God is very clear on where your value comes from.
This is super important. Listen to this.
God is very clear on where your value comes from.
So, you’ve been excited about things that God is doing in your life, your family, your ministry, but you don’t know how to share it with people without sounding like you’re just bragging on yourself? If you’re thinking that way, it’s highly likely you already have God’s glory in mind.
Just let it out! Brag on God!
So, to follow up from the previous post, I found myself at 18 years old and coming on staff at very small church in northeast Tennessee, having grown up in a thriving megachurch about 5 hours away in a larger, mid-sized city. It was a big change in environment, culture and attitude. Again, one wasn’t better than the other…it was simply different.
Coming from the mega church where visitors were expected, there were VHS cassettes wrapped in the latest copy of the church paper and a variety of ministry brochures and other pieces of information that might help a visitor learn more about the church. If you were visiting, there was a point in the service where ushers would walk from the front to the back carrying several of these packets, hand them to those who felt brave enough to raise their hands and that was the end of the immediate contact for visitors. Pretty quick and painless, and it left the impetus for follow up on the hands of the visitor.
Walking into the small church, visitors were given a little embroidered rose stickers to wear on your shirt or jacket. The greeters at the front door always had a few on hand, and as if being a new face in a room of 95 people wasn’t evidence enough, the rose solidified the fact that you were new there. At a point, later in the service, people in the church were asked from the front to identify any guests they brought, by standing and introducing them and everyone would say ‘hello.’
Both gatherings had bulletins, choirs (the small church choir wore robes) and offered Wednesday night meals. Both had Sunday school, youth group and children’s ministries. Both practiced weekly communion, believer’s baptism, and made the sermon the central point of the service, hoping to bring encouragement for following Jesus to everyone in attendance. Both ended with an invitation, and a song. But the small church sang the same closing song every week. “The Family of God.”
It was different and still rang of elements from home. But the people were nice, they few us poor college students, and the old people didn’t treat us like we had our heads on backwards. They were used to college students coming through, and they welcomed us quickly.
My girlfriend at the time (now my wife) and I started attending a Sunday school class with a guy named John who was the Youth Minister there, and we got locked in with the community. We were hooked.
There was this little room just off the fellowship hall that we called the ‘Holy of Holies’ it was run by the Women’s ministry, had deep, shag carpet (with a rake) and was decorated in dusty rose and lace doilies. We were warned not to eat in there on Wednesday nights. We thought it was funny.
The minster had been on staff for over 25 years, and the people had a very open relationship with him. Everyone liked him, it seemed, He always wore a suit on Sunday mornings, slacks and button up on Wednesday nights, had his dark hair slicked back and wore these thick rimmed glasses that looked like he had kept that style since the 50’s.
We went home for Christmas, and came back in January. We went with John and the Youth Group to Gatlinburg for the TCTC where my wife and I got fake engaged & fake married in front of the “Chapel in the Valley” so we could send our parents pictures and freak them out a little bit.
Shortly after that, the church started getting ready for Easter, and all of a sudden John was gone. We found out that he was moving back to Florida to work with the youth in his home church. And so, a few weeks later, the elders got together and asked me if I would want to serve as the interim minister over the summer, for the next three months or so while they looked for a full time youth minister. That meant not going home, staying in the house of one of the elders as their guest, and taking care of the weekly and summer programming.
Since I was in school for ministry, it sounded like a great idea & good experience. I said yes, and was excited about moving into my first office. I was 18 years old. I had no idea what I was doing, and I didn’t have a prayer of filling office space. “Oh,” and they told me, “VBS starts in six weeks. I don’t think anything has been planned yet.”
To be continued.
Back in the summer and early fall of 1996 there was a lot going on. I had just made the move to Northeast Tennessee, going to college in the mountains, taking my first steps of what felt like independence and responsibility (being 18 will make it easy to see more in some ways and less in many others.) Kurt Russel had just escaped from L.A., the Macarena was the hot new dance on MTV2 (a brand new channel) and ER was the top watched show on television with Seinfeld, Suddenly Susan and Friends just steps behind.
Brooding, angsty teens in plaid flannel and ripped jeans were everywhere.
Moving into college was fun. I enjoyed it. I was the kid who was always looking forward to being another year older, reaching that next milestone. At 13? I have arrived. I am finally a legitimate human being. At 16? I am a legitimate human being who can drive. At 18, I have graduated high school. I am an adult. I am moving out into the world on my own…with my few close friends, social tendencies to play it safe and regular check-in’s with my parents. I was also going to begin my degree in ministry, Youth Ministry, and that first day on campus I would meet the equally mature and responsible and mature 18 year old woman who would become my wife in a few short years.
Moving to a new town meant leaving behind not just my parents and friends, but also my church family. I grew up in a pretty remarkable church. My dad grew up in that church and my grandpa and grandma had been around at the beginning to see it begin. Ever since the doors had opened, this church had been growing. And I don’t mean by one or two people, like many churches, my home church was growing, growing. By the time I was in elementary school it had already outgrown every inch of its original campus, which is a good sized property, multiple buildings, a gym…you name it. There was off site parking, people coming in by bus, multiple services every weekend. It was hopping.
