Seven years ago today I presided over a funeral. It wasn't the funeral of a friend or relative, nor was it a funeral for a member of our church. It was the final service of a church that God was clearly not sustaining.
I had moved to Midland nearly three years earlier with the hopes of a fruitful ministry. Even before arriving in town things took an ominous turn when a key family took a corporate transfer out of state. After arriving I began to call on families that had stopped attending and it took no time to learn that they wouldn't be back. When an officer abruptly resigned and left the church (leaving his keys in my office with no explanation) I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Yet I forged ahead and poured myself into the work doing all that I could to bring change.
I cannot and will not go into detail to explain the years leading up to the decision to close the church. Suffice it to say I came into a divided congregation: elders out of step with the laity, those who understood reformed theology vs. those who didn't, etc. Worse than that was a pattern in this church of chewing up people and spitting them out (this doesn't describe everyone but a number of people some of whom were leaders). This pattern came to light when a family with a PCA background joined the church and became a lightning rod for criticism. When they decided to leave the church I knew that the hand-writing was on the wall.
Though I stayed another year in hindsight I can see that the church was on life-support and beyond recovery. The only decision was pull the plug and move on.
Upon announcing that the church would be closing the previous minister came forward with information that he had withheld from me when I contacted him during the interview process. Had he shared that information with me three years earlier I would've never taken this church. I also learned about some backroom denominational politics that had taken place when he left the church and that only set us (my wife and I) up for failure.
The following months and years were filled with much heartache and difficulty: we blamed ourselves for not being smarter, we were upset that information had been withheld from us, the denominational politics outraged us. Added to that was the difficulty of finding a new church -- no one would touch me with a ten-foot pole after being involved with closing a church. It was a recipe for deep depression.
Yet God remained faithful during those dark days. While I sent out resumes galore planning for an eventual move God had other plans. He kept us here by closing all doors of opportunity. As my severance pay neared its end I took a contract job at Dow Chemical just to put food on the table. My initial assignment was to last 3 months but it actually turned into a five year employment stint as both a contractor and a Dow Chemical employee.
During those years, with no other ministry options available to me, I began to think and pray about starting another church. After all, the Tri-cities (Midland, Bay City and Saginaw) is not known as a hotbed of reformed theology. With the help of a couple of friends and no financial backing we decided to launch a Bible study to see if there would be interest in starting a new church. Over the course of the summer of 2003 God brought together several families. Throughout the fall and winter we continued to meet. And in March 2004 we held our first worship service.
Today I am privileged to serve a really great group of people ranging in age from a few months old to a few years beyond eighty (www.midlandpca.org. Please be patient -- our website is under construction). Less than 10% of our people had any connection to the previous church. When we started we had no financial backing and little moral support -- against those odds God has raised up a vital church upon the ashes of another. Only He could've done it!
Many things sustained us during those days. Let me mention two:
1) Godly advice from an experienced pastor. Before moving to Midland I had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with some godly pastors in western Pennsylvania. One of them, Dr. Gordon Keddie, made a comment to me at breakfast that was quite prescient. As we were sharing prayer requests it came to light that I was having some difficulty with my church and the problems seemed insurmountable. His words to me were, "Sometimes the good Lord sends a young pastor to a church where he will not do any harm." Those words fit my situation in western Pennsylvania but they also became a comfort as I reflected on my years in Midland -- God had brought me to a difficult situation to test and to refine me and to prepare me for something else.
2) Ephesians 2:10 "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." This truth struck home with great force as I reflected on the death of Dr. James Montgomery Boice in June 2000 after his battle with cancer. At our last service we sang a hymn he wrote shortly before his death entitled, "Alive in Christ." It is based on the text of Ephesians 2:1-10 but I will only quote the last stanza which summarizes verse 10:
Yet now I am living with work to be done
For I am God's workmanship too,
Created in Christ with a race to be run,
Which God has ordained me to do.
I thought about Dr. Boice dying of cancer as he penned those words -- his race would not be done until his heart stopped beating. He continued to walk with God and work with all of his might in spite of his difficult circumstances (his final service as a minister of the Gospel was penning several hymns). As I reflected on my own difficult circumstances I realized that I had a race to run too. I took heart in the fact that I was God's workmanship and that He was fashioning me for additional labor in His kingdom. The hardships I faced in ministry were His means of pruning me (John 15) for greater fruitfulness. These assurances helped me press on.
"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" Romans 11:33
Christ Presbyterian Church of Midland
1994 - 2001