Now I understand that there were no buses in the 1st century… Some pimped-up chariots I'm sure… with mag-wheels, chrome trim and compresion shocks… driven by despots… Perhaps that is why Paul was concerned that he might not always be around to see a church accomplish its mission. In fact, Paul wrote a curious little note to a young pastor he'd been training:
"Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves…" (1 Timothy 3:13)
Success in ministry, to Paul, was not reliant upon his presence. He knew that God was doing big things in geographic regions in which he was not present. He also knew that God had already accomplished tremendous historical acts without his counsel or assistance. He also believed that God would continue to do dramatic things long after his apostle-heart stopped beating.
So Paul didn't believe that he needed to be the guy.
On the contrary, he believed in the mission… and he wanted to participate in the perpetuation of the mission… even if he got hit by a bus (so to speak).
So what was a first century apostle to do?
Simple— Paul decided to entrust the opportunity of leadership to others.1 In this particular case, he intentionally gave instructions to a young man named Timothy. Timothy, in turn, was to pass this teaching on to others (of all generations). "Until I come," Paul continued, "devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and teaching… and don't neglect your gift!" (1 Timothy 4:13-14)
Successful leadership in ministry should never be judged according to the numbers of people we draw to ourselves, but instead, primarily, by the genuine drawing of people to Christ and, secondarily, by the development of other leaders who can carry on the mission. Our role as leaders in ministry is always, primarily, to serve Jesus and, secondarily, to serve and equip others for the work of ministry.
To the degree that God allows us to participate in that ministry process is a true and humble blessing.
This discussion is about more than retirement planning or life insurance. I'm not overly concerned with having every detail of "what if I'm not around" eeked out. I'm not even that concerned about everyone else being "okay" when I'm gone. I'm concerned with whether or not I am equipping others to thrive when I can't be there. I desire that others (e.g. my kids, my students, my peers, my church, my friends, etc.) would catalytically engage in God's mission even if I'm not present. So the question I ask myself is this: What equipping work am I doing today to ensure that people will proactively practice faith whether I am with them or not?
Ministry should never hinge upon me. For if it does, it will inevitably collapse (either through my failure or through my absence). Ministry always has, and always will, hinge upon Jesus. No bus can stop his mission.
1 Paul wrote Ephesians 4:11-12