THE ROAD AHEAD
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
December 17, 2017; Non-lectionary sermon
Psalm 25:1-10; Mark 1:1-8
“…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…’”
So, where do you begin the story of Christmas?
If you’re the Gospel-writer Luke, you start with a woman named Elizabeth, cousin to Mary. Late in life, beyond the normal childbearing years, she and her husband Zechariah experience a miraculous conception. The son born to them will grow up to become John the Baptist.
That story’s just a warm-up, though — a parallel plot-line to the main event that begins in chapter 2: of shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night, and of angel choirs singing “Glory to God in the highest!”
If you’re the Gospel-writer Matthew, you begin your story with a little marital drama — the disagreement between Mary and Joseph over her explanation of how she came to be with child by the Holy Spirit. God thoughtfully sends an angel to convince Joseph his bride is telling the truth.
Then comes that colorful story of the wise men, following the star to Bethlehem and delivering their gifts to the Christ child: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
If you’re the Gospel-writer John, you take a completely different approach. Your Gospel begins with a mystical meditation on the eternal, pre-existent logos, or word, of God. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” John can’t be bothered with the mundane details. He goes straight to the theology.
That leaves us with the remaining Gospel-writer, Mark. Alas, Mark has no Christmas story. He starts out promisingly enough: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” He moves on from there to recall the great prophecy of Isaiah: “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!”
Then, Mark jumps directly to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: first, his baptism by John in the Jordan River, and then the start of his ministry of teaching and healing.
Mark’s account of “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” appears to be a Gospel without Christmas. All it’s got is that ringing proclamation of John the Baptist: “Prepare the way of the Lord!”
In a certain sense, though, those words of Isaiah’s, echoed by Mark, are the boiled-down essence of the Christmas story. They’re like a little bullion cube, a mere kernel containing in miniature form the more elaborate accounts found in the other three Gospels. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Isn’t that what we’re about, as Christians, in these days of Advent, this season of hope and expectation? We’re meant to be preparing the way.
There’s no other time of the year, on either the secular or the sacred calendar, that has this relentless, protracted, forward focus. Whether it’s shopping days you’re counting down, or lighting candles on an Advent wreath, it’s all about making ourselves and our families ready for what’s about to happen.
Here in this church, we have something else we have to start preparing for: a change in pastoral leadership. Most of you learned this from the email and letter that went out this week: although Claire and I have known it for some weeks now. We couldn’t share the news, though, until it was official: until the new congregation had voted to formally extend the call, which happened last Sunday.
Our final Sunday here at Point Pleasant will be January 28th, the day of our annual congregational meeting. We’re in our 28th year here: an unusually long tenure for the typical Presbyterian pastor — although most of history of Point Pleasant Presbyterian has been that of exceptionally long pastorates.
The minister before me, Ken Chittick, was here for 31 years. His predecessor, John Townley, also stayed for 31 years. The pastorate of their predecessor, William Yates Jones, was ended by his sudden death in 1925, after he had served here for 25 years.
What this means, if you do the math — as I have — is that it’s been more than a century since a pastor of the Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church has left this pulpit to accept a call from another congregation. None of you here today has been through that experience: unless it happened in another congregation you used to attend.
So, I think it’s worth spending a little time this morning preparing the way: not for the coming of the Lord, as we do each year during the four Sundays of Advent; but for the coming of a new pastor, which will take place over a longer period of time — probably one to two years.
“Why so long?” you may be wondering. There are religious denominations that can pull of that feat a lot more quickly. If you have bishop overseeing your congregational life, as the Roman Catholics and Episcopalians do, a new priest arrives whenever the bishop makes the appointment. In the Methodist Church, where pastors are appointed by the bishop, with the approval of the annual conference, most ministers move from church to church on the same Sunday — it used to be said that, in Methodist churches, the movers sometimes had to park their van in the street outside the parsonage, waiting for departing pastor’s moving van to pull out of the driveway.
Not so for us Presbyterians. There’s a bedrock principle in our Constitution, that goes all the way back to the year 1788 — and that reflects Presbyterian principles from European churches that go back even further. With regard to the election of church officers — deacons, elders and ministers of the word and sacrament — our Constitution says “the election of the persons to the exercise of this authority, in any particular society, is in that society.”
That means the Presbytery of Monmouth can’t do it for us. We’ve got to do it ourselves — or, to be more accurate, you’ve got to do it yourselves, because I won’t be here to help you.
What I’d like to do here today is to lay out the particulars of that process, so you can all have an overview of what’s ahead.
The first thing that’s going to happen is that the Session will move to engage the services of an interim pastor. It’s going to take a little while to find an interim — probably two to four months, at least, before that person is able to be here and start work.
Until that happens, you’ll have a familiar face up here in the Chancel: Linda Chase, our associate. Linda’s not full-time, though, which means she’s not going to be preaching every Sunday. On the Sundays when she’s not preaching, the Session will bring in various guest ministers to deliver the sermon.
