The End is Coming
One of the saddest pictures of the Bible is Moses standing on the top of the mountain looking out across the valley and realizing he’ll never cross the river and walk into the Promised Land. After all of the confrontations with Pharaoh, the years of wandering in the wilderness, all of the ups and downs of trying to lead the Israelites – now Moses had gotten them to the front door of the Promised Land and he can’t get in.
I know Moses had messed up and God punished him by not allowing Moses to get into the Promised Land. Yes, Moses had thrown down the tablet containing the Ten Commandments. Yes, Moses had struck the rock with his staff instead of speaking to it as God had commanded, but even with that, the punishment seems to be a little heavy…to me anyway. After all, Moses had put up with a lot and it seems to me that God would have cut him a little slack, but we’ll have to talk more about that at another time.
Here’s why I’ve been meditating on that passage. For some reason, few leaders finish well. Men and women who have changed the world end up crossing some line that discredits, even destroys, everything they’ve worked for. The news has been filled with all kinds of stories – both in the business and church worlds – with leaders who at one time were at the top of their game and now…well, now no one will return their phone calls.
Ending well is important to me. I’m 61 years old. I’ve been at Brentwood Baptist Church for 27 years, and I know I won’t be able to stay here forever. Things change. Life moves on, and in time, the church will need a different kind of leader. Like Moses, I may be able to see the future for my church, but I won’t be the one to get them there. So, how can I make sure, as in a relay race, I make a good pass of the baton?
Stephen Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, writes that we should begin with the end in mind. That is, we should know what success looks like for our project before we begin. Funny thing is, I could have never pictured by ministry looking like it has. There have been too many things happen that no one could have predicted in 1981 when I graduated from seminary. If anyone had told me I would have to develop the skill to preach the gospel in 140 (now 280) characters or less, I wouldn’t have known what they were talking about. None of us would. Social media is a very young technology.
I do think, however, that we do need to work with the end in mind in this way. Our ministry will end. Someday, for reasons we choose or someone else chooses for us, we won’t be able to do the ministry we see needs to be done. Our health will fail. Our skills will diminish and our ministry will be over. So, first of all, work hard today. Don’t come to the end of your ministry and try to make up for lost opportunities. And second, know this moment is coming and plan accordingly.How? First, by training leaders who can carry the church to its next level of success. Moses identified Joshua. Paul trained Titus and Timothy. Jesus trained the twelve, but especially Peter, James and John. While you may not know everything about future ministry, there are several skills that have proven to be timeless. The spiritual disciplines, pastoral care and making disciples are aspects of a successful ministry that haven’t changed in the last 2000 years. They won’t change in the next 2000 years either.
Second, create capacity in your church for the future. Here’s what I mean by that. Every church has ministries and organizations that have long outlived their purpose. They don’t hurt anything, but they do take up time and energy. So, before you go, shut them down or put a sunset clause in their future. Tell them, as lovingly as you can, their ministry will not be resourced either with money or energy in the days ahead. Ecclesiastes is right. There’s a time to be born and a time to die and, bless their hearts, there are some things that need to die. Let them.
And lastly, shoot some alligators on your way out. All of us know the joke that it’s hard to remember you were sent to drain the swamp when you’re up to your waist in alligators.
Every job has its aggravations. Most of the time, we learn to live with our “loyal opposition” and systemic limitations. Most seasoned leaders, especially pastors, have developed a type of political savvy of knowing how to work the existing system to achieve the desired goals.
The process of maneuvering through the existing system and well-travelled mine fields takes an enormous amount of time and energy. Not only that, cultural changes are happening so fast no organization or church has the luxury to waste time doing things that don’t move the church or organization to achieve missional goals.
So, you know what the problems are, solve them. Deal with the personnel issues. Restructure the organizational chart to address the changing realities of the future. Put together a financial plan to insure the church’s success in the future.
Sure, these are going to be hard decisions that will be tough to get through, but the reason no one deals with them is they’re afraid they’ll be fired. You’re leaving anyway. What do you care? Take out a few alligators so the leader who follows you can get on with it.
And lastly, leave. If you stay, you’ll take up all of the oxygen in the room and no one else will be able to breath, much less thrive.
The end comes for us all. That’s a hard truth. Don’t let it surprise you when it does.