An Ugly Church Story
I am going to be painfully transparent in this blog post. I am going to share a story that I have rarely shared with anyone privately, much less in writing to a public audience. But it is an important story. A story that I am just now, 20 years after the fact, ready to tell. I am doing this because what happened to me in 1993 is exactly why I am passionate about my call to serve as president of the new Cross Church School of Ministry.
I graduated from Oklahoma Baptist University in May of 1992. One month later Julie and I were married and ready to begin our new life together. It was a magical time. I knew that I wanted to pursue a master’s degree from seminary but I was desperate for a “break” from school and hungry to sink my teeth into real ministry. Through a wonderful friend and mentor, Rick Edmonds, we moved to Baton Rouge that same summer and both began work at Parkview Baptist Church. Parkview is a wonderful church and in 1992 the “seeker sensitive” movement led by people like Bill Hybels was in full swing. Parkview wanted to begin a seeker sensitive service and they had hired five seminary couples to do the work and get it going. My plan was to work this exciting new project and commute one hour each day to classes at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The pay was very minimal but it was “real ministry” and when you are young and newly married, there are few mountains you can’t climb!
Commuting to New Orleans every day lasted nine weeks (one term). I was really tired of classes and books and just not in the mood to drive each day and do the work. After about six months the reality of very little money began to sink in. Julie was a full-time student at LSU trying to finish the final year of her bachelor’s degree, we started having car trouble (which equaled money we did not have), and life in general began to hit hard.
I began to look around for other ministry options. One of my very best friends was serving on staff full-time at another church in town – Comite Baptist Church. He threw my name to the pastor who eventually called me and offered me a full-time ministry position as the minister of discipleship. I couldn’t believe it. This was my break. A real, full-time gig in a big church. Comite had a Christian school, a television ministry, and the pastor was a very charismatic personality. The spectacle of it all drew me in!
But there were warning signs.
Major warning signs.
While Comite, as a church, had a wonderful reputation, the pastor did not. In fact, everyone I counseled with told me not to go. This pastor was known for chewing up staff members. One friend even told me, “He changes staff members more often than most people change their socks!” But I was driven to be legitimized in my calling by having a real staff position at a big time church. And this man was so…well, as I said, he was charismatic. His personality and words sucked me in.
Another Reality Check…
After we were on staff just three months, Julie was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. It was a gut shot. We were still so young and dumb and really did not understand the gravity of what we were facing. There is so much to the cancer story that I will not share here other than to say that God is faithful. Just a few weeks after Julie had surgery and while dealing with radiation treatments, the hammer fell.
It was Monday morning and a fellow staff member named Bill (not his real name) came into my office. Bill was the right hand man of the pastor. He was also the hatchet man. Bill sat down across from my desk and told me that “we have a problem.” I asked what kind of problem. And he said, “Basically, Jeff, we don’t pay you to do nothing.” I could not believe what I was hearing. I have always had a strong work ethic. I may be a lot of things but lazy is not one of them. I was totally and completely dumbfounded. Then Bill proceeded to walk me down the road of further humiliation. He presented me with a list. A list that he and the pastor had put together. There were ten items on the list and I was instructed that I had one week to complete each item or I would be fired. The list was designed for failure. One item on the list directed me to make 100 phone call contacts that week. Another was to make 30 home visits. Still another was to begin a new Bible study class for single adults with no less than 50 in attendance…by Sunday.
I went to work. I worked like I had never before. And I accomplished each item on the list, save one. On Sunday morning there were only 35 adults in the new singles Bible study class I started.
On Monday morning I went to the church with boxes. At 8:00 am I opened the door to my office and sat down behind my desk…and waited. And waited. I expected Bill to come and take my keys. He never came.
About an hour later I got up and took a walk down the hallway. As I passed the pastor’s office I noticed his door was open. He saw me walking by and shouted, “Jeff! Come in here, brother!” I entered and sat. He asked how it was going and I responded that I was confused. He looked at me surprised. “Why?” he asked. “Because of the list,” I responded. “What about it?” he asked. I went on to explain that I had not fully completed the list and was expecting to be dismissed. Then came his reply. “Ahh, don’t worry about that list! We just wanted to see if you would rise to the occasion or head for the hills. And in all my years of ministry, you are the only one who didn’t head for the hills.”
I was awe-struck. I wanted to throw up. I felt like a pawn in some sick game that I didn’t want to play anymore. I made up my mind that day that I was done. I began to make plans (behind the scene) to quit my position, move to Fort Worth, Texas, and enroll full-time at Southwestern Seminary to begin work on my master’s degree. A few months later that is exactly what I did. The wonderful people of Comite Baptist Church gave Julie and I a send off reception after church one Sunday morning. They were so excited telling us multiple times that this was the first time they had been able to actually say good-bye to a staff member because all the others had been “released.”
Yes. This is a true story. All of it. The rest of the story (and there is much more to tell) is that this pastor would go on to a large church on the east coast, and then he would go on to prison after being convicted of financial crimes.
This is my story.
I have friends, lots of friends, with their own stories.
Getting started in ministry is hard. It’s hard to just get your mind and hands around the nut and bolts of ministry. It’s hard to learn the ropes of interpersonal relationships. It’s hard to balance the demands of personal life and ministry life. It’s hard to discern a good church position and a bad one.
The Cross Church School of Ministry has been born because ministry is hard. The Cross Church School of Ministry exists so that young men and women can be spared stories like the one I shared in this blog. There is a better way to “launch” into a life of ministry to God’s people. This is why I am passionate about my new call as president of the Cross Church School of Ministry – preparing leaders for life, ministry, and gospel advancement globally