Does God allow His people “tremendous latitude” in where we serve?

Recently, in one of our on-line magazines for ministers, a preacher friend gave twenty-five questions which pastors should ask of search committees before accepting their call.  At the conclusion, he said, “I believe the Lord allows us tremendous latitude in where we serve.”

Tremendous latitude.  Interesting expression.  I assume that to mean “great flexibility.”  Which implies, to me at any rate, that the Lord lays out all these choices and says, “It’s up to you.”

It’s your call.  You can decide.

Take your pick.

I replied with a cartoon.  A preacher sits at a table with his open Bible before him.  He prays, “Lord, I’ve heard you give us extreme latitude in deciding where to serve.  But Lord–please don’t do that.  I don’t want latitude.  I can’t trust myself to do this.  You choose, Father.  You choose!”

That’s how I feel.  If the Lord were to say to me, “Choose from these three churches, all of them wanting you as pastor,” I’m afraid I would have to punt.

I can hear myself saying, “Lord, You know.  I don’t.  You know my little strengths and my glaring weaknesses.  You know who is in each of those churches and how they make decisions.  You know their secrets and I don’t.  Please don’t ask me to do this.”

As a friend once preached on something similar, I do not have mentality enough, morality enough, or maturity enough for making such a call.

Furthermore, I don’t see the Lord doing this in Scripture.

The Lord directed His servants.  Listen to this:  “…they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the Word in Asia.  After they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them…. Immediately, we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:6-10).

The Lord did not say, “I have set before you many open doors,” but “I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it…” (Revelation 3:8).

David said, “He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”  Often I find myself praying, “Lord, lead me in the path of righteousness.”  After all, as the prophet said, “It is not in man who walks to direct his own footsteps” (Jeremiah 10:23).

Please note that I am not implying the author of the article was saying we should act in the flesh in making these decisions. He is a godly man and I’m confident he believes God may indeed direct us, but was saying sometimes He lets us choose.

One thing I do know:  When we make a decision, whether right or wrong, He stays with us.  The Lord does not cast us away when we err in accepting a church’s call.  I suspect it’s like when Christians marry.  Even if our spouse is not the one the Lord had for us, once we are wed, we’re joined and He works with what He is given.  I can hear Him saying, “Okay.  We’ll start from here and see what we can do with this situation.”  And He frequently does wonderful things with such flawed vessels.

Thank Him for that.

I’m merely saying I have great need for His guidance in such decision-making.

I know my frame.  Not to the extent He does, of course (an allusion to the wonderful Psalm 103:14). Made of humble stuff, I am capable of some real bone-headed acts.  Why the Lord chooses to use one such as me is one of the great wonders of this world!  That He does is a testament to His grace and mercy.

I know me well enough to know a few things when it comes to pastor search committees….

–I know I came very close to moving to a large prestigious church and would have if the committee had invited. (They came close, but then backed off. Thankfully!)  Had the Spirit left it up to me, I would have been a disaster there, but I’d have gone.  Big church, great city, impressive history, built-in prestige.  The Governor–and eventually to be President–sang in the choir.  (Okay, it’s been long enough.  This was Immanuel Baptist Church, Little Rock, Arkansas.  1985.  After the committee left me, they went to Pensacola and brought Dr. Brian Harbour on board.  He did a great job.)

–I know I would not have gone to my first church out of seminary had it been my decision.  In fact, when the chairman told me the vote, I said, “Well, that’s too many negative.  I think I need to turn it down.”  But he said, “Preacher, let me suggest something. I have to speak at a mission this afternoon and will be home at 4 o’clock.  You talk to the Lord about this and I’ll call you when I get home.”  I went into the sanctuary of our little Paradis (LA) Baptist Church and got on my knees. Within five minutes, the Lord said to me, “You’re going.”  And since, as Robert Frost said, one road leads to another and there’s no going back, moving to Emmanuel Baptist Church was a game-changer for me, forever.  That was 1967.

Joel Gregory wrote “Too Great a Temptation” about his disastrous time as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, following the legendary W. A. Criswell.  Once when he and I were on the same program at Glorieta (New Mexico) Conference Center, I asked him about writing that.  Did he regret it?  After all, he named names.  “Oh no,” he said without hesitation.  “You’d be amazed how many pastors said it saved them from great mistakes!”

