Don’t Waste Your Vacancy – Ministry Spot

Prayer Group

Nineteen years ago, John Piper wrote Don’t Waste Your Life. He was afraid that Christians would fritter away their retirement years collecting seashells on the seashore, doing nothing of eternal consequence. Three years later, Piper was diagnosed with cancer, so what did he do but write a little booklet entitled Don’t Waste Your Cancer. While I suppose we can overdo the “Don’t waste your whatever” routine – making every aspect of life a burn-out-for-Jesus enterprise – we need to make the most of every opportunity. King Jesus deserves nothing less. With Paul we want to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

I’m writing, therefore, to urge you not to waste your vacancy. I’m told that nearly 30% of CRCA congregations are without a pastor. The church I recently pastored in New Jersey is just ending a two-year vacancy. And my new home church in Geelong is now vacant. Even if you presently have a pastor, you still might want to keep reading, because we are all in this together (or should be).

Wouldn’t it be a shame if your church spent years without a pastor, and failed to make the most of it? Rather than enter a season of paralysing self-pity, consider your vacancy a gift from God, a strategic turning point. Nothing will position your church better to attract your next pastor than to be busy about the Lord’s business while you wait. And whether the wait is long or short, this day in front of us is the day God has given. Let’s not waste it. I have five suggestions for vacant churches and one suggestion for churches with pastors.

The first way not to waste your vacancy: pray. This is your opportunity to become a praying church. Prayer makes zero demands on your budget but a total demand on your soul. It’s simultaneously do-able and difficult. I wouldn’t make your vacancy the chief prayer request at all your gatherings, but now, while you are vacant, is the perfect time to begin a new weekly prayer meeting – perhaps early Sunday morning, perhaps early on a weekday. But gather to pray. Even if it’s just two people. The Lord is in your midst. Take Matthew Henry’s guide to prayer if you are lacking things to pray about. Or use the Psalms as a pattern. If I were a prospective pastor and I found out that a group of people at your church were praying together like never before, I would be very interested in joining you.

Secondly, use your vacancy well by calling for a season of repentance. At the risk of being one of Job’s misguided friends, I want to suggest that your vacancy – even if it wasn’t caused by your sin – is likely to be exacerbated by your sin. Anytime is a good time to repent. But when you as a church are feeling less than fully loved, less than fully cared for, it makes sense to call out to God with honesty about your failures. Just like every person on the planet has one or two besetting sins in their life, so do most churches have not merely a few blind spots, but some entrenched sinful patterns. These are typical church problems I’ve observed: a critical spirit, institutional stinginess, bitterness against the big church down the road, lack of faith, rigid adherence to extra-biblical traditions, toleration of immorality, preferential treatment for the clique that is in charge, defining ourselves by what we are against, and pride. Repentance isn’t about blaming your opponents in the church for your vacancy; it’s about owning your own guilt. A once-a-year prayer meeting devoted to repentance isn’t about self-loathing; it’s about humbling ourselves, with assurance that God delights to forgive.

The third way to not waste your vacancy is to celebrate. This will help work against the “woe is us” mentality. If we start believing that our congregation’s best years are in the past, they will be. So celebrate your church’s anniversary, or someone’s birthday – look for any good excuse – but take time to be in each other’s presence, sharing food and drink and expressing gratitude to God. If you can attach your celebration to something missional, that is even better. The next time one of your missionaries sends an update saying that Mr. X whom we were all praying for, has come to faith in Christ – that is a reason for your celebration committee to plan a church-wide party. After all, the angels in heaven are already on it.

Fourthly, invest in missions. By now you are thinking that I’m using this column as a vehicle for pushing my favourite hobby horses. You are right, but I honestly believe that a time of vacancy is a time for more attention to both local and foreign missions. The point isn’t that you have to spend a lot of money. The point is to resist the temptation to put everything on hold. Be wary of this thought: “I don’t know if our next pastor will value this or that ministry, so let’s not start anything new.” If the prospective pastor is going to be that picky, you don’t want him anyway. Nothing is more attractive than a church that is still trying new things. I’ve been part of churches of fewer than fifty people. All I’m talking about is something like this: “Brad has decided to start volunteering with Prison Fellowship, and so we are all committing to pray for him so that this isn’t just something he’s doing, it’s something we are doing.” When Paul received his Macedonian call in Acts 16:9, it was a man saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” But when Paul and Silas got to Macedonia, instead of meeting up with a man, they stumbled into a riverside women’s prayer group. My point is that Paul didn’t arrive to find a passive audience that said, “Now that you’re here, pastor, the ministry can begin.” He arrived to find the ministry already begun in a low-budget prayer meeting.

The fifth way not to waste your vacancy is to maintain frequent contact with everyone in your church directory. Every church has a few people who don’t belong to any of the relationship networks, loners who are on the periphery. The pastor had been their only friend. Your vacancy is a chance to increase, not decrease, your internal communication. If someone can call through the directory twice a year, just to have a genuine chat, that carries life-giving potential. I’ve seen neglected saints who had dropped out of fellowship return and become very involved after just one person in the church sent them a hand-written note.

What if you have a pastor, but within 200 kilometres of your church is a sister church that is vacant? If that’s you, seize the day to show up and bear your sister’s burden (and thus fulfill the law of Christ!). Do you know what a difference it would make if you would publicly pray on a Sunday morning for your sister church and their vacancy just once every two months? Resist the “let her die” temptation. Successful churches can be heartless (while persuading themselves that they are wise), predicting that their vacant sister church is going to die out soon. What if a cohort from your thriving church visited the vacant church twice a year on a Sunday morning, bringing a sizable financial gift, bringing official greetings in the style of Romans 16, coming not as the criticism crew but as the prayer support? If you start investing relationally in your vacant sister church, you might find practical needs you can fill. For example, they probably need an overhaul of their frightfully outdated website. If a web master from your church could do the work for them, this could be a game-changer. In short, vacancy need not be the first stage of dying. It can be the first stage of new life.