Thursday, August 6, 2009

Last Fall

(Note: I began writing this post before my mother's health took a turn for the worse. She passed away on August 2nd and her services were yesterday, August 5. As I was finishing this today, I could feel the emotional drag on my life as well, having now lost both parents in the span of less than 5 months.)

Doris and I were together with some people from church the other evening and they had read the "Why Sabbatical" posting on this blog (the first posting, actually, which hopefully you read) and they asked "So what was going on last fall." They were referring to this statement, "There have been times (most recently just last fall) when I came close to "throwing in the towel" and hanging up whatever it is Brethren pastors hang up when they quit."

I gave them a very brief answer and said I was thinking of blogging on this, since I guessed that others would have the same question. So here goes...

Last year in late summer I was really struggling. The bottom line was that I was looking to the wrong things and listening to the wrong voices. As usual, God led me to what I needed to get me through and to reorient my thinking. Here is a bit of what was going on.

If you are connected to ECOB you will remember that on 18 May 2008 we held the Sacred Assembly (based on Joel 2). That event was the culmination of about 2 years of rather intense spiritual struggle as a congregation. Specifically, our Lenten series that Spring dealt with understanding the spiritual strongholds that often invade our lives. That series was based on the life of Jesus and the numerous encounters he had with entrenched spiritual powers of a negative nature. After the Lenten series, I preached a sermon entitled "A spiritual Journey" in which I both outlined the spiritual struggle we were facing as a congregation and called for a new way of measuring our ministry. I called this a "Spiritual Yardstick." We then began a second series entitled "Demolishing Strongholds" which laid a practical foundation for the Sacred Assembly.

The Sacred Assembly of May 18, 2008, had a number of very positive outcomes for our congregation. I can now, and actually could last summer, recognize them. But it also affected the congregation in ways that on the surface could appear negative. Although our attendance, after growing steadily for a number of years, began to decline a bit two years earlier, the focus leading up to Sacred Assembly and the day itself, took a significant toll on attendance. This, naturally, has had a ripple effect on the congregation in a number of ways. Now, more than a year past the Assembly, most of us can easily see the positive benefits of this journey on the congregation; but last fall was a different matter for me.

Even though I had preached that we would begin using a different "yardstick" for measuring the health of the congregation, I admit I was still using the wrong one--at least in part. On top of this, I was very weary from the spiritual battles of the last two years, and some of the not-so-spiritual struggles with some aspects of the life in the congregation. I was not the only one feeling this--we were all weary after the Assembly--but in many ways, as the Senior Pastor, I was the primary one. No doubt my spiritual strength, or lack thereof, was a major factor in this low time in my life.

In the midst of this Tim left to pastor his home congregation at Parker Ford. This had an impact on me and on the congregation. I had conversations with a number of people, helping them through the grief process of Tim's departure. But who was helping me? And then the congregation very unexpectedly lost John Good. I had just that spring co-taught a course with John and I picked him up nearly every month for the Ministry and Evangelism Commission meeting on which John served. It is hard to explain, especially since I really did not hang out with John on much of a social basis, but his loss really had an impact on me.

So late summer and early fall of 2008 found me really low, both spiritually and emotionally. I really did contemplate resigning and doing something else with my life. Fortunately, I do have abilities and experiences that would enable me to do other things. Actually, I had two offers last summer to move on; one to pastor a church in another denomination, which was tempting, and another to return to the mission field. It is funny how God will test you when you are weak. Anyway, God was faithful during this time, and he pulled me through. He provided a number of things for me that made a difference.

First of all, there was a book. Sometime over the summer I had picked up a copy of The Pressure's Off by Christian counselor and leader Larry Crabb. I have this book listed on this blog's sidebar as recommended reading. It is a must read. It was exactly what I needed. His thesis is a simple one (though the book is a bit hard to read at times). Crabb asks, Are you following Jesus for the blessings or is experiencing the Presence of God enough? He shows how if we are in it for the blessings--and we know we are when we expect God to give us things (like the good life) and do things for us (like keep us happy)--we will never be at peace with God. But if we realize that God owes us nothing and that his Presences in our life is all we really need, and we seek that instead of the blessings, it takes the pressure off and we can live a different way.

Wow! I knew this, even preached it, but last fall I was not living it.

Secondly, a few of us from church attended the Willow Creek Reveal conference in Chicago. During the sessions there were speakers who seemed to be speaking directly to me. This conference was all about focusing the church on its primary mission of discipleship, even if it means the church becomes smaller in order to become more faithful. I needed to hear nationally known pastors talk about this and challenge us to get our focus right. And the worship at Willow was wonderful. I could feel my soul healing. I know sometimes we may wonder if the cost of sending some people to a conference like this is worth it. In this case, it saved me from leaving the ministry.

Thirdly, some people were key in my life during this time. As always, my coach, Geoff Davis, was very helpful. Also, some of the staff at church and those who attended the Willow Conference with me, were excellent support.

As a result of my struggle and the way God spoke during this time my mind and my heart changed. I was able to again come to church focused on God and what he had led me to share, and focused on the needs of the people who were there, and not to look at the numbers. It was an extremely freeing experience, and I am much healthier today.

In many ways I needed a Sabbatical more last fall than I do now. However, If I would have taken one last fall, I would have needed the time for emotional and spiritual healing and would not have been able to focus much on my own spiritual growth and what the congregation needs in the future. This fall, even though I am still very tired spiritually, I am in a much better place than last fall and I will be able to use the Sabbatical time much more wisely.