Shawna Songer Gaines was one of the featured speakers at this year’s Hugh C. Benner Preachers Conference held on the NTS campus in September. Shawna and her husband Tim served as co-lead pastors at Bakersfield First Church of the Nazarene (CA) for over 3 years. The Gaines recently moved for Tim to take a teaching position at Trevecca Nazarene University. Shawna continues to teach and preach and will be the speaker for Eastern Nazarene College’s Spring Spiritual Renewal week. Shawna’s sermon was entitled ‘The Bride is for the Bridegroom’ based on John 2.

The sermon you preached at NTS was actually your last sermon at Bakersfield First Church. Can you give us some insight into what elements you wanted to be sure and include in a ‘last’ sermon and why you chose John 2?

It being our very last Sunday, we wanted to be able to reflect on our time with the congregation, hitting the joyful notes and celebrating that season in the church’s life. But I wanted Scripture to be the focal point. Elevating the story of Scripture protected me from excessive emotion as I preached but also kept the focus on Christ (not me and Tim). We were leaving earlier than most in the congregation had hoped. There were many who were dealing with a sense of discouragement. Considering all this, the final word of the wedding at Cana was what drew me: in the end, the guests at the wedding are left with the very best and more than enough.

Originally I was going to deal with just the wedding, but when I sat down and read the whole Gospel, I realized that what took place right after the wedding - the conversation John is having with his disciples - needed to be connected. It is meant to echo back to the wedding that had just taken place. The Word then was not only about abundance but also about the place of John and Jesus. John was simply a groomsman. Jesus was the main groom. Articulating John’s role in the story helped the congregation understand our role as pastors and ultimately elevated Christ above everything else. Using a reference from Amos (9:14-15 – the meaning of wine in the Israelites’ culture) was an important piece, too, for giving biblical and historical foundations for the text and the miracle Jesus performs.

What were the specific liturgical pieces in the worship service that day that you included and why?

We typically had a time in the service for a pastoral prayer at the altar but this Sunday one of our board members prayed instead. Everyone came to the altar and prayed over us. This helped the board and church to be a part of sending us into this new chapter. It was a really important piece.

The response to the sermon led up to the communion table. Normally we have 5 stations including a gluten free option but this Sunday we wanted to be able to serve everyone. We wanted everyone to partake of the same bread. So we found a bread that no one had an allergy to and served that. It took forever but it was this really important and beautiful moment.

The juice that I refer to in the sermon was actually the juice we used that day. We had planted a memorial garden in honor of Jim Aldridge – a local organic farmer who had been a part of our congregation. We harvested the grapes from that garden and a man in the church pressed and strained them for the service.

The final liturgical piece was Tim and I reading Scripture as we walked out of the sanctuary. On our first Sunday, we had walked into the sanctuary reading Scripture and so we thought this would be the most appropriate way to end the service and our time there. We read a lot from the epistles, especially Philippians, from the Psalms and several other passages.

What did leaving well look like for you?

Leaving well looked like the ministry we had been doing all along. So much of our ministry focused on building up the congregation and handing things over. We were very active and very involved in each ministry in the beginning stages but tried to develop and disciple leaders we could hand things over to. The leaving well has to happen throughout the course of one’s ministry. The church’s ministry muscles would atrophy if the pastors did all the work. Although it was so much sooner than we had hoped, part of our discerning God’s call for this next step was looking at the work of the church and the real ministry that was going on there and realizing it didn’t depend on us.

Following your sermon at NTS, there was a lot of discussion about how flawed the Church can be but how we are called to love her anyway. How were you able to do that in your own ministry?

I think the very first step is to have a really healthy sense of self awareness. It is easy to see the flaws in others but blur the flaws in ourselves. But when we stand next to our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are all, in the end, saved by God’s grace.

Bakersfield First Church is your typical Nazarene Church with good people trying to live holy lives, working hard, trying to make ends meet. From the start, Tim and I tried to love the church as it was and not as we wished it to be. This helped us to appreciate the church and flourish there. It was a marvelous season. We flourished because the Church flourished.

When we first interviewed, board members said to us ‘we are not one of the beautiful churches.’ They were almost apologetic about it. In light of that, we felt like our task was to tell the people how beautiful they were. We tried to hold up a different kind of mirror and help the people to see how beautiful they were in the Kingdom of God (which embraces a very different kind of beauty). We didn’t want our people to have to compare themselves to other churches. Preaching that message ended up being a part of the flourishing for them and for us. The people began to live into that story, to be that kind of beautiful. As a result, they began to step up to ministry and leadership roles that reflected that vision.

You and your husband Tim co-pastored this church during your entire tenure. What were the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of co-pastoring for you?

This is a question Tim and I get asked a lot. We see so many young couples exploring this new model of ministry. They see their marriage as a life calling. It is an exciting model. I believe it is one means the Holy Spirit is using to revitalize the church.

One of the biggest challenges to this way of doing ministry is practicing mutual submission and surrendering your own desires and wishes in order to lift up the other. This is obviously important in marriage but co-pastoring sheds a whole new light on the practice. You need to take a hard look and see if this is happening in not only your marriage but also your ministry. Communicating with each other about how you are doing is crucial. I do believe it is a good thing for the church to see their leaders submitting to one another and to Christ’s lordship. As we submitted to one another, Tim and I learned to submit to Christ better. Our church came to appreciate this particular dynamic in our ministry –reflecting Christ-like living both in the home and in the church.

My advice to those who are serving in ministry together is: enjoy those days so much! That season for Tim and I is over and I miss it dearly. It was so fun to share in all the joys and triumphs of ministry but also the struggles. We look upon that time as golden years. Even though it can be hard, enjoy this season.

You’ve entered a new season of life and ministry. Any advice or words of encouragement you might give to other pastors who are in a similar transition time?

I would say to those in a time between times, God has always been faithful to people in the wilderness. I feel like I am in a wilderness place. For me, there is a sense that we, as a family, are following God and that I am following in the way of Christ. But often following leads us to wilderness places. I am encouraged when I remember the wilderness is the place where God is awfully fond of forming people. I am trying to dig deep and allow God to shape me in this season. The wilderness is a place where God truly showcases faithfulness.