When the interim pastor does arrive, he or she will preach about as often as I do, and will take up all the other duties I’ve been fulfilling as pastor, including moderating meetings of the Session. The difference between what the interim will do and what I do, as an installed pastor, is that the interim is a transition specialist. People who have interim training know what congregations go through during times of transition. They work both to keep things going as usual and to bring in some strategic changes.
Now, you may be thinking, about now, that a long interim is a crazy idea. Why not just go out and find that new pastor as quickly as possible?
The reason we don’t do that, in the Presbyterian Church, is that we know from experience that, without an intentional interim, the new pastor’s tenure is likely to be short. This is especially true after a long pastorate like mine.
Think of it this way. If a generation is 30 years, then in the time of my 27-year pastorate, nearly a whole generation of this church’s membership has never known another pastor. It would be very hard for a new pastor could come in, if the church hadn’t someone else here in between.
There’s something else very important that the interim will do for this congregation. Having the interim here buys time for two very important committees to do their work carefully and well: the Mission Study Committee and the Pastor Nominating Committee.
The purpose of the Mission Study is to determine the sort of person the Pastor Nominating Committee will look for, as they set out find the next pastor. It’s not a job description, exactly, but it will point out the direction this congregation needs to move, in the years to come. It’s a road map for the future. With that road map in hand, the Pastor Nominating Committee will find it a whole lot easier to find the pastor this church needs.
So, when’s the Pastor Nominating Commitee going to be elected, and who’s going to be on it?
The Pastor Nominating Committee won’t be elected until about the time the Mission Study’s completed. That’s going to take several months. The Congregational Nominating Committee will come up with the names and will present their recommendations at a congregational meeting. Then you, the members of this church, will have a chance to vote — either for the names that have been suggested, or for other people you yourselves may nominate during the meeting.
Most of the people on the Pastor Nominating Committee will be at-large members of the congregation. Only a few of them will be current members of the Session or the Board of Deacons. Those putting the slate of names together will work very hard to make sure the Pastor Nominating Committee is representative of the whole congregation. There will be people on it of different ages, and different lengths of membership: newcomers as well as old timers. Ideally, every major organization within the church will also be represented in that committee.
So, how will they conduct their search? In some ways, it looks like the search for any other leader in education or business. The position will be advertised nationally, through the denomination’s computer matching system known as the Church Leadership Connection. A detailed description of the church, known as the Ministry Information Form, will be available there. The Committee will start receiving resumes, known as Personal Information Forms. They’ll probably get a least a hundred of these.
They’ll sort them by priority, then they’ll have telephone interviews with a few candidates who look most promising. An even smaller group of candidates will be invited for in-person interviews. Committee members may travel to hear candidates preach, or they may invite a candidate to come to this area and preach in another church. This is known as a “neutral pulpit.” Eventually they’ll come up with the name of the person they’re going to recommend.
Until they do that, you’re not going to know anything about who it is the Pastor Nominating Committee is talking to. They go about their work in secret because they need to protect the confidentiality of the applicants.
At the end, the Session will call a congregational meeting, and on that Sunday you’ll have the chance to see their candidate lead worship and preach a sermon. Then, the meeting will be called to order and you’ll have the chance to ask the person questions. Then, you’ll vote.
Assuming the vote is approved by a substantial majority, the Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church will have its new pastor at last.
It’s a long process, and there may be times when you grow impatient with it, and just want it to be over. It’s natural: every Presbyterian feels that way at one point or another, during the search. It’s especially easy to feel that way because so much of the Pastor Nominating Committee’s work goes on in secret. You’ll wonder if they’re doing anything: but they can’t tell you much about it, other than letting you know in very general terms where they are in the process.
Take my word for it: it will all work out, in time. I’d encourage you all to prepare to make the most of the interim period: to support the interim pastor in his or her work, and to enjoy the ways that person is different from me, or other pastors you have known in other churches.
One more word of advice: support your Pastor Nominating Committee as well. Those people will spend a great deal of time, doing one of the most important jobs there is in the church. They’ll need to know you have their back.
And so, this Advent, as we prepare the way of the Lord, as we make his paths straight, you also can be thinking about how to prepare the way for this church’s next Pastor. The two are in no way equivalent: pastors are not the Savior. We’re people too: forgiven sinners like anyone else. But the reason any of us are here in the church at all is because together we are, as the scriptures teach, the Body of Christ. It is here, in this community, where some of the richest of all human relationships take place. And it is in the quality of those relationships that we are privileged, in rare moments, to glimpse the presence of the Lord in our midst.
So, let us now continue our Advent preparations, as we sing together this lovely carol by Christina Rosetti, set to music by the great classical composer Gustav Holst: “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
Copyright © 2017, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.