Wednesday, December 08, 2010

How In The Heck Did I End Up Here? (part seven)

This is, for now, the long-overdue penultimate installment in the story of my ministry life. (Thank you to Jennifer from Crazy Squirrel for encouraging me to finish this series!) If you want to pull a Paul Harvey & get "the rest... of the story," here's an index of the earlier articles.

The church @ hickory hollow closed in late September of 2002... and it felt a little bit like my ministry had come to a thundering close. I'd burned the ships when I went into church planting (I gave away almost all of my youth ministry resources & severed most of my speaking/writing connections) - and even if I hadn't, my heart wasn't in working with teenagers anymore.

There was a senior pastor opening at an innovative church in the Cool Springs area that Shari & I visited in the weeks following the close of tc@hh - I even got to talk to a couple of search team members. In the end, they "went a different direction" and I was left to post my resume online & activate my seminary placement file...

...and sit. Looking back now, I have no idea what I did with most of October 2002. I didn't work & the church was DOA. I'm guessing I spent time with Shari & Braeden and otherwise did a lot of moping. It was a very, very long "lost weekend" with no actual alcohol involved.

By early November, I started looking for a job to help pay the bills... and ended up back at the JC Penney Call Center. I worked third shift through the Christmas holiday season, which was miserable on a number of levels:
  • the weird schedule meant less time with my family
  • the atmosphere at the call center was much less friendly
And the search for a new church for us to attend was not going well. While we had a number of good experiences with innovative churches in the Nashville area, none of them felt right. (The church search process was eye-opening, though - taking our 4-5 month old son into a new environment every week & leaving him with strangers was nerve-wracking. It gave us a renewed appreciation of the need for quality kid ministry in the church.)

In January of 2003, I built a resume website (which would be important later) and started using my Christmas gifts from my wife & sister: a copy of John Eldredge's Wild at Heart and the Wild at Heart workbook. Yes, we can argue if his "wild God" theology is as Biblical as he thinks it is (but not right now!)... but that study profoundly affected my life. Finding an author who struggled with the question of what it means to be a man of God without veering into weepy tween-girl-slumber-party emotionalism OR chest-thumping Iron John eat-something-raw ranting was a revelation - and this was a guy who quoted Scripture, C.S. Lewis & George MacDonald... and even used contemporary films to drive home spiritual truths. It would be an understatement to say that Wild at Heart changed not only my relationship to my wife & son but also to the way I approach church leadership.

My career with JC Penney ended on a sour note: they decided to get my attention to see if I wanted to train for the next level by not actually giving me any hours for two weeks. No note; no call from a supervisor; nada; zilch; nothing. Since it was early January, I simply assumed that I was getting no hours because of the post-Christmas slump. So, I found a new job (more on that in a minute) and went to tell my boss - who was surprised. It was at that point she finally decided to tell me that they wanted to train me for the next level. Sigh.

My new job was a job through a temp agency, working at a video fulfillment company. In my 5 months there, I learned that working a production line feels a lot like that "I Love Lucy" episode at the chocolate factory. (Our main business was duplicating & sleeving videos for Tae-Bo and Gaither Homecoming, though I spent most of the last couple of months trying to sort out the Hot Licks video music lessons account that we took over from another company.) My boss there was great about letting me take time off for interviews in the search process.

Another church popped up on the radar in late January 2003 - a church plant just a few years older than tc@hh whose founding pastor had left for the mission field. They were close to Cleveland, OH (in fact, within sight of Cedar Point Amusement Park) which would have kept me smack dab in the middle of some very good gaming friends. Their vision - to reach their community "by any means necessary" - was inspiring. It sounded perfect.

Of course, the search team was worried about what had happened at tc@hh, but hesitated to ask me directly so they wouldn't spoil the budding relationship. Instead, they asked the associational director to give me a call. I poured out my heart to this guy... and what I got in return was a blessing from God. He proceeded to tell me about his experience in helping church plants - and that in his opinion, tc@hh was woefully underfunded & it was a miracle that we had lasted as long as we had.

It wasn't until much later that Shari filled out the rest of the story - after the church in Ohio had said they'd put their search process on hold & we were headed to Fresno. She had been praying about the Ohio opportunity and felt a strong "no" from God - that it wasn't going to happen. But, because she didn't want to discourage me, she didn't say anything. (In retrospect, a very wise decision. Without it, I probably wouldn't have bothered talking to the associational director... or experienced the encouragement of the process.)

It was also in late January 2003 that we found our church... January 25th, to be precise. It was exactly 5 years since we'd started tc@hh and the Oakley's (a major part of tc@hh) had been inviting us visit their church, Fellowship Bible, for a number of weeks.

What Steve & Shane forgot was that the January 25th service was the last service that Fellowship was having in a school building before occupying their new facility in Brentwood... and that it was also their fifth anniversary. As we heard these growing group of people celebrate what God had done, as they had a special recognition for all the folks who'd done set-up & tear-down for the past five years, as they looked forward to the next chapter in the history of the church... Shari & I sat with tears running down our faces & big questions in our hearts.
  • God, how cruel are you to bring us here to today, to rub our face in our failure?
  • Why do they get to have the success & we had to watch our vision circle the drain?
  • With all of that, why do I feel so drawn to this church even though I'm ticked off & angry?
Steve & Shane were incredibly apologetic... and we took the next week off (another celebration was going to be a bit much) - but Shari & I both felt like we were supposed to go back. And we did.

For the next six months, Fellowship Bible became our church home. Jeff & Lloyd's teaching style had a big impact on mine (my weekly "So What?" comes directly from them) and Shari got very involved in some incredible spiritual growth opportunities for women.
During that same period, I did a 3 month consulting gig with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, helping them connect with innovative Southern Baptist churches. It didn't do much to further my job hunt (which was a bit of surprise) but it did help me get a better picture of what church planting really looked like (and how difficult it was).

There were a couple of other churches who expressed interest during this period - I even got as far as committee phone interview with one church in El Paso, TX, that was slowly declining. You know you've got "vision" issues when I suggested that correcting this decline meant some serious re-thinking of how their neighborhood had changed & what it would take to reach them... and after a long silence, one of the committee members replied, "Yep, we need a revival." Sigh. Needless to say, I didn't pursue things with that particular church.

To be continued...

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