“Pastoral Transition After a 32-Year Ministry: Strategy and the Supernatural.” I am no expert on transitions. I haven’t even made it through one yet. Beware of copying strategy. If you want to copy a strategy here, it’s fairly simple. If you have a big-name pastor replaced, find a no-name pastor within your own congregation. If it’s a Calvinistic church, then it helps to have someone from a Wesleyan background — just to make it interesting.
It’s been good to think about strategy and the supernatural. I’m going to talk about strategy, supernatural — I’m going to talk about transition. But I’m not really talking about those things. I’m really talking about God. I want you to reflect upon all kinds of strategy, all kinds of God’s supernatural leading in your ministries.
It’s not necessary to pit these two things against each other: strategy and the supernatural. You can, but you would be wrong. It is not strategy or the supernatural. In transitions, as always, we must fundamentally reaffirm our belief in the sovereign, supernatural leading of God and reaffirm our belief that God sovereignly uses human means and strategies to accomplish his sovereign purposes. We can use horses and chariots, but we don’t trust in them. We trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Trusting in God’s Strategy
So that issue of trust becomes central. It becomes the key. We don’t hope in strategy because strategy is not decisive. God is. Therefore, we hope in God. Therefore, the supernatural does not just inform our strategy. In a very real sense, the supernatural is the strategy because we hope in God.
Paul made this point clear in 1 Corinthians 2. He stresses that he did not come to Corinth. He didn’t come with “lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:1). In fact, he strategized to make the supernatural everything. “I resolved to know nothing else among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). This is a supernatural message and I will not do it in a worldly way.
He was with them in weakness and fear and much trembling. You know right here that we’re not talking about humanly devised strategy. He didn’t rely upon public speaking skills. If you were going to take a public speaking class, you’re not going to get high marks for weakness and fear and much trembling. “Excellent trembling!” There is no professional trembling.
We should tremble not just during transition but during every moment of our life. You see, for Paul, this was not stage fright. It was the fundamental recognition that God had to work. Paul could work, but God had to decisively accomplish the work for which Paul was working. Without that, all of our laborers are in vain apart from the power of the Spirit.
This weakness and fear in much trembling was the same as Philippians 2: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13). Transitions are about his good pleasure.
You see, Paul could make the gospel clear, but he could not make it real. Only God could make it real by the power of the Spirit so that their faith would be real and not rest on the wisdom of man but the power of God.
And so I want to encourage you not just like some to speak of a life verse, but to have a life-and-death verse like Philippians 1:
My [earnest] expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:20–21)
Transitions are a time in which we get to ponder anew what the Almighty can do. Transitions are a moment in which we get to make much of the Lord of the church. Transitions are a time that God ordains so that we will not fix our eyes too long on any human being lest we become spiritually nearsighted and stop trusting in God.
God Is Decisive
So we come back to the question and strategy and the supernatural. If God is decisive, then you acknowledge he can save by many or few. He can do what he wants. It does make more sense initially to think about, “Well, replace a big-name older pastor with a big-name younger pastor. God could do it that way,” and yet God could choose also to make it more unbelievable so that it becomes clear as to who gets the glory — maybe.
Maybe your strategy needs to take account of the fact that there are too many Israelites to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me’” (Judges 7:2). Gideon learned that three hundred will do. God can save with many or few. So, beware of copying my limited knowledge of transitions. God could choose to do it another way.
In the Bible, it seems as though so many times God puts us in the position where you can’t trust strategy. You have to trust God when he comes up with a strategy. If you’re not trusting in God, it’s not going to make any sense. What kind of strategy is “Look around and see which ones are lapping up the water like dogs”? Nobody at that point is going to say, “Oh, of course! Of course, that’s what I need to do. Yeah, I was thinking of doing the same thing, God.”
His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways. His thoughts and his ways are much, much higher. That’s why we trust in him with all of our hearts and lean not on our understanding.
You see, slick, shrewd management may minimize casualties and ensure a smooth transition, but the result would be devastating because it would be manmade. A manmade transition may be slick, but it will amount to nothing. As Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Fear God, Not Transitions
So transitions exist to make much of the Lord of the church. They’re an opportunity to test our belief in God’s sovereignty — an opportunity to say, “Don’t fear transitions. I’ll tell you the one to fear. Fear God. Fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell. Fear not fearing God. Fear disobeying God. Don’t fear transitions.”
