Transitions at the Right Time

During the 10 years I spent in full-time church music, there were always certain kinds of jokes floating around among staff people, and it always seemed like the gathering just before a staff meeting was when some of those jokes would be shared. Maybe you know what I’m talking about here. It’s not that these kinds of jokes are inappropriate, it’s just that they seem funnier to people who do ministry work every day, since there are some realities that simply come with working with people in that environment. Telling jokes like this is usually a harmless way to let off steam.

But some of those jokes have a little more truth in them than we normally expect, and sometimes there’s a little pain to go with the laughter. One of those jokes goes like this: “You know the difference between a new youth pastor and a former one? About two years.” I can still remember hearing people laughing at that, knowing that almost any ministry job title could be substituted into that joke. But I can also remember some of the awkward silence after the laughter died down, as some of those same people were now quietly counting the months or years, remembering how long they had been in their current role. And they didn’t have to say it out loud, but I knew some were considering moving on and doing something else.

Ministry transition and turnover are pretty common occurrences, but for this discussion we can simplify things into three categories: relocation (with or without a promotion), switching to a different career focus (ex. youth vs. music) and leaving the job of ministry altogether. While each of these scenarios involves a certain amount of change, I think it’s pretty common to see many younger leaders simply changing locations and continuing to do the same thing, but in a different city or neighborhood. I’m sure the latest studies can give more insight into recent trends, but the church scene of the last 20 or so years probably has seen lots of movement overall.

Still, I get a little concerned when I hear about a former student of mine or other younger ministry leader who continues to bounce around from place to place, not staying long enough to put down roots. Oh, I’ve heard some of the justifications, some said out loud, some only implied: But they don’t understand me here, so I’m leaving. But I’m being held back here. But they don’t want to change fast enough, etc. I understand completely, since over the years I’ve struggled with some of those same thoughts myself. Believe it or not, ministry people were saying the same things long before you or I ever came onto the scene. Sometimes those statements represent valid concerns that need immediate action on our part. But sometimes it helps to step back, take a deep breath and make sure we know what God has in mind for a given season.

When given the chance to offer input into a potential departure, I often ask three simple questions: 1. Did God call you there? 2. Has God released you to leave? 3. Are you submitted to the leaders there? Most people understand my asking the first and second question, but often don’t get why I ask the third question. What does submission have to do with anything? Well, as it turns out, it has a great deal to do with things.

As a ministry leader, being properly submitted to your leaders offers at least two things to you, and those have to do with covering and blessing. But many young leaders don’t understand this in the beginning, and they think that other factors are more important, like their skill, talent, ability, etc. But unfortunately those misconceptions often lead to some unintended problems. One of those unintended problems is this: too many young, talented people don’t view others outside their world of creativity with the same respect they give people who are at the top of their own field. In other words, it’s much easier to stand in awe of the current worship leaders at places like Hillsong or Bethel than it is to respect the leaders where you currently serve. Did I just hit a nerve there? If so, then I hope my words will help you.

Be aware that the seasoned leaders around you are very likely picking up on any subtle attitudes you might be giving off, including a possible lack of real respect on your part. And they know that if you don’t respect them as you should, then you’re probably not completely submitted to their roles in your life and ministry. Are there some leaders out there who are less than perfect? Absolutely, but you and I aren’t perfect either! The point is that we have to find a way to submit to those leaders God has allowed to lead us, because a lot is riding on it. 

I’m not suggesting that you put your standards or convictions aside. Sometimes there are valid reasons to appeal the leadership decisions coming from above. But I’m mainly speaking about your overall attitude toward the people who lead you. I've always appreciated a sage bit of advice that came from a seasoned leader, years ago during my time in church music: If you can't respect the person in the position, you can at least purpose to respect the position. Be encouraged that God sees our efforts to do the right thing in these sometimes delicate situations. And if you've already made mistakes in this area, don't beat yourself up! But do purpose to be proactive and ask God to forgive you. Then, as necessary, have any personal conversations that could help clear the air.

But back to why submission to those above us is so important. First, let’s chat about covering. God intends for you to be submitted to the leaders in your world because that’s part of the covering you will always need here on Planet Earth. This is not a solo act. A friend of mine was a worship leader in a small church in a small town back in the day. When God promoted him and his worship music, he became a very famous person almost overnight. Soon he was traveling and enjoying an amazing ministry and career. But it wasn’t long before his personal life fell apart. He later confided in me that he had unintentionally launched out into success without staying submitted and under the covering of his local church. He eventually saw God’s restoration in his life and ministry, but that life lesson was painful and hard-won. Covering is an important part of our lives, and no matter how successful we become, we should never allow ourselves to “graduate” and walk away from it.

