“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:14-16
Dear Disciple of Christ,
Considering the limitations in my first church (especially when we started with such limited financial resources), you may wonder how much we were able to accomplish. Actually there was development in the congregation and expanded ministries and mission on the part of the congregation. Growth in numbers was not the goal of my ministry there but faithfulness was and is. That has been at the center of my leadership in each of my churches. When I consider my own responsibilities as a pastor, leading the congregation in faithful discipleship is number one. Sometimes when that is done, there is growth. Sometimes, being faithful causes the loss of members and ministries. But, unless we are faithful, we will have decided to serve another and the group that group would not need a pastor to lead them (nor want to listen to the proclamation of the Word).
Being faithful connects us to the One we trust. It leads to ministries (since “Ministry is Faith in Action). The responsibility of the pastor and leaders of the church is to look for opportunities to develop the mission to the best of the church’s abilities in order that the mission be carried out. So, in reflecting on the needs of Trinity, it was clear to me that the lack of a parsonage was hindering the mission. I think I’ve mentioned that the congregation had given the parsonage to the widow of the first pastor who died in ministry there after forty-two years. In those days, the normal practice was for a church to own a house (parsonage) so they could provide a place for the pastor and his family to live. But that meant that if a pastor died in the ministry, his family would need to leave the parsonage when the new pastor came. That was not something the congregation felt was appropriate so they gave the parsonage to the widow.
As generous as that was, there was also an impact on the incoming pastors. They had no place to live and would need to rent somewhere (and rents were exorbitant and increased each year). What that meant for pastors coming to Trinity (and other churches in similar situations) was that they (we) had to find a place and then watch their salary decrease as the rent increased each year. The effect of that was that pastors came and went fairly quickly at Trinity. If and when other more viable opportunities to serve (in other churches with a parsonage or more financial resources), they left. That regular transition of pastors coming and going was not helpful for stability in the congregation and development of its ministries and mission.
Thus it was evident to me that one of our goals needed to be to find and buy a parsonage. The budget income of the congregation had gone from $11,000 a year to $62,000, and although that was an amazing development, it was not really sufficient to get a loan at a bank (banks don’t really like to give loans to churches since if they default on the loan, it’s not a nice picture for the bank to foreclose on a church or put members out on the street). We divided to conquer the challenges. First, we needed to have funds for a down payment. We brainstormed and gathered donations from members but that was still not enough. So we held a “bike-a-thon” with me inviting pastors from other Lutheran churches and some non-Lutheran colleagues from neighboring churches. The plan was for the pastors to get support from their own church in the form of sponsors and we biked up to and around Prospect Park (a trip of about 10 miles). When all was said and done and the “beer and brats” finale’ was over, we had raised about $6,600. That, along with other programs (like our “super raffle” with the prize being 10% of the tickets sold garnered another $2,000), provided enough for a down payment if we could just find a bank willing to give us a loan.
I believed then and believe now that if we have identified what God is calling us to do, He will provide what is needed. So, I was not completely shocked (but truly thankful) when our church district president put me in contact with another church’s member who just happened to be the vice-president of a local Brooklyn bank. When we found the house we could afford just three blocks from our church, a loan was provided and stability brought to the church that hadn’t been there since the first pastor died. As one of our previous members always said, “God is good… all the time!” Amen to that!
When the house was “renovated” (with the whole $2,000 allotted by our budget), and we had moved in, I remember lying in bed early the next morning thinking to myself, “it doesn’t get any better than this!” At that very moment a fire truck from the station up the street came down the street with its horn blasting and siren wailing right into our bedroom (located upstairs in the front of the house). Or so it seemed as the sounds bounced off the five story apartment building next door to us and into our bedroom. “Welcome to life on Foster Avenue, Johnsons!”
Actually, things could and did get better than that accomplishment. When I finally left that congregation, after 6 ½ years of ministry there, I had the chance to look back on what was accomplished there. I recognized that, though buying the parsonage was quite an achievement, it paled in comparison to the “house” that God built, made up of faithful disciples, worshiping the Lord who watched over them and us as a community. Each of the shut-ins was a blessing to us. Each new member was a sign of the Spirit’s work in our midst. Each new ministry developed was a sign of the Spirit’s leading. Each member’s service was a joy to see as they sacrificed themselves to serve the Lord. What could have been a failing church on the verge of extinction became a vibrant light on a hill. And for that and the opportunity to serve with them, I thank God to this day.
Peace in His service,