You see, I regard this conference talk as a way of spreading a passion for the supremacy of God in all things, including pastoral transitions for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. So let’s pray.
God, we want to ask for your blessing. We want to ask for your mind. We want to ask for wisdom, for we lack it. We don’t want to assume you, presume upon you, but to lean and to trust and to ask and seek and knock now. Oh, Great God of highest heaven, you are worthy to be praised by my every thought indeed. Oh, Great God of highest heaven, glorify your name through me. Glorify your name by lifting high your Son. Glorify your name by speaking by your word to pastors to enable them to enjoy making much of you no matter where they’re at — whether by life or by death, whether in fruitful seasons or in difficult seasons, whether the marriage is hard or good, whether the ministry is encouraging or discouraging. Let our hearts be caught up in your sovereign purposes to bless your church for the sake of your Son. In his name we pray, amen.
So in the time I have, I want to unpack two things: (1) the story of the transition, and (2) the lessons from the transition. Think about this using the language of the hymn “To God Be the Glory”: “To God be the glory, great things he has done!” and “Great things he has taught us.” Take these one at a time.
Unpacking the Transition Story
First, the story. “To God be the glory, great things he has done!” The story of Bethlehem’s transition belongs to the Lord of the church. It is not a story in which any of us take credit. Transitions only work ultimately because Jesus has risen. He’s reigning from heaven.
If you think of the book of Acts, the only reason things were happening on the earth as they were is that Jesus was reigning in heaven, ascended to his Father’s right hand, leading, lording the church, being the Lord, being the head. So, please view this story that way. If Christ does not get all the glory for this story, then I’m telling it wrong. Don’t even listen.
The story has elements of strategy and supernatural interwoven within it, so I will try to tell it the same way.
The Supernatural in the Story
We start with the supernatural. God has done an amazing thing in the 140-plus year history of Bethlehem. The church has witnessed many transitions, as Pastor John said in one of his sermons — think about how many Antioch moments Bethlehem has faced. And as the elders began to deliberate about the transition and began to look at other factors, Pastor John saw that they were coalescing into a moment which he entitled “Bethlehem’s Antioch Moment” based on Acts 13. And you remember it was the Holy Spirit that said, “Set apart for me Saul and Barnabas” (Acts 13:2). That was supernatural.
So during this time, they formed a search committee. The search committee looked at about 17 names, I’m told — some internal, others outside of Bethlehem, but who still had Bethlehem’s DNA. And at one point, they were deliberating about my name. Rather than go any further, they decided to ask me if I was interested.
Pastor John came to my office, November 11th, 2011, and asked me if I was interested, to which I immediately responded, “Nothing could scare me more.” And he wisely said, “Well, that’s not a no.” Then I had to tell him why it scared me so much. I did have the sense that God was calling me to it, and I had been trying to talk myself out of it desperately.
You see, when people were talking about Bethlehem’s transition, I was the guy saying, “Who would want that? Who would want the comparison? Who would want that kind of responsibility?” Not me. So at this point in the story, we work our way backward. This is where the supernatural element becomes very pronounced.
Four Firecracker Moments
And in this, let me talk about four firecracker moments in my life that God orchestrated. And before I tell you about those subjective impressions, let me warn you about copying subjective impressions.
A Caution on Subjective Impressions
Impressions — subjective impressions — are not to be trusted but tested. Tested by the supernatural word of God, the living and abiding word of God. Subjective impressions do not cause you to lean less on Scripture but more on Scripture. They don’t cause you to pray less but more.
Subjective, internal things must be met by external objective things. We’re not hoping in subjective impressions. So watch for both the internal and the external, the subjective and the objective in what follows.
So, on April 10th, 2011, Pastor John preached a sermon entitled “Bethlehem’s Antioch Moment.” He was live at the North Campus where I was sitting in one of the chairs, listening intently because I too cared about Bethlehem’s future. I was interested, along with everyone else, to hear what the leadership had planned for this transition.
