Periodically, I am asked if there is a preacher shortage. My answer is that there is no shortage of preachers, but that there is a shortage of good preachers — those who can actually contribute to congregational health and growth. And those few individuals will not be going to just any church with a vacant pulpit; they will choose one that can demonstrate that it is capable of receiving and implementing the kind of leadership such a person can provide.
Many churches discover this hard reality only after the departure of their previous minister. They jump into a search process with high hopes of hiring a man in his early forties who delivers inspiring and challenging sermons in addition to possessing a winsome personality, a heart for the lost, compassion for the sick, extraordinary wisdom, church growth know-how, a remarkable work ethic, deep commitment to his family, and unimpeachable integrity.
If they happen to discover such an individual, they quickly learn that he has little interest in exploring a position with their church. The leaders may assume that it's because they're not a megachurch or that they can't afford to pay top dollar. In reality, pay and congregational size are almost always secondary considerations for top-tier candidates. They will gladly choose a smaller church and a more modest salary in order to work in the kind of environment where their gifts can be used most effectively.
Once leaders realize that theirs is not the kind of congregation that top-tier candidates seek, what can they do? They could, as many do, make a quick hire, settling for second, third, or fourth best. Or, they could put the search process on hold while they pursue spiritual renovation by the Holy Spirit in order to become a body that can make best use of a top-tier candidate's gifts. This "time out" allows God to accomplish his purposes among them, just as he did with Israel during the wilderness wanderings. Wise leaders approach the "wilderness" of the transition period between ministers with anticipation that God will move among them in significant ways, making them more fit for a special and blessed future.
The Wilderness is a Place of Revelation
One of God's purposes in the wilderness is to reveal himself more completely to his people. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, they knew little about God. Remember that when God called Moses at the burning bush, one of the first things he asked for was God's name! In the wilderness, Israel's understanding of God grew exponentially. The seminal event, of course, was the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. But in addition to this, God revealed his compassionate, yet just, character to Moses in the wilderness (Exodus 34:6-7). And in following the pillar of cloud, the Israelites learned sensitivity to God's movements and guidance.
Transition periods in churches are "in-between" times, much as Israel's wilderness experience was. They can be golden opportunities for congregations and their leaders to grow deeper in their understanding of God. One obvious choice they can make is to devote themselves to a careful study of God's revealed word, the Bible, especially as it relates to the call and purpose of the church.
Beyond a careful search of the Scriptures, churches will want to look for evidence of God's presence and guidance. This can be done by prayerfully answering questions like the following:
- How has God shaped us?
- What mix of gifts has he placed among us?
- What are we uniquely suited to do?
- What is God up to in the broader community we serve?
- What kinds of people has God been bringing to us?
Careful attention to questions like these will bring God's call and God's will for that church into sharper focus.
The wilderness of transition is challenging and perhaps even painful. However, God is often revealed most clearly to us through pain and difficulty. Remember Job, after having suffered great loss and enduring great pain, said to God:
My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you (Job 42:5).Mature disciples through the ages attest to the fact that we often come to know God the most intimately during times of hardship and pain.
The Wilderness is a Place of Transformation
When the Israelites left Egypt, they were a ragtag group of newly-freed slaves. Forty-one years later, they entered the Promised Land as a nation with a clear identity, an army for protection, a law by which to govern themselves, and social conventions to insure property rights and fair play. When and where did all these necessary components of nationhood develop? The only answer is "the wilderness."
Apart from Spirit-directed transformation, a church will be little more than a social club to which a few like-minded folks may be attracted from time to time. But it will scarcely be an outpost of the kingdom of God, a body having powerful, godly impact on its surrounding community.
In Ephesians, Paul makes it clear that the church is undergoing a continual process of transformation so that it might more clearly embody the character of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:19-22; Ephesians 4:14-16).
Could it be that a church's transition periods are the times best suited for the operation of God's transforming power? Such times may be used to equip the church for far greater ministry ahead. And they may transform the church into the kind of body that can be a blessing to a top-quality minister.