“How would I orchestrate my exit from pastoral ministry?” I was exhausted. My wife had been diagnosed with a form of terminal cancer about ten years before and she was quickly slipping on us. Our church was walking though some very tumultuous times. I felt like, “I don’t know how much longer I can hang on. I think our church deserves a younger pastor who has lots of energy.” I could not see how I could carry on with having the load of a multi-staff ministry and with the reality I was facing at home.
During this season, I went to Winnipeg to visit a friend. While I was on my way, I remember that I had heard of the Church Renewal Conference that had been occurring at Southland Church in Steinbach Manitoba—a short drive from Winnipeg. This church gathered once a month for a prayer meeting which drew over 1000 people. I was very aware of how desperately I needed renewal in my life. I had grown weary and, despite my best efforts, had lost intimate connection with Jesus in my inner world while running hard to serve both the church and my family.
After arriving in Winnipeg, I jumped online and discovered that this was, in fact, a Church Renewal weekend and that Prayer Summit would take place Sunday night. I immediately changed my flight, rented a car, and extended my stay one day so that I could attend Prayer Summit on Sunday evening.
During Prayer Summit, Pastor Ray invited all visiting clergy to stand and move into areas where his people would minister to us in prayer. This group astounded me. They listened to God in prayer for several minutes, and then they spoke into my life and breathed fresh wind into my sails. I later learned that they could do this because they had learned how to abide in Christ. In John 15 Jesus said “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” This people had learned how to abide in Him!
They renewed my hope for the church. I sat there and dreamed, “If a pastor could teach his whole church to live this way, then there is hope for the church in Canada, and maybe there is hope for my church.” As I drove away from Steinbach late that Sunday night, I had a conversation with God and said, “Lord, if this is where you want me to head, and if this is what you have for our church, then I am open to that. But you will have to start by renewing me first… and I am open to that.”
As God walked with me into that new season, I learned that mentoring was critical to the process of renewal, and I was a little hesitant. I was fearful of what that might entail, and I think that what I was most afraid of was that I had to get over my own pride. At 56 years of age, I had to admit that I had never learned to listen to God as well as I might have, and as a result, I had never taught my people to hear God as they might—and that was pretty big thing for me to face and to confess.
One of the things that I am starting to see and that excites me is that I am now beginning to see our people hearing God in prayer—and they are actually hearing Him.
There is no greater exhilaration for me than to know that I have helped someone to not rely on me, but to tap directly into the one whom I rely on. My church is now able to abide in Christ themselves, hearing His voice, getting direction, guidance, counsel, encouragement and comfort from both the Holy Spirit and the Word—on their own—without me.
That is a freeing thing for me. I do not have to carry the load of their lives. Jesus can carry that for them. This makes it way easier to be a pastor!
Over the past several years, God has been renewing me. My exit plan from pastoral ministry no longer exists. I figure I still have 10-15 years of life on these tires and I am committed to going the distance and finishing well.
In this season, God is renewing our team, our staff, and our Board of Elders. We are leaning into Jesus more than ever before, we are making space in our lives and in our meetings for Him to direct us, to give us guidance, and gives us wisdom in critical decisions. For 18 years we have had a vision “to be a church body, passionate about transformation of people into new, growing, and fully devoted followers of Christ.” The reality is that for most of this time, we had missed the transforming work that Christ wanted to do in us. First in me, as the Senior Pastor, then our staff and elders, and now our wider church family. We are not done. We have not arrived. But we are committed to abiding in Jesus, trusting Him to renew us day by day, person by person, life by life.
None of this could have ever happened if God had not taken Pam and I through our own personal dark night of the soul and met us there. This year Pam and I celebrate 34 years of marriage, 15 years of walking with terminal cancer, and now enjoying two wonderful sons who had both married and given us the blessing of two beautiful grandchildren.
Abiding in Christ is still hard work, but every pride-breaking step is worth the effort. As Jesus chisels off the parts of my sinful soul which needs to be removed, He renews those parts which will increasingly reflect His image. Our church still struggles every day to move forward and lean into God for renewal, but He is speaking into us as we move deeper into abiding in Him.
Garry is the Senior Pastor at Valley View Alliance Church in Newmarket. Following a background and brief career in Civil Engineering Technology, he served as a college faculty member, followed by pastoral ministries in Niagara Falls, Toronto and Newmarket for the past 30 years. He loves to live life to it’s fullest with his life-mate Pam, and they spend as much time as they are able with their two sons families which include two grandchildren.