The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933)
Fresh out of seminary, after surviving the experiences of war, college, a nine year career in business, and many answers to personal prayer, the sheer excitement of a unanimous call from a small church just outside a major city seemed almost too good to be true for a shy but happily married father of two. How great and wonderful God is to have so blessed this aspiring young preacher and his charming but nervous wife.
And to think that this congregation was equally anxious and thrilled to grow and reach out to this community. What could possibly be more challenging and potentially fulfilling? This was the vision of the entire church board’s membership on that candidating Sunday.
Having just settled into the freshly decorated parsonage that the church had provided for us, I went next door to the colonial church itself, opened the previous year’s minutes on file, and carefully began to read the records of the past business meetings, including the details relating to my call.
The membership wisely thought it a significant enough moment in their nearly ten-year history to attend the meeting to determine a pastoral choice. With forty-four adult voting members present, all decisions would require a two-thirds majority for passage as stated in the bylaws. Somehow, by means and math I do not know, it was declared that sixteen votes would be necessary to defeat a vote. My math says that’s 36.36 percent and that fifteen votes would have been sufficient as more than one third. Nevertheless, the results on all three questions that evening were determined by votes of 29-15. How different things would have been had a strict thirty-three percent been enforced! Three questions were addressed.
1. Do we refuse to accept our present pastor’s resignation? The vote was 29-15 to not refuse to accept his resignation. 2. Do we accept the present pastor’s resignation? Yes, 29-15, we accept the pastor’s resignation. 3. Do we call Rev. Bishop to be our new pastor? Yes, 29-15 again. We call Rev. Bishop to be our new pastor. Late that night, I received a telegram telling me of the unanimous call.
But there I was, and how does a young, first-time pastor go about finding a “call” from another church after only a few days in this one? (That was the question I discussed with my wife during lunch after discovering those minutes.)
In spite of the confusion, installation was thrilling. Many area churches sent their representatives to bring special greetings. Denominational leaders spoke very encouragingly of what lay ahead. Spirits were high, fellowship was warm, and the refreshments were exceptional. All seemed good. I even began to wonder—will they want to start their building program next week?
Services went well—even midweek prayer and Bible study showed strong interest and attendance. Pastor, wife, and children were all comfortable. Of course, some of the early questions having to do with basic, foundational theology, such as the deity of our Lord, gave pause to wonder about prior preaching and instruction. However, discussion was healthy, clarity came, and a slight shift in my emphasis from evangelism to expository biblical teaching turned out to be a needed and wise choice. So, all was well, and we were progressing on into a maturing church congregation.
But no one had brought up the subject of any plans for the future, which had been the main emphasis of that meeting with the boards on that candidating Sunday. It had been ten weeks since I arrived. Not a mention, not an inquiry, and all things continued as they were. Even the tenth anniversary celebration came and went without any mention of future plans. Had they once again settled into their comfort zone?
On a late spring Saturday morning, I slipped into the church for some final preparation for Sunday and saw our dear volunteer custodian, Jimmy, doing some vacuuming. From the front of the auditorium I glanced back about eight rows and saw a very frightening sight. One of the long pews was definitely sagging in the middle, and its center support was slanting toward the floor to such a degree that I knew if one of several of our folks who were sufficiently weighted happened to be seated in just that spot, the pew would collapse.
When I mentioned this to Jimmy, I expected him to get a hammer, knock the support in place, and thank me for saving any embarrassment that might have ensued. Instead, something entirely different took place.
I had never before seen anything but kindness, humility, cooperation, and dedication from our dear Mr. Fixit, but with a sudden burse of passion and disgust, a swift and angry kick at the collapsing support piece sent it sliding across the floor of the sanctuary. It was obvious that our mild-mannered custodian felt shame, remorse, and embarrassment after his outburst.
“What’s the matter, Jimmy?” I asked. Was this the first unveiling of bitterness?
“Ah, this whole building is falling apart,” he answered apologetically, trying to recover.
I thought it best to restore some composure for my new ally and remarked, “Well, when I was called to come here, they said they were looking forward to a brand new sanctuary but,” I said, revealing my own personal disappointment, “I’ve heard nothing about it since the day I arrived.”
“And you won’t,” Jimmy responded. “It’s all talk!”
And with that, my excited spirit was hit with the stark realization: “I’m trapped!” The church was not only old and its facilities inadequate for education and fellowship, but it was also removed from the growth potential of the town.
Then Jimmy told me a secret that I have since concluded was the beginning of a divinely originated plan: “What we really need is a new building, but don’t talk to Bill Smith about it because he’s dead-set against it!”
This insightful new challenge set in motion something I would never have thought of without his off-hand remark about one of our church leaders. That afternoon I drove past Bill Smith’s house, hoping for a friendly visit. After chatting for a while about how things were going, I thought it would do no harm to ask, “Bill, how do you think our church is doing?”
