When a church looks for a pastor, in most cases, it is looking for a leader who can revive its witness and vitality in the community. So I supposed Gages Lake Bible Church, a small, struggling church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, was looking for a human savior. And while we had some successes in the five years I pastored there—increased attendance, major structural changes, renewed vision, and leadership health—it wasn’t me who saved the church. It was the church that saved me.
Of course I should begin with the usual Christian caveats. Yes, I realize churches don’t save pastors, and pastors don’t save churches. Jesus does the saving, both from eternal damnation but also from a self-serving life on earth. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
But God’s instruments for renewal come most often in human form. For my wife Angela and me and our four children, Gages Lake was such a place.
When we arrived at Gages Lake, we had just spent a good season of our lives in leadership in an unhealthy church environment, the church I grew up in, so it was complicated. I was (and still am) grateful for the spiritual heritage sown in my heart at this church, for the faithfulness of my father to lead our family to church every Sunday, and for the rich hymnody and gospel witness embedded in my soul. And yet by the time we moved on to Gages Lake, we’d been disturbed and shaken by some poor leadership models.
Truthfully, though we were called to lead Gages Lake, Angela and I were looking for renewal and a fresh vision of church life. This tiny church, struggling to keep open its doors, gave us just that.
Greeted with Open Arms
First, the people of Gages Lake opened their hearts and lives to us. When I assumed the senior pastorate, I was 29 years old. I was armed only with a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry and a lot of opinions about church life, most of which were raw, untested, and probably wrong. But the good people of this small church, many of whom were veterans of church life and leadership, didn’t immediately dismiss my ideas nor did they look for ways to “show this young kid a few lessons.”
Instead, they patiently endured my many trial-and-error attempts at leadership. I remember with fondness one wise elder who, in meeting after meeting, worked to help shape the way I led. I remember another elder, who is now one of my best friends. We had many long conversations about the gospel, church life, and leadership. This man became a father-figure, a mentor, and a steady guide.
My wife remembers fondly the sweet saint, a faithful lady who had served many years in the church. When it became known I was candidating for the position, she ran up to her and gave her a big hug. “I’m supporting you guys all the way.” And when she said that, we learned later, she really meant it. Support for her meant monthly encouraging notes to me, notes that often made me weep with joy during times of great distress. It also meant meals, gifts, and generous financial gifts. This was not a wealthy lady, and yet her generosity of spirit and resources were a huge investment in our lives.
These are just some of the many stories I could tell. What we learned from Gages Lake Bible Church was how to love, how church members wrap themselves around your family and will not let go. It was here we learned what genuine gospel community looks like.
Permission to Grow
Second, Gages Lake allowed me to grow in my leadership. Most organizations are looking for proven leaders to help get them to the next level. This is wise, but a special grace goes to those who are willing to take a chance on unproven talent. It was at Gages Lake that I worked out my ideas of leadership. Besides generously paying for conferences and giving me wide latitude to seek out mentors, they also gave me some margin to make mistakes. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t accountability—there was—and I’m grateful for the many decisions we didn’t make because of wise counsel from the leadership.
Yet it wasn’t so tight that I couldn’t grow and learn. The very first initiative I tried, early on, was a soccer camp for the community. Our facilities didn’t allow us to do some sports ministry like other churches, but we did have a wide-open field. This was a big endeavor for our small church and required the involvement of almost the entire congregation. That first year required some major financial investment. It could have been a flop.
And yet instead of saying, “We’ve never done this before,” they said, “What a great opportunity” and rolled up their sleeves and made it a successful effort we repeated year after year.
Pastoring this church formed me as a leader in ways that will last for a lifetime. They gave me the confidence I needed to pursue larger endeavors. My wife has even remarked that my time at this church has made me a better leader at home.
A Grounded Gospel
Third, and most important, Gages Lake showed me what the gospel looks like in everyday terms. Before I was a pastor, I had a lot of esoteric theories about how people should live the Christian life. I could weigh in from the ivory tower about difficult subjects like sin, sanctification, and grace. But when you are dealing regularly with actual people, you come to understand the messiness of human life.
It made my sermons a bit more real. There’s a tendency for pastors to preach theologically airtight directives, but until you’ve sat by the bedside of a parishioner dying with cancer, until you’ve wrestled with someone struggling with same-sex attraction, until you’ve cried with someone losing their home in bankruptcy, you can’t really understand how the gospel invades the human experience.
Pastoring gave me more empathy and clarity; it also provided me with a window into my own fallen heart. God’s people, I had to learn, are not a mass to be herded somewhere you want to go. The body of Christ is made up of individual parts, people with human faces and their own callings. With pains and sorrows, joys and victories, relationships and struggles. It’s tempting to care more about principles than people, but pastoring grinds that out of you so quickly.
There’s something palpably Christian about pastoring a small, struggling church. It’s an up-close and intimate encounter with God and grace. And for all of my life, I will thank my?heavenly Father for the church that saved me.
This article was originally published here.