There are places, Southern-California for example, where I’ve heard it described as month after month of endless sunshine but in the Northwest we definitely have our seasons.
As ministry workers we, like gardeners, pay attention to those seasons. In addition to the actual physical seasons—winter, spring, summer, fall—each of which comes with its own set of predictability and surprise, there are seasons of life and seasons of ministry. We are people of seasons and a life of ministry is a life lived in seasons.
Like good gardeners, we realize that every season has its challenges and opportunities and that in every season, there are things to be done.
As a relatively new superintendent, I am learning a new ministry role—“a pastor to pastors” someone referred to it. The mission of the Pacific Conference is helping build healthy, local churches. Progress toward that goal begins with a level of trust among the conference office, pastors, and congregations that make up the Pacific Conference of the Evangelical Church. So I call this a season of discovery as I connect on a deeper level with the many pastors and congregations that make up this conference.
I’ll be honest, though, after thirty years of ministry to the New Hope congregation in Bend, Oregon, it’s a little strange not having my own congregation. So I hope you’ll forgive me for asking a couple of pastoral questions: What season are you in? and Are you doing what needs to be done for the next season?
I’m always encouraged when the transition from winter to spring begins, which comes sooner or later depending on where you live. I’ve been surprised to find that in Portland we’ve been seeing signs of spring for weeks. They won’t see a hint of spring in Bend for weeks still and even then it won’t be outside the realm of possibility for a quick freeze.
In winter, it sometimes feels like nothing is going on. The deciduous trees shed their leaves weeks earlier and appear dead. The grass has gone dormant. Birds are laying low. There is a feeling of nature being hunkered down. Nothing’s happening. Or so it appears.
Each year when spring arrives, I find myself surprised again when signs of growth appear after the dark winter months. (I’m tempted to call them “long” winter months, but they’re actually no longer or shorter than any other month.) The point is: during winter, it’s tempting to think nothing is going on.
But then one day you see clusters of daffodils, followed by tulips (deer food in Bend), irises, and all variety of bulbs. Blossoms appear on the trees. And you realize that something has been going on that is just now becoming evident.
What’s going on in this new season, though, is the result of things that happened months ago, for example the bulbs that were planted in the fall.
And we realize that even winter has its usefulness. Bulbs need the cold of winter to trigger a process that will produce beautiful flowers. Trees rely on winter to conserve energy for the burst of life (blossoming) that comes in spring. I’ve had some wintery times in ministry. I didn’t like the experience of those seasons, but I also see how God has used those times.
As pastors we live under a dual pressure of needing to be real—we’re each living in a certain season—but understanding that seasons pass and that we are leaders moving ourselves and our flocks from one place to another. We must have the expectation of faith that God is at work sometimes when we can’t see any progress. The journey isn’t always easy.
I take encouragement from Psalm 85:5–7, which reads
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.” (NIV)
In Hebrew, the Valley of Baka means “The Valley of Weeping.” I’m captured by this passage because it says that blessed people—people who love God and rely on Him for strength and are committed to a journey with Him—will walk through difficult seasons.
As a Conference, I am learning that we have some challenges, but we have a God who wants us all to go from “strength to strength” until the day we see Him face to face. I also know from this passage and a life lived in ministry that people in challenging seasons have work to do: “they make it a place of springs.”
There are a number of things I want to do in this current season—however you would describe it—with an expectation for a flowering and blossoming in the seasons to come.
The first, and most obvious thing is to pray. I am indebted to my predecessor, Superintendent Chris Nielson, for making prayer a real focus of his ministry. I was encouraged a week before our recent Mid-Winter retreat when a pastor, who is a dear friend of Chris’s, stopped in my office and asked for a few minutes so he could pray for me and the conference as we headed into that retreat. What an encouragement.
Prayer for ourselves, our families, our congregations, and our conference is essential. Henri Nouwen wrote, “…the Christian leader must be in the future what [they have] always had to be in the past: a [person] of prayer, a [person] who has to pray, and who has to pray always.”
Underneath that blanket of prayer I believe we need to take action. Lloyd Ogilvie, when he was Chaplain of the United States Senate had the following written above his office door: “Without God, we can’t; without us He won’t.” There are three areas of focus where we want to partner with God in this current season—areas to plant some seeds—that I believe will strengthen our conference in seasons ahead.
The first area of focus is a two-fold look at leadership development. I am encouraging every pastor in the conference to take time this year to attend some sort of training to sharpen their pastoral and leadership skills. I know some pastors who do this continually. Others haven’t attended any sort of development program in years. To help, the Pacific Conference has partnered with the Willow Creek Leadership Summit to secure a site license to view these sessions over the internet at the Conference Office. And we have set funds aside to help pastors in smaller churches attend this or other training.
Additionally, we are beginning a coaching ministry. I’m deeply passionate about this because my participation in a coaching ministry over a period of years has been an essential and invaluable part of my own growth. The accountability and encouragement that comes from meeting regularly with a coach helps us pay attention to our life and ministry from season to season. Only a small group of individuals will be involved at first, they will be trained to become trainers, with a potential for exponential growth in the future.
The second area of focus is the concept of TurnAround churches. This is training for pastors and congregations who are looking for a more secure footing and sustainable future. It won’t be for everyone, but we are actively searching for candidates who want to engage with the TurnAround process.
Church Planting is a third area of focus. We know there are people who need Jesus who won’t walk in the doors of a traditional church building. They will, however, meet with a gathering of believers in a school or an office park. We intend to be strategic about the location for each church plant and the individuals involved and are asking each of our churches to consider how they will be involved in their communities: thru prayer and resourcing, by collaborating with other local churches, or in a more traditional mother-daughter church-plant relationship.
As the Conference Superintendent I am committed to helping build healthy, local churches. My hope is that as we pray and plant seeds, the coming seasons will be fruitful ones for our conference and the greater Kingdom of God.