Nacoochee Presbyterian Church has started a season of transition. We have celebrated Bob and the wonderful years of his leadership, and we are excited to soon welcome Teresa Franklin to be with us in the interim while we explore who we are as a congregation and look for our next pastor. However, it is still an uncertain time and many of us have questions about what the future will hold. On January 9, the first Sunday after Bob’s retirement, our General Presbyter, Hilary Shuford, was with us. In her sermon that morning she outlined the steps of the journey that is ahead of us. If you were not able to attend that morning, or have not had the chance to watch the service online, we encourage you to either follow this link to the sermon on YouTube or to read the text of her sermon that follows. We are very appreciative of her encouraging and informative message as we prepare for our church’s future.
The Journey Ahead, based on Abram’s Journey of Faith
Sermon from Rev. Hilary Shuford, General Presbyter
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore. –Psalm 121:8
Now the Lord said to Abram,“Go from your country and your kindred…
to the land that I will show you…”
So Abram went… And Abram journeyed by stages toward the Negeb
. – Genesis 12: 1,4a, 9
This is a poignant moment in the life of Nacoochee Presbyterian Church of Sautee, Georgia. We stand at the beginning of a time of transition and a time of Journey. Even though you didn’t choose this time, it has come, because all pastors and congregations have closings in ministries as well as beginnings.
I deeply appreciate the opportunity to be with you which is part of a tradition among executive Presbyters in the PCUSA to preach following the departure of a pastor. In God’s good humor, 28 years ago, I was a member of FPC Athens, when our pastor departed for retirement and the General Presbyter, my mentor Charlie Cook, preached for such a time as this!
The sermon text is the story of God’s call to Abram, the beginning journey in our whole faith narrative and tradition. The other Old Testament reading reminds us of God’s continuing promise to protect us in all our journeys, and to keep us in our going out and our coming in.
God’s call has been heard again in the life of God’s faithful people: Bob Prim has left from here to embark on a further journey: to retirement. You too have been called on a journey to a place (a spiritual place) that God will show you. And being Presbyterian, we trust all this is within God’s providential oversight and care – part of God’s plan and purpose for your life, individually, and as a community of faith.
God called Abram, and God is calling you to leave the familiar. That word has the same root as family, the NRSV uses the word “kindred.” In the days of Abram, all one knew was family; all one had was family. It was the source of a person’s identity and a person’s security.
God said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house.” Leave everything and go out into the unknown, the unfamiliar. I’m sure Abram was nervous, fearful, and anxious! And it’s okay. Especially in the year 2022, we are living in disorienting times.
But he was a man of faith: he trusted the One who called him to go into this uncertain future, toward the wilderness. Verse 9, “Abram journeyed by stages toward the Negev.” Negev literally means “dry place” or “wilderness.” Do you have a sense you’re entering a wilderness? When people of faith follow the call of God, it is not a familiar, comfortable, or safe and certain path.
The last time Nacoochee experienced a transition in the Senior Pastor/Head of Staff Position, was well over 20 years ago. I think that your congregation followed the stages I am about to outline. But before I get to those stages, let’s think about the gospel lesson for today: the Baptism of the Lord. After Jesus came out of the water, the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness. We know his entire journey on this earth took him to the cross. We just celebrated the birth of Jesus in the manger two weeks ago, and today we are at his baptism and talking about the cross.
The call to God’s people always includes the call to “die to self.” Jesus told us, his disciples, to take up our cross and to follow him. All change includes loss, and loss is a “small death,” which means grief. We know there are stages of grief, and grief takes time.
It’s natural with a change in pastoral leadership that there will be grief. For many of you it is the separation from a long-time relationship with your beloved pastor, preacher, and friend. And there may be grief because that what you planned is now changed. There may be some unresolved issues, perhaps disagreements. I’ve heard it said that wherever 2 Presbyterians are present there are at least 3 opinions:) And there will be lots to do, lots of decisions to be made, and more change!
Being the church is not always easy! It can be difficult, but we are here to help each other.
Abram went as the Lord had told him.” The faith of Abraham (read in Genesis 17 about the change of his name) is the faith that believes God’s promises: “a land that I will show you…I will bless you…and you shall be a blessing…in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
Abram went. He was obedient. He followed the call to break with the past, to leave the land and his kindred.
This same call and promise of blessing is here for us as well. We will be shown the way; and we will be blessed to be a blessing as we Journey together. Knowing it will not be the same as before, for we are being called to something new. And we will go in faith, in obedience, seeking God’s will.
In October I met with your Session and Matt Henderson, the pastor at Clarkesville who is the liaison with the Presbytery’s COM was there too. He and I also met with the Session’s appointed Interim/Transitional Pastor Search Committee. I asked them, and I ask you to “Trust the process” which has been tried and tested for generations of Presbyterians.
