28 March, 2013 Brian Maiden
Personally, I find that one of the most watchable and exciting athletics events is the relay. The most fascinating part (apart from the finish) is that crucial handing over of the baton – when there is massive potential for disaster if there is any fumbling or dropping. As I watched (on TV) the 400m relay at the Olympics and admired the way in which the athletes managed to achieve this, it got me thinking about the whole question of retirement from pastoral ministry and its similarity to handing over the baton. I am writing this from personal experience, not (sadly) of competing in relay races, but of retiring from full-time church ministry. I retired at the end of August 2012, after 34 years in pastoral ministry, and handed over the baton at Parr Street Evangelical Church, Kendal, to our new Pastor, Paul Baxendale. Three things occur to me about handing over the baton.
1. Hand over the baton when you are running at full speed. Don’t wait until you have slowed down. It’s a great temptation to keep going longer than you should. This may be good for the pastor’s ego, but it can be disastrous for the church. I have known pastors who simply wouldn’t face the fact that it was time to go. The result has been that they undid in old age any good they did when they were younger. I remember, when I first started as a pastor, going to a minister’s fraternal and hearing another pastor say that the day he stopped preaching would be the day he stopped living. I was very impressed at the time, but I now think that he was wrong. I love the ministry, especially the regular teaching of the Bible, but it’s possible for even a good thing like this to become an idol – something (other than God) that you can’t live without. It’s possible for preaching to become the thing that gives you worth and significance and status, and to hang on to ministry for these reasons. We need to remember that it’s far more important to be a Christian than to be a pastor, and it must be to Jesus and the Gospel that we look for joy and satisfaction, not to our status as a pastor. It was for this reason that I told the elders at our church when I was going to retire, so that it didn’t get to the point when they (and the church) would be wishing I would retire but would be too kind to tell me so. It also meant that they had plenty of time to agree on a successor.
2. Once you have handed the baton on, let go! It’s fumbling at this point that leads to losing the race. If you don’t let go when you’ve handed the baton on, you slow the next man down. Let go completely! Go and sit with the spectators and cheer the next man on as loudly as you can. For many ministers this has traditionally meant leaving the church altogether and even moving out of the area. Personally, I don’t think this is necessary or even desirable. I’m so glad that I have been able to stay on in my church family here in Kendal and even continue on the eldership. My successor, Paul Baxendale, is a good friend whom I’ve known for 15 years. He wants me to stay and he even lets me preach from time to time. My heart’s desire is to see the church thrive under his ministry. Everyone in the church knows this, so no-one has been coming to me with issues or criticisms about the new minister. They know what my response would be if they did! As for the preaching, there are still plenty of opportunities to help out churches that haven’t got a pastor. And, actually, it’s really quite nice to sit next to my wife and listen to God’s Word!
3. Know who you’re handing the baton on to. This seems the most obvious point of all! Imagine running like a hare to the point when you hand over the baton, only to find that there’s no-one there to hand it over to! Many churches go through a time of uncertainty and confusion when their pastor retires or moves on, because there is no-one in place to take over. We began to think about my retirement several years before it happened; we had already chosen my successor and got the full support of the church before I retired. The result was that I finished in August and he started in September! The congregation hardly noticed the difference apart from the fact that Paul is 25 years younger than me and much better looking.
Handing on the baton is crucial in relay racing and in ministry. Our church found these three principles helpful during 2012 – both as we enjoyed the Olympics and changed ministers.