Who Will Take Our Place?

One of my colleagues retired this spring. It was a sad day both for me and for the congregation we served together. I saw more tears on his last day than I ever remember seeing before. The good news, I tried to remind myself, was that he wasn’t going anywhere. After a few much anticipated trips, including an extended one to Europe, David and Martha plan to sit in the pews on Sunday mornings and sing the hymns and participate in church life, though now in a new role–for him and for the church.

David has been a fine colleague–a person of integrity, fairness, and high standards for ministry. He went to seminary almost a generation before I did, so the differences between us surface now and then, often in subtle ways. David can quote Tillich, and he has a keen eye for social justice issues. My own theological thinking was shaped more by Moltmann (perhaps because he lectured on campus two or three times while I was there?), and my pastoral instincts (reflecting my own coming of age in ministry) veer toward small groups and growth strategies.

Still, we have worked well together. I have found joy in working with him. I trusted him in a way that’s rare in church staff relationships these days. I knew that, when he spoke about me in unofficial and off-the-record settings, he would speak only in positive and respectful ways. If he had differences with me–how can you not have differences in a church staff situation?–I knew that he would come to my office door and ask for a few minutes. Then and there, with just the two of us, we talked out whatever was between us, and most of the time we came to an understanding both of us could live with. I also knew that when he agreed to do something–make a hospital call, officiate at a funeral, train church of- ficers–it would be done thoughtfully and thoroughly. No church members ever came back to me after something he did to complain or gripe. (If they had, I would have told them to work it out, whatever it was, with David, the same way he and I worked things out.)

I suppose that since David was well into his seventies when he retired, you could say that he had nothing to lose. Of course there was no conflict, according to this reasoning, since he had long since accepted his role on staff. He was content to be the coordinator of pastoral care–nothing more, nothing less. If you said or thought something like that, however, you would not be describing David or any of the 70- something pastors I have had the privilege of serving alongside during the course of my ministry. One hopes that pastors grow and mature and get better with experience. One hopes that jealousy, competition, or personality conflict would somehow disappear after a certain age. But that has not been the case in my experience. Church staffs can have problems no matter what ages the members of the staff happen to be.

What I’m saying is that David was good, really good–and therefore it was extraordinarily difficult to say goodbye to him. I’ll miss him at staff meetings, and I’ll miss knowing that he’s in the office just down the hall from my own. If something comes up, a problem I need to think through with a trusted friend, I can still give him a call. (He rather steadfastly refused to learn how to read or send email, which I found curious. In another 20-25 years will I be willing to learn new technologies? I’d rather not speculate.) But the old days are over. Who will replace David–and others like him?

In his last couple of months before retirement, David demonstrated yet again why I valued his experience, maturity, and feel for ministry. He made at least a half dozen calls on young people within the church, 14- to 17-year-olds, several of whom David himself had baptized. He alerted their parents that he would be dropping by, and he told them only that he wanted a half hour or so alone with their kids.

After each visit, as I understand it, parents quizzed their kids about the purpose of the visit, and mostly the kids said, “Oh, we just talked.” One apparently volunteered to his parents that David had told him to “get a liberal arts education.”   I wonder: at what point was this responsibility dropped from the job description of every pastor?  What was the purpose of these visits? As David told me later, he had identified about six youth within the congregation who looked as though they might have the gifts for ministry. So, he went out to tell them about the potential he saw in them: “I think you would make a fine pastor,” he said, “and I would like it if you would give [becoming a pastor] some thought and prayer.”

If someone had said that to me when I was 15, I’m not sure what I would have said in response. It might have been something like this: “Well, okay, but it would have to be after my career in professional baseball.” David, I’m guessing, had a response for just such a young person, and I’ll be watching and listening in the next few years for signs that these seeds David planted have begun to sprout. My guess is that more than one fell on fertile, receptive soil. David did something else before he left. On the day of his farewell (and reception in the church social hall after worship), he both preached and gave the children’s sermon–Sermon I and Sermon II is how we refer to them at staff meetings. Both were terrific and touching and everything I had hoped they would be, but it was the children’s sermon (naturally) that made the deepest impression on me.

After inviting the children forward, he motioned to the other members of the staff and asked us to stand (we were all participating in worship that day and therefore we were all sitting up front). Then David said, “They are all getting older, and they will all be retiring one day just like me.” There was a hearty laugh at this point–not from the kids, who found it easy to think of us as old, but from the congregation–a laugh that was repeated at all of the morning services. Finally David said, “Who is going to take their places?”

At the 9:30 service one young man not only put up his hand as far as it would go, but he also stood up. David had no choice but to call on him, and in a voice everyone in the congregation could hear, the young man said, “Someone else will!” While it wasn’t exactly the response David was hoping for, the words unexpectedly drove home the point of the sermon.

Who will take David’s place? Well, the position has already been filled by a person of exceptional pastoral skills, and I am looking forward to our partnership on staff in the years to come. But who will take her place one day? Who will take mine? As David asked in his children’s sermon, who will take the place of the other members of the staff who, whether or not they had thought about it before, are getting a little long in the tooth?

We need more pastors like David–not just people of uncommon competence and deep faith, but people who are willing to seek out their replacements, people who will say, “I think you have the gifts to do this work.” I wonder: At what point was this responsibility dropped from the job description of every pastor?

One of my seminary professors, an African American who grew up poor, but who was singled out at an early age as someone with gifts for ministry, tells the story of his high school basketball coach, a coach whose teams were perennial contenders. The coach, according to the story, would go out to the playgrounds where kids were playing the game, and he would say to one or two of them, “You’ve got the moves to be a fine player. I want you to come out for the team this year.” And they always did. The approach makes so much sense.

I’m not planning my own retirement any time soon, and if I work as long as my friend David, I’m going to be at this for many years to come. But I’ve learned something important from my former colleague. My work isn’t finished until I take up the responsibility of planting some seeds. I need to head out to the playgrounds and watch for kids who’ve got the moves.

After all, we are all getting older. We will all be retiring one day soon. Who is going to take our place?

Douglas Brouwer is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is a contributing editor to Perspectives and has written a book on vocation, forthcoming from Eerdmans in early 2006.