Attentiveness: Finishing Well, Part II - Gordon Conwell

Attentiveness: Finishing Well, Part II

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist

Finishing is usually transitioning, not ending.

Last Sunday two friends were preaching their “last sermons” as full-time pastors. Both are “retiring,” as they said. But I know better. Both, one male and one female, have had wonderful, fruitful, and, at times, difficult ministries. Both are too young to retire, so they are really transitioning to other types of ministry: volunteer, interim pastorates, consulting, or something else which life has prepared them for.

I attended one of the services—a time of deep thanksgiving, story-telling, and prayer—and I will watch the other service this week online.

A few months ago I wrote on this blog about the retirement of Rodney Cooper.[1] He also is not ending a career but transitioning geographically and vocationally. He will continue to do some teaching and counseling. Finishing well is more like transitioning well to a new normal.

In 1995 I finished my teaching at Trinity Theological College in Singapore. I felt at the time that I did not “finish well.” I had always planned to make sure that a local Asian scholar would finish a Ph.D. in Asian Christianity and take my position. As I understood it, that was good “missiology.” Work yourself out of a job and prepare local scholars, pastors, evangelists, and teachers to carry on the work of the Church. I did not have anyone who had finished a Ph.D., but the one person I had encouraged to do further studies, did not feel called to a life of the mind.[2]

In addition, I had started, but not finished the Dictionary of Asian Christianity, an important resource I had worked on for six years and it was not completed.[3] It looked to me like I was not finishing well. I was finishing with unfinished work. Yet, the calling to teach in the United States was undeniable.

I believe it is this way most of the time when we are trying to “finish well.” We leave institutions, churches, and assignments that are not neatly completed. When we leave a church, we leave without families all neatly back together loving each other. We may leave when the adult education program is still in need of better leadership. Or, the music program may have lost two key members the month before, and no one has stepped forward to fill the gap.

Let’s face it, there is no “good” time to leave; there are just more or less stable times.

Until we die and transition to unveiled presence with Jesus, we always finish without everything finished. Part of finishing well is realizing this. We are not the final pastor who leaves a church with all conflict resolved and all families healthy. We always transition with loose ends left behind.

And that is just fine.

Our calling is to be faithful in a church, seminary, mission, or other position knowing that we are not the savior or the lord of the institution. We want to leave on good terms and blessing those we leave behind. However, there is always work still to be done, which we could not complete. And so, we let go and as we do so we remember that all along our hands on the tiller were always subject to the Lord of the winds and seas. Our part was always to cooperate with the Spirit, be attentive to his guiding… for a season. Then we move on with Thanksgiving: thankful that the Triune God is in control and was all along.

I am thankful for the ministry of my two friends, our graduates, who finished well this past week. As we prepare students for ministry at Gordon-Conwell, we must remember that the real final exam, or evaluation of how we have done, will be seen in how our alumni finish, or transition.

And if we are attentive to His voice, we can hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

[1]  Read the “Finishing Well” blog post.
[2] There are many books about the life of the mind, but this little one by Richard Mouw expresses the special calling to scholarship for the Church: Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014). My personal favorite is by A. G. Sertillangers, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Washington, DC: CUP, 1987). The original French edition was published in 1934.
[3] Full disclosure: the book was finally published by Eerdmans in 2001.

Scott W. Sunquist, the President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Tuesday on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.




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