Then, something like, as best as I can describe, a firecracker went off inside of me, and I received the very distinct impression, “That’s what you’re going to do.” And I remember very clearly saying, “Oh no, that cannot be right. I could not have heard that right.” My wife could tell something was wrong. She could see that I was shaken. I told her later of the clear sense of what I had heard. I told her it scared me. I was trying to talk myself out of it. It was not wishful thinking because I didn’t want it. But we agreed to commit it to prayer. I had learned at least that much.
So let me back up further to explain why I was so shaken — the first three firecrackers: (1) my call to ministry; (2) my call to come to Bethlehem as a student; and (3) my call to come to Bethlehem as a professor.
Firecracker One: Call to Ministry
First, firecracker number one: call to ministry. Again, a call from God should have internal and external elements. It should have the subjective, it should have the objective, and this one had both.
I had a plan for my life, and ministry was not it. It wasn’t on my radar screen, it wasn’t even in my solar system. I had an experience in college in which I was stripped of all that I once regarded as important. And at the end of that process, brothers, God had me all to himself. It was glorious. I began to grow by leaps and bounds, but I still had one thing I thought I knew: that I was going to be an occupational therapist.
I had started in college, South Dakota State University, to be an anesthesiologist because my mom said, “If you want to have a job that pays a lot where you don’t have to do a lot, it’s a great job. You just give somebody a shot, put them to sleep, and then you leave.” I thought that sounded good. But by this point, the Lord had birthed the desire in me to help people in the name of Jesus. I couldn’t do that well if they were asleep.
So I looked elsewhere. Occupational therapy appealed to me because I thought, “What better way to minister to hurting people, to have a captive audience, to be able to show them love? People have been hurt to bring restoration and healing into their lives. A chance to build relationships. A chance to share the love of God in the gospel.”
One day that dream was dashed. I was driving my grandparents to their home in Volga, South Dakota, from the Sioux Falls airport. Pulled into the drive of their farm. They had sheep at this time, so there was a sign in the front: “Ewes Welcome,” E-W-E-S, picture of a sheep there. I remember driving into the driveway, and my grandpa leaning over and saying, “Jason, I’ve been watching you. I think God is calling you into the ministry. I think you should pray about it.”
It was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. I respected my grandpa so much as a godly man that I agreed to pray. I was sure God would be on my side and agree with me about how stupid that was. And that plan did not work out either.
I entered one of the hardest times of my life. I tried to pray. I tried to close the door. I tried to put it to rest, but God would not let it rest. I had no peace. I had a burden that felt like a crushing weight. I was miserable. Miserable. I began to talk back to God in utter anguish of soul. “I can’t do this! Don’t you know that? This is a mistake.” Beware of telling God something’s a mistake.
I told him about my first high school speech class and how embarrassing it was. I was in a small school. I was popular because I was into sports, but I was really shy and I got up for that first high school speech class, thought it went okay, sat down, and I said, “I am never doing that again.”
And then they do that critique thing. Someone said, “Well, he did okay I guess, but it was kind of distracting. He kept rubbing his neck while he was speaking,” which I didn’t remember so I said, “I don’t think I did that.” They sent me to the bathroom to look in the mirror, and my neck was beat red. And I seriously told the Lord, “I can’t do this. I will make a fool of myself. I will be a redneck up in the pulpit every week. You have the wrong guy.” And I meant that. Only later did I realize that was funny.
Someone at this time gently challenged me that I had it all wrong, that I thought God called only the equipped when in fact God equips the called. And finally, I had enough. I started reading through the Bible really for the first time in a serious way, and I was up to the book of Judges. Not knowing any better, I read about Gideon and the laying out of a fleece, and I thought, “Well, that’s what you do.” So I did. I said, “God, I can’t go on what you’re giving me. I need a clear sign. Let me know for sure.” That was a Saturday.
The next day in church, I heard the one and only sermon I remember growing up on how God is calling people into the ministry and you need to quit fighting and answer the call. It must have been a gripping sermon because I remember my fingers gripping the front pew in front of me. And then I received the grace to surrender. I put my hands underneath my legs and said, “God, I don’t understand still, but I do trust. I am yours.”
