Tag Archives: dying church

Postmortem for a Dream – Part Four

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.

rowell2In the time between my announcement and the last gathering, some of the original people came back into the picture and expressed, with some degree of smug satisfaction, their disapproval of my leadership. These were people whom I’d ministered to as spouses became sick and either died or regressed irreversibly, whose bedsides I’d sat next to, weeping and praying. Their rhetoric stirred up emotions in me that I hadn’t felt in a couple years, emotions I thought were behind me.

So it became clear to me that the church had never fully moved on from what it was, because some people had never moved on. If I were to list the lessons I’ve learned, perhaps the first would be that some people will never change, and it’s better to know as much as possible ahead of time whether they will or not. In retrospect, I have to take responsibility for never asking them that question.

I’ve learned that I was irresponsible in going into a situation without having planned, as much as possible, for how I would provide for my family. Almost from the time I got here, I reacted to changing realities (in terms of the church’s ability to pay me, what kind of job I’d need, raising support, etc.), instead of proactively preparing.

I’ve learned that a dream is only as valuable as the plan for accomplishing it. And I’ve learned that the dream of healthy, deepening relationships with my God, my wife, and my children is of far greater importance.

I’ve learned that, even as the odds were stacked against me, God was shaping me and my ministry style. And I’ve learned that the end result of this chapter of my life does not invalidate who I have become and what I have come to value as a leader and pastor.

I’ve seen the grace of God, in giving a dying congregation five more years to advance His mission. I’ve watched God used a dying church to reach out to and completely, beautifully change the very life trajectory of some very special people. And I have every confidence that God will use our experiences in their lives to impact the churches they engage.

So there is pain, and there is joy. There is frustration, and there is gratitude. There is doubt, and there is faith. There is the end of one chapter, and there is the beginning of another, even as it’s fuzzy at the moment.

And above it all is God, Who gives and takes away, Who comforts and frustrates, Whose ways are not my ways.

I trust Him.

Article by Mike Rowell

@redhedrev

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Postmortem for a Dream – Part Three

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.

People had been hinting at the possibility I’d made a mistake almost since I’d moved to Indy. Friends, family members, people who had my best intentions at heart, asked questions as a means of expressing misgivings about my situation. And then they voted with their wallets: when I sent out a letter asking for support from the churches I had grown up in, with leaders who had known me since I was a child, only one church responded with a one-time gift. Included on the list of churches who did not even respond to my letter was the church pastored by my father.

bible-reading-guy-912x340

And then there was my wife, who, sometimes with and sometimes without subtlety, pointed to various aspects of reality: I had to work 50 hours a week running a delivery route to support my family, I spent very little time with her or the kids, we didn’t have a facility for our gatherings, all our people were new to faith and not yet able to help shoulder the burden. Even as she expressed her concerns, she never turned on me, and eventually she just threw herself into the life, always thinking about the next Sunday night meal, the next prayer gathering, the next children’s program, even as she was mother to our four young children and just beginning the journey of home schooling.

I knew what she was pointing out was correct.

I knew she was hurting, and my kids were missing me. I knew that in juggling life as a husband, father, pastor, and employee, I wasn’t pulling off any of them particularly well. But I had this dream! This opportunity lay before me, and if I would just keep my nose to the grindstone, I’d look up several years later to see that it had all been worth it. After all, most pastors don’t stay in one place long enough to experience the fruit of their labors, I’d heard pastors preach. I demanded of God to tell me why He had given me such a blasted great dream and then allowed all this to happen. For months I went back and forth, and the vision kept me in my place, kept me thinking that if I tweaked this or that, things would change.

My dream kept bumping up against my reality. And, in the end, my reality won.

I can honestly say that I never lost sight of the dream: I just knew I couldn’t keep this up. I knew that I had started down a road and, at some point, I would not be able to turn back. My wife was experiencing health problems related to stress, and in the current reality, I couldn’t do anything about it. My wife and myself were exhausted during the times when parents build relationships with children, and with the way things were, I couldn’t change that. Eventually, my relationship with God suffered, as well, and I felt like I couldn’t change that, either, not the way things were going.

So, finally, I came to face reality: the right thing was for something to die that I had based my self-worth on keeping alive. And on December 19, I stood, sick to my stomach, in front of these beautiful stories of reconciliation that God had given us, and told them I needed to step away.

That turned out to be the easy part.

Article by Mike Rowell

@redhedrev

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Postmortem for a Dream – Part Two

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.   See Part 1.

praying-in-church-300x168A few months in, it became clear what I had: a decaying facility, and ten older white people who didn’t want to change. The battle on both fronts punished me and my family for the first three years.

When I think about that building, I laugh just to keep from crying. The boarded window spaces were only accentuated by the peeling paint on the outside, and mold was growing on the walls of the nursery inside. I distinctly remember arriving one Sunday morning to find that a raccoon urine had soaked through the dropped ceiling and formed a puddle directly on top of my hymnal. We spent thousands of dollars just dealing with issues, then we put the property on the market almost on the day that the real estate bubble burst, leading to three years of tire-kicking and paying for insurance on a building we couldn’t use.

When I think about the people, I mostly just cry. Nine months into my pastorate, a group had formed, discussed my leadership style and direction, boiled down their concerns into six bullet points, and appointed a spokesman to ask me for a meeting. At that meeting, deacons’ wives made it clear that they couldn’t ask their husbands about church issues (despite the instructions of Scripture) because their husbands were too dumb to answer their questions. They made this statement with no irony, as they sat on the other side of the room from the aforementioned husbands. One gentleman interrupted my speaking at a random point to yell “We’ll never change!” five times in a row.

So I fought these battles for about three years. At the end of that period, the people had mostly moved on to other churches, having stopped giving to the church for six months prior: and, after a year of Sunday mornings in a veterans support meeting space, we found ourselves meeting in our home, three times a week.

And during this whole time, God’s mission continued to move forward.

We saw people come to Jesus from a long ways away, and the relational style of ministry that God had put in my heart was bearing some beautiful fruit. We changed the name of our church as a means of embracing a new identity and identifying with the community we were placed in. Meeting in our home meant that we were less formal almost by default, and this gave people the space to engage a gospel lifestyle at the point where they actually were. Teens and young adults learned that children aren’t nuisances by being forced into close proximity with my children and others. Sunday nights were beautiful expressions of Christian community, as we prepared and shared meals together, laughed and cried together, and wrestled with what it looked like for us to follow Jesus.

I’d been forced into something beautiful, even as I now realize it wasn’t sustainable.

Article by Mike Rowell

@redhedrev

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Postmortem for a Dream

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.

I must begin by telling you how things currently stand:

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.

– – –

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.

Article by Mike Rowell

@redhedrev

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