Second, let’s talk about blessing. Some people see the concept of blessing as some fantastic future season when we’ve made lots of money, everyone loves us, and there are no more problems in life. That may happen at some point, but in the meantime we all still have to work, live and get along with each other in this imperfect world. And yet, in the midst of all that, God can and does bless us. But what I’ve seen over and over again for ministry leaders is this: certain blessings will filter down through the chain of command, delivered into our hands through those we are submitted under. A financial bonus could come from my supervisor. A prayer of mine could be answered through the leaders to whom I answer. Getting the point here? If this is the way things could play out, then staying submitted to those God has put over me has very practical benefits for me, my family and those who are following my leadership.

I hope these thoughts are helping someone right now. But before I wrap up this time of sharing, I’d like to address one more important and related item regarding transitions: timing. Some ministry folks don’t realize how important timing is to God, and too often decide to make a substantial life change or career change without consulting God about if or when that change should happen. You may be thinking, How could someone who is so gifted, sensitive and effective in leading others in worship be susceptible to being misled in his or her own life? I personally believe that the enemy of our faith likes to use the disappointments and frustrations of our current season to get us anxious, and then continues to use that anxiety against us to get us to launch out prematurely and leave. Let me say it a different way. If the enemy is unable to get you into gross sin or to get you completely off track, then he will often settle for offering something good to you ahead of God’s timing. Not possible, you say?

Timing was critical for Jesus in his earthly ministry, and that serves to help us here. In John, Chapter 2, the problem wasn’t that Jesus couldn’t turn water into wine, it was that he didn’t want to open that door of his ministry until the time was right. Another issue of timing had to do with Jesus being tempted in the wilderness (Matthew Ch. 4). One of the things Satan tried to tempt Jesus with was offering him “the kingdoms of this world and all their splendor” (verses 8-9). I personally find it amazing that Satan would offer something like this to Jesus, as if he didn’t fully realize who he was trying to tempt. But Jesus knew who he himself was and what was ahead for his future. Ultimately he chose to trust his Heavenly Father and waited on God’s best within God’s timing and seasons.

And that’s much of our challenge today. We must come to a place where we completely trust that God knows what he’s doing on our behalf, so that we don’t try and “fix” things for him, possibly making a mess of our own journey, as the children of Israel did. God wanted them to eventually enjoy the Promised Land. But their lack of trust in God along the way caused them to rebel, and their wilderness experience lasted longer than it should have. (Joshua 5:6)

Today, sometimes God requires us to step into wilderness seasons, for the purpose of finding out who he really is while at the same time finding out who we really are in him. But a premature departure could possibly put us into a wilderness season God may have never planned for us, simply because we were not led by the peace that comes with trusting God. I understand how easy it can be to allow the emotions of the moment to start moving things toward some other place that appears to offer less difficulty, heartache or frustration. But we need to remember that the enemy will make use of whatever temptation we play along with, which means that God’s timing is a crucial part of his protection for us.

As I tell the college students in my classes, having a baby or working a full-time job that pays well can be wonderful blessings of God, but having them happen in the right season helps makes those blessings everything they could be. Said another way, premature blessings may actually bring their own issues into our lives that were not necessary, and I believe that that’s part of the enemy’s subtle strategy. Speaking of students, I also have to remind some of them that they don’t have to cram twenty years of their future lives and experiences into their current four years of college! My goal is to help them see the bigger picture, so that they don't get anxious and sabotage their own success during their current window of opportunity.

Likewise, just because certain desires of your heart are not playing out in the here and now, that’s not always enough reason to leave without God’s timing and leading. Some of the good things that lie ahead for us are simply not for this time and place, and we need to trust God while his current and future seasons for us unfold. Speaking of time and place, here's a small encouragement for those who feel invisible right now: Just as Moses was kept hidden until the time was right, God may very well be keeping you in a similar place, so that the right things happen at the right time for you. In other words, your future blessings may have little to do with the people you are with right now, so it's possible that God is actually protecting you from premature success.

As I wrap this up, I hope that these thoughts I’ve shared will be helpful to you or someone you share this with. Sure, some seasons are more difficult than others, but we can’t always know on this side of the journey which experiences and life lessons are optional, so it pays to not second-guess God along the way. I’ve learned from experience that you can change zip codes all you want, but you’ll never escape or outrun God’s seasons for your life! It’s better to work in cooperation with God and his timing for us, rather than forcing him to clean up possible messes due to our impatience or lack of trust.

Here’s to a great season, getting everything from it God wants you to get, while trusting him in the meantime.

Philippians 4:6-7