Ten years as the pastor of Southside Baptist Church
In October of 2008 Sheri and I returned to Southside where I had been called to serve as senior pastor. I had never been a senior pastor, nor had I sought that position. My reasons for coming were fairly simple. First, I believed God was calling my family here. Reading Nehemiah 1 and 2, God confirmed that it was His will for me to join friends and family in rebuilding the walls of Southside Baptist Church. Second, I believed that I was uniquely positioned for the task. Not because of special gifting or talent, but because Southside had been my home, and that created a level of trust that would be necessary for any leader hoping to navigate treacherous waters. Third, I believed my previous experience as an associate pastor in an established church (130 years old) and in a church plant offered a balanced perspective that might serve Southside well. And finally, my wife, Sheri, whom God often uses in my life as the fourth voice of the Trinity, lovingly counseled me to take the step of faith.
My approach to the work at Southside was also born from Nehemiah. After assessing the situation and developing a plan, we began to execute the plan to the best of our ability. Brick by brick, however, it became increasingly obvious that the goal could only be accomplished with God’s help. I made many mistakes along the way, but His faithfulness and the partnership of numerous men and women equally dedicated to the task, led us to accomplish much:
1. Eliminated nearly $600,000 of debt that had crippled the church and was threatening to strangle it to death.
2. Addressed nearly $1,000,000 of deferred maintenance without incurring additional debt.
3. Resolved the racial and ethnic tension that was setting in as the attendance of the Karen people increased while many English-speaking families had left or were leaving.
4. Aligned our ministry processes around the priorities of Gather (worship), Grow (discipleship), and Go (Missions and evangelism).
5. Acquired the Paul Avenue Baptist Church property and established the Larsen Outreach Center in 2010.
6. Established the Southside Karen Baptist Church in 2012.
7. Established The City Church in 2015.
8. Established a Church Constitution outlining Southside’s first unique statement of faith.
9. Completely revised the church bylaws, establishing a new form of governance that simplified our organization and better aligned it with the Biblical model.
10. Established the “Invested Initiative” to address the church’s ongoing capital needs while creating a unified mission funding source.
11. Aligned our deacon ministry with our small group strategy to more effectively provide member care while stressing the importance of small group discipleship.
This is not a list of my accomplishments. Rather, it is a list of what God has done through the faithful collaboration and cooperation of His people. I am honestly humbled and grateful to have been a part of this work. Many, if not most, of these tasks were outside of my experience and skill set. Looking back, I recognize that much of what has been required of me as senior pastor involved systems, strategies, and organizational planning. Those aren’t passions of mine and don’t necessarily lie in my areas of gifting. I like music. I like the theatre, and choirs, and orchestras. I like to read and write and create things. That being said, God clearly chose me for this position. Only He would get the glory for what has been accomplished.
I praise Him for His faithfulness over these last ten years.
These “foundational building blocks” were essential for the good of the church and for her effectiveness in fulfilling Christ’s mission in the world. And foundations are an interesting thing. When they fulfill their purpose, they are unseen and underappreciated, yet essential to the integrity of the entire structure. In many ways, I feel like the work done over the last 10 years has been foundational -- critical, difficult, strategic -- but ultimately and correctly, hidden beneath the surface.
As I began to reflect on my ten years at Southside and what might lie ahead, I asked God to speak in the way He spoke in 2008. I spent time with other local pastors who had served their congregations for more than ten years and asked what they had learned. I read books by long-tenured pastors and executives who had effectively lead their organizations over many years and through numerous changes. I would love to tell you that all these efforts have led to some great discovery. They have not. They have, however, led me back to the same God who called me to Southside. If some “secret sauce” for successfully entering a second decade of leadership is to be found, it will be a recipe of His making.
Through prayer, I came to believe that Southside doesn’t need the leader they called 10 years ago. They need a leader for the next decade. The work that was done, while important, will not be the work necessary for the future. The question confronting me now is, “Can I be that leader?” Honestly, I cannot answer that question with any more confidence than I could in 2008. I just don’t know.
During my initial interview back in 2008, sitting in Tom and NeeCee Lee’s house, the search committee described the church’s dire circumstances. Someone asked me directly, “How would you fix this?” That was the easiest question I was asked all night. “I can’t fix it,” I said. “But neither can any other leader, regardless of what they say in an interview. Only God can fix this.”
Ten years later, even though I do not think Southside needs to be “fixed,” I still stand by that answer. I still have no idea what I’m doing. My only hope and confidence is in the same Savior who calls His bride and who called me to serve her. If He doesn’t show up and lead us, we are in serious trouble, no matter who sits in my office.
Am I the person best suited to shepherd Southside going forward? My best answer is: I hope so. I would love nothing more than to invest myself in one local church for the rest of my life. However, there is a lot of selfishness in that desire, so I hold it with open hands. I had that same desire when I was living in Huntsville, and in Marietta, before that. If I had held too tightly to that desire then, I wouldn’t be here now. So I’ve surrendered that desire to the Lord and am allowing Him to direct me however He sees fit. I believe He called me here and I do not believe that call has changed. And so, I get up every day and try to do the next right thing.
Decades are built with years, years are made of months and weeks, weeks are made of days, and days are filled with moments. While I am thankful for a decade full of moments, I recognize that we are here, together, now, in thismoment. We are accountable for what we will do with it and all the moments that may follow. Long range plans, compelling visions, and goals are important, but looking back to 2008, I don’t remember having a compelling vision or clear goals. I just remember praying a lot. I don’t mean hours of intense mountaintop prayer retreats where angels attended my needs while manna fell from heaven. I mean “Jesus help us!” prayers whispered under my breath and out loud in the middle of whatever crisis we were facing!
So, if God allows me to serve as Southside’s senior pastor for another day, another week, month, year, or decade, here is how I’d like my time here to be remembered:
1. He was a man of Christ-like integrity and character who loved God, his wife, family, friends and community well.
2. He continued to faithfully teach and preach the full counsel of God.
3. He launched a house church network where people were engaged, equipped, and empowered to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandment in their homes and neighborhoods.
4. He shifted his focus from systems and structures to people and relationships.
5. He helped Southside fulfill her 2020 Vision.
6. He led Southside to pray, dream, and seek God for a “Second-Century Vision.”
7. He led Southside to become an increasingly healthy church that reproduced healthy churches and helped other churches become healthier.
8. He enlisted, equipped, and empowered vocational and lay leaders who are faithfully serving the Church in Jacksonville and around the world.
9. He never stopped praying, “Jesus, help us.”
10. He finished well.
Perhaps it is unfair that I’m not required to stand for re-election. After all, Southside has changed a lot in ten years. Many of our current members were not here in 2008 and had no say in the matter. I am also not the same man I was ten years ago. When Sheri and I returned to Jacksonville, our kids were 11, 9, 6, and 5. Two are now in college and the other two in high school. Sheri was a stay-at-home mom. She now has a career and is pursuing a graduate degree. We’ve all changed. We’ve been blessed and tested over the years. The challenges have been immense, the opportunities have been plentiful, and through it all, God has remained faithful. We have learned, loved, cried, grown, and tried. We’ve really tried. If God gives us another ten years together, we cannot promise success, but can assure you that God will be faithful as He always is. I can also say that I will do my utmost to honor Him and love His church until He comes or calls me home.
On behalf of myself, Sheri, and our children, I would like to thank you for your love, prayers, and support. We are blessed beyond measure and we love you all.
“But I do not account my life of any value or as precious to myself if only I may finish my race and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus to testify to the Gospel of the grace of God.” – Acts 20:24
Grace and Peace,