This is the fourth post in a series of posts on the history of my ministry. It's been strange and interesting to look back in this way. Hope you've felt the same way!
When we returned to Nashville in late July of 1997, Shari & I rented an apartment on in the Hickory Hollow area and began meeting with the initial core group of 4 people (besides us) who helped plant the church @ hickory hollow. Jim Williamson (who I mentioned earlier) had worked with me as a youth sponsor at Dalewood - and was in the process of becoming Nashville City Director for the Center for Student Missions. Allen Troxler was a seminary student who became our first associate pastor. (The folks here at NewLife had the pleasure of meeting him & hearing him teach early this spring.) Michelle Mattox had also taught youth Sunday School for me. Finally, Sheridyn Smith (who would, a few years later, end up marrying Jim!), worked for the youth ministry company Interl'inc (whom I did some writing for).
What an incredible time that was... meeting together to pray and dream and think and plan about a church to reach our generation. God kept confirming that we were headed in the right direction - no more so than when He led us to Robert Grisham, our first worship leader. We met with Robert 3 or 4 times before we ever heard him play a note - our first concern was his heart for God. (Which was no problem - Robert is/was one of the most on-fire guys I've ever known.) Robert joined us in November as we headed towards our official launch in January.
This is about the same time I met Mark Puckett, the pastor of South Gate Baptist Church. We both attended a seminar at Belmont University where Richard Jackson spoke. I don't remember much about what he said (except that he seemed pretty clueless about generational issues), but I do remember meeting Mark in the shuttle bus on the way back to our cars. That began a friendship which God has used in my life over the past five years. (Mark is currently on Prince Edward Island, doing missions work - for more information on Mark & his ministry, check out his blog, Missionary Musings From The Great White North.)
The seven of us (the original 6 plus Robert) launched the church on January 25th, 1998. Our first Sunday had 37 people (no kids... we didn't have a nursery for the first 8-9 months, as we only had one family with a nine month old.) We quickly settled into 40-45 each Sunday morning, and we started a small group ministry that ballooned to 20+ people in a couple of weeks, forcing us to divide into two smaller groups to keep it manageable.
Through all of this, God took such good care of us - we were all "wet behind the ears" but He provided equipment, energy and favor with school administration and with new people. It was during these early months of the church that Steve & Shane Oakley joined us. Over time, Steve became part of our Leadership Team, while Shane sang with the worship band and ended up as the leader of our Kid's Place ministry.
The darkest moments in our first year were with our sponsor church - Dalewood. (Yep, the church I had been on staff at for the last five years.) The crowd who wanted Bro. Tim's head on a platter reached a fever pitch in the summer of 1998... and culminated in his forced termination in October.
This was no ordinary forced termination - not only did they give him less of a severance package than they had given the pastor who had resigned due to an adulterous affair, but they also dismissed the entire deacon body, as they were supporting Bro. Tim. Needless to say, Dalewood suffered another immense hemorrhage in membership, losing over 100 people in the next month.
As Bro. Tim was one of the church @ hickory hollow's main supporters, along with a number of the deacons, the core group of tc@hh quickly worked to find an alternate sponsor church. Mark Puckett stepped in, and South Gate Baptist Church unanimously voted to take us under their wing later that month. (We had to fight with Dalewood to get the last of our state convention funds for almost 4 months... it was an extremely difficult situation.)
Interestingly, the greatest growth in the life of tc@hh occurred in the early part of 1999... things were finally hitting their stride. At our largest, we averaged 60-70 attenders each week (not counting children).
Of course, growing pains were just around the corner, as we shifted from the leadership of the core group to the official leadership of the Leadership Team (an elder board of sorts). Looking back, we should have spent a longer period of time with the core group - our elders weren't seasoned enough in the faith and in life to deal with everything that was thrown at us.
The high point of the life of tc@hh was in the spring of 2000... our small groups were functioning pretty well (though they never worked as well as we had hoped). The worship service was creative and, well, rockin'... we jammed. People were coming - mostly folks who had been burned in traditional churches, but a few radically unchurched folks as well.
It's funny to say "high point" as it was one of the lowest points in our married life - we suffered our first miscarriage. The emotional pain was intense as we'd waited so long to try to have a baby. The church came along side us and loved us - and that was a part of how good it was at tc@hh, if you get my drift.
It was around this time that our friends, David & Amy Hughes, moved in next door to us. Lay people from a more traditional Baptist church in the area,they still loved on us and encouraged us (and mowed our yard nearly the entire first summer of Braeden's life!).
The next year was a year of transition, as Robert left us to attend seminary- but he helped us choose Stephen Weaver as the next worship leader before he was gone. The Leadership Team reduced in size as Jim & Sheridyn got married and Steve stepped down due to life pressures. We moved the service into the school cafeteria, which made set-up easier, but wasn't nearly as conducive to building community. Numbers were falling some, but we'd all gotten on a bit of treadmill - we were just pushing on, not always thinking about what came next.
Then what I refer to as the "Chinese water torture" of circumstances caused major upheaval in our lives and the life of tc@hh. Braeden was born in early June of 2001, which was wonderful, but took my focus off of tc@hh. 4 weeks after he was born, Shari's dad was diagnosed with cancer in his throat. We piled Braeden into our Honda and headed to Houston for his surgery - which was aborted on the table. It was inoperable.
Shari & Braeden stayed in Houston while I flew back to Nashville for two weeks, then back to Houston to bring them home. By this time, I'd spent most of the summer with my focus barely on tc@hh.
And then my grandfather died. We were gone to his funeral and family gathering for nearly a week in late August... which left me emotionally exhausted.
Drip... drip... drip... one of the results of my inattention was my lack of awareness of Stephen's growing emotional exhaustion.
So it came as a complete surprise when Stephen resigned as worship leader in early September. The day he came over to talk to Shari & I about it in more detail was...9/11/01. I hate to blame a national tragedy for causing church problems, but we didn't experience the same "balloon" of people that many other churches did. Instead, the whole experience made our folks edgy and scared. And the same financial difficulties that plagued the U.S. hit us... a small church with a tiny budget.
Finally, the final straw - one of our families in the church had been through the wringer with their young son. Parker Anderson spent 11 of his 13 months in & out of the hospital with a variety of horrific medical problems - finally dying in October in the midst of a liver transplant. The folks of tc@hh had done so much to help the family and Parker - and it was a loss we all felt.
A minute ago I called this all the Chinese water torture - because it wasn't any one of these circumstances that caused us so much trouble, but the relentless drumbeat of them one right after another. I've gone over and over this in my mind - what could we have done different? What could I have done different? There are some basic things - paid more attention to Stephen's emotional health, done a better job of tracking the situation from afar - but much of what happened was out of our control.
We spent the next few months staggering forward, trying to keep it together.Our guitar player (Paul Durham) volunteered as our worship leader, and we talked through making some major changes to keep both financially viable and better able to reach people.
To be continued...