Passing the baton

[For two years I have served as transition pastor for Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Tonawanda, New York, as the congregation searched for its next regularly installed pastor. Most of these ruminations are messages I shared with them during worship on Sunday mornings. A new pastor set to begin ministry on May 17. This is my last post as their transition pastor.]

When the time came to fill the vacancy left by the betrayal and death of Judas, members of the church prayed. “And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles (Acts 1:15-26).

The image I use to identify my practice as a transition ministry specialist depicts the baton in a relay race being passed from the hand of one runner to the hand of another. My job is to serve as one of the middle legs of a relay race. I didn’t start the race, and I’m not going to finish it. My job is to carry the baton of pastoral leadership for a short distance before passing it on to someone else. When you think about it, isn’t that the role of every one of us?

As an intentional interim minister, I learned that every Christian pastor is an interim pastor. Every pastor stands at the end of a long tradition that goes back 2,000 years to the first disciples of Jesus. It goes back thousands of years before that to the first stirrings in a human heart of a word from God seeking expression. And every pastor stands at the beginning of a tradition that stretches into the distant future. My job, in this brief moment of transition, is to pass the best of tradition on to those who follow in the next leg of the race, without dropping the baton.

And isn’t that your job, also? It’s our job to pass on to those who follow the faith we have received from those who went before. Not any particular expression of faith, not the wardrobe in which faith is dressed for the time being, for true faith will always seek new and original expression, but faith itself, the value there is in living a life totally dependent upon God, in every moment grateful to God, in every thought and action authentically expressive of God.

The great American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein said, “I’m not interested in having an orchestra sound like itself. I want it to sound like the composer.” He also said of himself, “If I don’t become Brahms or Tchaikovski or Stravinsky when I’m conducting their works, then it won’t be a great performance.”

My job as a transition pastor, my job as a Christian – and yours, too, I think – is to make the church sound like its composer, to make our life echo the music of its maker. If we don’t become Christ when we’re doing Christ’s work, then ours won’t be a great performance. It won’t be a great and faithful witness to the gospel.

In every transition, as the mantle of leadership is passed to a new pastor, and as the faithful witness of the congregation is renewed, we have the opportunity to start the race again, as if from the beginning. We have the opportunity to remember who we are and to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).

Your new pastor, Pastor Miranda, will be with us in morning prayer next week. It will be the day of Pentecost, when we remember God’s giving of the Holy Spirit to the young church, when the sons and daughters of God’s people would prophesy and see visions and dream dreams, and when everyone who called on the name of the Lord would be saved (Acts 2:1-21). It will be the day when one of our number will confirm for herself the faith in which she was baptized. And it will be a day for more than that. It will be a day when the mantle, the baton, of spiritual leadership is passed from one pastor to another. And it will be a day when every one of us has the opportunity to renew our grip on the baton of faith that has been passed on to us and that we in turn will pass on to those who come next.

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