The real miracle happened next. Here was equipping: Shy kid became very bold. Fountains of compassion came out of nowhere for people. The Bible took on a life of its own and everything in me wanted to proclaim what I was seeing in the word about God. That was a change. Suddenly, I no longer enjoyed studying anatomy and psychology. God was equipping, and I was praising. The church that I was a part of confirmed that call of God and confirmed the change that they saw in me.
Firecracker Two: Call the Bethlehem Institute as a Student
So firecracker number two, fast forward a bit, now I am a seminary student. My second-semester seminary in Holland, Michigan. I convinced one of my friends to read Desiring God. I said, “How do you like it?” And he said, “Oh, I’m loving it.” I was online and found out they have this school.
And again, eerily, the same sense, the same firecracker goes off, and I got the sense saying, “That’s where you’re going to go.” And I thought, “Well, that doesn’t make sense. I’m in my second semester of seminary. I just got here. Why would I move now? Was it a mistake to come here at all? Is that what you’re saying?” And then I told God, “Well, this needs to be clear because I’m not making decisions for myself anymore. I’m dating someone that I want to marry. If this is really from you, make it clear to them too.”
Later as I prayed, I began to feel that it was exactly what God wanted to do. So I unloaded, called this girl who’s now my wife and unloaded all of this on her. She listened patiently and then said, “Wow, that’s amazing. Sounds just like what God’s been doing in my life.” Then I applied to the Bethlehem Institute, which only accepted, I think, eight people at that time.
God confirmed that internal sense of call to Bethlehem when they accepted my application. My wife and I got married in July of 1999. Moved the next month in August, went through the Bethlehem Institute, which is a two-year program, then went to Southern Seminary for my master’s and doctoral work.
Firecracker Three: Call to Bethlehem as a Professor
Then firecracker number three: the call to move back to Bethlehem as a professor. I was at this point teaching at a Southern Baptist college in Louisiana. I decided to take a large group of my students to the Together for the Gospel Conference in 2008. There was a Bethlehem Institute reunion, alumni gathering, and so I took them there like all young students want to do — to meet John Piper.
I heard the dean of the school, Tom Steller, talking about how the Bethlehem Institute is becoming a four-year seminary. And as he was talking about it, I don’t think you can make this stuff up — the same sense, the same firecracker goes off, and I get the sense, “That’s where you’re going to go.” And now this time was different, I said, “Well, I would like that.” But it doesn’t seem right. He wasn’t even talking about hiring anybody.
And so I began to chalk it up to wishful thinking until my colleague who taught New Testament with me at the college said on the way to the hotel, “Hey, can I tell you something weird?” I said, “Go ahead.” He said, “You know when Tom Steller was talking about the school becoming a seminary, well, usually I ask myself if I would like to teach at a place like that, but this time I didn’t. Strangely and suddenly, your image powerfully flashed in front of my eyes. I even looked over at you and I thought, ‘I think God wants Jason to go there.’”
So I had learned enough to pray. I told my wife, and we began to pray. God indeed confirmed that sense of calling in the hearts of people at Bethlehem, and they extended a call to teach there in July of 2010.
Firecracker Four: Call to Pastor Bethlehem
So back to firecracker four. Now you know why that sermon and that sense shook me up so much. It was all too familiar. I knew it wasn’t wishful thinking because I didn’t want it. I had my dream job already, I thought. Therefore, it was unnerving to me as we began to pray to see if God would make this clear.
We weren’t going to tell anybody. We made a vow to not do that. It was unnerving when people around the church started asking. So I began to teach; they said, “Hey, have you ever thought about pastoring Bethlehem?” And I said, “I don’t aspire to that. No.” But then it started coming from more and more. But I contented myself with the fact that none of the leaders were saying anything about it that made me feel safe.
Then one day I met with one of my friends for breakfast. The first words out of his mouth, “Hey, are you going to pastor Bethlehem?” I said, “No. Where do you get that idea?” He said, “Well, I talked to one of the elders. He said you’re his man.” I didn’t feel safe anymore.
So one day we had a faculty search committee meeting for the seminary. Pastor John was there, and he asked if he could see me later. I called my wife and said, “I hope this is not what I think it is.” And it was. I told Pastor John of all my fears, but I also told him of the deep sense that I could not shake that God was calling me to it.
