Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Milestones: #7 Dealing with Loss & Pain (as a Pastor)

This is the wrap up of a series of 7 blog posts on specific milestones in my ministry/life.  I've done this in order to "build an altar of remembrance and gratitude" to God, and to share a few things I've discovered and learned along the way.  Milestone #7 is a loss/disappointment or tragedy which God brought forth great purpose and good.

Honestly, I haven't experienced a lot of what I would call "tragedy" in my life.  Yes, I have lost loved ones to death, lost good friends to misunderstandings, lost respect because of my own stupidity, and lost my way on just about every road trip I've ever taken.  I am certainly well acquainted with loss and the pain that comes with it.

One of the most difficult things about being in the vocation of a church Pastor is losing friends.  Years ago, in my "college years," I was counseled to not make close friendships in the churches that I would serve.  Well, I'm a people person, and as Jesus works through me to awaken passions within others, I get invested personally and deeply.  Many Pastors are wired this way.

One of the main reasons I was counseled to not have close friends within the churches that I served, is the unwarranted jealousy that happens. But that is a whole other blog post.  I'll just say that its a fact of life that Pastors (who are people too, by the way) "hit it off" with some people more so than others.  Doesn't everyone?

But I digress...

The other reason I was counseled to not have close friends in the churches I serve is the one I want to bring to this post: eventually, you will lose them.  OK, so this isn't always the case, but I've experienced it.  It does happen.  Too often.  And it does hurt.  Every time.

In one particular church I was serving in, there came a very difficult season. A simple misunderstanding combined with several straight-up lies, caused several people to leave the church fellowship.  Honestly, it's difficult for the Pastor when anyone leaves the church, but it's very painful when relationships run deep, and the circumstances are so un-Jesus-like.  When some very close friends left the church, it hurt... emotionally, relationally, and even physically.  It is extremely difficult (but not impossible) to go from being a Pastor and friend to someone to being simply a friend who is a Pastor.

During this season, as I wrestled with all of the emotions connected with loss (and the entire situation), I still had vision to cast, leaders to develop, sermons to prepare & preach, hospital visits to make, and everything else that is a part of the vocation.  As I was preparing a lesson on Abraham, I read how God spoke to him inside his tent and called him outside to talk and do a bit of stargazing.  I couldn't shake the feeling that God was calling me outside as well.  Literally.

I walked outside and stood a while under a huge oak tree.  In that moment the Spirit began to minister and speak to my heart.  God was saying to me that I am not the tree; HE is the tree, and I am a branch connected to Him.  On the branches were leaves and acorns.  And the Creator of all showed me that my job is to be a branch, connected to the tree... and if I did that, there would be leaves and acorns - people, friends, who would be connected to me.  But it's not my job to force nor keep those connections; my sole job is to stay connected to the Tree as a branch.  Some leaves will remain vibrant and green... others will wither and fall away.  Some acorns will stay, but many will be sent away to be planted elsewhere.  And if I simply make my focus staying connected to Jesus, the Tree, then I will be OK.

Does it still hurt when someone walks away?

Every time.

But if they can just walk away from you, from the Vision and Mission that you share, let them.  It will hurt, but let them go.  Keep sight of who you are - a branch.  And trust the Tree.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Milestones: #6 A Tallit, a Prayer & the Healing of My Soul

Collecting milestones of life/ministry.  These are "moments" when Jesus has changed/guided/shaped my life, which I am now using to build an "altar of remembrance" to Him.  Milestone #6 is an answered prayer that God used in a special way.

Sometime around the beginning of 2004, I was depressed.  It was worse than that.  I was sliding slowly into a deep depression.  There were a lot of factors that led to this, but ultimately it was burnout and misplaced priorities.  I was over 5 years into running as hard as I could as a youth pastor - I'm talking "no days off" type of running hard.  I lived, breathed, an even slept youth ministry.  If you were to cut me back then, I would have bled youth ministry. Profusely.

They say hindsight is 20/20; a friend recently said "hindsight is x-ray vision!" I came to the realization that my priorities were very out-of-whack in hindsight.  Had I been able to see it then, most likely the depression I was heading into would have been averted.  Without question, the top priority in my life was youth ministry, specifically the growing group of teenagers that God was bringing into the church I was serving.  It was such a top priority that I couldn't/wouldn't see red flags and warning signs - even when they were pointed out.  I shrugged off words of potential helpful correction as "they just don't understand youth ministry."  Unfortunately, in a far distant 2nd place in priority was my family.  And even further down the line was my own personal relationship with Jesus.

I was substituting relational ministry for my relationship with Jesus.  It's no wonder I experienced burnout and depression.

