Courage For the Small Church Pastor
This week I’m preparing a talk for my congregation from the great text found in Joshua 1:9. “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” As so often happens God is allowing me to learn these great truths of His Word through the pages of my life as each day turns anew.
I know that this divine encouragement was given to the great army general, Joshua. However, on this day, God is reminding me of the courage necessary for church planters and small group pastors.
I remember those intense days of three years ago on Thanksgiving 2008, when Church Requel was given its first breath of life. Because of the horrible local economy, I lost my middle management position as an executive pastor of a megachurch. I remember thinking – as my father had taught me repeatedly – that this setback was not the problem it appeared to be, but rather an opportunity to do something new and something different. Rather than look for another pastoral position with an existing church, we would start a new church with a few friends and see how God would bless it.
Currently I’m reading The Strategically Small Church by Brandon J. O’Brien. I have so identified with O’Brien’s first chapter where he talks about reimagining ministry success. He writes about the ministry career arc many of us expect to experience.
At some point in your life you sense a clear call from God to enter the ministry. It makes a better story if this happens after years of success in a lucrative secular career or a period of profound and sinful rebellion. After a time of preparation – whether in seminary or through a careful perusal of church planting materials – you take a position in a small church. Over the next several years, your ministry grows. You see people reconcile with God, lives are changed, and you feel confident you are squarely within God’s will. You’ve found your calling. Either your church plant grows rapidly or you move from church to church – usually (and fortunately) to increasingly larger, more vibrant congregations. Soon your peers recognize your success and a publisher asks you to write a book about your story. You share it at conferences. You have arrived.
I’m embarrassed to admit it – but these words struck home with me. Even the part about changing from a lucrative secular career in my life’s first half described me perfectly. Three years ago – coming from a large church management experience – I expected that by now we’d be about halfway through that paragraph. Yet, no publisher has called to ask me to write about our story. And the only conferences that call are the ones who want me to pay to attend so I can hear other pastors’ success stories.
Here’s the truth – at least as I’m living it right now. We had 58 people in church last Sunday and we were thrilled! We had a great worship experience. God’s Spirit was present in a mighty way. We announced plans to give Thanksgiving meals to the hungry. We reminded everyone about the potluck dinner planned for this coming Sunday. I left last weekend thinking that nothing but rainbows and parted waters lined our future.
Since then, many of my support structures have been knocked out from underneath me. My right-hand partner, Steve, is away on vacation this week. My administrative volunteer, Marci, fell at home causing stress fractures and bruising – no website work or printed programs from Marci this week! Then my mother-in-law was admitted to the hospital with fluid around her heart, which needed to be drained by an emergency surgery last night. My wife, Mary Kay, stayed with her mom overnight and will probably spend most of her time in the hospital for the rest of the week. For very good reasons the people I usually rely on are not available to me.
With this backdrop I sit in front of my computer screen to hammer out this week’s sermon titled, Be Stong and Courageous. Last week I had written my main thesis: “Our greatest need to be strong and courageous comes in our moments of greatest weakness and fear.” This morning I stare at these words glowing back at me on my monitor. I think to myself, ‘Thanks God. You always have a way of driving home the point.’
I admit that three years into this church planting project, my weakness and fear is much more pronounced than it was back in 2009. Which is ironic when I stop and think about it. That’s when I had the most to be fearful about. Church planters, I think, must have some kind of spiritual blindfold draped over their eyes when they start a new church. If they could really see what is likely to happen over the next couple of years, there’d probably be a whole lot fewer churches started!
As I stare at my own words of weakness and fear glowing back at me on my screen, I also glance over to another part of my screen – the part with the Joshua text written out. And I notice something that I’m sure was there all along, but this morning – feeling the stress of the upcoming weekend service, the weekend potluck, and Thanksgiving dinners for the hungry – I see something else. Every place that Joshua is instructed to be strong and courageous, he is also reminded that God is with him. God will not abandon him.
Our strength as church planters does not come from our networks, our plans, or our systems. Our courage does not reside in those ministry volunteers with whom we partner. Even our most loyal and dedicated family members may not always be able to be there for us in our moments of weakness and fear. God, however, never leaves us. He never abandons us. Our strength and our courage comes from the knowledge that God is with us.
This morning I’m reminded again that Church Requel is not my church. It is not even my parishioners’ church. It is Christ’s church. I work for Him. I avail myself of His resources. And in quiet moments of desperation – when either too much or too little is going on – God’s Spirit is my comfort and my refuge.
Church Requel may never be a large church. I’m ok with that. What I’ve learned so far in this church planting process is that God seems to have a lot to teach me. Understanding what God wants me to learn is far more important than the average number of Sunday attenders!
I honestly don’t know how everything is going to get done for this weekend. Surely the least productive thing I could be doing at this moment is writing all this down. Somehow, though, God will accomplish what He wills to accomplish. Maybe there are others in our church who step forward in this moment. Maybe there are other churches that God has in mind to do this particular task. Maybe God wanted me to simply step aside, take a breath, write it down, then get back to work and see what gets accomplished. Maybe, even, the goals for this week all along were more my goals than God’s and He is not really sweating it.
Whatever happens this weekend, I know God will be with me. He will not leave me. He will not forsake me. In that knowledge I can be the strong and courageous church planter whom God calls. Even when I’m still the pastor who knows all too well his own weaknesses and fears.
Mark Pierce serves as Pastor of Church Requel in Mansfield, Ohio and authors a great blog for church leaders, also called Church Requel. Catch him on Twitter @ChurchRequel.