Transitioning

It's very hard to follow a pastor who founded the church, or whose tenure really marked a church, as I commented the other day. Hard, but not impossible.

In last Sunday's sermon at Redeemer (a free download), Tim Keller mentioned Dick Lucas, pastor at St Helen's Bishopsgate in London. Lucas became pastor of the historic church in 1961, with only a few dozen people in the congregation. Under his leadership, the church thrived and grew.

In 1992 and 1993, St Helen's was badly damaged by two IRA bombs. Lucas saw an opportunity to rebuild to accommodate larger crowds. As a result, he received some nasty letters from people who told him that the church would shrink once he left. Lucas disagreed. London had changed, he said, and so had the church. It would continue to thrive even after Lucas retired.

Lucas retired in 1998. He was right: the church continues to grow.

This gives hope to churches that wonder if they can outlive a pastor who's really shaped a church. I'd love to learn more about how this transition took place, given how often transitions don't succeed.

Review: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

When Don Miller's Blue Like Jazz came out, I bought the book for a friend. A few weeks later I asked what he thought. "I did not really like Blue like Jazz. I think it confirms I am not cutting edge enough and definitely not post-modern enough. He just came off kind of like a know it all to me but it is probably just me. I have very strange tastes."

Maybe, but he wasn't alone. Many found the book indulgent and a little off. Others, like me, enjoyed it. It's not the perfect book, but I found it to be honest and refreshing.

Fast forward six years, and you have Miller's latest book released today: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. It's safe to say that if you liked Blue Like Jazz, you will like this book. Miller knows how to write, and this book got under my skin and has even prompted me to make some changes.

A Million Miles begins when two movie filmmakers want to make a movie based on his memoir. A film, though, needs a story. What is the story of Miller's life? Miller begins to realize that he didn't really have much of a story to tell. He is coasting through life. He begins to examine the elements of story, which leads him to begin editing his real life. He learns to take risks, confront fears, get healthy, and to do things that matter.

I loved reading the book. Don Miller knows how to make you laugh. He disarms you with his rambling style and his self-deprecating humor. Then, when you're not looking, he's got you confronting issues in your own life. He's sneaky. It's a beautiful book in a lot of ways.

Unlike Blue Like Jazz, this book resolves. It goes somewhere. And, mostly, you're glad to go along.

As I closed the book, I was left thinking through a lot of issues that the book surfaced. It's one of those books that makes you think about your own life and the story you're part of.

I do have a couple of quibbles. One is that I wonder if our tendency to think about the story of our lives is really a healthy one. Are we too self-absorbed? Probably. How many of us really need to think more about our stories? If anything, most of us need to think of a much bigger Story in which we are supporting actors - important supporting characters, to be sure, but nowhere near the main character. That honor belongs to Somebody else.

That leads me to my second quibble: what role does that Somebody else play? It sounds like a cliché to say that Jesus should make a difference to our stories, but that's exactly why I want Miller to explore this. He's an expert at breaking through the clichés. I don't want to hear the pat answers; I want to hear how things really change in our messed up lives because the larger Story is true.

I enjoyed this book, and I'd recommend it overall. I'm looking forward to seeing how Miller's story plays out in the future. I'm sure we'll be reading about it.

More from Amazon.com

Book Giveaway: Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Donald Miller's new book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is being released tomorrow. I'll be posting my review first thing in the morning, and I've got an excerpt posted below.

Want to win a copy? Simply post your name and email address in the form below, and I'll pick a name randomly on Wednesday morning. Once I've picked the winner, I'll delete the other entries. In other words, your name and email is safe with me.

Update: Congratulations to Keith Edwards, who wins a copy of the book.

Now, here's an excerpt:

A Million Miles In A Thousand Years by Donald Miller

Following a Defining Pastorate

Christianity Today interviewed Tullian Tchividjian last week about an attempt to remove him as pastor. In March, Tullian became the second pastor in the history of Coral Ridge, succeeding the late D. James Kennedy who pastored there for 47 years. Tullian was approved as pastor with a 91% vote in March. On September 20, 69% voted against the motion to remove him. People are wondering how things could change so much in only a few months.

There has been lots written about the situation at Coral Ridge. I don't really want to say a lot about that specific situation, except to say how much I've appreciated Tullian's preaching and writing. I'm praying for that church as they move into the future. It's a significant work, and they need our prayers. (Jim Belcher has a post at Out of Ur today on this topic.) Although I'm not close enough to be able to judge what happened, it seems inevitable that a transition like this would be a bumpy one even under the best possible circumstances.

The situation has caused me to reflect again on what it's like to succeed a defining pastorate. I've done this at Richview myself, as my predecessor - a good man and a good pastor - significantly shaped the church over a 23 year period. The transition to a new pastor was incredibly difficult for the church simply because the previous pastor had been so significant to the life of the church. Add to that the inevitable mistakes that I as a new pastor made and you have a very tough transition.

Although I received a fairly strong vote to come as pastor, I'm sure that I wouldn't have received more than 69% support in the early years if things had been put to a vote. In fact, the transition probably took eight years - twice what I would have guessed. It simply takes time.

Spurgeon pastored The Metropolitan Tabernacle for 38 years. After his death, the congregation experienced months of turmoil and almost split. When Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones resigned from Westminster Chapel, the church struggled for some time. The same for other churches - People's Church in Toronto, and First Baptist Dallas after W.A. Criswell.

Two reflections:

Pastors need to prepare congregations for when they will be gone. We need to avoid becoming pastor-centered churches. The more the ministry is built around the pastor, the more the church will flounder when the pastor is gone. Just last week I heard Tim Keller preach a message that gently encouraged the church to look beyond his own leadership in the future. Even when a pastor does this, by the way, the transition will still likely be hard.

This isn't easy, but perhaps the most important work a pastor can do the longer he stays is to ensure the congregation isn't dependent on him.

We need to pray for churches in transition. I believe in church planting, but I also believe in transitioning churches. But we shouldn't underestimate the difficulties. If you know of a church that is in transition, pray for that church. They need the prayers. With the right kind of leadership, a lot of patience, and God's help, they'll make it through.

What Happens When We Submit

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I'm almost done quoting from Miller's book The Heart of a Servant Leader. Just one more week.

Miller wrote this letter to a couple whose child had just been diagnosed with a progressive disease.

Jesus, you turn my world upside down! When I submit to You, Lord, it suddenly occurs to me that I am seeing the world right-side-up. And somehow mysteriously the pain of not knowing what to do becomes the joy of the child of God. And I say, "Ah Lord, if I don't have to be in charge anymore, then I can drop a lot of burdens. I don't need to worry, or plan, where planning makes no sense. I am free to sit at Your feet and to listen and to be taught, and learn about Your plans." At such times I often see new ways of doing things. The various things that Satan meant to use to destroy me become opportunities for serving Christ joyfully, boldly, and freely. Then my heart knows a peace and quietness. I find myself saying in spite of myself, "Your will, not mine, be done." In Your will I find perfect peace. What a mystery of grace!