Life in a post-Genesis 3 world ensures both heavenly and hellish days as we march toward the New Jerusalem. Whether we’re basking in the warmth of God’s blessings or trudging through the snow of a difficult season, notes of grace are all around us. An unexpected note of grace opened before me this past weekend with my mentor, Steve McLean (about whom I’ve written in a previous blog), as I attended his retirement ceremony at Argyle Presbyterian Church—the body of believers he served so faithfully for thirty-three years.
I must admit that I had no category for a moving retirement celebration, but as I’ve reflected on that weekend a number of lessons came to mind. Here they are:
- God’s faithfulness. He sends servants to minister to his people, no matter where they may be. And thankfully, he works in the hearts of people, moving them to willing service. God took a city boy from Philadelphia to an isolated rural community in upstate New York. As one elderly saint put it, “It must be the call of God because it’s not common sense.” Indeed.
- Living on mission makes a difference. Testimony after testimony poured forth from the lips of Argyle’s residents. From Steve’s work as a volunteer firefighter, to his wife Kim’s incessant substitute teaching—these servants of God lived not for themselves but “for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15). They modeled the tagline of their church: Making disciples who make a difference.
- God is a true comedian. Since Steve planned on serving a church near his hometown of Philadelphia, upon graduating from Gordon Conwell he urged his denomination to send his résumé to churches within a certain radius. They complied with this request, dutifully disbursing his résumé to the appropriate sixty congregations in need of a pastor. Except that didn’t happen. Due to an “accidental oversight,” an additional résumé was unintentionally sent to a rural church in Argyle, New York. And as they say, the rest is history. Steve served this congregation from 1986 to 2019. Truly, the words of the sage ring true: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9).
- The tender relationship between pastor and people. True shepherds love their people and Christ’s sheep maintain a fond affection for their overseers. Yes, the pastor has his faults and the people have their foibles, but such is life together. Ministry is real life, not a staged Facebook or Instagram story—which is why God’s people should prefer an imperfect pastor who wrestles with self-doubt over a “vision-caster” who walks with a swag, and why pastors should opt to serve the congregation in front of them and not the imagined one in their dreams. In a ministerial culture jam-packed with platform-builders, Steve took a different route. He faithfully plodded and persevered, applying himself to the tasks of pastoral life—preaching, praying, pronouncing benedictions, along with planning sessions and presiding at weddings and funerals, voicing laments with the heartbroken and uttering praises with the joyful.
- The benefit of a long ministry. You can make a difference by staying put in one church for a long time. While it’s not always God’s will for a pastor to serve one congregation throughout his time in ministry, so long as it depends on us, we should strive for a long, enduring ministry in one place.
- Ministry is gift, not gain. Here I purposely borrow from and yet modify David Gibson’s words. But the overall point is the same: Ministry is a privilege. We didn’t earn it. Whether we serve a mega-church filled with wealthy suburbanites or a rural congregation that struggled each year to make budget, the fact remains—it was all grace. Yes, the bruising demands of ministry are real. Yes, sheep bite. Yes, wading into people’s lives is messy. But when it comes time to pronounce the last benediction over our people and the images of our lives flicker movie-like in the theater of our minds, truly we’ll confess with our lips, “It was all of grace. It is well with my soul.”