In March Madness, aka the NCAA basketball tournament, when a team doesn’t play particularly well but pulls out a victory, and the coach is interviewed afterward, he often expresses his relief by saying all we want to do is “survive and advance,” i.e., survive this game with a win and advance to the next round. In the madness of our middle years in the church we were characterized by growth, buildings, and conflict. Becky and I were thankful to God that we were able to “survive and advance” through those years. Because there were times when we were not sure we would survive, metaphorically speaking, and would either run off or be run off.
The conflicts were not atypical of a young church. We grew, we built a building, and then we had conflict – largely stemming from those issues: growth and our first building project. The details would be inappropriate to describe in a public forum. But the conflicts revolved around issues of leadership, ministry philosophy, building use, finances, and trust, all threatening and then actually affecting the peace and purity of the church. My integrity was questioned, wrongly so, and my leadership was questioned, rightly so. There were times that I did not lead well. And there were those who would have preferred to see someone else leading the church. And thrown into the mix – by a God who loves us and disciplines us for our good- were some rather emotional personal “loss” issues (no excuses here, just life): temporary loss of health, loss of my father, loss of my daughter to marriage, and the potential loss of my church. (I was reading Pete Scazzero at the time, who was encouraging me to “embrace my losses.” From Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, a good read.)
So forgoing the gory details, here are my summary learnings from these trying middle years:
My goal: the peace and purity of the church. I took vows to protect and work for these precious core values of the body of Christ.
Sins to avoid: gossip, bitterness, critical spirit. I wasn’t always successful in this, confessing much when I could not or did not avoid these sins. God forgave and enabled these to be what they were: temptations to wrestle with and overcome.
Survival kit: contemplative prayer, daily office, praying the psalms (thanks again to Scazzero), exercise, golf.
Two lessons to internalize: a. Follow the Lord’s procedures, get the Lord’s results (e.g., confession, honesty, not taking vengeance, church discipline, patience, prayer) b. Perseverance pays. One pastor told me it would take about 5 years to see the major conflicts settled, and he was on target. They did pass. But it lasted a good five years. The results were positive: the church survived, we survived, the church advanced, and God was honored through the surviving and advancing.
One of my mentors said: there will come a time when your detractors will realize you’ve been there so many years and survived so many challenges that you’re not going anywhere. So either they leave or leave you alone. Ultimately, it comes down to the subtitle of the reality show “Survivor:” “Outwit, Oulast, Outplay.” Don’t take that too seriously, but there’s a bit of biblical wisdom embedded somewhere in there.
As difficult as the middle years were, I would not trade them in. I learned, I grew, our marriage grew. My wife was tested and she grew. She was the one who kept saying “God has called us here.” We both have stories to tell of God’s love and faithfulness that we hope will be of benefit to someone else. In hindsight, we were being prepared (pruned) for a run of fruitfulness that neither one of us could have imagined. That’s Part Three.