We moved just down the street to a huge, sprawling campus, bigger buildings and way more parking. It was more, a lot more. and by the time I was graduating high school, that campus was over full, and there was no more room to expand…so they broke ground over on the east side of town, in an undeveloped area next to a small cattle farm. And I grew up in that environment. Excitement, growth, programs, movement, building, campaigns, expansion, excellence…and then I moved in to the foothills of Appalachia, and began my search for the place that would be my new church home for the coming years.
So, at 18 and coming from a megachurch environment, I set my eyes toward the biggest church in town. You can see it from the highway, it’s a featured building, and it’s shaped like a big, white Hersey’s Kiss. You can’t miss it. So, we went to check it out. I think it was the default first church visit for many students at my school, and it probably still is. Apart from the church on campus where you can roll out of bed and just amble your way on down on a Sunday morning, it’s a pretty good draw.
So we went, we attended for a few weeks, maybe two months, and then we moved on wanting to make sure we gave a fair glimpse at some of the 777 churches within 45 minutes of our school. Yes. we were told there were hundreds and hundreds of churches where we could settle in and find our place to serve. The big church seems like it had its ducks in a row, and we did want to go somewhere we could get involved, so we kept looking around. One week here, two weeks there, and we eventually come to a little church about 10 minutes from campus that was in the smaller city on the east side of campus. There was something different about this group. This whole church body was smaller than a single Sunday morning class at my home church, let alone the thousands and thousands of people who gathered for worship each weekend.
But my curiosity was piqued.
So we locked in. About 5 of us decided to make this tiny little church ‘our’ spot each Sunday morning. It was quaint. They sang from hymnals, wore choir robes and had pot-luck meals on a very regular schedule. The people, mostly old, were incredibly friendly, and it was pretty obvious that the minister was sticking to Scripture each week, so doctrinal concerns didn’t exist.
We started attending a class on Sunday mornings, went on Wednesday nights for the spaghetti dinners. It was nice, no pressure, no hustle, just people who loved Jesus loving each other, maybe they were still hanging out in the 1960’s. There was a time warp happening, and I loved it.
Growing up in a church that was growing into a megachurch meant that I didn’t experience a lot of what most people experience in their church communities. Add into that the fact that my family was in leadership, and I was pretty consistently abreast of change, aware of new stuff around the corner. Walking into a church family where change was not the word of the day, and where it was more about maintaining a weekly pace, about having a cohesive community, was a huge difference. And one was not better than the other. It was just different.
In my next post, I’ll lay out how some of the differences came across, and what I learned at 18 that was helpful, and what I learned to look out for…because later that Spring I began my journey on staff at a church. I was 18 and I had no clue what I was doing.
Stop feeling guilty about it.
Make it a priority not to live life on fumes.
Self care & soul care is super important. Sabbath is a practice, not a suggestion.
Make it part of your rhythm.
Letting a group of men that I had served with for almost 9 years know that we weren’t on the same page at all anymore was tough. It didn’t speak to my love for them, which makes it even harder. If I didn’t like them, it would be easy…real easy. But I did and still do. But sometimes an impasse is an impasse, and different philosophies of how basic things should happen, and what priorities should be become so radically different that you have to admit that it is best to part ways and then continue on your own pathways.
As Christians, this is doubly difficult because our goal is supposed to be the same: bring glory to God and honor Christ by making disciples that make disciples. God is honored when we bear much fruit for Him. How different can that pursuit be? The simple and correct answer is that it shouldn’t be difficult. The banner of Jesus Christ is something we should rally under and leave our differences aside. But even Paul & Barnabas took different pathways after a time (Acts 15) because of a sharp disagreement, and they still loved each other through it. So, this is the pathway we took, too, even if it wasn’t the one anyone had originally intended.
As I said in my last post, I didn’t want to drag this out. It wasn’t right to make a big to-do over this, and I didn’t want to create ‘camps’ within the church after I was gone. No good would come from that. So, I told the elders my plan, that I would announce my departure the following Sunday, preach again the Sunday after that and then fade out quickly. I had committed to a small group of men that I had begun discipling that we would finish out a certain amount of time on Wednesday nights, and that would be my goodbye.
There are a lot of things that can happen as you walk through this process. Things you thought might happen, and other things you didn’t even think about or imagine. Everyone’s experience in this pathway will be different, but one thing matters most: we keep our eyes on Christ. There’s a way in which this feels like a break-up or even a divorce. It hurts, but you still love people. There are mixed feelings, difficult conversations…people do take sides.
I could share details, but it’s better not to go down that road. No one gains anything, and you have to wonder what the end game is or even could be in pointing fingers, shifting blame. When you come to this point and place, there’s always a shared experience that leads to it. Unless incredible circumstances have led to this, this is a shared experience for everyone in leadership, and only hindsight leaves you with any advantage.
