history to put it in context, show implications for staff and budget, and most importantly give the best biblical arguments for why this would be wise for us to pursue.

At first, this may seem heavy-handed to elders who are not used to it. But here’s the reality: when proposals and explanations and rationales are written down, the writer is accountable. Everyone can hold his feet to the fire and say, “This is what you said, and this is the explanation you gave, and these are the reasons you offered, and we are now showing you that they are wrong or inadequate.” But without written proposals and rationales, people’s memories do strange things with what happened at the last meeting.

“Clarity and accountability and biblical debate is a crucial ingredient to the soil where a strong and happy transition could grow.”

A writing culture of persuasion on the eldership is an accountable culture — open and honest and subject to criticism. And, of course, the person bringing the proposal never asked the elders to act in the same meeting where the paper is presented. Everyone gets time to do their research, to study their Bible, to talk things over. And then the debate continues at the next meeting. And there’s no ambiguity. There’s no spin. There’s no re-creation of a situation that didn’t exist. Everything is clear. Everything is defined. All the arguments are on the table. You win or lose on the merit of biblical faithfulness. Paper trails of good explanations and arguments are marks of vulnerability and honesty. You can’t pull anything over on anybody if you put your thoughts on paper and give them time to study.

This kind of clarity and accountability and biblical debate is a crucial ingredient to the soil where a strong and happy transition could grow.

The Sovereignty of God’s Sending

You try to live and minister as biblically as you can — resting in the gospel, walking by the Spirit, trusting the promises of God, obeying the commandments of Jesus. And in the end, you believe, or you don’t believe, that through all the human activity of transition, God is actually the decisive actor in removing John Piper and setting Jason Meyer as Lead Pastor for Preaching and Vision. That’s what I believed. And that’s what I repeatedly held before the elders.

Here are the amazing texts to support this confidence taken from a devotion I gave the elders to sustain us in the process:

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made [etheto] you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28)

I believe the Holy Spirit “put or placed or set” me as an overseer of Bethlehem in 1980 and “put or placed or set” Jason Meyer as an overseer of Bethlehem in 2013.

He [Christ] gave [edōken] the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds [or pastors] and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11–12)

I believe the risen Christ “gave” me as an overseer to Bethlehem in 1980 and “gave” Jason Meyer as an overseer to Bethlehem in 2013.

Then he [Jesus] said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out [ekbalē] laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37–38)

I believe the Lord of the harvest “threw” me out of teaching to be a laborer at Bethlehem in 1980 and “threw” Jason Meyer out of teaching to be a laborer at Bethlehem in 2013.

How are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent [apostalōsin]? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:14–15)

I believe God “sent” me to preach at Bethlehem in 1980 and “sent” Jason Meyer to preach at Bethlehem in 2013.

“Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over [katastēsei] his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time?” (Luke 12:42)

I believe God, the Master of the house, “set or appointed” me to feed his house at Bethlehem in 1980 and “set or appointed” Jason Meyer to feed his house at Bethlehem in 2013.

Say to Archippus, “See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received [parelabes] in the Lord.” (Colossians 4:17)

I believe I “received” from the Lord my ministry at Bethlehem in 1980 and Jason Meyer “received” from the Lord his ministry at Bethlehem in 2013.

That was the confidence that sustained us in our human doing — that our doing was not decisive. It was right and biblical and necessary, but it was not decisive. Decisive was that

  • God places overseers.
  • Christ gives pastors.
  • The Lord of the harvest throws laborers.
  • God sends preachers.
  • The divine householder appoints stewards.
  • And from his sovereign hand we receive ministry.

This brings us back to the call for six weeks of focused and extraordinary prayer in the spring of 2011, when we first faced our Antioch moment. We took heart from Jehoshaphat when he prayed to the Lord, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12).

This is a good place for us to end — where I ended my sermon on April 9, 2011:

When God-centered leaders don’t know what they should do, because it’s not revealed in the Scriptures, they know what to do about not knowing what to do, because that is revealed in the Scriptures: namely, pray.

Because the outcome is God’s work, the rule is God’s word, the sending is under God’s sovereignty, and all our shortcomings are covered with the sweetness of God’s blood-bought grace.