I came into the Bible study exhausted, un-showered, wearing a baseball hat, and clutching not a Bible, but a Tupperware container that held my cold, left-over dinner. All around me swirled comments and scripture readings, but on that night, the best I could do was show up and absorb it. And it was amazing.
You see, until that fall, I had been the leader of that very Bible study. For years I arrived dressed and prepared, sparkling and engaged, mentally ready and willing to share and teach God’s word. I poured hours into the group; I mentored and encouraged the women and rarely needed a week off. God gave me the gift of teaching and the time to prepare.
But then my schedule changed, and I couldn’t keep all the balls in the air. In fact, the balls were falling everywhere. I knew I had to step down from leading the Bible study. I still worked at the church by day, but God made it increasingly clear that my evenings would require a different focus and a reshuffling of priorities.
It was time to replace myself.
Often in ministry we face this transition with fear. Our roles, whether paid or volunteer, handle the very word of God. What if all the work we’ve done is swiftly undone? What if years of relationship building are lost in the face of change? What if the person who comes after us is not gifted in the same way we are?
Here’s the answer: Relax, it was never about you.
Either God was in control of your ministry when you led, or he wasn’t. And either he’ll be in control of the ministry when your replacement leads, or he won’t. If you believe he is, (and he is!) then step aside and enjoy all the ways God will minister through a new person.
This is not something that comes naturally to us, especially in our culture. It tells us to get ahead, to never let someone steal our thunder or take credit for our work, and to never quit while we’re succeeding. Certainly, aspects of those ideas are true in the right context. But in ministry, there is only one person who gets the final credit.
Hebrews 12:1-2b is a good reminder for those of us passing on the baton of leadership:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.
These verses sum up what it means to do ministry for the kingdom of God. We do what God calls us to do with everything we have. We cast off all the things that might hold us back, anything that causes us to be less than fully focused on the task at hand. But then, we remember that we are one of many in a great cloud of witnesses that reaches back to the time of the Old Testament.
A cloud is full of individual drops that are too small to be seen or noticed apart from what they have in common. In our case, we are the drops that form the cloud of witnesses that point to Jesus. Remember some of the witnesses in the cloud? They include Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, David and more. God called each of them. They were heroes of the Bible, champions of the faith, and yet after they were gone, God continued unfolding his plan and his will with new people.
That is because the last thing that these verses tell us, is that the only One creating, sustaining, leading, changing, and ultimately perfecting our faith is Jesus. Not us.
Sometimes replacement is about discipleship and mentoring and raising up the next person. Sometimes it’s about simply moving on. In my case, my replacement didn’t need my mentoring. She’d been teaching in other contexts for years and already knew her gifting and God’s call for her to teach.
Sometimes replacement is about preferences and personalities and making space for the different styles God has created in us. I’m loud; my replacement is soft spoken. I teach off an outline that probably only makes sense to me; she has multiple handouts designed to fit into binders she creates for the women. I will allow a digression about historical context or a word study; she prefers to stay focused on the narrative at hand so that the women always get through the full lesson.
We’re different and it’s been great. I’m learning new things and the women are thriving under her teaching. Most of all God is being glorified.
God calls us each to our roles for a set time and then he calls someone else, all the while his perfect plan moves forward. So, relax and keep your eyes on Jesus. You are utterly replaceable…because God is not.
About the Author:
Esther C. Baird is the Director of Women’s Ministries and Adult CE Coordinator at First Presbyterian Church North Shore outside of Boston. Her humor/parenting column, The Baird Facts, has been running for more than a decade in the local paper and she is the author of, Exodus to Advent: God’s Christmas plan for you and for me, which is available on Amazon. Her second book, Echoes of I AM: Life’s Big Questions Answered in God’s Great Name, is coming out in the Spring of 2020. Esther, her husband, their two daughters, and their two Bernese Mountain Dogs try to embrace the winters of New England, but only the dogs really succeed. For more of her work please visit: www.estherbaird.com