“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not unto your own understanding…” Proverbs 3:5
I will admit…pastoring a smaller church can be tough at times. In so many circles there is heightened emphasis on, as a former Illinois Superintendent called it, “nickels and noses” that the pastor whose church isn’t growing by leaps and bounds may at times feel as if his or her efforts are insignificant – perhaps even overlooked and disregarded. I have certainly been there.
At the invitation of my Superintendent and the leading of the Lord I came to pastor one of our churches in Bloomington in March of 1997 – almost 17 years ago. I won’t hesitate to use words like “unhealthy,” and even “pastor-killer” in describing the situation we came into. The three pastors previous had left the Assemblies of God or the pastoral ministry altogether after their experience at Bloomington’s, Calvary Assembly of God. Attendance had dropped from 600+ in the 80’s to about 40 – and of that group there were some fire-breathing dragons. You know what I’m talking about.
Having been singed a few times, I began asking my wife, “Did we make a mistake? Should we have stayed where we were?” I wondered sometimes if there was any hope for God making something good out of this mess. I will admit, there were certainly times I lost sight of Proverbs 3:5 – and those times were dark indeed. I felt alone, abused, and dejected. Then God, in His infinite goodness, brought another small-church pastor into my life. He had a few years on me, and a few more gray hairs to match – but he had peace, wisdom, and hope – three commodities I that were in short supply in my life. I began to pray, something that I had been doing (with some desperation, I might add), but with a renewed sense of hope and vision. I stopped, to a degree, focusing on the goal of building a mega-church, and began to enjoy the church God had blessed and called me to lead.
Within 3 years we had sold our facility and property, and began construction on a new facility. We changed our name, developed a vision, and began the process of understanding who we were, and how God could most effectively use us to impact our community for His glory. You may wonder, “Did you grow?” because that is our natural inclination. Yes, we did – some. But it seemed that every three to four years a crisis of one type or another would knock us back down again. That hurt. But God continued to move us onward – always helping us to “trust Him with all our hearts, and not lean unto our own understanding.” Easier said than done, I am sure you will agree. Nonetheless, He always prevailed.
Fast forward to today. In just a few months I will celebrate, with my family, 17 years pastoring the same church. It’s not a mega-church, but it is definitely a healthy church. People are regularly saved, baptized, and filled with the Holy Spirit. We are feeding the hungry, clothing the needy, and ministering to our community. There is always a celebratory enthusiasm to our worship, power in our prayers, and the Word is effecting change in people’s lives.
In March of 2014, I will not only celebrate my 17th anniversary as Pastor at New Life Fellowship in Bloomington, but we will also celebrate the 1-year anniversary of our THRIVE Team coming together twice monthly to pray, eat, analyze, develop strategy and vision, and trust that God is revealing His perfect plans and purposes to us in order that His church (our church) might become all He dreams of us becoming. In January / February of 2013 our attendance never exceeded 85. In November / December of 2013 our attendance never dropped below 95 – with highs in the 130’s on several occasions. Our tithe income has increased by 20%, as has our missions giving. I can honestly say that there is a renewed sense of zeal and passion for God, as well as a great desire to see His perfect plans accomplished through us as His humble servants. “Is this because we have dedicated ourselves to the goal of THRIVE – to pray for and diligently discuss what we believe are God’s best plans for our church?” In a word, “Yes,” I believe so. I am sure other dynamics have come into play, but I credit the work of our THRIVE Team, in conjunction with our Church Leadership Council, as well as our THRIVE cohort – Minier Assembly of God, and especially our THRIVE Coach, Julie Markese for where we are today. And we’re not slowing down! God is on the move, and I continually consider it a privilege to join Him in His work!
If you are pastoring a smaller church – don’t be discouraged! Trust in the Lord – He has a plan to use you, bless you, and grow you, regardless of what you face. He is a good God, faithful and true! There will be dark times – there were for Jesus and all of His followers. Allow those “prison cell” experiences to draw the riches of God’s grace and goodness from the depths of your heart – sing His praise, testify of His goodness, and leave the results up to Him. Good things are coming…
Ken Martin Lead Pastor, New Life Fellowship Church Bloomington, Illinois