Fourteen is a significant number for me, not because of the date of this post. It’s not because it is the last day that my favorite grandson is 14, although that is true. This is not the 14th of a series of posts with 13 previous ones. Fourteen is a significant number because it is the number of years I have served Forsythe church as their preaching minister. Yes, February is my preaching anniversary at Forsythe. That means I am “in” my 15th year of ministry here, but that number seems a bit presumptuous at this point.
It feels special to me because so often preachers are nomads, serving a church for two or three years before moving on to the next church. Some of them are concerned with upward mobility and as soon as they can land a larger ministry they break loose from the smaller one. Some just can’t get along with people more than a couple of years and wear out their welcome. I don’t judge them because ministry is kind of like your family – there are multiple layers of factors that are sometimes hard to sort out.
Of the Shepherds that were guiding this flock when I arrived, one is with the Lord. The other three have been serving for many years, loved and respected by the church (and me). Four newer Shepherds have joined them. Just the way a new baby born into a family changes all the family dynamics, new Shepherds change the approaches and dynamics of leadership as well. So, now we have seven Shepherds, each one loved and respected by this church (and me). I’m grateful.
I’ve been blessed to work alongside four different partners in my time here. It is a blessing that a church our size can have two full time ministers on staff. Working with Daniel is a joy. We are from different generations. He is about to turn 40, I’ll be 60 next year. In what is an improbable turn of events, I have known him his entire life. Even so, it is not hard to regard him as a peer. He has a winsome spirit that God is using to influence many.
A retiring minister told me many many years ago, “I’m tired of this church, and they’re tired of me.” That struck me as a sad epitaph for a long ministry. Though I’ve not been at Forsythe nearly as long as that minister had been at that church, I don’t want to end up with that being the summary of my years of work. I can’t imagine that it would be. The church I serve is a loving and caring church. Not a perfect church (there aren’t any of those). They don’t have a perfect preacher, either.
If I count my ministry years as beginning when I drove weekly to Oak Ridge Church of Christ in rural Attala County, Mississippi, I’ve been working with churches for 39 years. I don’t really know how to do anything else. I’m sure there are some who would say I don’t know how to do this either.
The last three years have been especially difficult. We spent much of 2019 in research and discussions with an area congregation talking about merging. We spent some time with brothers and sisters, which we enjoyed. We ultimately decided not to merge. It was hard to plan ahead when the future was uncertain, so after the merger discussions ended we took a deep breath and started to refocus on a future at Forsythe. In mere weeks that followed we began to hear news of a spreading unknown virus. I don’t have to tell you how that year and the following went. The polarization and politics of it all, those who mourned the loss of loved ones, and the personal struggles people had as they tried to live life with an airborne virus coming at us in waves made life erratic for all of us.
In May of 2020, I wrote a blog post that took on a life of it’s own called The Coming Pastoral Crash. Though some took issue with what I wrote, it has aged well. There is a wellspring of documentation that after two years of ministry in a covid world, many ministers are quitting. It just took so much out of us and required so much of us for which we were not equipped. (Please do not read into this that I think ministers had it worse than other professions, but I can only really speak from my own point of view here.)
So I think we have looked over the horizon a few times over the past year and feel we are beginning to emerge into a new post-covid world. Or at least a world where we will co-habitate with covid. The lost still need the Gospel. The church still needs to be a united family. The Word still needs to be studied and preached. On the widest outlook, nothing much has changed. However, everything feels like it has changed. So what challenges lie ahead in my 15th year at Forsythe? I don’t know. Really. I continue with the most basic and crucial perspectives that I have grown into over the years of being a preacher:
*God is my strength. My ministry cannot be stronger than my own connection to the Lord. Prayer and Scripture feed the soul of ministry.
*God is love. Love must always be the motive, the action, and the foundation of ministry because God is love.
*God reaches out to the world. I pursue growth and understanding of ministry as it evolves, learning what I can and using that to serve the community of faith and the community in which I live.
*God knows who we are. I never forget that I am a human being, faulty, grace-dependent, failing at times, doing some things well and flailing in other areas. Humility drives me to see the truth about myself and continue to rely on God’s power and strength through His Spirit.
If you read this far, thanks. I just wanted to reflect a bit about my first 14 years at Forsythe – a beautiful family of faith.