At our church we are currently undergoing a “pastoral transition.” That’s a rather pleasant-sounding way to describe a lot of work and emotional trauma. My close friend, our senior pastor of 25 years, resigned in early 2019 and took up a new career (for which he is well-suited) as a chaplain. Subsequent to that, our long-term (18 years) associate pastor also resigned, so he could take up a senior pastorate at a church in Colorado.
That’s a lot of transition for a small-ish (175 people) church. Of course when anybody leaves, it’s emotionally difficult. We’ve hired an interim pastor who is a transition specialist, and that’s helpful, but in many ways it still feels like a different church. And it doesn’t help that both our attendance and our giving now seem to be waning, which was expected.
When I first learned of the transitions, I was distraught. I liked our church the way it was, and enjoyed the friendship and camaraderie of working with our pastors. As much as I like change, stepping into an uncertain future can fill one with foreboding.
And then there’s all the extra work. In October I retired from my day job with World Vision, and I thought I would have all this extra time on my hands. I planned to spend it both doubling down on my ministry work at the church, and on my mushroom hobby/business, and on spending time with family, and on my writing.
But suddenly the need to invest large quantities of time and energy in keeping the plates spinning at church is pressing down on me. I’m an elder, and a member of our transition team. Both take up lots of time and energy. I’m still a member of one of our worship teams, and due to transitions we have had to accelerate from a monthly commitment to twice-monthly. So basically, double. I’m community ministry (small groups) director, and I’ve felt the need during the transition to “double down” on my work with groups and their leaders to ensure that the whole church is processing the transition as well as possible.
And, I’m also in charge of our church’s prayer ministry. And it’s times like this when you really need to pray, right?
Sound exhausting? It is. Sometimes I find myself investing as much time in these activities in a given week as I would have earlier spent on my full-time job.
So in the midst of all this emotional struggle and investment of energy, I’ve tried to find and keep a good perspective on the difficulties associated with this (and any other serious) leadership transition. And as it just so happens, last weekend I ran across a gem.
I am currently leading (or co-leading) three small groups, each meeting every other week. One is a group of leaders I am training. The other is a regular mixed community group, which Darlene and I took over from our senior pastor when he left. And the third is a men’s Bible study, in which I am coaching my co-leader. (He eventually wants to help me in my ministry as a coach of men’s group leaders.)
It was in this latter group that my a-ha moment occurred. We are doing case studies looking at biblical leaders to see what principles we can glean about leadership. And on Saturday I moderated a study of the leadership transition between Elijah and Elisha, from 2 Kings 2.
Originally I thought this was going to be all about mentorship, as an aspect of leadership. I am coaching my co-leader, and also have been discipling one of the young men in this group. But the amazing thing we discovered is that 2 Kings 2 isn’t as much about mentorship (and yes, Elijah had a mentoring relationship for a full 10 years with Elisha) as it is about transition (what happens when one leader leaves and another must assume his mantle).
Elisha was a devoted follower of Elijah. But his mentorship as Israel’s one-day lead prophet, taking over this mantle from Elijah, was very intentional.
When it came time (in 2 Kings 2) for that transition to occur, Elijah gave Elisha several opportunities to withdraw, but Elisha insisted he would follow. He followed Elijah first to Bethel, then to Jericho, then to the edge of the Jordan River. Also in the entourage were 50 “lesser prophets,” local prophets in Israel.
Once at the river, Elijah removed and rolled up his cloak or mantle (the symbol of his prophetic authority) and smote the river Jordan with it. Just as the waters parted before both Moses (at the Red Sea) and Joshua (also at the Jordan), so they split before Elijah, and he and Elisha continued on across, leaving the rest of the prophets behind.
Elijah then asks Elisha — both knowing that his time is short — “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you,” and Elisha responds brazenly, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.”
Eliijah replies, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” But sure enough, chariots of fire soon separate Elijah and Elisha, then Elisha sees Elijah taken up into heaven in a whirlwind.
At this point Elisha rightly grieves for what once was, just as I shed tears at the meeting for our senior pastor, my friend, when he announced he was leaving. Elisha tears his garment in a sign of mourning for Elijah’s departure. But then Elijah’s prophetic mantle comes fluttering down, and Elisha picks it up. He turns his back on the scene and heads back toward the Jordan. Then he does something extraordinary and incredibly risky.
Elisha takes Elijah’s cloak, rolls it up just as Elijah had done, and cries aloud (in the hearing of the prophets who are watching from the other side), “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” He then strikes the waters with Elijah’s cloak, just as the mighty prophet had done. What an enormous act of faith! But, sure enough, the waters part, just as they had for Elijah. God shows up! His back to the departed Elijah, Elisha walks across (alone) on dry ground, and rejoins the prophets.
As a result, the prophets now are compelled to acknowledge that “the spirit of Elijah has rested on Elisha!” (Duh! … right?) Yet these prophets remain focused on the glory of the past. They want to launch a search mission to try and find Elijah. “It may be that the Spirit of the Lord has caught him up to cast him onto some mountain or in some valley!” They are not yet willing to “let go.”
But Elisha has already “let go.” He seeks to dissuade them: Elijah is departed! Here is reality. But they persist, and so he finally relents. They search for Elijah for three fruitless days, but of course they come up empty. “Didn’t I tell you?” Elisha challenges them. The past is behind, the transition has occurred, and the future is now upon us.
So as he approaches that challenging and uncertain future, Elisha has chosen to leave Elijah in the past and seek the ever-living LORD of the past, present, and future. New days and new challenges are ahead!
Through His Word, God challenged me: “Are you going to be like one of those lesser prophets, refusing to let go of days gone by? Or are you going to be like Elisha, who was prepared to meet the future, who turned his back on his mourning and headed out in faith and anticipation toward the river and whatever lay ahead?”
Yes, transition is uncomfortable. It is emotionally challenging, risky, and a lot of work. But so is this task to which Jesus has called us: “Take up your cross, and follow Me.” And elsewhere, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
Yes, God is changing me! I am to learn from the past, thank him for the past, but not to dwell in it. I am to move forward at this present moment, in faith, with hope for what He will do in whatever future He has in store for me.