This week marks my 20th anniversary as pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida. It is a milestone worth noting because of its testimony to the grace of God working within a local church. Early in my ministry when I heard of a pastor who stayed a long time serving one church I could not help but admire him. Now I admire much more the churches where that kind of longevity is encouraged. Anytime you hear of a long pastorate you can be sure that it is a testimony to a gracious congregation. That is certainly true in my case.
They have given me room to grow, encouraged the development and exercise of my gifts, overlooked my eccentricities and been generous and conscientious in their support. They have loved me and my family (which doubled in size from when I first arrived) and have followed my leadership through some uncertain and difficult times. The name fits the church.
Yesterday I communicated with 5 brothers who have recently been or are in the process of being forced out of their pastoral ministries by the churches they serve. In addition, there are several more men who alluded to their own, similar experiences in the comments on the blog entry about “Dishonest Calvinists (?).” All of this has caused me to think more deeply about what is going on in the advance of reformation within the SBC and beyond. I hope to collect my thoughts and write about it before long, but here is the direction of my thinking. Calvinism is being made the whipping boy for many of the serious problems that are coming to light in denominational entities as well as local churches. If you listen carefully you can hear that case being made not only in the halls of academia but also in every level of the denominational organization. The misrepresentation of the doctrines of grace and the refusal to admit the nature and real source of these problems provide an easy target for godless people as well as misguided godly people to get in their sites as the explanation of all our problems. This is disingenuous, dishonest and will prove to be spiritually disastrous. But, as I said, that is not the point of this article.
It does provide a backdrop, however, for my recent musings about my 20 year tenure at Grace. Many good things have happened in those 2 decades. I have been granted amazing privileges by God over the course of my ministry here. I have had the privilege of baptizing children of those who came to Christ and were baptized here as young adults many years ago. I have witnessed the church’s recovery of biblical foundations in the areas of the Gospel, discipline and polity. I have watched us send out 3 of our finest families to serve as missionaries in hard places. I have seen God’s grace at work as husbands and wives have buried their life’s mate, as brothers and sisters have grieved over broken marriages and wayward children and as good friends and faithful servants have crossed that river that has no bridge at life’s end. I have been stunned by watching the workings of God’s grace in saving people in all kinds of ways and at various stages of life. I have seen the church struggle financially and respond to financial blessings. I have wept with the church as we watched friends walk away from the Gospel and from us, and have rejoiced with the church as we have seen estranged members restored. I have been challenged and encouraged to study, understand and teach God’s Word week-by-week by a people whose appetite for Christ is so voracious that they will not allow me to get away with superficial exposition. Their faithfulness has provoked in me desires to be faithful.
As with life ministry is filled with a mixture of blessings and sorrows. That is true both for pastor and congregation. John Newton captures the experience of every pastor in this poem.
A Minister’s Burden
What contradictions meet
In ministers’ employ!
It is a bitter sweet,
A sorrow full of joy:
No other post affords a place
For equal honor or disgrace.
Who can describe the pain
Which faithful preachers feel,
Constrained to speak in vain,
To hearts as hard as steel?
Or who can tell the pleasures felt,
When stubborn hearts begin to melt?
The Savior’s dying love,
The soul’s amazing worth,
Their utmost efforts move,
And draw their bowels forth;
They pray and strive, the rest departs,
Till Christ be formed in sinners’ hearts.
If some small hope appears,
They still are not content,
But with a jealous fear,
They watch for the event:
Too oft they find their hopes deceived.
Then how their inmost souls are grieved!
But when their pains succeed,
And from the tender blade
The ripening ears proceed,
Their toils are overpaid:
No harvest-joy can equal theirs,
To find the fruit of all their cares.
On what has now been sown,
Thy blessing, Lord, bestow;
The power is Thine alone,
To make it spring and grow:
Do Thou the gracious harvest raise,
And Thou alone shalt have the praise.
The church surprised me with a most unusual gift on Wednesday night. For many years I have had back trouble, resulting in a couple of surgeries and some ongoing discomfort. The gracious people whom I serve got together and purchased a “therapeutic spa” for my family and me in honor of our anniversary. “Therapeutic spa” sounds so much more noble than “hot tub” and I admit that I am not very well-versed in this field, but it sure looks like a hot tub! One seat is specially designed with water jets that work on the spinal column. I briefly initiated it yesterday and stayed in long enough to predict that it will be greatly used in the years ahead.
I am deeply grateful to the Lord for the privilege of serving the wonderful people of Grace Baptist Church for the last 20 years. I could wish that every pastor would have the joy of living with such a people.