There are countless resources, articles and organizations that exist for the sake of pointing churches into healthy, growing habits and practices. (I have several listed & linked below.) But everyone must be on board for these changes to take place. The whole leadership team must be of one mind, bought in and invested for a long haul operation if we are to chip away the decades of bad practices, unbiblical thoughts and self-centered ideologies that are encountered with most church revitalization projects. After all, the church isn’t a business, but people. The church is people, the Bride of Christ, and she must be loved, led and guided into correct practice. This is a fragile time, and tugging in multiple directions simply causes chaos.
We had been through a review by an external organization meant to help us find that direction. I had been working with a coach, going step by step with what he encouraged. But when it comes down to it, everyone must want healing enough to pursue it, the new vision for what God wants to do must be compelling enough within them, that they own it wholesale. This time, that didn’t happen. God had put something big on my heart, an intergenerational, multi-ethnic congregation that truly represented the neighborhood she served. It was a big change, it would have been beautiful. But, not quite yet. Not here.
So, on Sunday, I did my best to put on a good face, I recused myself before the service. I came out to preach, and with God’s help, I made it through my short sermon on unity in Christ, preplanned for this Sunday six months before., it was very appropriate. During invitation, I had arranged for my parents and family to leave the room. There was no way I could look them in the face while I read my letter. I couldn’t have completed it. After invitation, I stepped back up to the platform, and invited the elders up to join me.
The rest, as they say, is history. I read my letter. I prayed over the elders & congregation. I cried. There were gasps and tears from the congregation. I told them my exit strategy and that I still loved them. The people who weren’t in my ‘camp’ (I hate making divisions like this, “I am for Apollos, I am for Paul.”…it’s nonsense) left without saying anything else to me. That was fine, it wasn’t my concern at that point, and it was a small number of people. There were lots of hugs, words of care and support from the rest and people asking where we were going…and I honestly couldn’t answer that one yet.
I just knew it wasn’t local. We had been called out, away from home.
I was emotionally exhausted, physically spent.
I wanted nothing but to sleep for a couple of days.
I had tried my hardest to keep human, petty nastiness out of the mix, so that even in this difficulty, God would be honored and the baby Christians among us wouldn’t be soured or turned away. I wanted this to feel as ‘natural’ and as ‘painless’ as it could.
I honestly can’t tell you specifically what happened the next week. I know I worked on my last sermon, and that I spent time confiding in ministry friends and prepping for CPAC (Church Planters Assessment Center) in North Carolina. Other than that, it’s a blur. On Sunday, I came in, talked about God hitting the restart on Abraham’s life by calling him out (a topic chosen 6 months before but suddenly very appropriate) to a place he did not know, and how faith was his vehicle for his next steps. (I’ll write sometime about prepping and study for long term sermon planning. It’s super effective.)
It was another short sermon. I fought tears the whole time. At the end, I prayed the Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6 over the congregation and we closed with the Lord’s Prayer as we did every week as an affirmation of our unity in Him. I didn’t make it through this last part, my voice left me, & where I couldn’t continue, the congregation did. They all surrounded me as we wept and prayed. It was beautiful and painful, terrible and cathartic all at once. But it was done. My big goodbye was over…ish.
I spent the following weeks on Wednesday nights discipling my guys, trying to give them a stronger foundation and attempting to hand over a group of willing men to one of the elders to continue the effort. After the agreed upon time was over, I was gone. I had stopped attending on Sunday mornings, and we began going to another church in town with some very good, long time friends. I’ll post more on this later.
In mid-March, we came back for a lunch after church for a formal good-bye and thank you from the elders. I didn’t want to go, I wasn’t in a good enough place to do it, but I knew there were people who needed time to process and then say their good-byes. Our last name was misspelled on the good-bye cake. (It’s an honest mistake for the store to make, my last name is unusual.)
I just had to laugh.
Our healing was coming.
Thom Rainer gives 7 quick reasons when leaving is okay
Focus On The Family’s Counseling Referral Service
Chris Maxwell speaks into Pastor’s receiving counseling
Karl Vaters gives 7 reasons when transition is right
What’s your favorite memory?
Do have a place or time that you enjoy thinking about, mentally revisiting? What is the first Christmas you remember? What’s the earliest birthday party that you can recall the in detail? Who has moved away or passed on and you find comfort in revisiting memories from your time with them? What memories bring you the deepest joy or stir your heart the most? Whether it’s your wedding day, the day you child was born, or the day you discovered the grace that God has for you, there are so many good memories that God has provided for us.
Listen to David, stirred to remember the goodness of God, and put yourself in his shoes. Let your heart remember with his.
1Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name;
make known his deeds among the peoples!
2 Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wondrous works!
3 Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice!
4 Seek the Lord and his strength;
seek his presence continually!
5 Remember the wondrous works that he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he uttered,
6 O offspring of Abraham, his servant,
children of Jacob, his chosen ones!
God is good all the time. Remember that, okay? Whatever happened today, whoever gave you that sideways ‘complement’ the other day, whoever let you down…no matter what came about, God is good. That never changes. People can make dumb choices, have bad attitudes or completely forgot that they promised you they would do something…and that doesn’t change the fact that God has you, loves you and is providing for your tomorrow.
Human circumstances have nothing to do with how good God is, how consistent He is, how loving He is or how awesome He is…and He loves you.