We in Northeast Georgia Presbytery partner with you along the journey ahead. There are 3 main stages to the journey ahead. Your Session has already begun the first stage of the journey: to find an Interim/Transitional Pastor. There have been several, several candidates; interviews have been conducted.
I am not here to make an announcement, but I trust in a very short time the Session will hire an interim/transitional pastor who, with your Session, will lead you through the further stages of the journey. The 2 remaining stages are evaluating your mission and ministry (reflecting on the past and thinking about the future) and then searching for new pastoral leadership. Interim/transitional pastors are experienced, trained, and specialize in helping and leading congregations in transition, a time such as this. Most importantly, the interim will love you and will be your pastor!
Once your Interim pastor unpacks his/her boxes, gets settled in, starts working with the Session and you all begin to get to know and trust one another, the middle stage of the journey is set to begin. This stage is a time for congregational reflection and evaluation. You do this by engaging in a congregational mission study which also prepares you for your active search for your next pastoral leadership.
Just as Abram took time to prepare for his journey, so will you. As he prayerfully made plans, so will you. He couldn’t go on a journey and take the land, his father’s house and all his possessions! Abram had to decide what to take; and he had to let go of unnecessary things. So you will take time, a few months perhaps, to decide what to keep and what to let go of. The congregational mission study is the vehicle by which you make these decisions, as you prepare for the rest of the journey.
Let me share these wise words: “Few moments in the life of the local church are as important as those during which pastoral change occurs. These are moments for the congregation to pause, evaluate, and redirect itself, its life, and its ministry. What happens in the period between the exit of one pastor and the entrance of another, determines, in large part, the degree of stability, happiness, and progress of a congregation for many years to come.” (Maumee Valley Presbytery)
During this middle stage of the journey ahead, examine who you are, examine what you do, and vision who God is calling you to be. As you evaluate your programs and your worship, as you examine your traditions, and as you consider your habits, norms and customs, ask yourselves…Does this…still hold meaning for the future? Is it necessary to continue in the same way? Or is this holding us back? Should we try something new? Self-study is critical to discerning God’s will for the future.
When your Session and the Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry (COM) approve the congregation’s mission study, the final stage in the journey is to search for your next called and installed pastor. In our decent and orderly way, the congregation elects a PASTOR NOMINATING COMMITTEE, a P-N-C, which is a committee of the congregation. It is not a sessional committee. It reports to you. The PNC will rely on your congregational mission study when they prepare the crucial document called a Ministry Information Form, which is their first task.
Along this final stage of the journey ahead, your PNC will have resources available to help them from the Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry and General Presbyter and from the denomination. For those who don’t know, Presbyterian pastors (Ministers of Word and Sacrament) are not members of a local church, rather they have membership in presbyteries. But since the pastor will be your pastor, the PNC is primary and most important in the search; and because he or she will be a member of Northeast Georgia Presbytery, the Presbytery is involved as well.
At the end of the journey your PNC will reveal the identity of who they have discerned God is calling to be the next pastor of Nacoochee Presbyterian Church. You, the congregation, must vote to call the PNC’s candidate. But remember that you elect a PNC to search for that person, and much of their work must be held in complete confidence. Everyone must respect and ensure confidentiality as they meet, pray, examine and interview candidates. The PNC will need your trust, support and prayers. Remember God’s promise, spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: (Chapter 29, v 11-14a).
When God said, “Go…to the land I will show you,” God’s promise to Abram was a future promise. Just as God doesn’t tell Abram where the land is, we don’t know the identity of the person God is calling to be your next installed pastor. God didn’t give Abram a devise with GPS and an address, God led Abram to the land. And God will lead us!
God’s Global Positioning System is prayer. Your journey to find the person God is calling is the way of prayer of a faithful people. For people of faith such a time as this is an opportunity to follow with the faith of Abraham. Listen to the word written in the Letter to the Hebrews chapter 11, verse 8.
So, use God’s GPS: pray for the Holy Spirit to guide the PNC and the presbytery to the person God has chosen to be your pastor; for by faith, Abraham followed God’s call and God’s promises came true (As the children message proclaimed, all God’s promises are a “Yes” in Christ Jesus)!
Remember God went with Abram. God sustained and provided for him, his descendants, and all who are blessed through him, including our generation and those who will follow. This is a promise of our faith: know God’s presence with you during the entire journey! Be assured and confident God watches over you and is your keeper: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and for evermore!” (Psalm 121)
During your journey, guided by the wisdom of your elders and your interim pastor, in partnership with Northeast Georgia Presbytery, remain faithful as members to support this church in its ongoing mission and ministry. On your journey to where God will show you, I pray for your patience and perseverance, and I pray for faith that by the grace of God, you will find what and who you are looking for.
And I pray each stage of the journey ahead will glorify God! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!