So we decided we weren’t going to tell anybody about that story. We didn’t want to preempt the process with some kind of subjective sense — didn’t want to posture in any way, shape, or form. In fact, I believed if God made it clear to me, he would make it clear to others.
But in the meantime, I wrestled harder than ever. It became a bit like carrying Frodo’s ring — it began to tear me up inside. The breaking point came in my kitchen one day, not long afterward. I was raw before the Lord’s washing dishes and weeping. Weeping. “God, you know I don’t want this, and yet it seems that you want me to do this. Why? Help me.”
And I got the very clear sense. “What if you’ll have more of me? What if this is my way to give you more of me? What if I’m on this path?” And suddenly he had me because though I could say I never wanted to pastor Bethlehem, I always wanted more of God. That was the pursuit of my life. That was the mission statement, the cry of my heart, to have more of him, to make much of him in life and death. And I was able to say, “If that’s what this is, then I guess I do want that.”
And I then told my wife and that initial confirmation that meant more than anything else to me was when her heart changed. And she said to me one day, “I should really be panicking about this.” And I can’t explain it.
We talk about what would be good about her, what would be hard about it sometimes in the same conversation. This time, we were talking about what was going to be hard about it, and she looked over at me and said, “I cannot explain it, Jason, but I know it’s going to be hard, but I just feel God working in my heart so much I feel like saying, ‘Bring it on!’” We don’t normally talk that way in my house. That was very sweet to me, that again, God was seemingly clear.
The Strategy in the Story
And so then strategy kicked in. Again, you know about the search committee that was formed. There are seven vocational elders, seven non-vocational elders. They came up with a group of about 17 names. They narrowed down the list of candidates to two names fairly quickly. The search committee interviewed us twice.
After the first search committee interviewed, John Piper stepped out of the process wisely. He didn’t want people to get the coached Jason, but the uncoached Jason. He didn’t want to strong-arm anything. He wanted to give people the opportunity to ask about how I’m different than Pastor John without the added pressure of him being in the room.
So they unanimously decided to recommend me to the next step of the process. Set up a whole series of competency interviews in different areas of ministry that began to invite not just elders but also laypeople into the process that were key leaders in these different areas like our Racial Harmony Task Force. The sense that God was at work continued to be strong, so they kept moving forward.
They had decided to use a kind of stoplight thing where if the light was green, they were going to keep going. If the light was yellow — if there was caution — they’d slow down. If it was red, they would stop. And the light kept staying green. The elders voted. They voted unanimously. Appeared before the pastoral staff, they voted unanimously. I met with the wider pastoral staff, received another wave of affirmation. The elders voted again after compiling all the feedback, and it was still unanimous.
So they revealed my name to the congregation in March. I began a series — a barrage really — of online interviews, candidating sermons, question and answer times, culminating in a vote in May. At that congregational vote, we were stunned: 784–8 on a closed ballot vote, the biggest numerical meeting in Bethlehem’s history business meeting. God had indeed spoken.
I became the associate pastor for preaching and vision. This was supernatural. There was no other way to explain how the process had played out. At each stage, my wife and I would just ponder why this strong affirmation. We began to realize that with every new wave of confirmation of call, God didn’t have to do it that way. So what we did was we started to store them up so that later when it got hard, we would be able to say, “Yes, that’s hard, but that was clear. We’re not going to second guess God at this point. He would still be sovereign.”
We also identified a supernatural kind of sustaining. Not only was there no way to explain the vote, I would look at my wife and say, “We should have more wear and tear than we do.” This has been a grueling process, yet we find ourselves strangely energized. I joked with the congregation after the May vote. Sometimes I think if you can make it through this process and not be dead, then you’re fit for it. And if you die, then you weren’t really called.
Then came strategy. The elders wisely wanted a two-step vote in order to shepherd the people well. They didn’t want it to be so pressure-packed that between March and May, they would be voting for the next thirty years. So they decided the first vote would be to affirm me to the next step of the process as associate pastor for preaching and vision.
