I began ministry as a student pastor in Middle Tennessee in 1980—42 years ago. Both the Cold War and the Soviet Union seemed permanent fixtures in the geopolitical landscape. Terrorism was far removed from American soil. Same-sex marriage and gender fluidity were fringe ideas. In my region of the US, you’d strain to detect differences between candidates from the major political parties. Personal computers, smartphones, and social media were unknown, and the most recent pandemic was six decades behind us, remembered by few and feared by fewer.
During these years, I’ve changed, and the world has changed too. Inevitable physical changes come with aging. Joys of life and ministry have changed me. Even more, I’ve been changed by trials, tragedies, and failures.
Change is not something to be feared (or to be overly excited about), but it’s an opportunity to minister the gospel.
How do church leaders adapt to personal and societal change that affects their ministry? My hope is that you’ll put aside fear and embrace change with faith in God’s sovereignty, his concern for his people’s welfare, and his personal care for you. Change is not something to be feared (or to be overly excited about), but it’s an opportunity to minister the gospel. If you’re facing change, here are some encouragements:
1. Keep the right mindset.
Expect change. Don’t be frightened by it. As the catechism says, “for his own glory, [God] hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.”
From before the foundation of the world, God determined the people he would send you to shepherd. The time, place, and circumstances were his choosing. Receive your assignment with gratitude and remember your trajectory.
When you become a Christian, you’re marked for change. God promises you’ll be made more like your Savior over the course of your life. Outwardly, the world is changing, exerting pressure for us to conform. Inwardly, the Holy Spirit works to mortify sinful passions and vivify holy desires. Through both internal and external forces, God is at work, enabling us “more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.”
2. Stick to the fundamentals.
What’s the right way to approach your congregation? I don’t know of a more beautiful declaration of a pastor’s love for his people than is found in 1 Thessalonians 2:8: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”
Isn’t that what ministry is about? Share the gospel; without it, there’s no preaching of Christ. Share yourself; without that, there’s no bearing of burdens. Treat people with tender affection; without that, life is loveless toil.
3. See change as an opportunity.
Change brings the occasion to serve God in fresh ways. My energy level isn’t what it was in my 20s, but I can work more wisely and efficiently. Lynne and I are empty nesters and can minister in ways we couldn’t when our kids were at home. At this stage, I don’t want to waste all the trials, setbacks, and failures I’ve faced. Instead, my prayer is that they’ll make me a more sympathetic shepherd of God’s people, enabling me to pastor with deeper wisdom and greater understanding.
Changes in society also create new opportunities. The recent pandemic produced seismic shifts in American life and new opportunities for the church I serve in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Our team worked hard to find ways to care for people when they couldn’t be physically present in our gatherings.
With every trial, there are fresh opportunities to minister God’s grace.
Quite a few in our congregation are under treatment for cancer and kidney disease. They’re especially susceptible to illness but still needed our care, so we called each person in our directory regularly and made porch visits while masked and distanced. We made phone calls to pray with members. And my wife Lynne worked with a team of helpers to make and deliver dinner to the sick, shut-ins, and elderly. No sane person wants to live through a pandemic, yet with every trial, there are fresh opportunities to minister God’s grace.
4. Be eager to learn.
Every minister must be devoted to lifelong learning.
Learning comes through conversations. I eat lunch with pastors who are a decade older than me. They’re aging gracefully and ending their ministries with strength, so I like to ask them about their pastoral approach.
Learning comes through books. Christians can be slow to change when it’s desperately needed. That’s why I read histories of the Civil Rights movement. Many churches resisted changes that were essential to human equality and dignity; this warns me not to conform to worldliness. I want to avoid the sins of past generations. Just as much, I want to learn from the saints who brought change as they summoned the church to repentance, courage, and godliness.
5. Expect setbacks.
As a leader, you’ll respond to situations with the limited, imperfect information available to you. You’ll certainly make decisions that later prove to be mistakes. But don’t let fear keep you from prayerfully moving forward.
When setbacks come, guard against bitterness. Bitterness is a revolt against God’s sovereignty and a rejection of the Father’s love. The bitter man reasons: God has not dealt with me fairly. I deserve better. Instead of harboring bitterness, we should see every setback as part of the “all things” God uses to conform us to the Savior’s image (Rom. 8:28–29).
6. Receive life and ministry with joy.
Paul wrote to the Philippians in a time of changed circumstances. The liberty he enjoyed was gone; prison was his home. Still, he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). Amid change, Paul’s union and communion with Jesus—the One who learned obedience through what he suffered—didn’t change. In the Lord, Paul found joy.
You also walk in union and personal communion with your Savior. Be thankful for the opportunity the Lord gives you to learn obedience in life and ministry. As change inevitably comes, trust the Lord, believing this will make you better prepared to serve God and his people.
Truly, change is your opportunity to grow in grace.