For those of you reading this who aren’t affiliated with Franklin Lakes Baptist Church (FLBC), allow me to explain what this next series of blog posts, titled “Who Stole My Church,” are about (in case you’re interested). If you are a part of our church family, I’m already asking you to read a whole book in a short amount of time… so you can feel free to jump to this post if you like.
I’m a younger pastor (33 to date) who, 5 years ago, received a call to a small (under 100 people) church in a very affluent and bustling part of New Jersey. The church was older, at least older than me at that time, and was well established. There were a number of programs and practices, which predated my teen years, that this wonderful church family had and were faithfully running when I arrived. There was also a deep sense of identity and family that existed (and I believe still exists) amongst the faithful family that gathered here week to week.
Thanks to a man who had come alongside this church in its interim period without a head pastor, this church family had opened up their hearts and minds to the possibility of risk and doing something new.
That’s where I came in. Age 28, with a growing family and a very secure sense of my personal abilities to lead, I was called to candidate. I didn’t think the Lord would ultimately “call” me to move to Jersey and I truly didn’t believe that this church family would give me more than a passing glance.
However, my wife and I were at the tail end of a major, life changing, vocational crossroad and before we turned left at the intersection of Church Planting and Manhattan Life, we wanted to be sure that we were doing what God wanted and not what I (we) wanted.
So . . . I went to the first candidate meeting with the pastoral selection committee. Long story short, God brought me to Jersey and gave these church people an almost unanimous confirmation that I was their next leader. What happened next?
THE FIRST TWO YEARS — Rough
If I had to pick one word to describe the first two years of my ministry at FLBC it would most likely be “rough.”
I don’t think it was rough on everyone. The people at FLBC are pretty amazing. They loved me and gave me the benefit of the doubt the majority of the time, even though I wounded a number of them during these first few years. To their credit, for the most part, they forgave me the best that they could and moved on quietly.
In all honesty, these were rough years for me and I was almost completely oblivious to it. I thought I was killing it in the patience department, that I was blowing their minds with my teaching, that I was leading them (albeit reluctantly) into the future in a way that inspired confidence and that I was honoring God, while making a name for myself, in the process.
I was wrong.
The problem… my heart, attitude and opinion of myself.
See, I thought I was smarter than everyone in my church. I believed I was too good a teacher and too dynamic a leader for them. I was convinced that I was the savior and the hope for the future of ministry (this one and all ministries in general) and I knew that I deserved everyones respect.
Now, I didn’t realize that this was how I was thinking about and carrying myself, but ignorance is a lame excuse, especially when the signs are all there.
What made it worse was the fact that my church family could tell.
I didn’t know them and I certainly didn’t love them… that had to change.
YEAR THREE — Repair
Early into my third year at the church (I don’t remember exactly when) I was reading a book by an old dead guy, a Puritan named Richard Baxter. Baxter was an English Puritan church leader, poet, hymn-writer, theologian, and controversialist who ministered in Kidderminster, England for the majority of his professional life.
In his book, The Reformed Pastor, Baxter talked about an old practice called “Pastoral Visitation” in which the pastor/minister would meet with every member of his congregation in order to do a “spiritual doctor’s visit.”
“Brilliant,” I thought, “what could be better for these people than having me check up on them?”
And so it began. I set a date, gave a sermon on what I was doing, wrote a booklet that described what I was going to be asking and scheduled 3-4 people a week for an invasive visit from their pastor.
It took one visit to shatter my self-perception and a year of them to begin to repair the damage I had caused over the past two years.
So much came out of these “visits” that I would be a fool (and an untrustworthy fool at that) to try to detail them here. Suffice it to say, I began to see, know and love my people.
I would call this the “Repair Year.” It wasn’t perfect or complete and I was in no way finished, but this was the year, for me, that truly began my pastoral ministry for/with these dear people.
YEAR FOUR — Deepening
When year four got under way, not much changed on the outside of our church’s ministry. It was a quiet year. We had a lot of meals together as a church, my family reprioritized to spend more time with people from our church, I learned to pray for each of them and began to preach from my heart (as opposed to my head).
Three things happened that year of great significance: 1) I grew more deeply in love with New Jersey, my church and my church people; 2) I grew more deeply in love with God and with the role/responsibility of pastoral ministry; 3) I grew more deeply discouraged with the status quo of church ministry and the greatly lacking, long-term effects we were having on people.
These “deepenings” were wonderful things, but they left me frustrated and it showed.
Now, I wasn’t frustrated with my church (although it probably seemed that way) and I wasn’t frustrated with my people (although I know many of them felt that way). Instead, I was frustrated by the lack of peace I had over everything that I/we were doing.
What are we accomplishing? Are we making any difference? Are we really making disciples… real, deep disciples? Who are we helping? Who are we reaching? Why are we doing things this or that way? Where’s the substance? Is this really the only way? the best way?
Honestly, the reason, the drive, the fuel behind all these questions… I actually cared, for the first time, what I was doing with these people and why I was doing it. I also, now, have this growing passion for the people outside the walls of this steepled building.
So… sleepless nights, countless books, lots of prayer and a growing fear that I was wasting time… that takes us to year 5.
YEAR FIVE — RE__________
As we entered the fall months of 2014 I began a process of rethinking, reassessing, renewing and recommitting to all things ministry. It was a quiet process, one which I refused to share openly with anyone for fear of misinterpretation and/or misguiding.
I had too many difficult questions rolling around in my heart and in my mind. I had to get some answers.
So, I began with the Bible (a very good place to start) and branched out, from there, to church and world history.
I needed to understand who we, as the church, are and why we go about serving and worshiping the Lord the way that we do. I needed to know what my responsibility was in all of this and I wanted to understand why I was so restless in the type of church and in the type of ministry that I grew up in, that my father modeled for me, that so many of the men that I love and respect had/have faithfully done for 40, 50, 60 years.
I was sick of feeling like Alice tumbling every down a rabbit hole of confusing, yet strangely familiar images.
What I found changed me. It changed my mindset, my perspective, my understanding and my heart. Some of this change was in my compassion and love for a generation of faithful people that are soon to leave us. Some of it was a change in my ministry philosophy. Other changes had to do with my heart and resolve for the lost, my desire to engage in the healing of the emotionally, spiritually and physically wounded, my love for our young, confused, accomplished and intelligent children, students and young adults.
However, the greatest change came in my vision for the church generally, my church specifically and for the world we were sent to engage.
YEAR SIX — ???
As we enter into my sixth year of pastoral ministry at FLBC in Franklin Lakes, NJ, there are a lot of unknowns and a number of obstacles.
My hope is to be able to share the information, insight and passion I have obtained (of which I give full credit to the Lord) with the people that God has given me to pastor. I want them to catch whatever it is that I have and I want to go through the next few years working together, with them, towards whatever future the Lord would reveal to us.
There is going to be risk. There will be discomfort. There will even be some sadness as we sacrifice.
There is also great joy to be had and indescribable peace and a multitude of spiritual blessings that have been promised to each of those who will seek God’s face and walk in accordance to His will.
The road ahead isn’t perfectly clear, but as the Lord shows us the next step, we will faithfully take it. The book Who Stole My Church by Gordon MacDonald is our first step and it’s meant to help us really see one another so that we can link arms and trod ever forward on this fantastic journey.