The people of Gethsemane and I worshiped together for a season, the season of Lent – a time of preparation for Easter. We spent time together on Wednesday evenings talking about the our relationship with God, our Father and our King. It seemed simple enough to me, they wanted lenten services – I wanted to pastor a congregation. I began to ask questions to understand more about the hopes and dreams of the congregation. I wandered around the neighborhood, met the owner of a small business across the street, more on him later. This season of preparation was also a season of learning, the congregation wanted to see if they wanted to enter into a long term relationship with me and I them. A test drive if you will. The story of this congregation is written on the walls, the history is not as long as many but the story is deep. It is a good story, one I love to tell.
Our congregation is like many across the nation, they sold a parcel of land years ago and have a healthy savings account but giving is enough for a bare bones ministry budget and barely enough for a part time pastor. This is a major pit fall many congregations fall into, they cant or wont pay for full time pastor, turn over is quick or they settle or semi-retired mostly-tired pastor. Innovation rarely takes place and the innovators, people who want to see ministry thrive – not just survive, leave. This leads to a titrated decline, peaks and valleys of life, but more often than not a slow agonizing decline. But I digress…. My first year average attendance was around 30 and had nearly 200 visitors pass through the church, both first time and repeat visitors. Giving was steady, as it had always been. The offices were packed with old books and files from years long gone, corners filled with old bulletins and reports from a time when the pews were packed and life seemed easier.
One day during a gathering of members I asked when was the last time someone had invited someone to church, the newest member a middle aged male spoke up, “Well I invited a young couple to church a few weeks ago, but not this church. No, I invited them to a church down the street that would be more fitting for them.” This knocked the breath out of me, I thought well, you did invite them to church. He would go on to say that this is a church that you “happen upon, not invite people to….that its a unique place for unique taste”. Another older lady, said “This is a difficult congregation, always has been!” to which I responded “the question is – Do you want to remain a difficult congregation” (This question would come up time and time again over the next two years) Nevertheless, there is passion in this place – I can work with passion – passion focused in the places God is calling us moves mountains, raises valleys. I learned a lot that Lent, I saw that this congregation still had innovators (which is rare for a declining congregation), people who hungered for more, people who were willing to try different things, even those who were interested in impacting the community, and yet there were others who were content with keeping things just the way they were, no matter what.
So, after prayer and conversations with my beautiful bride we felt God calling us into something in this place. At the time we didn’t know what it was or why God wanted me to lead this church, but we knew God was in the midst. At the council meeting sometime after Easter Sunday, I presented my vision for our year together. For better or worse, I saw what could be – I saw a church rising from the dust and mold of a forgotten neighborhood and once again impacting our community, even the world. I told the leadership that I am not a typical Lutheran pastor – I own that I am very different, dress different, talk different, preach different. I said, I am a church planter – at that point I had no clue what I meant, only that I was not a church maintainer. I have learned since that I am deeply wired to bring challenge and change, build things, break new ground, experiment, make disciples, and work to grow the breadth and depth of the church. It seemed to me at that point, there were enough innovators on the council who caught the vision and voted they unanimously to contract with me. This was typical for this congregation. They haven’t had a called pastor in over a decade, only contracting long term agreements with mostly retired pastors.
You are the Pastor, Now what?