On losing my pastor

My pastor announced his resignation yesterday. I’ll miss him greatly.

Garnett Slatton is quite unlike anyone I’ve ever come across in ministry. He’s achieved great success at the highest levels of his profession – in finance, as the president of an NBA team and as a professor in the School of Business at Vanderbilt University. I have a different quality of respect for him as a result of his accomplishments outside of the church, but even more so for the faith he and his wife demonstrated in walking away from the comforts he had achieved in the middle of his career to pursue God’s call to attend seminary.

He is an exemplary leader in the way he models humility. Other pastors and leaders would view our church as very successful. Under Garnett’s leadership, the church accomplished all of the nine priorities he was charged with upon his arrival eight years ago. He had lots to be proud of…but I never once saw him take any credit for the impact of our church’s ministry. I was struck by the way he introduced himself at the beginning of his sermons… “Hi, I’m Garnett and I’m one of the pastors here.”

He is visionary in identifying opportunities for ministry collaboration that meet the heartfelt, practical needs of the people of our city and region while making God famous. Only someone with Garnett’s entrepreneurial gifts and leadership ability would have recognized the opportunity in purchasing an entire church campus in the heart of the city of Cleveland for the purpose of launching a hub for church planting, alternative education, international missions, urban renewal, community development, the arts, and transitional care for homeless veterans, operated in partnership with 20 other churches and non-profit organizations.

Garnett is a very gifted teacher. He communication style speaks to visitors new to the faith while challenging those who are very familiar with the Bible. He reminds me of Tim Keller in his ability to present the truths of the Gospel to very bright people skeptical about Christ or Christianity.

My experiences as a psychiatrist, as someone who has served in leadership positions in a number of non-profits and as a ministry leader has led me to observe that relational challenges frequently occur when an organization is filled with highly gifted and passionate leaders. Especially in a church or ministry. For persons who serve on staff or in key volunteer position in a local church, their work represents an ongoing act of worship, and their coworkers often represent their personal and spiritual support networks. Some conflict is probably inevitable when strong leaders have the courage to share their organizations with other strong leaders. And even though the conflict is often difficult and painful, God sometimes uses conflict to advance the Gospel. See Acts 15:36-41 and the story of Paul, Barnabas and John Mark for an example.

It’s probably time for my pastor to move on to his next assignment. Far too often, losing a pastor means losing much more. We see churches with vibrant special needs or disability ministries let go of those ministries when staff or volunteers move on or when new pastors arrive who prioritize other areas of ministry. Churches in transition often have fewer resources (finances and volunteers) to invest in service or outreach. The presence of a stable and familiar church community is of great comfort for those enduring the storms of life-a state that pretty much characterizes the state of families our ministry resources churches to serve.

I don’t like it when God makes me uncomfortable. My church has been extraordinarily supportive of the work of this ministry. More importantly for me, Garnett and his predecessor (Hu Auburn) established a culture in which the people of the church are resourced and empowered for ministry and the role of staff is to offer their experience and resources to members and attendees with vision for ministry and a passion to serve. I’ve come to appreciate how rare it is to encounter church leaders secure enough in their roles to share the opportunity to “do” ministry with others, and it’s a little unsettling to think of how difficult it might be for my church to find a leader on the outside comfortable with such a ministry culture.

From a leadership perspective, what I most appreciate about Garnett is the way in which he made the other people around him better. He left our church with two pastors who do a fabulous job of teaching in the context of their unique gifts and talents, and an extremely capable team of ministry leaders. He laid the foundation for an organization that will continue to do great work for the Kingdom after he moves on.

My hope lies in Jesus, and not in any person or organization. At the same time, it’s hard to see a pastor move on whose teaching resonated with my extremely intelligent but somewhat introverted teenage daughter who isn’t into the stuff that appeals to her same-age peers attending high school ministry. It’s hard to see a pastor move on with great sensitivity to the struggles of individuals and families impacted by mental illness. It’s hard to see a pastor move on who still had much to give to our city and our region. It’s especially hard to see a pastor move on who served as an exemplary role model for translating professional accomplishment to ministry excellence because there are so few to choose from.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28 (ESV)

There is consolation in the knowledge that all things do work together for good in the Kingdom. Some church and its’ surrounding community have an incredible blessing on the way.

Garnett and Michelle…thanks for having the faith to leave a comfortable life behind to pursue a call to ministry. Thanks for your faithfulness in leaving behind the sun and warmth of the South for the cold and snowy shores of Lake Erie. And thanks for the sacrifices you made over the past eight years for the benefit of my family and the families of our church. We’ve been richly blessed.

For an example of Garnett’s teaching, here’s his message from this past Easter Sunday… 


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