My home church, Rockingham Mandurah Lutheran in Perth, weathered a two-year pastoral vacancy in 2014–2015. If you’ve been part of a long vacancy, you won’t be surprised to hear it was a time of exhaustion, frustration and currents of disunity.
But there were also wonderful things that unexpectedly happened. We saw unprecedented enthusiasm towards youth ministry and an influx of leaders and students. A young adults group began for the first time in a few years. Small groups found new strength and meaning.
Personally, even to my own surprise, I signed up to study at a local Bible college. It was during this time I realised that I wanted to give my life’s work to serve the local church.
Every vacancy has its own story of pros and cons, where you’ve seen fruit and where you’ve needed to lament. When a congregation is without a pastor, it can be helpful to fall back on tradition – how things have always been done. But what if your church doesn’t have any tradition? What if your congregation has only existed for three weeks? This was the reality for the church in Thessalonica.
Read Acts 17:1–10a.
After this short time, would you expect the group of believers in Thessalonica to continue or soon fizzle out? Why?
It was barely a month before other Jews became jealous of the popularity of Paul and his team.
I’m also a church planter with a team, and I can’t tell you how glad I am that we haven’t had mobs formed against us, chasing us out of the city.
But Paul and Silas weren’t so fortunate. They had to quickly flee under the cover of darkness.
One month isn’t a long time to set a church up for success. Most ‘new Christians’ courses run for at least six weeks. It takes at least a year for a church to form a constitution. And in terms of leadership, it’s certainly not enough time to send somebody off to seminary.
The congregation went from having the great Pastor Paul to being in vacancy overnight. Would you be worried? Paul was. So, while he waited in Athens, Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to check how they were doing.
Read 1 Thessalonians 3:1–5.
What do we learn about Paul’s heart for the little Thessalonian church?
His concerns might sound like your own as you look around and see many congregations in vacancy.
But when Timothy returned to Paul, he was able to bring good news. The church was still meeting! Not only that, but they were full of faith and love (1 Thessalonians 3:6)! And despite all their opposition, this unlikely little church was standing firm (3:7,8). They missed Paul (3:6) but they discovered that they didn’t absolutely need him.
Because others were stepping up. But who?
Paul valued the office of ministry and had a practice of returning to churches he had planted so he could ordain elders for the community (Acts 14:23). But as yet there was no such opportunity for an ordination in Thessalonica – they were in vacancy. Which makes Paul’s final instructions to the Thessalonians a little surprising.
Read 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13.
If Paul isn’t talking about an ordained pastor, who else in the church might these words apply to?
The story of the Thessalonian church reminds us to give thanks, not only for pastors but for all who have a heart to help the local church follow Jesus.
Is there someone in your church who shows deep care for the congregation’s wellbeing? How can you honour them this week? Who in your church works hard? How can you make their load lighter? Is there someone with a gift of teaching the Bible? Do they know you appreciate their Bible studies or lay readings? Could you support them to receive even more training?
Miraculously, even in a time of vacancy, people might say about your church, ‘your faith in God has become known everywhere’ (1 Thessalonians 1:8).
Lord Jesus, raise up and appoint pastors for our church. While we wait, may we notice those working pastorally in our midst. Amen.
Matt Schubert is a church planter, Specific Ministry Pastor candidate, and student with ALC.