It’s really hard to believe that it’s been a year since our church transitioned leadership from Pastor Mark, who had served as lead pastor for 26 years, to Pastor Mitchel, who had been serving at Grace for 4 years. The image that was often used to describe the transition was the passing of a baton. I can’t imagine any better way to describe what the past year has been like. The reality is, every one of us in ministry is in a relay race. At some point we will all pass the ministry baton we’re running with to someone else. Whether we serve somewhere for 2 years, 12 years, or 26 years, every one of us in ministry is running a relay. If you think of it in terms of track and field, a relay race is an event in which athletes run a pre-set distance carrying a baton before passing it onto the next runner. At some point in our ministry race we will hand the baton off to the next person. If we do not remember this, we’ll run a relay race like an individual race. All sorts of problems will arise if that happens: We’ll hold on to the baton when we should let go of it … we’ll focus on our own race instead of trying to set the next person up for success … we’ll make ourselves the point of the race instead of remembering that this is a team effort … we’ll just drop the baton when we’re finished running … we’ll forget that someone else actually handed us the baton that we are holding now.
Our role in ministry (volunteer or vocational) is never an individual race. It is always a relay and we only have a “pre-set distance” to run before passing off the baton God has placed in our hands. The sooner we realize this, the more successful we will be when it’s our time to pass the baton. Here are a few things I’ve observed and processed over the past year since the baton was passed at Grace and a few things I’ve experienced in my own baton passing.
1. The baton pass is important. In any relay race, it’s imperative for a good hand off to take place. If there is a mistake while passing the baton, the team is hindered or disqualified. In ministry, if the baton pass goes bad, the “team” may not be disqualified, but it is certainly hindered. For that reason, great care and prayer needs to go in to the process of handing off the baton: When will this happen? Who will make the final decision? Will this be an internal or external hire? What needs to be a part of the timeline? The best relay teams practice passing the baton over and over. For a successful baton pass in ministry to take place, doing the hard work up front and having a strategic plan in place may not make things easy, but it will certainly make them easier.
2. The baton pass is important but the hard work is running the race itself. The one passing the baton knows this. The one receiving the baton will find it out, if they do not know it already. In a relay, the runner doesn’t get fatigued passing the baton. The fatigue begins to set in as they take step after step after step in the race.
3. Run at your own pace. Each runner in a relay runs a pre-set distance. The difference in ministry is that we do not know exactly what that distance will be. But, whatever the distance, we must run it at a sustainable pace. In an actual race, if I’m trying to run with people who are just way faster than me, I’ll burn out too quickly and not run to my potential. If I’m running with the people who are slower than me, I’ll never allow myself to be stretched and pushed physically, and I’ll not run to my potential. God strategically places us somewhere in order to fulfill His purposes (Acts 13:36, 17:26). All we can do is run our race to the best of our ability and trust Him for the results. We are simply called to run the race and to make the most of the abilities God has given us.
4. A runner never runs a perfect race because there are no perfect runners. When the baton is passed, every condition of the organization (the good and the bad) is passed on with it. The hope is that more good than bad is passed on, but since no runner is perfect this side of heaven, we can expect to receive both. To expect any different would be denying the reality of the human condition.
5. People are watching. Some of them are cheering for you and are more than happy to encourage you along the way. Some of them do not like how you’re running the race and seem eager to criticize the way you do so. The weight of all those eyes can feel very heavy unless we remember that the most important set of eyes watching are always for us … “The eyes of the LORD search the whole earth in order to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.” (2 Chronicles 16:9) We must remember who we are in His eyes and find our strength in the presence, the power, and the promises of God.
6. Stay in your lane. The lane marks clear boundaries for a runner. If a runner steps out of his/her lane, the team is disqualified. A good organization will have a vision, values, and mission based upon God’s word. We need to stay within those boundaries to keep us focused in any transition and to help us move forward in the most effective way.
7. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1 – 3)
Passing the baton in ministry is difficult work and full of surprises and no matter how much you prepare for it, there will always be some unexpected twists and turns organizationally but also personally. There are always matters of the heart that God brings to the surface that maybe we didn’t realize were there before we passed the baton or received it. All of that, though, is an act of grace by God who brings all of it to our attention so He can continue His work of transforming us into the image of Jesus.