Reflections on 40 Years of Pastoring-Part 2
Last week in this column I shared some of the lessons the Lord has taught me from the congregations I have been blessed to serve over the past 40 years. I have served as the pastor of five congregations over those four decades, two in Kentucky, one in Mississippi, one in Ohio and Journey Christian Church in Florida.
If you missed last week’s column, I encourage you to click here and read it first before reading this one. I talked about the first three congregations I pastored. Today we will look at the largest and the longest ministries I’ve led up to this point.
First Christian Church-Canton, OH—August 1997-February 2010
FCC Canton is one of the most historically significant congregations among Christian Churches in America. The pastor of this church for over 56 years was a man named P.H. Welshimer. P.H. is a legendary, iconic figure among our churches, much like John Wooden would be in college basketball or Bear Bryant in college football or Pat Summit in women’s college basketball. They are people and personalities who transcend their locale, the organizations they lead, and even the industries they made their name in. Books have been written about P.H.’s leadership at FCC Canton. He was truly an organizational genius who would have excelled in any field.
Even though P.H. had been gone from the church for nearly 40 years by the time I arrived, his leadership legacy was still influencing the culture of the church. Why they asked me to be their pastor still puzzles me. I was in way over my head and the only way I could survive was to lean on the quality staff that was in place.
What the Lord helped me learn in Canton was the importance of trusting and empowering others to do what they were better at than I was and focusing on doing what I was most gifted at doing. An example of this would be one of my long-time staff members, Manley Pierce. Manley came to the Canton church after successful preaching ministries in Ohio and Michigan. He was 62 when he started at FCC and came as the Associate Pastor, which meant he did a little of everything. But what Manley excelled at was pastoral ministry: funerals, hospital visits, crisis intervention, and calming the congregational waters. He was far better than I was at these tasks and people loved him for it. So, I let him pastor and I focused on preaching and leading.
There were many other staff members who excelled in their respective fields of discipleship, students and children, music, etc. and I stayed out of their way. I learned at Canton that none of us is smart as all of us and it takes a team to reach a region.
Journey Christian Church-Apopka, FL—March 2010–???
I loved Journey before Journey ever knew who I was. I didn’t really know much about the church until someone told me about it in the summer of 2009, but my first visit to Journey made me want to lean into whatever God was doing here.
Melinda and I visited a worship service at Journey in September of 2009. It was during a weekend of interviews with the Pastoral Search team and the Elders at Journey. From the moment we walked in, we felt a welcome that was warm and sincere. I immediately noticed the diversity of the church: white, black, brown, Latino, Asian, all worshipping together. That was unlike any of the ministries I had previously led, and I realized in that moment how much I had been longing to lead a multiracial, multiethnic church. The worship music was done with excellence and intensity. As one who had led through the “worship wars” in previous churches, Journey’s contemporary band was like a cool, refreshing drink to my thirsty and wounded soul. As Pastor Harold Armstrong preached a wonderful message that Sunday, I was stirred to want to preach here as well. All of that and so much more, led me to consider coming to Journey at a time when I had every reason to stay where I was.
But it was not any of those factors that ultimately led me to Journey. It was a December conversation with the Journey Elder team at that time. One of them said to me, “We think we’re on the back side of rehab.” All of them chuckled and then he explained to me the many leadership heartaches and failures they had endured over the last few years. Another Elder said to me, “John, if a blank, white page with no sacred cows sounds good to you–a place where you can fill in that blank page with whatever God leads you to do, then Journey is the opportunity you’ve been looking for.”
What these men described to me was a ministry that had been broken with a strong belief that it could be beautiful once more…and I loved it. I loved it because I was broken myself, in ways that I didn’t even understand at the time and needed a fresh start.
And so, a broken church and a broken pastor found each other and over the past ten years God has led us to embrace our mutual brokenness and create a place where everybody’s welcome, nobody’s perfect and through Jesus, anything’s possible. My heart still beats fast every time I say those words because they come from deep within me and are now firmly rooted in Journey.
What God has taught me at Journey is to lead from your brokenness because people would rather follow a leader who is always real than one who is always right.
That’s why I say Journey is the church I always hoped and prayed that God would let me lead. And that’s why I will always say until I’m done…I’m loving the Journey.