Remember the 1960s song from the group Chicago, “Does Anyone Know What Time It Is?” This is an excellent question for a new year, especially as one does ministry.
I retired as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Abilene, Texas, in 2021. It was time. But ministry can be messy, even in celebrating my retirement.
Ministry exists in the world of the “partial” or “incomplete,” as Paul reminds us. After 26 years at First Baptist, unfinished business and dangling threads prompted me to think I needed more time. But it was time to move on, let go and accept my failures. Jeremiah announced, “The harvest is past; the summer has ended.” I needed to discern “what time it was” in this ending and transition.
Whether I had retired or not, I was at a “time” after 45 years of ministry and at the age of 71 to look at where I was. The apparent thought is that I had come to the fall of life and realized winter was coming. Yet, this question about time is an issue for all of us. Whether you are just starting in ministry, discouraged by the conflict and division or burned out, are you learning to tell the “time and season of your journey?”
“Ministers need to be more poets than preachers.”
Naturally, our thoughts turn to time as we just observed the countdown to a new year. I never really understood the words to “Auld Lang Syne,” but the tune has this nostalgic mood that invites reflection about time. It moves me to sing wistfully with Teve from Fiddler on the Roof, “Sunrise, sunset, quickly go the days.” On New Year’s, I can think of Emily from Our Town, who laments from the grave, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” The reply in the play is, “No, only saints and poets.” It sounds like ministers need to be more poets than preachers.
Time is always ticking away. Like a bar of soap slipping out of our hands. As the hymn reminds us, “Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away.” Some people sleepwalk through life, thinking they have all the time in the world, while others rush past the hidden treasures. I think it was John Wesley who wrote, “I have no time to hurry.” Remember his thought when you run out of staff meetings, to worship or a committee meeting.
Perhaps one of the essential questions in ministry is, “Do you know what time or season it is in your life?” There are seasons of ministry, aren’t there? The book of Ecclesiastes gets to the point: “There is a suitable time for everything and a season for everything under the heavens.” In Hebrew, “season” means an appointed time in which an action must be taken, or the opportunity may be lost.
The writer sets out 14 contrasting times we will face, such as “a time to keep and a time to throw away.” Chew on that challenge for a moment. According to Kenny Rogers in the song “The Gambler,” There’s a time to “hold ’em” or “fold ’em,” or the opportunity will be lost. Musicians know you can play the right note, but it becomes the wrong note when played at the wrong time.
“Even if you are in the season of spring, always remember winter is coming.”
Even if you are in the season of spring, always remember winter is coming. So, what are you planting to one day harvest and store when the bleak midwinter winds blow? The Apostle Paul understood this urgency. He pleaded to young Timothy, “Come quickly, do it now; winter is coming.” Time was of the essence. Paul writes from a Roman jail knowing his days are numbered. He calls out to his dear friend, Timothy, “Do your best to come to me before it is too late. … winter is coming.” Paul feared spring would be too late; the executioner was waiting. The winter would make navigating the Mediterranean impossible. Now is the time, Timothy, a threshold moment, a doorway; don’t let the opportunity be lost.
There have been times I have missed out on those moments of urgency and the gift of time. I often have lived as the foolish, not “as the wise, making the most of every opportunity.” Yet, as we step into this new year, there is grace and hope for the journey.
January gets its name from the Latin word for “door.” We stand at a threshold moment of new beginnings. Yet, this hope goes way beyond a new year. We are in Christ through every season; it is never too late, and there is always a threshold or door.
My 5-year-old granddaughter reminded me of this gift: it is never too late. She was riding home from school and, out of the blue, blurted out, “God, Jesus and Santa are friends.” That is not exactly the definition of the Trinity. But I’m glad that in her way she is trying to make sense of Christmas. She said, “And if you get on Santa’s bad list, Jesus always gives you another chance.” Bingo!
So, what time is it? Regardless of the season or ministry or situation, you are enough. You are in Christ, who always gives you a second chance and opens doors.
Phil Christopher retired from the pastorate of First Baptist Church of Abilene, Texas, after a career in ministry in Texas and Kentucky. He serves as a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches, where this column first was published.
7 signs it’s time to move on | Opinion by Patrick Wilson
Reflections on a life in ministry: Knowing when to go and knowing when to leave | Opinion by Gary Cook