Anticipation of retirement and separation between a pastor and the congregation comes with a strong level of anxiety and emotional turmoil. It may not be quite the same as a physical divorce or separation, but somehow the pain is just as real. Questions torment your mind – “After this Sabbath, will they remember me? Will my life and ministry make a difference in their future? Will the next pastor remember to pay special attention to the children? Who will they trust with their family issues? Will the community feel my absence and go back to being ignored? And worst of all – when we get to heaven, who will be missing???? And the questions go on and on, plaguing your mind as the departure day draws nearer and nearer!
You sit at your desk – the place where the Holy Spirit has inspired sermons time and time again for this congregation – but now it seems likes your ears have gone deaf – you can't seem to hear anything. Your attempts at writing this last sermon are interrupted (after every other word) by visual images of past ministry events – board meetings, nominating committees, baby blessings, baptisms, potlucks, weddings, building projects, evangelism meetings, community sharing, fundraising, and even warfare events in the parking lot! (Yes, there were a few of those!) What can I say that would keep "my sheep” together after I'm gone? Literally, I could not come up with any passage that would be the umbrella word covering all these issues. In desperation I grabbed my Bible – it had never failed me all these years! And my prayer was simple – Lord, you know what this church needs – please provide it. My Bible opened to Acts 20 – and my heart melted as I read the heading over verse 17 – "FAREWELL TO EPHESUS." Immediately, I knew that this passage would give me all that I needed for preaching my retirement sermon at this church.
After reading and rereading Paul’s farewell sermon, I was challenged to craft my sermon under three categories:
REVIEW THE PAST
Hindsight offers amazing testimonies! Verses 17-21 mentioned serving, declaring, teaching and testifying. Every pastor and congregation, at some point, has been engaged in these areas of ministry. Remembering HOW and remembering WHEN provides opportunity for reflection, and gives cause for celebration! I reminisced – “Remember how we would feed the homeless and hungry ones in our community every week? How we taught English as a second language classes? How we prayed and anointed the sick and marveled at their testimonies when they returned to declare the awesome power of God?” During the sermon as I reflected on those years, I could only summarize that "God WAS in control – He ordered our steps – and He blessed our ministry."
RECEIVE THE PRESENT
In verses 22-27 Paul assures the congregation that he is at peace with his present reality. He is on his way to Jerusalem to deal with a new, tough assignment – one that will finish his ministry. There was no tone of fear, regret, or "I wish I had more time". No – rather he confirmed that he could deal with the reality of not seeing their faces anymore because he did for them what he was assigned to do – to the best of his ability – he declared the whole purpose of God. It is always more comforting to the members to know that the leader is ready and prepared for this transition. In the sermon we reflected on how God always gave us a clear sign whenever a shift was about to take place. Since I received the sign before this retirement decision was announced, then we could only summarize that "God is in control – He orders our steps – and He is blessing our ministry" regardless of potential changes!
REVEAL THE FUTURE
The role of a true shepherd is to guard their sheep to the very end. In verses 28-31 Paul was careful to warn the congregation of possible future attacks – guard, protect yourselves against savage wolves from without and within the church. Stay on the alert – the enemy will attempt to destroy all that they have worked to accomplish. This gives them good reason to put aside any “pity party” and begin to shoulder the responsibility of protecting and safeguarding the work accomplished by the leader they so dearly loved. If they wanted to honor him, they could do so by defending his sheepfold - the church!
I felt an urgent need to share these five warnings:
1. Protect the young adults who have returned and given church a second chance.
2. Share leadership roles with the younger members – train them to be the leaders of today.
3. Reflect the love of Jesus – always graciously forgive! Watch the attitudes!
4. Continue to embrace the community with compassion.
5. Guard against false teachings, legalism, and traditionalism.
But the reality is that even if the church fulfilled all of the above, they can only be built up, sanctified and ready to receive their eternal inheritance if they are kept by the grace of God (v.32). As the undershepherd, I had to turn over the care and protection of my sheep to “the True Shepherd,” realizing that in the future God will be in control, he will order their steps, and He will bless their ministry!
And so rather than ending the sermon with the word – farewell or good bye, Paul knelt and prayed with them all, amidst tears, hugs and kisses.
A shepherd leaving their sheep in the care of another is an emotional experience, but it certainly helps to 1) Review the past – celebrating God’s blessings; 2) Receive the present – never regretting God’s leading; 3) Reveal the future – anticipating God’s covering. We sealed our love and commitment to meet in Heaven – (Judah’s Gate - to be specific) with a hopeful prayer:
1. May God bless you and keep you
2. May God make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you
3. May God lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace – until we meet again!
It may have been the last sermon – but it was bathed in lasting memories and everlasting hope!
Brenda Billingy is an associate director for NAD Ministerial