As many of our friends and acquaintances already know, Julia and I are looking to return to the Pastorate, somewhere or other, in the near future. Julia is now fully recovered from the chronic fatigue problems that led to her having to stand down from her position as Associate Minister at Beckenham Baptist Church nearly two years ago now. Although we still feel called to a ‘shared ministry’ the position is somewhat different to how we functioned at Beckenham. This time around we are seeking a situation where Julia will function as the Senior Minister of the church, and I will function as a non-stipendiary Associate Minister alongside her. At 54 years of age, Julia still has plenty of years of ministry ahead of her. She is immensely gifted (as those of you who know her well will affirm) and has a lot to offer any church discerning enough to call her. At 68 years of age, I don’t want to return to full-time ministry, but still feel I have a lot to offer working alongside Julia. Julia assures me that I am definitely not ‘past my sell-by date’ yet and that there is still ‘plenty of life in the old dog’!
We have been back in what is known as the ‘Settlement Process’ within the Baptist Union for some months now, and recently Julia had protracted discussions with a small Baptist church, in a small town not too far from us here in Rodden, with a view to her becoming their Pastor. It was a church that has been through a difficult few years and therefore she wanted to meet with them, to explore the possibilities, without any commitment on either side to take things further. I went with Julia to her interview with their leadership team, and again when she ‘preached with a squint’ a few Sundays ago. They were very impressed with Julia and unanimously wanted her to ‘preach with a view’. However, after a lot of thought and prayer, Julia declined to take things any further. This was a very difficult decision for her, because in many ways it was an ideal situation. We got on very well with the leadership team, the church and congregation were a really lovely group of people, we could clearly see the need there, and it was only an hour’s drive from Rodden so we could have easily continued to keep an eye on Julia’s elderly mother. In fact Julia would have loved to have gone there as their Pastor … there was only one thing wrong … she had no peace whatsoever about it, no sense of having God’s call there!
Saying ‘No’ to them was very difficult for Julia. She saw the need but also knew the truth of the old saying, that ‘The need does not constitute the call!’ There are numerous ‘needy situations’ all around us, and we simply cannot respond to all of them. This is especially true when it comes to accepting a call to the Pastorate of a church. Sometimes it is only the knowledge, the heart-felt conviction, that ‘God has called me here’ that enables us to keep going when things get difficult in church life (as they do from time to time)! She felt herself to be under considerable pressure to take things further, however: the enthusiasm of the church itself for Julia; the fact that her family wanted her to be near her mother; even a desire within Julia herself to please our Regional Minister by settling somewhere because he has been so kind and patient with us?! I was of no use whatsoever to Julia in all this … or at least that is how I felt about it? I would have happily supported Julia if she has decided to proceed with them.
Although we both feel called to some form of ‘shared ministry’ I am conscious that the future is Julia’s. In many ways I believe that the ‘best of Julia’s ministry’ is yet to be seen, whereas I am coming to the end of mine. I have to say that in many ways I felt completely ‘side-lined’ in all the inter-action with this particular church. This probably disturbed Julia more than it did me. I know that she felt concerned that the church were primarily only interested in her and not in me as well. I just took it as perhaps an indication that possibly our conviction that we still were called to some form of ‘shared ministry’ was incorrect, and that the time had come for ‘Julia to increase, and me to decrease’?!
In praying about all this, however, the Lord led Julia to a passage of Scripture in 2 Corinthians 2:12,13 in which the Apostle Paul travels to Troas in order to ‘preach the gospel of Jesus Christ’ only to leave almost immediately because he‘had no peace of mind’ about being there! This is a fascinating insight into an incident in Paul’s story, not least because it would appear that Paul made a mistake. He initially went to Troas because he believed that ‘the Lord had opened a door for me’ only to discover when he got there that he had ‘no peace of mind’ about being there. Fortunately he was able to correct his mistake almost immediately and move on from Troas.
Our Puritan forefathers in the Faith used to employ what they called ‘The Peace Test’. They believed that experiencing ‘the peace of God’ in our hearts was a simple yet profound method of guidance … indeed a test of true guidance. They believed that God’s will was always confirmed by the gift of God’s peace in the believer’s heart and mind. They based this conviction on such passages of Scripture as ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:6,7), and ‘Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts’ (Colossians 3:15).
Of course such ‘peace’ is somewhat subjective, and we have to recognise that there are different kinds of peace, such as the peace of a graveyard or that of tranquilisers?! But for the Christian, peace is not simply the absence of conflict, or any other artificial state the world has to offer. Rather it is the deep, abiding peace – the peace that comes from knowing that our lives are held in the hand of God himself – that only Jesus Christ brings to the heart. The kind of peace Jesus himself spoke of when he told his followers, ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid’ (Jon 14:27). This is the peace that can come only from the Holy Spirit.
Obviously there is more to knowing the guidance of God than simply knowing the peace of God in our hearts and minds. On important matters, God will not just guide us by giving us his peace … he will speak to us in several ways and at several times. So we need to avoid hasty decisions – indeed the more important a decision is, the less hasty it should be. Nevertheless possessing the peace of God in our hearts and minds is important! We need to be sure that we have the peace of God in our decisions – if there is no peace we need to stop what we are doing, or the way we are going. God’s way is confirmed by God’s peace. As the words of Cleland McAfee’s old hymn tell us: ‘There is a place of quiet rest, Near to the heart of God’. May God help us all to continually find that place, and that peace, in all our decision making!