In the last couple of months, two significant events occurred in the history of space exploration. While most of us can identify the first one – the landing of the Mars explorer “Curiosity” – it is likely that the second went relatively unnoticed. Early last month, an Associated Press report marked the 35th anniversary of the launch of Voyager 1, one of the earliest unmanned exploratory vehicles sent to investigate the solar system. What particularly interested me about the Voyager 1 report was that, despite being relatively forgotten as a chapter in our efforts to understand the nature of the universe, the craft was still “on mission” long after its original purpose had been served.
The primary goal of the Voyager project, a planned “fly-by” of Jupiter and Saturn, was completed in 1989. However, once that was accomplished, the mission was extended and refocused. It is important to keep in mind that both Voyager 1 and its sister vehicle, Voyager 2, are truly past their prime when compared to all of the bells and whistles that are present on the Mars explorer. The 76-year-old project director (himself somewhat of a relic) excitedly proclaimed, “[Voyager 1 and Voyager 2] are still ticking despite being relics of the early Space Age. Each only has 68 kilobytes of computer memory. To put that in perspective, the smallest iPod — an 8-gigabyte iPod Nano — is 100,000 times more powerful. Each also has an eight-track tape recorder. Today’s spacecraft use digital memory.”
In a remarkable move, NASA decided to extend the mission of these “throwbacks” and give them a new assignment: “the exploration of the solar system beyond the neighborhood of the outer planets to the outer limits of the Sun’s sphere of influence, and possibly beyond” (NASA website).
Apparently, it is possible for relics to have a place in the universe!
How, you ask, does this relate to exited pastors?
In today’s church culture, there is a tremendous emphasis on all things new: new methods, new ideas, newer and younger pastors and leaders. One of the consequences of this focus is that those who are perceived as not being “up with the times” – those who might be old and not in the “optimal” age bracket for drawing new and younger people into the church – are finding themselves sidelined. With miles yet to go and service to the kingdom still possible, many of these servants are exited from churches without any thought given to the next phase of their lives, or to what might be lost in the process of exiting. These pastors, built to last because of the call of Christ, have years of experience, depth of insight, and practical wisdom available for the next generation. Yet many feel like they have been cast adrift into the cold depths of irrelevancy.
It would be the height of hubris to believe there could never be improvements made to methodology or technology, or that changes in “doing church” would never occur. But perhaps we too quickly determine that someone’s “mission” has been accomplished when, in reality, it simply needs reshaping and refocusing. There is a great need for mentoring among leaders of the church today, and for thoughtful succession planning. There are areas of ministry and places of service yet to be explored, and ways to strengthen and encourage the Body that we haven’t even thought of yet. Will we miss the chance to be amazed at how God can re-tool a life for a new purpose, a new chapter?
One of the important tasks for exited pastors who are in the PIR program is to reexamine the call that brought them into full-time ministry in the first place. This is a great opportunity to determine if the shape of that calling needs to change for the future, and to explore a repurposing of the ways in which one’s life mission is carried out. For those who go through a process of restoration, studies have shown that roughly a third return to a pastoral role, while another third finds expression for their call in other forms of service.
To those who might be feeling the pressure to compare themselves to the young guns, with the fear of a forced retirement looming, is it time to see if mission control has another course available? Rather than try to compete, or worse yet, complain, there may be a new expression of the calling you received that will take you beyond your wildest imaginations.
To those who have experienced an exit, forced or otherwise, from the pastoral role, is it possible that, rather than trying to fit back into the old assignment, God might redirect our course into a new purpose?
If man can redeem the purpose of an out-of-date piece of space equipment, how much more can God, whose Name is Redeemer, do for those whom He has called?