The Pain of Leaving and the Joy of Arriving

I recently announced my resignation from my post as the Lead Pastor of Gold Hill Baptist Church because my wife, family and I sense that the time is right for us to transition the focus of my ministry to Ireland. I’ll be taking up the role of Lead Pastor for Dundonald Elim Church in May. You can read the announcement about me leaving Gold Hill here and the announcement at Dundonald about me being appointed here.

The Pain of Parting

It’s a funny business having to say goodbye to people that you love so deeply. I agreed to pastor this beautiful community in June of 2010 and was inducted in September of the same year. Leaving is really hard. In order to lead and pastor people, you have to love them. In order to love them, you have to give them your heart. That means when you leave you also leave part of your heart with them. I love this church. I love its heart, I love the men and women and boys and girls who make it up. I love its passion, I love its vision and I love its mission. I’ve married people here. I’ve held the hands of those who have lost loved ones and conducted funerals. I’ve dedicated children here. I’ve stepped into the pulpit week after week and tried my best be faithful to God’s word here. Saying goodbye isn’t a matter of tying up loose ends and tootling off to new pastures. It breaks my heart.

I’ve spent each morning since the announcement praying for this beautiful family. My tears have fallen on their names in my prayer book and as I have prayed, I have remembered how beautiful they are and I’ve stopped to allow myself to feel how deeply I will miss them. They have such a wonderful future and I know God holds them in His hands. There is nothing wrong in my leaving. No disappointment, no negative cause – just a sense that God has disrupted our plans and led us to move. But when I preach for the last Sunday here, it will be a tough gig – the 18th March is going to be both beautiful and painful at the same time – but that’s what it should be! We’ll have a great party of celebration on the 17th March (St Patrick’s Day! So if you’re coming, wear green!). How can I capture the love we  share in three Sunday sermons?  It’s impossible. They will always have part of my heart – and so they should. I am reminded of the small glimmer of the pain of parting in Paul’s departure from the Church in Ephesus, (Acts 21:5-6, NRSV):

When our days there were ended, we left and proceeded on our journey; and all of them, with wives and children, escorted us outside the city. There we knelt down on the beach and prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home.

It’s hard to say goodbye. It will almost kill me I think. Just writing these words is an exercise in will power. I love you, Gold Hill family. Never, ever think that this leaving is because I don’t love you. It’s because I love God more and think this is what He wants me to do. It’s hard to understand, I know – but I know you love God more than you love me, too. We’ll get there.

One of my fellow leaders wrote something that has perfectly captured how this all feels. He sent it to me and the other elders the day after I resigned:

This is not the turning of a cold organisational machine. It’s not the dotting of a contractual ‘i’ or the crossing of an obligatory ‘t’.  Resignation and the accepting of do not really capture the essence.  It’s more like a transportation from one realm of ministry to another. This is the movement and music of the Kingdom of God, often seeming and feeling disruptive, yet warm and fresh and alive with promise. This is about releasing in love, having held in harmony. It’s about, giving with gladness, having received with gratitude, believing that God who delights to give will graciously give again.

I choose to welcome this stirring of the Spirit, believing it to be the direction of the Son and the design of the Father. Sorrowing, yet filled with joy; bereft, yet comforted deeply, I embrace afresh the mystery and sovereignty of God, believing that His ways are good – and warm and fresh and alive with promise.

I am blown away by the love and support of the elders, staff and family at Gold Hill. They’ve been breath-taking. Our unity in this journey is priceless and we are modelling good transition in ways that just make me want to fall silent in humility and gratitude to God. I am holding on to those words from my friend and fellow elder. They are a beautiful reminder to me of how to approach the pain of leaving and allow it to mingle with the joy of arriving.

The Joy of Arriving

I’m also excited about the next chapter. The Church family at Dundonald have been through so much. They are ready to welcome us with open arms. As one part of the Church says farewell to us, another part of the Church is preparing to welcome us. We are full of joy at the prospect of being there and I am full of excitement and joy at the thoughts of leading them, loving them and serving them. I’ll give them my heart too and trust that they will be as tender with it as Gold Hill has been over the years. I’ll marry some of them, I’ll dedicate their children, I’ll stand at the graveside and hold their hands. And each week, I’ll do my best to preach the Word of God to them faithfully. Together, we will make memories, share dreams, allow God to heal us of the things that other people cannot see and grow to become more like our Saviour, Jesus Christ. They will discover some of the inadequacies in me that Gold Hill already know about and I will soon find that they are not the perfect community. My joy at being called by God to lead them is profound. My faith for what lies ahead is high. My commitment is to love them as deeply as I can and to walk with them as faithfully as I am able.

Living with the tension

On the day that my resignation was announced here, my appointment was announced in Dundonald. That’s a funny thing to me. One congregation is sorrowing, another is rejoicing. Another friend and colleague here captured that for me beautifully. He prayed for Debbie and me, for Gold Hill and for Dundonald in our morning service. As he prayed, he spoke of the whole Church as Christ’s body, and he thanked God that we cannot lose one another in this Body. One part of the Body is releasing me to another part of the body. Whilst that is painful, it is also joyous. I’m grateful to him for those words and for that beautiful prayer. I will cherish it always.