As summer arrived, I led our group on a trip for a week to Nashville, TN, for the International Youth Convention of the Church of God (IYC 2004).  I was neither emotionally nor spiritually in a good place to actually lead.  There were moments of that trip experience that were a complete mess... because on the inside, I was a complete mess.  The growing doubt in my leadership from adults I had brought alongside me, only made things worse for me.  Again, in hindsight, there was good reason to doubt my ability to lead... even if some of the assumptions and accusations that came my way were completely off-base.

I didn't even know how to pray about what I was going through.

Then came the night of IYC 2004, Nashville, that Rob Bell spoke.  I know that since that time, he has made some statements (and written some books) that are controversial, and with some of which I do not agree.  However, for me that doesn't discount the common ground (Jesus is the Son of God, and the Way, the Truth, and the Life) that we stand on, nor the amazing thing Jesus did in my life that night.

Rob spoke a message I had heard him speak before.  I had even adapted his message into a sermon of my own.  It was about a story in Luke 8:43-48, a woman in need of healing who reached out and touch "the hem of Jesus' robe."  This specific "robe" was a Tallit - a prayer shawl worn by Jewish men of Jesus' day.  The teaching is deep, and I won't go into it at length here, but let's just say that it was an act of faith, saying, "I believe you are the Messiah," when she held onto Jesus' Tallit.

The message ended, and as usual a huge area of the facility was opened as a "prayer room." But Rob did something different from other IYC services, which typically host 4,000-6,000 people.  He laid his Tallit on the floor beside the stage, and invited anyone who would like to come and symbolically touch the hem of Jesus' robe.  It was made clear, "there's no magic here, there's no power in the actual prayer shawl... but there IS real power in the Name of Jesus... and there is healing in Jesus' Name."

In a moment where I typically got up to pray with students, I got up, with my wife and with a student... and responded for me.  As I gripped the corner of the Tallit spread out on the arena floor, tears poured from my eyes and a very real healing of my soul took place.  The only words I can find to describe it are overwhelming Peace.

A lot happened after that moment.  Difficult things and days.  Had Jesus not become my healing that night, I would not have survived those difficult things and days which followed.  But, not only was there survival, there was Peace and Joy and Hope through it all.

God answered my prayer, and my life has never been the same!  I have learned how to prioritize my relationship with Jesus without making ministry my "god."  I have learned to put my family before the church.  I have learned that regardless of circumstances, God is good, and Jesus is Hope.  And I can tell you, healing is real because Jesus is both the Healer and the Healing.  It may not happen how you think, but when you know Jesus as your Healing, you are changed from the inside out.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Milestones: #5 Opportunities

So be careful how you live.  Don't live like fools, but like those who are wise.  Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. - Ephesians 5:15-16

The fifth milestone in this challenge is an opportunity from Christ that was life-changing.

Several years ago, Jesus began a new awakening within me. I began to see that healthy churches don't simply grow, they multiply.  I've learned that this involves intentionality and strategy, but it only truly happens as God adds members to His church.  I began to dream of what it would look like for the church I was serving in to follow God's leading into planting churches that plant churches who plant churches.  I began to dream of teamwork and a network, not for the sake of systems and programs, but to reach people with the love of Jesus Christ.

What would it look like to open every avenue possible to reach people who are far from God?  What would it look like to make disciples of Jesus instead of consumers of religion/doctrine/heritage?  What would it look like to develop a leadership pipeline in order to see the Kingdom of Heaven expand on earth?  Would it look like to collaborate and develop/share resources, instead of competing?

For over three years these thoughts started to become dreams.  The dreams became more and more clear as a vision.  I just had no idea how they were supposed to unfold. 

Summer 2015, quite out of the blue came a call from the "Church Plant Team" of the Louisiana Congregational Ministries of the Church of God (LCMCOG).  I say "out of the blue" because my name really wasn't out there as someone looking to make a change in ministry (although several conversations had taken place with congregations in Florida, and God simply wasn't leading us to any of them). Shelly and I were asked to meet with this Church Plant Team at the North American Convention of the Church of God in Oklahoma City. 

Opportunity.  They were seeking a church planter to begin a new mission in one of several communities they had been praying over.  My name had come up (I'm still unsure how, as no one related to me ever mentioned me to them).  Their plan was presented.  I shared my heart and this vision.  We were on the same page, and God was doing the writing.

Opportunity.  Within a couple of weeks, they contacted me and asked me to pray about accepting the call, and their invitation, to come to Louisiana and begin a brand new church mission.  For almost three months, we prayed, fasted, sought wise counsel, and prayed some more.  And then we prayed again.  It was after an especially moving prayer time one morning with a pastor friend of mine, that Shelly and I straight-talked everything... and prayed once again... this time, we both knew this was the move we would be taking.

