By Daniel L. Sonnenberg
What should an ordained pastor, or any Christian, think about being “put on the shelf” for a period of time – like a book that was once open, useful, referenced and needed, but now closed and put in its place among the other books in the library? The term “shelved” came to me this morning as I walked into my home office lined with books. I have been using a tamer sounding phrase about my current situation – “between churches” – which, I suppose, communicates my desire to serve a church once again in the future. But the raw truth is that maybe I will serve a church again as a pastor, and maybe I won’t. One can’t normally call oneself to a church.
Being “shelved” reminds me of Moses, who for 40 years after killing the Egyptian, tended sheep in the Midian desert. During those years he met and married Zipporah (remember her more famous father Jethro?) and they raised a family together. But only after those 40 years in virtual exile, did God call him by means of a burning bush to lead Israel out of Egypt. A rather long wait.
Reminds me of God’s chosen people Israel, who, led by the pillar of fire and cloud, spent 40 years wandering in the desert before actually entering into the Promised Land.
Reminds me of Jesus, whose family, after his birth, directed by the angel, spent several years in Egypt, and after his baptism several decades later, was led by the Spirit to spend 40 days in the desert being tempted by the devil. Then and only then, his formal ministry was inaugurated.
Reminds me of the apostle Paul who, not long after his conversion, spent a number of years (perhaps 14) before his ministry to the Gentiles began in earnest, and he ended his years of ministry in a Roman prison.
Reminds me of the apostle John, the beloved one, who spent many of the final years of his life in exile on the island of Patmos. The list could go on and on.
Heaven knows I’ve tried to find out what’s next, participating in a program for exited pastors in a sister church, sending out a seemingly endless stream of applications and inquiries through my network of friends, fellow pastors and former co-workers in ministry. But so far, except for one seemingly remote possibility, nothing has developed. We may simply “go home,” back to Wilmington, NC, to be among many of our long-time friends and family members.
In the meantime, over the past 8 months I’ve worked various part-time jobs, and we’ve spent the past 14 weeks almost non-stop preparing our house for sale and placing it on the market in preparation for whatever might come next – primarily because we already own a house in NC and don’t want to manage rental properties in two states. People have asked Beth where we’re going when we sell the house, and she answers, “We don’t know, only God knows.” My own parents asked us that question just this past Sunday, and I jokingly said, “We’re moving in with you!”
I must conclude that sometimes – even often – God providentially leads, directs and sends his beloved children, his gospel messengers, into desert places for periods of time! He puts them, as it were, “on the shelf” for his own reasons.
I wonder to myself, “Is it important to know why I’ve been put on the shelf?” And I answer, “Probably not. God has his reasons, and I probably won’t know them, so I should simply cooperate with the process of whatever he’s doing as the Biblical personalities above did.” For some of them God’s purpose was “testing” or “proving” or to use an old-fashioned phrase “growth in grace.” Scripture tells us Jesus “learned obedience from the things he suffered” which included even that first temptation in the desert. Perhaps that’s what being “shelved” is about for me and us at this time, learning obedient faith – obedience to God’s written Word when there’s no clear indication of what we should do next – and trusting God to guide and provide in his way and his time.