Until August 2006, I served as the senior pastor (read: only staff member) of a wonderful little rural church in southwestern Mississippi. When I was called to that church I was in my next to last semester of a Bachelor’s Degree at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. I so badly wanted to get into real ministry, God worked it out, and on April 4, 1998, I added to my student role that of church pastor. That summer of 1998 my family and I moved into a church-supplied parsonage, which was about twice the size of those old New Orleans Seminary States apartment. (We lived in the Hawaii Building, bottom north). The parsonage was also about 8 miles from the closest gas station, so I had to learn (the hard way) to put gas in your Jeep before you went home.
I was a living example of the fact that seminary cannot teach you everything you need to know to be a pastor. But the church people were very open to my stumbling and falling around, and somehow God blessed. We started baptizing people. People started coming. Within a few years we were, for a church out in the middle of nowhere, growing rather well. We probably baptized 60 people in the first 3 years. Not bad for a church previously running 35 in Sunday School. Then we had a large influx of people from other area churches. By 2005, we has completed a new Education Building and was pushing 100 pretty hard in Sunday School. Our worship services were anywhere from 105 to 125. The raw numbers may not be impressive, but considering the very rural area and the percentages, you’re looking a some pretty significant increases.
The ministry role a pastor plays in a rural church is crushing at times. When we only had 40 or 50, the pastoral ministry spread around the congregation well. But by the time you’re running 125 in worship you’re ministry quotient goes up by a factor 3. Three times as many hopsital visits. Three times as many families to visit. Three times as many funerals to plan and attend. Three times as many weddings to plan and attend. And so on. Oh, and there’s three sermons a week to prepare. And preparing to teach a Sunday night class. You get the picture. By the fall, I was three times as worn out. I wasn’t just worn out, I was burned out. I thought I might go off the deepend. There was no problem with the church, it’s just that there wasn’t enough of me to go around. I had hit rock bottom.
In the fall of 2005 I was invited by my friend, Byron James, a church planter in Memphis, to go on a mission trip to Africa. I took the invitation. The church budgeted an amount for a pastor mission trip that covered the cost, so in November 2005, I boarded the first of many planes that would eventually take me to Kenya, Uganda, and about 100 feet into Tanzania.
Now I know, because I heard them, that the others on the mission were praying things like “Lord, help us to reach these people for Jesus.” “Lord, save some today.” Me, well, I wasn’t exactly praying those prayers. I was very selfish. I was praying like this, “Father, you know I’m done. You know I’m so burnt out I just don’t care. God, I’ve got to have you do something in me. On this trip, Lord, change me. Make me open to you. If you want me to continue to pastor this church, please show me in a way I won’t miss it. If you have something else for me, show me in a way I won’t miss it. I just feel I’m missing you somewhere. I’ve got two weeks 9000 miles away from home. I’m going to use these two weeks to just listen to you.”
I’ll just say God spoke. He spoke to me through the eyes of a 6 year old raising his 4 and 2 year old siblings because both parents has died of AIDS. He spoke to me through a man hobbling up to our medical tent hoping to find relief from leprosy. He spoke to me in the pole and tin church buildings we worshipped in. He spoke to me through Pastor George ministering in the Pipeline area of Nairobi. He spoke to me as I looked up at the stars on the edge of the Serangeti Plain in the Masai Mara refuge. He spoke to me through the members of our mission team. He spoke to me through His Word.
What did He say?
Something like this. I want you to plant new churches. That’s what all the God noise said to me. God wants to call all the Africans to Him. He wants every last one of them saved. He also wants to call all the Americans to Him. He wants every last one of them saved. He wants to do that through His church. He wanted me to plant new churches for His glory.
I pretty well remember when that became clear. I was sitting in a safari van out chasing the Big 5 (lion, cheetah, leopard, cape buffalo, rhino), feeling the cool morning African breeze blow around me. I can’t say it was concrete then, but right then I worshipped the Lord who made all I was seeing possible. And I told Him, yes. Yes, I’ll go wherever you lead me to do this.”
When I got back from Africa, I was not the same, I couldn’t be the same. My preaching was different, more focused. I knew what God wanted me to do. The only thing I needed was knowing when the time was right. Now, to be clear, I had it made at the church I served as pastor. The people loved me, provided for me, the church was in good shape, and my family and I were in love with the people. I know many pastors who would have loved to be in a church like that. But God had now called me to a different ministry and I needed to know when to act. I’m one of those that pray like this, “God you know how slow and ignorant I am. When it’s time, please show me in a way I won’t miss it. I don’t want to miss you call to the next ministry.” In August 2006, with some church trouble brewing, and probably with my overreaction to the trouble, God spoke to me. It was the most clearly I’ve ever heard God speak. He surprised me as His voice rang out in my heart. He said, “It’s time. Resign.”
(To Be Continued: Moving Out)