What I Told My Congregation After Our Founding Pastor Died
On the death of Jonathan Edwards, his wife wrote to their daughter, Esther:
My very dear child, What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be. Your ever affectionate mother, Sarah Edwards
I found myself in a similar place on Sunday, February 10, 2019. On that morning, I stood in front of our church on the first Sunday without our pastor of 46 years. The previous Monday morning, on February 4, while fixing breakfast for his wife and preparing to lead a pastors’ fellowship, our founding pastor, Ted Christman, died suddenly of a massive heart attack. A holy and good God had covered us with a dark cloud. What was I to say?
On that Sunday, I turned our people to two passages of Scripture—Deuteronomy 34 and Acts 20—and drew out seven things to remember when your beloved pastor goes home.
1. Remember that it’s appropriate to mourn.
In Acts 20, we find Paul telling the Ephesian elders that he would no longer see their faces again (v. 25). After hearing the news, Luke records that there was much weeping (v. 37–38). Similarly, when Moses died, the people of Israel wept and mourned for thirty days (Deut. 34:8). It is appropriate to mourn.
With great sympathy, Jesus tells us to “come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). He doesn’t chastise us for feeling burdened. He invites us to carry our sad hearts to him.
2. Remember that God’s providence is mysterious and he does things we don’t understand.
Why did God let Moses look into the land that he had labored to obtain for 40 years, only to tell him that he wasn’t going in? Why would God take the greatest missionary the world has ever known, Paul, and put him in jail for months and years at a time? How could it be that our founding pastor, after battling prostate cancer, would die of sudden heart attack just weeks after receiving a cancer-free diagnosis?
While God’s providence is unsearchable, it’s always unmistakably and irrevocably good for his people. All things that come into our lives pass through the hands of our loving father—even the hard things.
3. Remember that God’s Word is still central and his promises are still true.
Repeatedly in Acts 20, Paul reminded the Ephesians that it was the Word of God that built the church (20:20, 21, 24, 26–27, 32). On the evening after our pastor died, the remaining elders called the church to pray. I began our time together by reading Romans 8 in its entirety. I did it for two reasons. First, we had just lost a pastor and God’s Word is our source of comfort. Second, to remind us what truly does the work in any church: the Word of God blessed by the Spirit of God. While God uses men and means, the men and means are never ultimate—the Word of God is.
I reminded our church that God’s Word isn’t going anywhere. The same thing that God used to build the church will continue to build the church. The same God that speaks through his Word will continue to speak through his Word, no matter who is doing the preaching.
4. Remember that God is faithful to provide his church with leaders.
The Ephesian church in Acts 20 was not left without overseers (20:28) and the people of Israel were not left without a leader. They had Joshua (Deut. 34:9). Our church may have lost its founding pastor, but that founding pastor faithfully raised up a plurality of elders to lead the church, love the sheep, and point our church to the Savior.
5. Remember to whom we belong.
Paul reminded the elders in Acts 20:28 that the church is the property of God and was bought with the blood of Christ. Israel was God’s people, not Moses’ people. The church at Ephesus was God’s church, not Paul’s church. Similarly, our church is God’s church. We had lost our founding shepherd, but we hadn’t lost our Chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:4).
I reminded our church that every pastor is an interim pastor. The plans of God transcend our finite lives. The advance of the kingdom of God depends on God alone, not any individual.
6. Remember that God still has work for us to do.
In Deuteronomy 34, Israel still had to take possession of the land. In Acts 20, the Ephesian elders had to keep shepherding the flock. For us, it was (and is) to continue the work of being a healthy local church— equipping saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11–12) and inviting sinners to be reconciled to God.
I told our people that the best way we can honor the memory of our founding pastor is to learn from and live out the instruction he gave us and the example he set for us (Heb. 13:7).
7. Remember to be strong and courageous.
After God called Moses home, he told Joshua three times to be strong and courageous (Josh. 1:6, 7, 9). Paul told the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 that challenges would come after he left (v. 29–30).
I wanted our church to know that we must not be so naive as to think that Satan isn’t looking to take advantage of us. Until Jesus returns, he will continue his attacks on Christ’s churches. He will do anything he can to sabotage unity, sow dissension, and erode trust. Particularly in difficult seasons, a church needs to make “every effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
I told the congregation that it takes courage to go through difficult times. But, if there’s one thing I knew about our congregation, it’s that they are, by God’s grace, a strong and courageous people. They’ve been made that way through suffering. We have lost godly mothers and fathers. We have lost young children. We have lost young mothers. We have buried faithful deacons. We have said goodbye to teenage brothers-in-Christ.
I told our church that while it may not feel like it, this trial is a gift of God to us for our perseverance. Losing our founding pastor is one of the hardest providences we have ever endured. But God develops grit and endurance in his people through suffering. I wanted our church to praise his name that he would count us worthy to suffer with Christ. We get to demonstrate the all-sufficiency of his grace as he bears us up and carries us forward in his strong and loving care.
While the loss is still acute and the wound is still fresh, the promises of God remain precious. While God covered us with a dark cloud in the sudden passing of our founding pastor, our testimony is like that of Sarah Edwards: “Our pastor has left us a great legacy and God has made us to adore his goodness.”