Jesus provided a new opportunity.  And it has certainly been life-changing!  Moving to Natchitoches, LA, where we knew no one, to plant a new church... new school for the kids... no friends... challenges of having a child with autism... having to raise funds like a missionary, when the majority of established churches don't see you as a missionary... transitioning from preparing for Sunday to preparing to give birth to a healthy church... and, oh so much more!

Right now, we are just over three months to this adventure, and we're definitely seeing God do things that we could not possibly do.  A friend, and mentor, of mine once told me, "Planting a church will be the most difficult, and at the same time, most rewarding thing you ever do."  So far, so true!

There's a lot of opportunities if you know when to take them, you know?  Awaken Church.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Milestones: #4 Awake, O Sleeper!

Today, I continue to gather 7 specific life/ministry milestones, and stack them as an altar of worship and gratitude to God.

Milestone #4 is a scripture that has come alive in your heart to guide/shape your life.

Over the years, Jesus has brought many words of Scripture alive in my heart to guide and shape my life.  Just a few that come to mind... Psalm 30:11-12... Isaiah 43:19... 1 Peter 1:6-7... Matthew 7:12...

Just over a year ago, God very clearly called me, and my family, to relocate and plant a new church.  It's been a year of praying, pastoring, and preparing.  Earlier this year we began to pray specifically about what this new mission would be called.  As we prayed and brainstormed, I continued seeking God though His Word.  In studying the letter of Ephesians, in the New Testament, this passage jumped right out of the writer's charge to this ancient church to live as "Children of Light" in a dark world, relying upon God's Holy Spirit guidance into relationships:

...for the light makes everything visible.  This is why it is said, "Awake, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light." -Ephesians 5:14

God's calling in my life was a wake-up call.  The call to plant a new church was a wake-up call.  The call to move out of my own comfort zone was a wake-up call.

As a recent pop song puts it, "All this time I've been finding myself, and I didn't know I was lost."

But this wasn't a call just for me.  This is the call of Christ to everyone.  To be awakened, to rise up from the death-like existence that we grow all too comfortable in.  To live wide awake - not to a religion or a tradition - but to a relationship with the One who is Light!

My private interaction with these Words began to grow in a public way of life. With new passion awakened within me, Jesus began to weave these Words into every aspect of my life.  Conversations, what I was reading, sermons I was preaching, and especially the songs I would hear.  To date, I have compiled 2 "Awaken" mix CDs of songs that have been keeping this Scripture alive in my heart, guiding and shaping my life (holla if you want the playlists).

Also, this is how we came to settle on the name for this new mission: Awaken Church.  But more on that  in the next blog entry.

What is a scripture that has come alive in your heart to guide/shape your life?

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Milestones: #3 SoFL Living

Let all that I am praise the LORD; may I never forget the good things He does for me.  - Psalm 103:2

In this challenge to set up personal milestones as an altar of worship & thankfulness, I come to the 3rd of 7: a blessing from Christ that was life changing.

Years ago, Shelly & I would visit my parents over the holidays.  My dad was given to watch the Weather Channel, especially in those winter months.  I would look at that map of the U.S., showing the blizzard threats, the freeze warnings, the some-what milder yet cold temps of the south... and then there was South Florida.  Most of the country ranged from 0-45 degrees, but South Florida registered temperatures in the 80s!  And sunshine!

I remember clearly thinking (and praying), "God, why can't I live there???"

To be completely honest, I detest Winter.  I don't even really like Fall.  Every year I attempt to keep these feelings to myself as long as possible, as I have come to realize that its pretty frustrating for people who keep asking, "Aren't you glad we're having cooler weather?"  Usually, I'm not glad at all about it.  I prefer year-round Summer, with maybe a dose of "Summer Lite" and some Spring.  The color changing of the leaves does absolutely nothing for me. Oh, it's pretty, but you know what is even prettier? GREEN!  Green grass.  Green trees. Year-round green is perfect for me!

To that point, I had been blessed to live in some great places: Louisiana, Arkansas, Ohio, Kentucky, Oklahoma.  As beautiful as they were, and as much as I have truly enjoyed each place I have lived, they all interrupted my year with cold weather,and in several cases - snow (yuck!).

So, I would sit with my Dad, watching the Weather Channel over Christmas vacation, dreaming and praying, "God, why can't I live there?"

As life unfolded, I found myself at the beginning of 2005 sending out my resume to churches seeking a full-time youth pastor.  One of those was in Coral Springs, FL, a part of the Ft. Lauderdale metro area. It turned out to be my great joy to serve as the Associate Pastor of Coral Springs Community Church for nearly 3 years!