I know what “too great a temptation” means when it comes to accepting the call from a church where a hundred things entice but one thing is lacking: the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

Just before Jeremiah confessed, “O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps,” he said this about the Lord’s spiritual leaders: “The shepherds have become dull-hearted, and have not sought the Lord.  Therefore, they shall not prosper, and all their flocks shall be scattered” (Jeremiah 10:21).

That’s my fear, that I shall become dull-hearted and not seek the Lord.

I want His will and His only.  He knows all the unknowns–about me, of course, but also about that church whose search committee has been making overtures in my direction.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say not even the members of that search committee knows everything about their church they should.  Sometimes there are hidden agendas and secret plans awaiting the next shepherd of that congregation.

“Lord, we would be in big trouble if You left us on our own.  Please don’t!”

When my pastor friend gave his 25 questions which prospective pastors should ask of search committees, I read them and had one overwhelming thought:  “This is how one would go about making a decision on a church if the Holy Spirit were not involved.”  Because ultimately, one can know everything there is to know about a congregation’s history and makeup and decision-making apparatus and still blow it for the simple reason that he is a bad fit or someone in the church decides to go off the rails.

I want the Lord to lead me.  And until I know for certain this is His will–and His only will in this situation–I’m not moving.

Wait on the Lord

When God’s children ask for His will–as we do in the Lord’s Prayer and a hundred other times–we are automatically committing ourselves to do that will once we know it.  And one more thing…

We are implying we will wait for Him.  We will do nothing until He does show us His will.

After all, there’s no point in praying, “Lead me, Lord” unless I am willing to wait for Him.

“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.  They shall mount up with wings of eagles….” (Isaiah 40:31)

“Wait on the Lord.  Be strong.  Let your heart take courage.  Yes, wait on the Lord” (Psalm 27:14).

Dr. Bill Taylor, called “Mister Sunday School” for my denomination, has a concept he calls “holy vacancies.”  Bill says God’s people who ask the Lord to raise up a teacher for the 9th grade boys should not fill the slot with any warm body during the interim.  “Leave it vacant until the Lord provides.”  I love that.

Wait for Him.  He is on the job.  He wants us to do well even more than we do.

Trust Him.

“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding.  In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

That’s why, I suppose, some pastors remain at their present church longer than others.  They’re serving where God placed them and not jumping from place to place trying to improve their lot.

Help us, Father.



3 thoughts on “Does God allow His people “tremendous latitude” in where we serve?

  1. This is an awesome article, thank you Joe. I’ve been contacted by search committees that have indicated that I’m one of 3 candidates. My response to the committee was firm but gentle, “Please spend some time in prayer, as a committee, and I will be praying for you all as well. When God leads you to a particular candidate, pursue that candidate only and see what happens.” I was trying to make the same point this article makes in that God has a man for you as pastor, you’d better connect with God to make sure you’re pursuing the right person! They, along with other churches, want to make the pastor search like a Beauty Pageant, where we pick the best preacher or personality or highest educated. When will we go back to asking God?

  2. Hey my friend. This is a great article. I am terrible when it comes to search committees. Every time I have spoken with them I have a terrible feeling in my stomach. lol. I have been at Oak Ridge now for 23 years. Have turned down several opportunities believing it was God’s will I stay. Have questioned that now only once (and still not sure). I live with this sort of restlessness, looking at what’s there, wondering if I am completely abandoned to Him, particularly as to my job. At 53, the question of leaving is almost already answered now perhaps. It may be that I suffer a bit from Greener Pasture Syndome (GPS). I didn’t come up with that one though it’ll preach. I am grateful to have served the same church for 23 years and all the goodness that comes with that. But still wonder often wonder if I am being “under-used” if that makes sense. Anyway, this one struck a chord with me. Good writing. Thanks.

  3. Well Said, Joe!
    I have been guilty of allowing my personal bias to taint my perception of God’s Will and have jumped in the wrong direction more than once! Thankfully, as you wrote – God did not abandon me, but supported me as I struggled!
    Thankfully, I am learning to wait!!
    Merry Christmas, dear brother!!

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