When a senior pastor leaves a congregation, it's always hard.
When that pastor has been there a long time and is beloved, it's even harder.
Such a departure feels like a death. It leaves people grieving and questioning everything they once knew to be certain.
As my congregation has weathered this transition, I've even heard people question the longevity of our church. In the last two years, our senior pastor has led our congregation in a discernment process. As part of this, he exposed many of our parishioners to data regarding the decline of the church in the United States, especially among mainline traditions. That information, when combined with his departure, has left some people convinced our congregation's death is imminent.
I'll admit. I was nervous about this.
As luck would have it, Youth Sunday fell the week after our senior pastor's last Sunday. That week, attendance was high. People turned out in full force to wish him a fond farewell. I feared that, as a result, attendance on Youth Sunday would be low. Worse still, I fretted over the fact that a new, temporary presiding pastor would be in the chancel area with our teens on Youth Sunday. I worried that if something went awry, NO ONE would know what to do. It felt like the makings of a perfect storm.
Thankfully, it wasn't.
Our presiding pastors responded to the teens with grace and compassion. They led well in an unfamiliar setting.
And our teens led fearlessly.
They used their musical talents to lead our congregation in songs – not contemporary music, but songs our congregation knows and loves, including favorites like Borning Cry and Be Thou My Vision. Our teens picked them because they fit with our theme of Journey but they ended up feeling like healing balm to many in our congregation.
Our teens also read the Scripture passages and parts of the liturgy that they'd written weeks earlier, knowing that on Youth Sunday, our senior pastor would be notably absent. They prayed for our congregation – for the legacy left by our senior pastor, for his new ministry, and for wisdom for our congregational leaders as they navigate our church's future. They talked openly about looking to the future with hope and expectancy (their word, not mine). In so doing, their words ministered to our wounded congregation.
One of our seniors preached. For years, my senior pastor and I have debated whether to call what students do on Youth Sunday preach. But this year, I think even he would have agreed that what this girl did was preach. Sure, she told about her own faith journey. But she also integrated it with the day's Gospel (John 3:1-17). What's more, she talked openly about the Holy Spirit – an often ignored part of the Trinity in our context.
Our high school teens wanted this service to be more interactive so after the sermon, they invited the congregation to reflect on their faith journey and on where they sense the Holy Spirit moving in our midst now. That, too, was healing for people's weary souls, a reminder that the Holy Spirit did not leave with our beloved pastor.
After worship, several older people in the congregation came up to me. With tears in their eyes, they shared what the service had meant to them; About how it gave them hope in the midst of of a trying time because in looking at our teens, they realized God is not done with our congregation.
As it turns out, what my congregation needed most the week after our senior pastor left was hope.
Our teens gave it to them.
This year, on Youth Sunday, our teens didn't just lead worship. They powerfully ministered to a grieving congregation.
My colleagues and I choose the dates for Youth Sunday nearly a year in advance and I'll admit, it's a logistical decision, based very little on prayer.
Yet, as I listened to my student preach about the Holy Spirit on Sunday I realized it wasn't dumb luck that scheduled Youth Sunday the week after our senior pastor's departure.
The Holy Spirit knew what she was doing when we sat down last year and scheduled Youth Sunday. She wasn't caught off guard by our pastor's departure like we were. She knew what we'd need on this particular Sunday. And she also knew who could provide it.
She knew, long before we did, that our teens could be real ministers to a hurting congregation.