Beautiful yellow and purple crocuses, the first flowers of the spring garden, are blooming in our front yard. Other sunnier spots in our neighborhood are already bedecked in daffodils. Soon, the spring river of migratory birds will be funneling through yards, wetlands and woodlots across our metro area. Winter’s wet and breezy grip will loosen. Annual variations notwithstanding, we recognize and welcome the cycle of the seasons.
Our lives are also composed of distinct seasons. We cycle through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle adulthood, later adulthood. Each season has peculiar tasks and challenges, and characteristic endowments of physical vigor, judgment based on experience, physical challenges. At every stage of life, Christ followers confess to the Lord that “My times are secure in your hands” (Psalm 31:15), and rejoice to know that our gifts and capacities are precious and useful in the Lord’s sight.
As many of you know by now, I have shared with church leaders my intention to step aside from the senior pastor position at First Baptist Church this spring. More specifically, I am planning for April 15 to be my last day in the pulpit at First Baptist. Eleven years ago I came to guide a strong institutional church as a teaching pastor; I also brought a passion for community ministry that I believed fit well with this congregation’s traditions and gifts. But it is clear today that we have been in the midst of a momentous generational transition which calls for, I believe, a new kind of leadership, more iconoclastic, and willing to question and challenge and see our ministry and our ministry setting through new eyes.
From Drop-in Center and Compassion Clinic locally to our mission partners in Cambodia, Congo and around the globe, this has always been a mission-minded church. We have also invited and included a wide variety of people in our local fellowship, from hard living folk, students and urban professionals resident in our downtown neighborhood, to participants commuting from the four compass points of metro Portland. But in this new season of our beloved congregation’s life, we must see “mission” and programming as ends in themselves, not as means to attract and gather a multitude.
We live in a moment in which fewer people are interested in church per se – anybody’s church – and we can no longer aspire as churches to be the “religious face” of the larger culture. Instead, we must live the gospel images of church as salt, light and leaven, giving hope, courage and direction to a broken world. And we model the values of Jesus simply because they are God’s values, leaving the “results” – both here and hereafter – to God. In a culture of division, suspicion and blame, we are to welcome the stranger, give and share without thought of return, and be as vulnerable as was Jesus himself. We trust in the power of God, not our own power and competencies.
In more than four decades of ordained ministry, I have alternated between local church leadership and theological education, sometimes balancing both roles simultaneously. In my tenure here in Portland, I have only done short-term teaching, dedicating the great majority of my time and energy to my leadership role in this congregation. In this season of life which I share with Carol, I will be returning to a primary role as teacher and writer, hoping to share whatever wisdom and experience I have accrued with a new generation of leaders. I will begin serving this spring as adjunct professor of theology for Palmer Seminary, the graduate theological school of American Baptist related Eastern University. As I will be using an on online teaching platform, Carol and I will be able to maintain our residence in Portland.
We will never forget the friends we have made and the life-changing experiences that we have had here. But the nature of the pastoral relationship means that we must step aside and make room for the new leadership that God will surely provide. May we never cease to trust God, and to pray for one another in this new season that we are stepping into. For First Baptist Church of Portland, “the flowers are appearing on the earth; the time of singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land…” (Song of Solomon 2:12). Embrace the season!
—Dr. David L. Wheeler