My wife and I began serving in full-time ministry in June of 1974. I had just graduated from Bible College, moved to a city where we knew no one, and at the age of twenty-four started an independent Baptist church with no one but our family. Forty-one years of pastoral ministry later, I stood before the congregation that I loved and at the age of sixty-five read my resignation letter. It was July 5, 2015, the 25th anniversary of preaching my first sermon in that great church.
Reading my resignation letter was the most difficult thing I have felt God calling me to do in forty-one years of ministry. I typed and printed the letter the night before because I was afraid that I might not have the courage to do what needed to be done, which was let the people I loved know that it was time for me to resign as their pastor.
The reason I am writing about it now is that I realize many of my colleagues across America are facing the same prospect. The ageing of America has affected every part of American life including the ministry. Over the next few years many independent Baptist churches are going to see a transfer of leadership to younger men. This is a natural and proper thing, and it must be done for the sake of the gospel ministry.
My purpose is not to weigh in on when that transfer should take place. Each pastor will have to determine in God’s will when it is time to step aside and allow the next generation to lead the people and work that he has invested his life in. My purpose in writing is to simply be an encouragement to my peers that are in their senior years by listing a few things that I have learned in the last three years.
There Is Life after the Pastorate
One of the fears I had when God began to deal with me about leaving the local church I was privileged to lead, was the fear of the unknown. For more than four decades my identity had been wrapped up in what I did for a living. I knew and taught that we are to find our identity in Christ alone, but I suspect that every pastor has to struggle with this.
In the months leading up to leaving the pastorate, the Lord graciously showed me through His Word and Spirit that my identity was truly in His acceptance and grace, not in my title.
The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.—Jeremiah 31:3
There Is Ministry after the Pastorate
I was leaving the pastorate in order to found a new church planting mission’s ministry that targeted the least evangelized countries in our world. I was very excited about the prospects of what could be accomplished by coming alongside national pastors and helping them plant churches in countries with restricted access; but I was not sure that anyone else would be!
I mean here I was at the age of 65 attempting to start a ministry that I could not possibly fund or administrate alone. I was not familiar with anyone else doing something like what I envisioned among independent Baptist churches. (After starting Barnabas 1040 I have heard that there are other good ministries doing very much the same thing that we do.)
My mind was sometimes filled with doubts and fears, “Would Pastors be willing to get behind this vision?” “Could I be affective in casting the vision?” “How exactly will I do this?” “Will missionaries feel that I am discounting their service and sacrifice?” “Will the Lord raise up partners in the States and on the mission fields of Asia and the Middle East?”
These and many more “doubts and fears” flooded my soul. What I found was that God already had men in Asia, and churches in the West that He wanted to use me to connect. I am as busy now in ministry as at anytime in the past forty years. I discovered that God’s calling and gifting are still valid as long as I am following Him. We never need to fear following Christ.
A gift is as a precious stone in the eyes of him that hath it: whithersoever it turneth, it prospereth.—Proverbs 17:8
There Is Fruitfulness after the Pastorate
Perhaps my greatest fear prior to leaving the pastorate was that I would no longer be fruitful in helping to advance the Great Commission. What I found was that by “stepping down” I was able to “step up” to a new level of service. By God’s grace, even though I am no longer able to be “pastor” to one local church, I have dozens of young men in multiple countries across Asia that consider me their pastor as I help them to pastor their own churches. My wife and I now live and serve in Southern China where every week we hear of people being saved and baptized through our pastors who serve in some of the most difficult parts of the world.
And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.—2 Timothy 2:2
In conclusion, I want to say clearly that these thoughts are in no way an encouragement for others to resign at the age of sixty-five. There are many older men that are leading successful local churches. Only God knows when it is time for Elijah to relinquish the mantle to Elisha. I did not retire from the ministry, but I did retire from pastoring one local church and the past three years have shown that in my case, it was the right move for both the local church and myself.