What to Say...When You've Said It All

The service I had dreaded was finally upon me. For a couple of weeks I had known that my resignation was coming, and although I knew that I was in the center of God’s will, announcing that publicly is always hard. I preached that Sunday evening and then made the announcement. It was difficult for me and for the church, but I felt better that the news was out.

The problem now was what to say in my final sermons. Beginning sermons are tough because the pastor does not yet know the congregation. Ending sermons are tough too but for the opposite reason. A pastor knows the church so well and wants to say so much but does not have the time.

I made my announcement just prior to the Easter season, so the first couple of weeks would take care of themselves. I preached a Palm Sunday message which centered on the question asked by the people in Matthew 21:10 as Jesus rode into Jerusalem: “Who is this?” The next week was Easter Sunday -- no problem; I preached from Romans 1:1-4 on the subject: “The Meaning of Easter.” Even the third Sunday after my resignation posed little difficulty. Because of all the hoopla surrounding The Da Vinci Code, I thought it would be appropriate to address the truth about Christ. The sermon, “Calling the Witnesses,” centered on John 5:31-40.

Now I was down to the last two weeks of my ministry in this church. The question that kept coming through my mind was, “What do I say when I have said it all?” I had served the church for almost seven years. To the best of my ability, I had preached the whole counsel of God. I had preached doctrinal, evangelistic, and discipleship messages. I had preached sermons that encouraged, supported, and even warned the congregation. I had called God’s people to faith and to repentance.What do I say when I’ve said it all?

As I prayed about the final Sunday morning services, God led me to two specific messages, each specifically designed to help the church begin its transition. The first, taken from various passages in Acts, was meant to remind the church of its continuing mission no matter whom they called as their next pastor. That message: “A Devoted Church,” targeted the basics, something I had spoken about many times in the past. In essence I reminded the members of the congregation once more that if they are devoted to prayer, preaching, discipleship, service, and missions God will always bless them.

Now the last Sunday was upon me. During my last morning message, I felt strongly that God wanted me to challenge the church in two areas: unity and service. Unity is often elusive during a transition. With each member of the church there is often three opinions on what kind of pastor should be called next and in what direction the church should now move. God always desires his people to serve, but when a pastor leaves, lay people are often called to “step up to the plate” as in no other time in the life of the church, and staff members must “stand in the gap” to minister in areas that otherwise might be left to the pastor.

God led me to Ephesians 4:1-16, a passage that directly deals with both issues. The message was entitled, “Worthy of the Call.” The call, which Paul wrote about in the first three chapters, essentially is the call of salvation, and I briefly summarized those chapters in the introduction. Before the world began God predestined each person to salvation (chapter 1); this call came by grace (2:1-10); it was for all people (2:11-22); and the call was once a mystery, but now it was revealed to and through the church (chapter 3).

Beginning in 4:1, the apostle exhorted the Ephesians to live lives worthy of that calling. How does one live a life worthy of the call to salvation? First, I called on each person to keep the unity of the church (vv. 1-6). Christians are not to sit back and wait for unity to happen; they are to get involved to ensure it (v. 3). It is interesting that Paul wrote that the character traits of humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, and love ensure unity. It is not so much “doing” that ensures unity as “being.” I reminded the church that unity within the fellowship was a portrait to the world outside the church of the unity of God himself (vv. 4-6). Unity, therefore, has important implications for evangelism.

Second, I urged each person to contribute to the growth of the church both in the interim and beyond (vv. 7-16). God has provided spiritual gifts to each believer with the goal in mind that members would become more like Christ, resulting in a firm faith. Spiritual maturity leads to spiritual stability -- something the church desperately needed heading into an interim period.

Unity and service -- these two areas are critical for a church heading into that “between time,” the time of saying goodbye to one pastor and saying hello to the next. I was concerned that there would be some uncertainty and apprehension at my leaving, and after preaching that last sermon, I felt like I had done my part to at least begin to alleviate any fear the congregation had and challenge them to continued faith and service.

What do you say when you’ve said it all? How does one approach the final sermons in a church before resignation? After having to deal with this challenge a few times, let me make a few observations.

It is important to be prayerful.

That seems like a “no-brainer,” but we preachers still need reminding that sermons are to come from God and not from us. God knows exactly what message the church should hear, and it is vital the preacher get God’s mind so his message is proclaimed. As a matter of fact, I think I prayed harder during those last weeks than in many weeks because I so desired to have a message the people needed.

It is important to be positive.

My ministry had been primarily conflict-free, but that is not always the case. Often a pastor leaves a church under very difficult circumstances. At the worst there may have been a forced termination, and often at the very least there is a resignation in the midst of unfulfilled expectations. When last messages are preached under these kinds of circumstances, it is tempting to take one’s frustrations out on the congregation. A “club over the head” sermon is never a good idea, and preaching with a bitter spirit never honors God or his call on the preacher’s life.

A more positive approach to those last sermons, however, may go a long way in leaving a better taste in the mouth of the preacher and leave the church with better memories of the pastor whose tenure is ending. Positive messages may even help bring healing. In every ministry some positive takes place. Focus on those positive events and ministries. As one old hymn put it, “Count your many blessings” and “it may surprise you what the Lord has done.”

It is important to be pastoral.

A church needs encouragement when it is faced with a transition; more often than not it is grieving at the loss of its pastor. I heard statements like: “What are we going to do now?” and, “Why is the Lord taking you away from us?” Even in the healthiest churches, there may be doubts in the minds of some about the future and concern about the overall ministry of the church.

Those final sermons should be encouraging and supportive, helping to ease people’s minds about the future. God’s people often need reminding that they are in his hands, and nothing that has happened has taken him by surprise. When a pastor leaves, the church needs to focus on the God who always provides and who is never taken off-guard. He has always taken care of His people and will continue to do so.

It is important to be professional.

A resignation announcement does not mean the work in that church is over. Do not get “short-timer’s disease.” Work just as hard on those last few sermons as you did on the first ones and all the others between.

Last sermons are daunting, but the preacher needs to remember that ending a ministry on a high note is just as important as beginning a ministry on one. God would have the preacher end well, and the sermon is a primary vehicle through which the pastor makes that ending successful.

Preaching can help alleviate tensions or anxieties, heal wounds, remind the church of its eternal mission, and help prepare the people of God for the challenges ahead. Done well, the final sermons should ultimately help prepare a church for the next person whom God has chosen to step into that pulpit to proclaim, “Thus says the Lord.”

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D. Patton is Associate Professor of New Testament and Preaching at North Greenville University in Tigerville, SC.