During that time, Jesus did so much in my life.  He helped me discover things about myself that I didn't know... or that I was in denial about.  Jesus met me in the middle of the mess going on in my heart & in my head, and brought healing to me spiritually and emotionally.  In the time we lived in South Florida, Jesus absolutely changed my life! I learned to rest (Sabbath) in Him, not in the opinions (or my perceived opinions) of others, nor in my own ability to produce results.  I learned to serve in a church full-time, while preparing for what was next (a Lead Pastor role).  I learned to find my fulfillment in my connection to Jesus, instead in my attachment to people and things.  I learned to forgive without being asked.  I learned to put God and my family before the ministry.

Also, I learned quite a bit of conversational Spanish (which I have pretty much lost since then) and to love Colombian food and Cuban Coffee (both of which I still partake in as much as I can)!

And, I learned to love the Ocean.  So very, very much.

I am tremendously thankful for the years Jesus guided my family to live, work, and play in South Florida.  While I am falling more and more in love with our new home in Natchitoches, LA, I may still have moments... on very cold days... if I happen to see the Weather Channel... and think...

Friday, September 30, 2016

Milestones: #2 Daddy

I'm writing a bit about milestones - those events, experiences, and people that are being stacked up as the altar of my life, bringing gratitude and honor to God, who makes the journey happen. Milestone #2 is a person whom the Lord specially involved in shaping/guiding your life.

Sometimes it can be difficult to just pick one.  This is one of those times.

There are numerous people that God has used in shaping and guiding my life.  I am in no way one of those "self-made" people. It's taken a bunch of folks, with different levels of influence, to make me who I am today... and who I am still becoming.  Teachers, friends, coaches, relatives, grandparents, and my parents, all contributing to my shape.

But since I had to choose one, I had to go with my Dad.

No one has a greater influence on our lives than our parents (or whomever the main parental figure(s) turn out to be).  Currently, our culture seems to be going through an epidemic of fatherlessness.  That was never my story.  My Dad was, and still is, fully present.  I didn't realize how difficult that was for a church pastor... until I became one myself.

In so many ways, I am nothing like my Dad.  There are some similarities though: I'm male, a husband, a father, and a pastor.  I cheer for the LSU Tigers and the New Orleans Saints.  I like donuts.  But none of those things are really how God used him in shaping and guiding my life.

My Dad showed me love.  He showed me how to love.

Jesus was, and is, Dad's top priority.  Then the family.

He showed me that I can be a pastor, completely all-in sold-out to the way of Jesus, and still have a great time.  Because he let God use him, my Dad, helped me become the husband, daddy, and pastor I am today.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Milestones: #1 The Call

Recently, I have had the blessing of becoming a part of a small group of pastors, who are beginning to meet together monthly for mutual encouragement and accountability.  We began with a challenge to reflect, celebrate, and share 7 specific milestones in our life/ministry.  Pick up a stone, and on it place words or drawings that represent these milestones.  Each one is determined by a set of "moments".  The first...

An encounter with Christ that was life changing.

To be honest, every one of the seven will be a representation of life-changing encounters with Jesus.  But here's my specific milestone moment...

An encounter with Christ that was life changing was what I simply refer to as "The Call." 

In 1994, my wife & I were driving down I-30, just west of Little Rock, AR.  I was working retail full time in Shreveport, LA.  I had kicked around several career options, and attended college in three different "spurts."  I had worked a while as a DJ in a night club.  I was 4 years happily married.

As we drove along, Shelly asleep in the passenger seat, I heard a voice.  Now, I'm not one who hears, nor claims to hear, an audible voice of God on even a remotely regular basis, but this was one time that I did.

"Stephen.  What are you doing?"

Now, I immediately understood that I was hearing from God, but my answer was, "Well, I'm driving home." Pretty lame, right?

The rest of the brief conversation was more like thoughts in my head & heart, instead of an audible voice. 

"Haven't you done everything you wanted to do?  Haven't you tried all the career paths you wanted to try?"


"Are you happy?"

"No.  I mean I am happy, but I'm also... empty."

"Isn't it time you let me do what I want to do in your life?"

"Yes."  I didn't need to hear anymore; I knew what was happening.  In the church world, we call it, "being called into the ministry."

"Preach my Word and work with young people."

That was it.  The Call.  The Call to something different.  The Call to be different, to make a difference.  The Call to come and die. 

I woke up Shelly and told her about the conversation.  I was even more nervous than when I had asked her to marry me.  She didn't marry a pastor.  She married a wild-child.  But I swallowed hard and told her, "I'm pretty sure God is calling me to become a pastor."

Her response? "Oh yeah, I know."


We proceeded to pray and seek wise counsel.  Within 6 months, we were relocating to Oklahoma City, OK, where I would attend Mid-America Christian University, while still working retail full time. 

The years since have been full of ups & downs, college degrees, continuing education, kids, leadership roles in churches and larger organizations, and today... planting a new church, which is absolutely rocking my world!

The Call was, and is, absolutely life-changing.  And I'm so happy that answered!