While a vacancy may be difficult, the Lord will bless a congregation through it.
He had spent nearly three weeks carefully considering the call the Lord of the church had extended to him through another congregation. He had weighed the needs and opportunities in his current congregation against the challenges and prospects in the other congregation. He had turned to the Lord in prayer, asking for insight and wisdom as he reflected on what he had learned. After consulting with congregation members, coworkers, and colleagues, he had arrived at a decision with which the Lord had given him peace. He wrote letters to both congregations, announcing the decision that he had made after careful and prayerful deliberation.
Members of one congregation were thankful for the good news that they would soon have a pastor after eight months of calling. The other congregation’s members, hearing that their beloved pastor had decided to go elsewhere after nine years, sat in stunned silence. Frustrated, one member remarked, “This isn’t fair. Everything was going so well in our congregation, and then they took our pastor. Why was he even on the list for a call? How will we find another pastor as good as the one we had?”
When the ministry of a called worker—whether pastor, early childhood teacher, teacher, or principal—has been appreciated and blessed, congregation members find it difficult to accept the change. Though no one may speak it openly, the thought lurks: This is going to be disastrous for our congregation and its ministry.
An opportunity for faith
Through a vacancy, the Lord provides his people an opportunity for faith. Faith, as the writer to the Hebrews says, “is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (11:1). During a vacancy God’s people learn to pay more attention to what the Lord says in his Word than to what they see with their eyes or feel in their hearts:
- They may feel as if they have been abandoned since they lost the servant through whom the Lord had granted them many blessings. But the truth is that “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’ “ (Hebrews 13:5).
- Those who have lost a pastor may think that no one else could serve them as well, but the Lord has promised to provide spiritual overseers for his people: “I will place shepherds over them who will tend them” (Jeremiah 23:4).
- They may feel that nothing good could come from a vacancy. Yet in response to those feelings, the Lord says, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
On the basis of that promise, a vacancy is a gift from God. The One who loves the church he bought with his own blood promises to bless his people through it.
A sampling of blessings
The Lord blesses his people in many ways during a vacancy. Near the top of the list is the useful reminder that the Lord is more important than the servants he provides. Pastors and teachers come and go. They take with them their personalities and talents, but they do not take away the Lord’s Word and sacraments. By those means of grace, the Lord remains with his people and continues to care for them. He forgives their sins. He strengthens their faith. He empowers them for lives of service.
Through a vacancy the Lord provides his people an opportunity for faith.
While we may treasure the individual the Lord uses to bring us his Word and sacraments, the real power comes from the Spirit working through that servant. What Christians need is not one particular pastor or teacher whom they have grown to love, but a servant of the Lord who will bring them the Savior’s Word. This is not to say that God’s people should stop treasuring the Lord’s servants. But the Lord is more important than any individual servant he may send. A vacancy helps teach that.
Congregational ministry is not a spectator sport. In the washing with water through the Word, the Lord anointed all of his people as priests. He has granted them the privilege of offering their bodies as living sacrifices, serving him in every one of their callings in life—parent, spouse, child, employee, friend, citizen, or congregation member. The Holy Spirit has given each of them gifts so that they might participate in the congregation’s ministry. Sometimes, though, members of a congregation fall into spectator mode. They get used to watching the teachers and pastors do everything and forget that they have a role to play. A vacancy reminds them of their privilege and responsibility to participate.
Vacancies allow congregations to evaluate current ministry and to consider different emphases and priorities. An individual serving in public ministry, without specifically intending to do so, often gravitates toward areas of particular interest and skill. A pastor, for example, may really enjoy working with youth and not feel as capable in training members for ministry. That might work out well for a congregation, so long as the pastor’s interests and gifts perfectly fit the congregation’s needs. As a congregation matures and grows, however, different areas of ministry may need to receive emphasis. A vacancy gives members of the congregation the chance to consider what areas of ministry ought to be more fully developed. In some cases, a district president may even encourage a congregation to delay calling so that it can more fully analyze its current ministry and put together a ministry plan that will best serve the congregation’s needs and goals. Most important, the Lord knows what the congregation needs and will provide the right person for the task.
But the sinful nature is never content. The old Adam does not appreciate the Lord’s many blessings. The sinful nature always prefers something different and “better.” Instead of focusing on the called servant’s gifts and the blessings the Lord has granted through that servant, the sinful nature leads us to fixate on a worker’s weaknesses, failings, and flaws. As a result, servants who ought to be cherished for the work they do often go unappreciated. A vacancy, particularly one that continues for a long time, serves to remind God’s people of the Lord’s grace in providing public ministers of the gospel. We need pastors, teachers, and staff ministers, but we do not deserve them. They are gifts of God’s grace. During a vacancy, congregation members rightly ask, “Are we showing honor for the office and appreciation for the worker by what we provide as compensation? Are our expectations realistic? Have we provided the support and encouragement a gospel minister needs? What can we do to improve?” If a vacancy reminds us to honor, support, and love those the Lord has called to serve us, then the vacancy has been a blessing.
A vacancy may be unpleasant, but the Lord will bless his people through it. That’s what he promises. And that’s what he does.
Learn more about the divine call in a Bible study developed by the Conference of Presidents. It’s available at welscongregationalservices.net/called-to-serve-bible-study.
Author: Earle D. Treptow
Volume 109, Number 07
Issue: July 2022