I’ve picked up hundreds of starfish in my life, but this one was different. 4 out of its 5 arms had been severed at different times over the course of the starfish’s lifetime. It’s no wonder, considering the battering and bruising of the ocean tides. Each of the broken arms was slowly growing back and was in different stages of regeneration.
Because all of their vital organs are housed in their arms, a complete new starfish can grow from just one arm that is left, and it may take up to a year for the regeneration to be complete.
As the hectic month of May moves toward Memorial Day, and the end of the church program year is in sight, many local church pastors and staff feel like that broken and bruised starfish. Sunday school and other classes are ending, committees are meeting for the last time before the summer, youth are confirmed, graduates are recognized, and annual conference is upon us. At the same time we carefully evaluate the past year so that we can plan well for the program year to come. When June arrives, pastors and lay leaders are often tired, on the verge of burn out, and in need of regeneration, which means “regrowth of lost or destroyed parts.” Their “voice,” may be lost, their ears chewed off, their eyes glazed over, and their arms tied behind their backs by the relentless demands of ministry.
Having spent some time in retreat this month, I’ve discovered that the best opportunity to step back may be when we convince ourselves that we are indispensible and think we can least afford to be away. Our United Methodist Book of Discipline even encourages pastors to spend yearly time in retreat (¶351.1).
The 2 primary definitions of “retreat” are “the process of going backward or receding from a position gained” or “the act of withdrawing for prayer, meditation, or study.” When I withdraw from normal activities and go on retreat, reflecting on the past is imperative in order to look ahead to the future in a healthy way.
It’s fascinating how many words that begin with the prefix “re” describe the benefits of a retreat. “Re” implies doing something again or going back to something.
- Relaxation: On a retreat we slow down, rest in Christ’s love, and become attentive to God’s presence through the beauty of the ordinary.
- Remembrance: By focusing on God and letting go of self, we reconnect with the old, old story of Jesus and his love for us and for the entire world.
- Review: We carefully revisit the past year: what worked and what didn’t? How did our ministries serve to bring in God’s kingdom?
- Repentance: How did I disappoint God and others this year? How should I make amends? How will next year be different?
- Release: Can I truly accept God’s forgiveness and restoration, let go of my failures and mistakes, and move on with joy?
- Rebirth: How does Jesus want to be born again in me? Will I allow God to regenerate my broken and bruised parts?
- Reinvention: How is God prompting me to change and grow professionally and personally?
- Revitalization: How will I tap into the passion and fire of the Holy Spirit to be God’s channel in renewing and reinvigorating God’s church and transforming the world?
In reading the gospel of Matthew several times during my retreat, I realize that the regeneration I seek in retreat cannot be separated from 2 key words, repentance and release. Repentance is not only central to Matthew’s witness but permeates the entire Bible. The Greek verb for repent, metanoeo, means much more than just being sorry. Repentance is a process of changing one’s heart, turning around, moving toward God, and acting in new ways.
- “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” (John the Baptist in Mt. 3:2 and 3:8)
- “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Jesus in Mt. 4:17)
- “So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.” (Jesus sending out the 12 disciples in Mark 6:12)
- “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning fromJerusalem.” (Jesus in Luke 24:46-47)
- “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” (Paul in Acts 17:30)
- “Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” (Revelation 2:5)
Part of my brokenness is my need for repentance. I have disappointed God and others by my thoughts, words, and deeds. For me self-examination without repentance is empty. As I look at my broken starfish, I become very aware of the ways in which I have failed others over this past year. Not only are my arms broken like those of the starfish, and not only have I been bruised this year, but others have been bruised because of me. The review of my life that points out my sins, mistakes, and failures has also become a laboratory for learning and subsequent release, rebirth, and regeneration.
“For me, losing a tennis match isn’t failure, it’s research.”
Billie Jean King
“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”
Unlike the starfish, not all of the bruising and brokenness in human life is inevitable. Despite difficult situations that are beyond our control and challenges that stretch us financially, professionally, relationally, and spiritually, God has given us the freedom to choose how we will deal with the reality of our life. Regeneration occurs naturally and instinctively in starfish. We humans, however, have to be intentional and deliberate in using sin, failure, discouragement, and heartache to release us from guilt and regret, turn us God-ward, strengthen our spirits, and remain focused on the hope that does not disappoint (Romans 5:5). Local churches can benefit from that same intentionality as well.
During my retreat I spent time in prayer for all of our pastors and churches in transition at this time of year. One of the most powerful and meaningful ways to conclude ministry in a healthy fashion is to embrace repentance and release by using “An Order of Farewell to a Pastor,” found in The United Methodist Book of Worship.
I thank you, the members and friends of —United Methodist Church, for the love and support you have shown me while I have ministered among you. I am grateful for the ways my leadership has been accepted. I ask forgiveness for the mistakes I have made. As I leave, I carry with me all that I have learned here.
We receive your thankfulness, offer forgiveness, and accept that you now leave to minister elsewhere. We express our gratitude for your time among us. We ask your forgiveness for our mistakes. Your influence on our faith and faithfulness will not leave us with your departure.
I accept your gratitude and forgiveness, and I forgive you, trusting that our time together and our parting are pleasing to God. I release you from turning to me and depending on me. I encourage your continuing ministry here and will pray for you and your new pastor, —–.
Eternal God, whose steadfast love for us is from everlasting to everlasting, we give you thanks for cherished memories and commend one another into your care as we move in new directions. Keep us one in your love forever, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
At the end of every retreat, I go home regenerated and revitalized for the ministry to which I have been called. However, it’s not usually because of any great new revelations from God. Actually, what leads to new birth in my heart is the quiet acknowledgement that I am a lot harder on myself than God is. Our God is tender, gentle, compassionate, understanding, and grace-filled. Our God says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
What ultimately defines us is not our successes or failures. Nor is it our starfish-like bruises and brokenness. What defines us is that God has chosen to become incarnate in our world through Jesus Christ and so releases each one of us to bear fruit worthy of repentance. Thanks be to God!