Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Transition


I always felt a little out of place, like an outsider looking in. That’s what I was for a long time until I decided to join. When I did join, I didn’t look back, but decided this was a denomination I could commit to, raise my children in, be a part of.
When God called me to preach, however, it was the most frightening thing I had ever gone through in my entire life then or since. I was already preaching just not formally; I didn’t call myself a preacher. I dropped my wife and daughter off at church every Sunday morning and then drove first to the Care Inn Nursing Home and then to Pemberton Manor Nursing Home where I preached to a captive audience before returning to church to pick up my family. This lasted for three and a half years before I got the call from heaven.
I was under a house on South Blvd in Greenwood, Mississippi when God communicated to me in unmistakable ways. I was “called” and I couldn’t deny it. Since I was so different from the preachers in this denomination, it just didn’t make sense to me. But because I couldn’t deny the call, I jumped through the hoops, got my license, and became the Associate Pastor at our home church. This lasted for another three and a half years.
Then on March 12, 1991, I was appointed as pastor of the Moorhead Church of God. The first Sunday morning there we had thirteen souls in attendance, which included my wife, our two children, and me. We could not have been happier. The church needed us and wanted us. We needed them and wanted them. For once, I felt like I fit in, like I belonged.
It didn’t take a socket rientist to see that an ominous, dark shadow lay across the church’s prospects for long-term survival. The town was transitioning and the area has been economically depressed since the Civil War. Really. Driving home on Highway 82 one night after visiting some of our members, I began to reflect on our congregation’s prospects. I told God that if He wanted me to stay there and bury them one by one until the church closed, I would. The drive home that night was the most profound spiritual experience of my life as God confirmed in my soul His pleasure with my commitment to that little church.
That little church grew and blossomed and then plateaued, eventually beginning a slow, inexorable but predictable decline. Several times over the years it looked like things were over, like it was all about to unravel. People died and moved for jobs. In that area, people move out, but they don’t move in. Our attempts at evangelism all failed, over and over. But when things looked the most bleak, God always sent us some new people, people we had not visited, who had not been the objects of our attempted evangelism. A whole family walked in one Sunday morning and the husband told me after service that every time they drove by the church, “it did something to us.” Like all of our other young people, they stayed a couple of years then relocated for employment reasons.
We stayed. Once, in a trying time of life, I tried to leave. Things didn’t work out, and I repented of my efforts to leave and never attempted to go again. We just stayed through thick and thin and never questioned again if we were in God’s will. Over the years while serving there I earned a university degree. I also earned a seminary degree. Then I earned a PhD and started teaching and added one final degree in 2009.
I quit going to revivals meetings many years ago because I grew frustrated and weary at the anti-education rants I always heard. I knew my education had made me radioactive in the denomination, at least in Mississippi, but I didn’t know, until somewhere around the early 2000s, how I was really viewed. I had a brief period of favor in the denomination and was on the State Board of Ministerial Development. In that capacity, I taught young ministerial candidates, and I loved it. Also I was a District Overseer. At one of out DO meetings with our State Administrative Bishop, our General Overseer was there and as soon as we sat in the conference room to begin our meeting, he launched a red-faced rant. It went something like this:
“You mean you have a guy with a PhD who has been at a little church for fifteen years and the church is not growing! Somebody needs to talk to that man and find out if he really wants to be there. . . !”
He was talking about ME. He was very angry. He was very animated. He had a lot more to say, but I sort of zoned out, I suppose as my mind attempted to protect me. Probably I should have walked out, but I just sat there and took it. While I sat with burning face, no one came to my defense. In his defense, I think Paul Walker didn’t even know I was in the room.
I was shocked, embarrassed, and confused. I knew some people were suspicious of me because of my education, but I didn’t know I was looked at as a failure, as a scandal because I was committed to a church that was doomed to die.
I was replaced as a DO. I wasn’t reappointed to the Ministerial Development Board. It did bother me at first, but that was about the time I was beginning to swim more so I just swam it off and pastored my little church. Then over the last two years, we sort of shifted into survival mode. When Eldred Athey could no longer come to church due to health concerns, we knew someone else would have to walk in and say coming by this church “did something to us” or we were about to close.
On May 4 we met, all four of us, and decided it was time to shoot the gun and call the dog, so to speak. I attempted to contact our State Administrative Bishop. He never returned my calls. I attempted to contact the one friend I thought I still had in the church. He didn’t return my call. I attempted to contact the District Overseer. He did return my call.
We, my clerk, his wife, and I, met with District Overseer Keith Davis on Wednesday, May 25, to inventory the church. I turned in my keys. I no longer am a pastor. I was told the Administrative Bishop would call me. I don’t even have to write the sentence do I? He has not called. I guess I’m still radioactive, still a problem, a scandal.
My wife and I are now in an awkward transition. After twenty-three years and two months of ministry in one church, we are ecclesiastically homeless and have no future in the Church of God. I don’t think it speaks well of me that I don’t care.