Summer is a time when a lot of pastors are on the move from one church to another and one of the things that we pack along with our boxes of books is our anxiety about what to preach at the end of one pastorate and the beginning of another. Your first and last sermons at a particular place of ministry are the first and last words your people will hear from you and, as with most things in a pastoral transition, first and last impressions are important.
Your first and last Sundays at a church are an opportunity to set the tone for the work to come. If it’s your first Sunday, it’s a great time to begin casting a vision for your future together as pastor and congregation. If it’s your last Sunday, preaching a farewell sermon offers the chance to turn the congregation toward a new season of ministry with new leadership. Careful sermon planning for these key transitions can provide a launching pad for momentum and ministry whether you’re on the way out or on the way in. There will likely never be a first sermon or last sermon between this pastor and congregation again and much is at stake in how these sermons communicate the future.
So, what kind of sermon should you preach during these important Sundays? Here are a few thoughts to guide your preparation:
1. Make it a message about new beginnings.
I have developed a pattern of using the text of Abram’s call in Genesis 12 as a paradigm for ending and starting a new pastorate. In fact, I have preached nearly the exact same sermon on both my first and last Sundays since the principles still apply. Genesis 12 is the text that begins the whole traveling narrative of the Bible and sets the tone for the story that is to come. God calls Abram to go on a journey where the destination is uncertain and, because he faithfully goes, God blesses him so that he and his family will be a blessing to the whole world. The church I am leaving is going on a journey into the unknown, and so is the one to whom I have come. We have been called to journey together: to be blessed so that we can be a blessing to our community and to the world. All that God requires of us is faith and the willingness to take the first step. So, when God calls, we haul, even if that means we leave behind the familiar and step into the new and the strange.
I often wonder if Abram was afraid to take that first step, but did it anyway. As I stand in front of a congregation full of faces that I do not yet know, I know that I always feel a little bit anxious. “Is anyone feeling a little scared this morning?” I asked a congregation on my first Sunday. When they raised their hands I was relieved that I was not the only one! In spite of our fear in the midst of uncertainty, we recognize that God has called us to the journey together. If I’m leaving, the same fear applies as both pastor and congregation wonder what’s next. A good transition will help us get over that fear because the more we walk together on the journey, the more we will see it as a blessing that has come to us and will work through us.
2. Turn the congregation toward the future.
“The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.” If I’ve been serving a congregation for a long time, we have a past together and the congregation to which I’m going also has a past without me. It’s tempting to dwell on those pasts and while they’re never dead, a transition happens best when both congregation and pastor take the best of their pasts and turn them toward a mutually fulfilling future. A good transition sermon will focus on the new thing God will do in the life of both pastor and congregation. Notice that Jesus’ own farewell discourse in John is less about where they’ve been together but about the future they will share because of God’s resurrecting and renewing power. Paint a picture of your hopes and dreams for the congregation. Give them a glimpse of the Promised Land that looms over the horizon. God told Abram that the land toward which he was walking would be a place of multiplied blessings. Give people a sense of what life will be like when they keep walking in obedience to God.
3. Share some of yourself and how God has brought you to this place.
The final sermon is a chance for you to express what God has been teaching you during your time together as pastor and congregation. How have you grown? How have they blessed you? Share your heart and thanksgiving for the worship, work, and witness you have done together. Even if your tenure has been a rocky one, there is always something to bless and something to learn.
If it’s your first sermon in new church, however, you will want to share some of your story and about some of the twists and turns of God’s grace that have brought you to this place. Yes, you can share the story of your call to ministry one more time! More specifically, express your excitement about the call of God to this particular place of ministry. Remember, the sermon is not primarily about you, just like Abram’s call wasn’t the result of his stellar resume, but it is an opportunity to share why you believe God has brought you together for such a time as this.
Preaching your first and last words to a congregation is both a privilege and an opportunity. Bless your people so that whether you are coming together or coming apart, you will both be a blessing!