Pastor John and I started an eight-month transition from August to the end of March, conceived like a baton handoff where in the beginning, the first four months he basically led and I watched, got to know the church, got to know the staff, the elders, the structure, Bethlehem’s history. The second vote took place in December after the people had more opportunities to know me, hear my preaching, respond to my leadership. That vote in December was to become pastor for preaching and vision. I began to then take leadership more fully, and we now have two more months of our transition.
One of the most glorious things to me was the internal transition that happened. Sometime between the first vote and the second vote, I began to feel a voice change as I preach. It no longer felt like pulpit supply. It felt like I was a pastor preaching that “These were my people, my flock, I loved them. I couldn’t think of doing anything else.” That was a change.
Four Lessons from the Transition
So let me quickly talk about the lessons then. “Great things he has taught us.” I just want to make four lessons quickly. You’re going to realize these are not unique to transitions. This is just pastoral ministry.
- Make God central.
- Take sin seriously.
- Love the flock.
- Believe the gospel.
1. Make God Central
First, make God central. Sounds good. How do you do it? You make sure that the transition focus is not on a man but on a mission — a mission to make much of God, to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all people.
You make the search process big, not in terms of candidates, but in terms of what it’s about. Don’t let people think it’s about a person. You let people know that this is about God. The goal of the transition is not just to fill a placeholder. The goal of the transition again is to ponder what new thing God can do when he sets his love on a people.
You also make the transition about God by focusing on God’s presence. That’s really what people want. It’s not going to be a continuity of giftings, of style, of personality, but a continuity of God’s presence. Remember, God told Joshua not that he had to become Moses. He said, “as I was with Moses, so I will be with you” (Joshuah 1:5).
You see, the search can’t be about finding a candidate that’s sufficient. Everyone is a sinner. It’s perilous to put your hope in any fallen person. God’s presence, God’s purpose, God’s centrality is what we want. Making transitions about God’s presence will keep the search from being a minimalistic search, about finding a passable candidate.
I think what you’re looking for here is momentum. Something that could not be drummed up or contrived that will limp along. Many of my friends lovingly reminded me, “Don’t you know how many of these have ended up being train wrecks?” I said, “I do know about those, but I know more about God’s heart, God’s hand, God’s power and he’s in this and I can’t deny it.”
2. Take Sin Serioulsy
Second, take human sin seriously. Have guardrails set up that say, “We might not be hearing from God rightly. Let’s make sure we give God enough opportunities to speak clearly and not be preemptive. Let’s shepherd our people well by saying, “We might be wrong.”
And so let’s give God opportunities to give us green lights and we’ll take those seriously and keep moving, or yellow lights and we’ll slow down, or red lights and we’ll stop. You see, recognizing our limits and fallenness by taking sins seriously also highlights the supremacy of God. We depend upon God. We don’t presume upon him. We confess we’re susceptible to error so that God must make his leading clear.
3. Love the Flock
Third, love the flock. We’re not trying to take care of business in a businessmen-like way. We’re trying to take care of the flock in a Christ-like way. The goal of a transition should be to serve the flock for their joy.
To serve them, to make them feel loved, to give them enough opportunities to be involved, enough opportunities to hear enough opportunities to ask questions so that when you come to the congregational vote, nobody will be able to stand there and say, “I didn’t get a chance to ask this or that.”
One of the ways Pastor John loved me and the people was by giving strong affirmation of what he saw God doing but never dictating, never coercing, never trying to push his agenda. He wanted people to come to their conclusions.
4. Believe the Gospel
Lastly, brothers, believe the gospel. Luther’s fundamental insight about Christians is that we tend to think that our problems are that we forget the gospel. Luther said if we have problems believing the gospel, believing that God’s really that good, believing that God really has set his love that much on us, that it’s really that free, that it’s really that powerful, and it is.
Ultimately, transitions belong not just to “the all things of the supremacy of God” but the all things of Romans 8:32 that God didn’t spare his own Son but delivered him over for us all. He will graciously with him give us all things, including what we need in transition.
So I want to show a video that our ministry media team put together that tried to, at the installation service, weave together this story and look for the strategy in this supernatural and look for how it’s not about a person or a man but about a mission. May God receive glory and honor. Great things he has done. He alone is worthy.