In February 2011, I wrote a series of blog posts for ChurchWorks Network about what has been by far the most acutely painful time of my ministry life. Though nearly two years have passed, I remember everything like it happened yesterday.
On January 23, 2011, Village Baptist Church, the church I served as pastor for five years, held its last public gathering. About twelve of us gathered in my living room, celebrated Communion, remembered how Jesus has changed our lives together, cried, and hugged each other. And then it was over.
I made the excruciating decision to step away from the church in late December. After that, the membership decided it was best to dissolve. And so I went about the work of conducting final business meetings, transferring real estate, sending off final support checks to missionaries, clearing out chairs and flannel-graphs and plastic communion cups. Every otherwise mundane task reminds me that a church has died – on my watch.
At times, I vacillate between being frustrated at God and being angry with myself. I feel relief, and then I feel guilt for feeling relief. At the last Sunday evening gathering, as everyone enjoyed food and games and being together, I ran upstairs, locked myself in my bathroom, and sobbed for twenty minutes. Already my relationships with my wife and children are better off for my decision, but that just means I was messing it up before, I tell myself.
That’s now, this moment. Five years ago, it was different.
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In 2006, I was thirty years old, and I was hungry. I’d served in my father’s church for eight years, doing everything he asked, including leading the youth group. Through Gospel relationships with formerly unchurched teenagers, God had led me on a thought process about possibilities in expressions of church, and I was anxious to put them to work in a whole-church leadership context.
So I resigned my position at my father’s church, fully confident that I was mere weeks away from landing a pastorate. Then almost twelve months passed, as did some bizarre pulpit committee interviews. I got a call from a church to which I’d submitted my name three months earlier. The three guys ahead of me on the list hadn’t worked out – would I be willing to come candidate?
The whole three-guys-ahead-of-me thing was the first of what I now recognize as red flags. The second came when we pulled into the parking lot of the church facility, and my wife said, without a trace of irony, “This looks like a cult.” Having dry-walled over the windows on the inside, someone had dealt with the openings in the stone exterior wall by boarding them over with plywood, eliciting my wife’s comparison.
The pastor was retiring after almost thirty years serving this congregation. He would mention to others in later conversations that the church had been dying for at least seven years, though he never told this to me. When the time came for the members to ask me questions, there were two: would I be willing to lead the church to sell the property (yes!), and would I make the women wear dresses during the winter (what? who are you again?). I was promised a weekly salary without being shown the church’s financials, and I didn’t know to ask.
But a strange thing happened: I fell in love with the northeast side of Indianapolis. 400,000 people live within a ten-minute drive of this location. We found a house in a development of more than 3,000 homes that hadn’t existed ten years before. Five of our closest neighbors are African-American families, and that diversity holds true through this area. The recent closing of Fort Benjamin Harrison had created a vacuum at the geographic center of the area, and a community was being reshaped before my very eyes. If ever there were a prime place for an expression of the kingdom of God to take shape, this was it.
I had a dream. And that dream made me say yes to a leadership challenge unlike any I had faced in my young life.