Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Unusual Year in Review

The year 2011 began with me beginning a new expositional preaching series through Galatians at Memorial Baptist Church. Though we'd just come through a year (2010) that saw visitors to the church nearly every Sunday and a few new members added the overall participation of members was down and giving was down. The mood at the church was mixed-- some optimism and some growing concern about the future vitality of the church. I was excited about beginning a new year-- especially about some specific outreach efforts being organized and about preaching through Galatians. However a series of circumstances had me seeking discerning counsel from a few fellow pastors. I was wrestling with how to lead the church and whether the Lord might be redirecting my life and ministry. My resolve was to continue to lead the flock the Lord had called me to and specifically lead them with expositional preaching and toward a more gospel-driven ministry. Until the Lord made clear a different direction I would stay the course.

Then February rolled around and late that month while home for a brief lunch break and almost out the door to go back to my office for sermon prep my wife caught me and uttered these few words, "Um... there's a chance I might be pregnant." It was surreal but I was careful to be excited until we were sure. Soon after we were sure and it was like 2009 all over again as we prepared for our second child. So on the homefront, things were great and the blessings were overflowing. On the church front, things were much more challenging for a variety of reasons but in hindsight the difficulties were also blessings-- the Lord was using highs and lows for my sanctification and to carry out His purposes.

March marked the third anniversary of my pastorate (I was actually voted on and "called" in late February but my first day on the job was Easter Sunday, March 23). It also brought a couple inquiries from other churches about my potential candidacy for their pastorate openings. Though nothing every developed with those churches the inquiries forced me to examine my present ministry with more discernment and pray more about my hopes and convictions about where the church should be in the future. I remember casually chatting with my wife and fellow pastors about "if I was starting from scratch" (i.e. if there were no obstacles to substantive change) here's how we would apply the Biblical convictions I have about the church at Memorial. These chats grew more frequent. Don't get me wrong, I was still (and am still) deeply burdened for my Memorial church family. It just became more obvious that the kinds of applications I wanted to make from the New Testament for the church were in stark contrast to how much change an older congregation with many established norms could handle. So the question became obvious-- am I the man to lead Memorial in these changes over many years or is the Lord prompting me to make these applications more quickly in a different context?

The week before Easter, in mid-April my wife and I (along with our friends John and Tara Jones- John pastors Jade Avenue Baptist Church nearby) trekked off to an Expository Preaching Conference in Arkansas. This conference and the church that hosted it would be a major catalyst in discerning the direction God was leading my life and ministry. To make a long story a little less long, the Lord used His godly servants David Miller, Hershael York, Derek Westmoreland, and my friend John Jones that week to challenge me in the areas of preaching, faithfulness, courage, and kingdom-focus. Blair and I soaked up a lot. We reflected on it and talked about it for days and days afterward. I knew at this point that I didn't need to go to another existing church when I was already serving one-- the Lord certainly leads pastors to different congregations but it wasn't what He had for me.

In early May I was spending time with my boy outside. He was playing and I was scribbling notes-- ideas, dreams, thoughts, convictions, etc etc. What I ended up with after that journaling session (interrupted often with calls from my son to wrestle or throw a ball around) were six "vision points". These were the refined and specific targets I wanted to lead the church but when I put the pen down I knew I had written the mapping points for a new church. I brewed over that for a few days and was afraid to tell my wife what had become obvious to me... the Lord had been preparing us and was now directing us to plant a church.

When I finally spilled my guts to my wife she was remarkably supportive and affirming. Now it should be said she has always been a remarkably supportive and affirming wife but this was a big deal to drop on her and shock or reluctance would have been understandable. We talked and prayed about it a lot. I studied the Book of Acts a lot in those critical days of discernment. I sat down with John and with Joe Worley (the pastor of FBC Groves who I'd served under and who is now our lead sponsor church) and talked to other pastors I trusted as well. These discerning men offered challenging questions but ultimately affirmed the Holy Spirit's leadership in this. Then came what Blair and I refer to as "the couch moment". We'd been talking about church planting so much it was becoming distracting to my ministry at Memorial so we had to get serious. If we were going to work toward a transition from Memorial to church planting I had to begin focusing my ministry at Memorial on preparing them for that transition and for their future without my leadership. This wasn't something to casually talk about anymore. It was decision time. So one afternoon while Asher napped we sat on the couch, prayed about it again, and I asked, "Are we going to do this or not?" Blair's response, "I'm with you all the way."

The big question was where to plant. Intitially we landed on Houston-- specifically in the Heights/ Timbergrove/ Garden Oaks area around the 610 Loop. My roots were in Houston and that area of the city, due to gentrification, had seen a boom in population. There was and still is a big need for more healthy, Biblical, and missional churches there. I met with pastors in Houston and with a local Baptist association worker-- I even took a job interview with a secualar business in the event we did a parachute-drop church plant. Everyone was helpful and encouraging but basically doors closed. I can't explain it and for about half-a-day I was discouraged. The discouragement quickly gave way to anticipation. I knew the Lord was calling us to plant a church but I saw the closed doors as Him protecting me from my ambitions to make way for His plans. The Lord used those days to teach Blair and I so much about faith.

There was a key week in June when we laid aside any talk of "how about here or there". We just prayed and waited. In quick order the Lord used godly counsel from several godly men to challenge us to consider Beaumont. Initially we'd ruled out any place close to Memorial because we didn't want the perception to be that I was mad about something and took my toys to the sandbox across the playground. However that worry was silly. The Lord planted us in Southeast Texas and given me a burden for the area-- Beaumont is the hub of this area so it made sense. There are a lot of other reasons for Beaumont but that's another blog post.

By late July it was time to tell the leadership at Memorial. I had no idea how they'd react. We were not going to begin planting the new church in earnest until January 2012 because it would take time to raise funds, gather a core group, and put together a coalition of churches to help us plant. So the risk was, what if the deacons felt this was too long a time for a "lame-duck" pastor to stay on the field. My hope was to use the remaining five months of 2011 to help Memorial prepare for the transition and give them stability in leadership through the end of the year while I simultaneously worked to get the support structure in place to plant in 2012. What if they didn't go for it? There was no plan B. There was only faith. Of course transparency was just the right thing to do. So I told the deacons and while they were saddened (and some were understandably a little angry at first) they committed to be supportive. The chairman of the deacons, Norman Russell was and is a gem-- so supportive, encouraging, and affirming-- he stood on the platform with me when I announced the news to the congregation in August.

The last five months have had their difficulties. Not everyone was supportive of the transition plan but that's okay. I didn't expect unanimity. Tears were shed at times but no blood. In the end the Lord used these last five months at Memorial to better me and I trust, to better Memorial. I actually believe they were some of the most productive months of my ministry at Memorial. I pray the Lord used my preaching and leadership to equip the saints for the work of the ministry there. He also used these months to gather a core group, connect eight partnering churches, and raise funds necessary to plant Cross Point Church in January 2012. We'll launch on January 8 (more on that in the next post). Of course the sweetest day of the year came on November 1 when my baby girl was born. I'm so thankful to the Lord for His sustaining graces and especially for His saving grace, without which nothing this year or any year would have any lasting value or meaning. I'm eager to see what God will do in 2012-- through both highs and lows-- for the advancing of His kingdom, for the stretching of my faith, and for His glory through my new church and through my home.

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