It is the responsibility of pastoring to carry this tension, I think. To hold the parting in your heart along with the arriving. I’ve never been the centre of Gold Hill and I won’t be the centre of Dundonald – that’s God’s rite, not mine. I’m so grateful for the team that has been built here and their competency, passion and love. I’m glad that I’ve made investing in others and releasing them a high priority because it is helping us now. I want to have the same commitment to investing in and releasing women and men in Dundonald. As we progress through the next eight weeks, I’ll be doing everything I can to make sure the transition from ‘here’ to ‘there’ honours Jesus and blesses both local churches. Here are the commitments I have made to the Lord that I think will help with that process:

  1. I’ll give people the chance to be honest about their sorrow and disappointment that I am leaving Gold Hill and will not pretend that it is easy for them or for me. I’m sorry to be the cause of this hurt for them and I will be humble enough to apologise for that. Even though I believe I am making the right choice, I won’t diminish the pain of parting. I’ll listen, love and learn from this experience as much as I can and I’ll try to help the Church here to do the same.
  2. I’ll be fully present until I leave. I won’t lock myself away. I’ll make sure my heart is as open as my office door. I’ll do everything I can to give people time and to walk with them. I will give my very best to my remaining ministry here and not turn my heart away from the people I love.
  3. I’ll finish well. That includes the small things people won’t see as well as the big things they will. That means, for me, the following:
    1. Making sure I look after the staff team properly. I’ll make their roles as clear as I can for when I go, answer as many questions as I can, give them time for good line management, appraisals, exit interviews and hand-overs. I’ll handle my paperwork and administration well and leave my desk and my ‘portfolios’ as well prepared as I can for the next woman or man who might be called to lead Gold Hill forward.
    2. I’ll make sure my preaching is as faithful as I can make it. I’ll not use the pulpit as a weapon, and I will do all I can to make sure my sermons are uplifting, encouraging and inspiring. I’ll help people remember that Jesus isn’t leaving.
    3. I’ll not interfere with the Eldership’s plans for the future. I support them 100% and at every opportunity I will affirm them, serve them and help them. I’ve leave time to answer their questions and the things that they need me to do to make transition as easy and as clear as possible. I won’t try to appoint the new leader and I won’t pass comment on the priorities the elders or the Church set.
    4. I’ll leave my pastoral notes as up-to-date as possible. In the remaining eight weeks of my ministry I will continue to pray for every single person who is part of this church family by name regularly.
    5. In the last few weeks of my ministry here, I will visit the gravesides or the crematorium’s of those who have died since I came, wherever possible. I will pray for their families.
    6. I will make sure that on the anniversaries or weddings I have conducted, dedications I have presided over, funerals I have been involved in and baptisms I have been the pastor for, I will pray for the people involved until I die, they do, or Jesus takes me home (this is a principle of my ministry that I have held since becoming a pastor).
    7. I will be available to the team and the Church after I have left in any way that will help without being an interference.
  4. I will love the people here deeply forever. I will speak well of them and thank God for them. I will honour them and always count it a privilege to have served them.
  5. I will not be afraid to celebrate the call to Dundonald, but I will not allow my excitement at the new chapter of my ministry to be offensive to those I am leaving. I will manage my emotions as best I can.
  6. I will allow time between my leaving Gold Hill and my commencement of ministry at Dundonald to have some rest and to wait on the Lord. I am praying for my new church family now and I will continue to do so, asking God to prepare them, and me, for our life together.
  7. I will not simply repeat my preaching and teaching from Gold Hill in Dundonald. I will seek to serve them fresh bread and listen to God for what He wants of us in our ministry together. Prayer for the Church and for the community will be an extremely high priority for me. I will not water down the Gospel and I will not apologise for God’s Word.
  8. I will honour and pray for my new leaders and seek to get to know them, pastor them, love them and encourage them. Ill seek to behave with integrity and honour in all I do and will listen to them and empower them as much as I can. I will build a team.
  9. I will serve the community of Dundonald, not just the Church. I will commit myself to being part of the Church in Belfast and in Ireland and will play my part, alongside my sisters and brothers in God’s family across Ireland, in lifting up the name of Jesus. I will seek to release women and men into all God has for them and will be a leader who loves people deeply, holds them lightly and seeks to encourage new ventures of faith for the Kingdom of God.
  10. I will invest in others and release them as much as I can for the Kingdom of God and I will not allow myself to be drawn into unnecessary arguments or distractions. I will encourage a new generation to rise and take risks for the Kingdom of God.

A Life of Following

I am aware that some of you will be in your own transitions. Some of you will be pastors, elders or leaders. When I became a Pastor, I promised to serve God’s Church wherever He called me. I knew that would take me from my native shores – but I didn’t realise I would be away from Ireland for nearly thirty years. Now I sense God calling me ‘home’. Not only does that involve returning to Northern Ireland, it also involves returning to the leadership of a local Elim Church – a movement I have been part of for three decades and which I thank God for. In so many different ways, I am coming home…

The emotion that stirs in me is inexplicable. I will look at it in my next blog on the subject of transition and try to explain what it means for Debbie and me and our family to be making this journey. Almost three decades of my life have been spent serving God in Scotland and in England. I count it a deep honour and joy. Yet now I find myself standing on the edge of a journey into the known and the unknown. The Northern Ireland I am returning to is a place and culture that is vastly different from the one I left in the 1980’s. My wife has never lived there, yet sees a kinship of the culture to her native Scotland. Our children are excited and passionate about the journey too. Why? Well, we promised God we would follow His leading when we surrendered our lives to Him – wherever that took us and whatever it meant. Our next steps are clear – but we ask you for your prayers, your support and your friendship as we journey into a chapter whose paragraphs, sentences and words are yet to be formed, let alone written.

1 comment

  1. I thank God for bringing you to Gold Hill. I believe God bought you to GH to get the new building sorted. It’s something that had been rumbling in the background for about 30 years to my knowledge, I started attending GH in 1985. I feel for my GH family as you & Debbie will be missed very much but know that you go with love & God’s blessings. The elders of GH have listened to God in the past, bringing in the right man for the job. I know that they will wait on the Lord to know who should follow in your footprints. Praying for your new family as they prepare to welcome you. May you all be richly blessed in these last 6 weeks or so. Love & blessings


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