Nicene Church Planting (Part 5): On the Transition of Bishops and Shiny Opportunities

So far we’ve mostly talked about other people, but today I want to talk to you about you. I don’t know you personally but if you’re a church planter there are some things I know about you.

I know that you are adventurous and entrepreneurial.

You like fresh challenges. You are confident. Some people have mistakenly called that arrogance, but it’s not. It’s a combination of faith in God’s willingness to work through you and high comfort level with your gifting borne out of previous ministry experience. You are a dreamer – a visionary. You see things other people don’t see. Where other people see problems you see potential. What others call “nothing to work with” you call “a blank canvas.”

I know you always want more.

You want better. You love forward momentum. You crave growth and increased effectiveness. You are ambitious. That’s not an insult. It’s not a compliment either. It’s just a statement of fact describing the way God has wired you. It’s a great strength—except when it’s not.

Canon XV of the Council of Nicaea addresses an issue which had become common in the church in those days which was the “translation” (aka transfer) of bishops, presbyters, and deacons to other churches and cities. The historic rule of the church had been that you were ordained to ministry in order to serve in a specific diocese for the rest of your life. You were called in and to a specific city and that’s where you were to serve. Along the way, though, this started to break down and ordained individuals, particularly bishops, began to transfer to other dioceses.

On the surface, this seems like a strange objection to those of us used to a model of ministry where people bounce all over the country (or to another country) from assignment to assignment. There were some interesting theological foundations for the prohibition of transfers. The early church understood that ordination was sort of a mystical marriage between the cleric and the church (diocese) which ordained him. There was also the issue of confusion about what happens when a new bishop moves to town—is he the new bishop or is the old bishop still bishop?

Perhaps the biggest objection to these moves and the one that is most relevant to church planting was the potential motivation for transferring—ambition. In an era of church history where a certain diocese held more influence and prestige than others it became somewhat common for the bishop of a more humble diocese to seek transfer to a shinier one, perhaps out of a desire for the greater honor that came with that position.

So what does that have to do with being a church planter? Church planters are ambitious. That’s part of what makes them a great fit for church planting. But here’s the thing. If the church planting adventure “goes well” (however that is defined in the ministry circles you run in) there will likely be new opportunities that come your way. Shiny ones. Ones that will increase your influence. Give you more power. Ones that will make you look good. Opportunities where people will say nice things about you and listen to you wax eloquent about your vast knowledge. You will get asked to speak here and coach there and write this and serve on that team and you might even get invited to come be the pastor of that big, influential, established church.

I’m not saying that any of those opportunities are innately wrong. (Except maybe the big, established church. Don’t go corporate, man!) But you need to do a serious gut check before you say yes to any of them.

You have a divine calling on your life and you are ambitious. That ambition can draw you out to the ragged edge of your calling or it can draw you away from it. So. Don’t make your decisions based on questions like “Is this exciting? ” or “Is this a rare opportunity?” or “Is it an honor to be asked?” or “Will this increase your influence?” You find lots of stuff exciting. Every opportunity is rare—that’s what makes it an opportunity and not just an option. It might be an honor and it might increase you influence but your calling is already honored by Jesus and you only need increased influence so far as it helps you accomplish Christ’s mission for you. (And by the way, I highly recommend you put the time in to figuring out what your life mission is with as much clarity as God will give you and to try to capture it succinctly on paper. It will serve you well in moments like this.)

So when these opportunities come your way, keep your ambition focused on fulfilling your calling. Ask yourself this simple question: “Will saying yes to this opportunity better position me to live out my God-given calling?” The answer might be yes. Maybe coaching those other church planters is part of your calling to help forge a church planting movement. Maybe speaking at that event will help you to clearly share the Gospel with lost people just like God has called you to. Awesome. Go for it.

But maybe the answer to that question will be no, and if the answer is no then this opportunity is at best a distraction and at worst a temptation.

A while ago I was facing this kind of a decision, and out of my wrestling came the following reminders of who I am and who God has called me to be. I call it a Church Planter’s Manifesto. Maybe it will help remind you who you are the next time you feel the draw of prestige and power, of comfort and predictability and safety.

A Church Planter’s Manifesto

I choose:
Adventure over predictability,
Risk over safety,
Potential over certainty,
Sowing over reaping,
Foundation over renovation,
Hope over peace,
Fight over feast,
Challenge over comfort,
Impact over image,
The edge over the top.

So what keeps your ambition focused on your mission? How do you filter through the other opportunities that come your way?

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