By Tyler Hartford

With 15 years of congregational ministry experience, Tyler Hartford is currently Director of Church Leadership for Evana Network of Churches. Tyler and Genessa live in Goshen, IN with their seven children. He and his parents came to Christ through the evangelistic efforts of Bangor Baptist Church (now Crosspoint), Bangor, ME. A graduate of Hillsdale College (MI), Tyler left his career in the performing arts to go into pastoral ministry. His passions include traveling, reading historical non-fiction, and just about any form of visual art.

    Shooting the Rapids and Necessary Endings: Navigating Ministry Transition

    Wednesday, November 29, 2023

    “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
    For wisdom and might are His.
    And He changes the times and the seasons;
    He removes kings and raises up kings;
    He gives wisdom to the wise
    And knowledge to those who have understanding.
    Daniel 2:20b-21 (NKJV)

    The life of a pastor places us at the intersection of many transitions and endings. We gather with our people to mark births, rebirths, unions, and goodbyes. We have opportunity to speak life over whole groups of diverse people. And, since ministry work is highly relational, we feel these transitions deeply when we experience raging rapids and clear endings ourselves.

    Shooting the Rapids

    Over the course of two decades of work within non-profit and church ministry work, there is one article I have recommended more than any other. A survey conducted among Evangelical Covenant Church pastors for the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program revealed three natural phases, or “rapids”, where pastors clarify their calling and ask questions about where they are at in their ministry work (See link here).

    The key takeaway is that pastors experience major transformational shifts in ministry around the 5-8 year mark, the 13-15 year mark, and the 20-25 year mark.  How those key points are handled will determine a minister’s longevity in their role. Each pivot point is a chance to step out or step further into a life of pastoral ministry.

    In the formational stage, the 5-8 years, pastors ask the question, “What am I doing?” How that question is answered will determine whether they navigate the rapids and speaks to their commitment to self-discovery. The call to serve is no longer some abstract idea but has legs and is being fleshed out. My own view is this is the season when a church and pastor begin to know what life together might look like. It isn’t any surprise to me when we see churches or pastors stuck in a swirling cycle of 5–7-year assignments.

    Around the midlevel of 13-15 years, ministers and their family have experienced woundedness. They have paid the price whether it’s in multiple or a single ministry setting. Deep transformation takes place here as pastors ask, “Do I want to keep doing this? Can I envision another 10-15 years?” The report notes,

    “At this mid-point, pastors have to be able to re-imagine themselves in the pastoral role for the second half of their ministerial journey. Such re-imagining requires a high level of self-awareness, a growing contentment about one’s gifts and liabilities, and a mission motivation that outweighs the cost. Healthy habits formed early in pastoral ministry, even before the first set of rapids—and then honed in those rapids—give clergy strength as they enter this second set of rapids. 

    Such strength is needed, for these second rapids are the most intense in the river. These are category 5 rapids. They exact the highest cost. In this formational stage, the clergy community experiences the highest rate of attrition of any point in the river. The key word that marks this period is “sacrifice.” Being sustained through this stage, successfully emerging and paddling on towards the third formational stage, requires good self-awareness, healthy boundaries, relational fitness and a freshening of devotional patterns.”

    What strikes me about the second paragraph is how it aligns deeply with Care for Pastors’ stated goals and current work. We can’t power our way through this stage. When we attempt to shortcut the work Jesus is doing in us through these rapids, our kayaks take on water and we get crushed between or upon the rocks.

    The third phase around 20-25 years is a season of asking, “How do I finish well? What is my legacy?” Ministers have been in their roles longer than they will be serving into the future. Anything started now must be done with the expectation that fruit may not be seen by the original visionary. I like to think of it as a season of moving from a Joshua who builds and leads through a new land to a Moses who has faithfully led his people to the edge of the new future they have together, while also acknowledging they may cross the river without him. This is a crucial posture for older leaders, as we all know of leaders who have a hard time envisioning a ministry apart from their involvement or have not prepared their people well for the next season.

    Necessary Endings

    The above framework has really spoken into my own journey. How I answered questions in the 5–7-year period resulted in the strength to say yes to a new Lead role and sustained me through some very difficult discussions involving necessary changes around governance, affiliation, new church name, construction projects, and worship shifts. During my 14th year of ministry, I had come to a place where I knew who I was as a ministering person, and while my congregation had been a gift to work with, there were scars from everyday service. The way I answered those questions gave me the ability to say “yes” to keep serving in my current role, or to transition if the right opportunity came up. While I did eventually take a different ministry role, the second phase questions allowed me to navigate the changes and really trust God through prayer and discernment.

    During that season, I also came across Henry Cloud’s book, Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of US Have to Give up in Order to Move Forward. A required staff reading among some of my pastoral peers, this text was recommended by a friend who said to read it before I made any move. At the core of Cloud’s text, he says,

    “First, accept life cycles and seasons; second, accept that life produces too much life, and third, accept that incurable illness and sometimes evil are part of life too. Taken together, these three principles will help you to make peace with endings, so that when their time has come, you will be able to do what you need to do.”

    He makes a very persuasive argument that life is impossible to live without change. And endings will come from three main areas. One, we must embrace cycles. Just as a child grows up and leaves home, we have seasons and cycles in our ministry life that we grow out of, develop out of, or find ourselves leaving behind to go into the new future. Two, just as a plant might become tall and spindly or a tangled mess, we cut and prune because there is too much life. Too much growth. In most agricultural settings, a concentration of focus on one branch bearing one cluster of fruit will result in larger, healthier, and tastier fruit. Perhaps the same might be true of ministry as we seek to clarify our calling and focus. And thirdly, branches die, or become diseased. What was once healthy and productive can shrivel up and draw nutrients and moisture away from the main stem and the other branches. It can even introduce infection into the healthy parts. We all know of moments when programs, relationships, and other aspects of ministry began to suck the life out rather than give life.

    I don’t know where you may find yourself in the ministry stream, or along the discernment of necessary endings, but it’s my hope that you find the strength, the wisdom, the gifts to stay the course and experience a life-long call and work to ministry. It may not always look like what we anticipated, and difficult times are just to be expected. In closing, as you discern and serve, please don’t lose sight of what I like to call God’s favorite prayer to answer. He longs for each of us to reach out and lean on His wisdom, grace, and love.

    If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. James 1:5 (NKJV)

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