“We’re doing all right, I suppose,” he answered, “but what we really need is a new building.” No sooner had those words emerged from his mouth than he complained, “But don’t talk to Ed Miller about it because he’s dead-set against it!” That last phrase had a familiar ring to it.
My next visit was, of course, to Ed, who mentioned that he thought we were doing OK, “but what we really need is a new building.” Before I could get another word in, however, he cautioned me “never to mention it to Sam Pinnock because,” and again came the now universally acknowledged words, “he’s dead-set against it!”
There’s no need to list the entire male membership of the church congregation by name; suffice to say that of the several dozen I visited, many of whom were in the leadership, each one, upon receiving my personal visit with the identical question, gave the universal reply that “what we need is a new building, but don’t ever mention it to [new name] because “he’s dead-set against it!”
How interesting, I thought. There was a spirit of fear and pessimism, a fear of one another, of being individually accountable or embarrassed, that was suffocating any heavenly vision in the hearts of every one of these men. What could we do? If everyone was afraid of everyone else, how could I make suggestions? I was the outsider, the big city man who knew nothing of the country mindset. In a strange way, you have to admit that we did have a form of unity!
And, yes, there was an additional fear I failed to mention—where would the money come from? You see, at that point in the church’s history, the missionary budget had reached a new high in pledges. How could that be a problem? Briefly, a Faith Pledge for the missionary budget had been instituted three years previous to my arrival. The week before I was called, the pledged amount was 60% of the entire budget. In the previous year that amount was 41%, two year prior 18%, and three years before that it was only 6%.
Marvelous, all “missionary-only” people proclaimed. The problem? The entire budget of the church, including missions, had remained constant over those years. The total dollar amount received had never increased; it was merely redistributed. This left the amount of funds available for the basic maintenance of the facility and pastoral salary reduced to such a degree that there was not enough for both. Apparently, it had been decreed that overseas missionary dollars were more sanctified than those for local outreach.
How could we approach this seeming dilemma? We needed a common denominator. Maybe we needed to revisit our definition of the church and its overall mission. After several sessions about how a unified church budget needed to be established in order to regain a balanced approach to handling all the church’s financial obligations, domestic and worldwide, and to allow for plans for future growth, we were ready to finally look ahead.
In my visits I had observed that one name, with respect to any and all issues, had most frequently come up. I had also discovered that this man’s opinion was determined by the last person with whom one had spoken. No wonder they all liked “George,” I thought. He always listened and always agreed, no matter what the issue. And, coincidentally and providentially, George was also a missionary zealot whose entire annual tithe had always been designated to missions. And I think almost everyone knew that.
A couple of visits and a little persuasion later, George had agreed, in spite of his many fears, to bring the subject up at the next congregational meeting. I decided to sit right next to George on that Wednesday evening. The meeting wore on with the usual matters of whether to increase the insurance, repair the furnace, or send a few more dollars to a missionary. Finally, a few minutes were given over to any new business.
Sitting directly to the right of my designated hero, I firmly nudged George with my left elbow while “stage whispering” into his right ear: “Now, George!” And out came those beautiful words, “I’d like to make a motion that we take a vote on looking for property to build a new church.”
I am unclear where it came from, and it may have only been a nervous cough, but whatever it was, the chairman mistook it for a second to the motion. At least it broke the shocked silence. You could feel the controlled surprise, immediately followed by several shouts (still out of fear, I’m sure) calling for secret ballots. “We must not have people looking around to see whose side we are on!” So secret ballots it was!
Nervous chatter occupied the brief interim while all of the double-folded ballots were unfolded and compiled. I shall never forget the look on the chairman’s face as the teller handed him the results. Nor will I forget the new sense of excitement, fellowship, and friendly confidence that burst out of those formerly frightened people as the chairman spoke, “I’ve been in this church for ten years,” he admitted, “but in all those years, this is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this. It’s unanimous—we build!”
The fear monkey jumped off the relieved backs of everyone. Property was found in less than a month. $100,000 in building bonds were sold, mostly to our own people, to pay for construction of a four-hundred seat sanctuary. The vision to relocate and build was realized and completed in just fourteen months.
Today in that same place several thousand people fearlessly anticipate worship, serve locally, and are sent worldwide. Our first sanctuary now serves as a welcome center and narthex for this enthusiastic congregation. What a thrill to return thirty-five years later for the fiftieth anniversary, join hands with this great fellowship of worshipers encircling the entire building, and sing praise to our Lord for His great faithfulness.
There are probably many lessons hidden in this illustration. The obvious one is, of course, never assume at first glance that you fully comprehend a situation. Spending time learning the heart of the people is very often more important than believing what the “power people” tell you.
I’ll never forget the unexpected extra joy that came to me when the chairman stopped by our house one day, nearly forty years ago, to say, “Pastor Al, I need to tell you something. I’m one of the people who didn’t vote for you to come here, but let me tell you now, I’m glad you did.”
“Therefore, be steadfast. . .always abounding in the work of the Lord. . .knowing that your labor is not in vain in Him” (1 Corinthains 15:58, NKJV).