This past Sunday marked my tenth year at Central Baptist. I was thirty when I arrived with my wife, bringing along two small children to an unknown landscape. Even though I grew up fourteen miles from where I now live, I frequently had to point to folks that my understanding of New Jersey geography consisted of vague blobs marking “Camden” and “The Cherry Hill Mall” with a more finely detailed map in the East marked “The Jersey Shore.” In-between consisted of blank space marked “here be dragons.” Ten years later, even though I find myself glancing longingly over the river from time to time, we’ve settled into life here in Jersey quite nicely. Our kids are in school, my wife and I have become part of the community. We’re “home.”
The church has changed at lot over the years as well. I took a picture on Sunday and I’m struck by just how different it is. New faces have become part of the family, others have moved on because life-transitions, and more than a few departed in reaction to the mistakes and fumbling which are inevitable with a young pastor. More than anything, though, I’ve buried quite a few people – too many people. I hope they are pleased with what Central is becoming.
When I first arrived Central was in crisis. It wasn’t in crisis because the people were awful or because the church was a relic, and I want to make that clear. Central was in crisis because the system which helped keep people in relationship had ceased functioning. The creaking of the gears made it afraid to move, lest a failure create more conflict and begin yet another exodus from the congregation. Ten years later we’re still a congregation in crisis, as is just about every small church, but the nature of the crisis has been transformed. The web of relationships we call Central Baptist is no longer in crisis because it’s afraid to move against creaking joints. Rather, our crisis is about discovering who we’re meant to be. In a real sense Central Baptist Church, which is over a century old, has hit adolescence – again. I don’t take much credit for this. All I did is learn patience, grow in love, and allow my natural obliviousness shield me from the natural storms of emotional upheaval. I’ve done what I was supposed to do.
I know many pastors sometimes feel a mild resentment towards the congregations they pastor because they feel beholden to them. While it’s not healthy, it is understandable. Being dependent on one’s “employer” for salary, community, and even housing can become overwhelming – especially if the congregation likes to point those realities out to the pastor. Ten years in, having experienced many of the ups and downs of pastoral existence, I can honestly say one truth. I am, indeed, beholden to the people of Central Baptist in many ways. Not because they’ve chained me down, but because they’ve set me free. I’m free to learn, grow, write, teach, and challenge. I’m free to imagine, play, and dream. Most of all I’m free to try, and just as free to fail. That last gift might be the greatest blessing the living web we call “Central Baptist” has given me. I hope I’ve helped you be free in Christ as well.
We continue to have much work to do as we move through congregational adolescence together. We have to learn who we are called to be, and embrace our calling with maturity and wisdom. As the process moves forward I need to celebrate accomplishing what I should have been doing, continue doing it, and figure out what I need to do. What an amazing voyage.