Today marks four years since I began my role as Lead Pastor of Markey Church.
When I became Lead Pastor of Markey Church I was 32 years old. I'd never been a Lead/Senior Pastor before.
I'd been part of both large and small churches, urban, suburban and rural churches, and I'd served in Youth Ministry, Worship Ministry, Adult Discipleship, and even in Janitorial Ministry (yes, that's a thing). I was the jack-of-all-trades pastor who had no idea what I was stepping into.
And then they asked me to be the Lead Pastor of Markey Church.
They voted - who does that? I won :)
I assumed the Lead Pastor role of a grieving faith community that didn't yet know it was grieving. It would take me 9 months to realize that things weren't as they seemed, that we were an aging, tired congregation that had seen and done A LOT of good work through the 80s, 90, and 00s, but we'd slowed down, and were in a downward spiral. It would take me 18 months to realize that much of the pain folks were feeling was grief and loss due to the changes I was leading.
We were tired. We were (many of us) pretty content to be where we were. We were stagnant.
And we were dying.
I brought my ego, my ambition, my hapless leadership skills, and my rough preaching presence to this tired congregation.
We started dancing, and we stepped on each others toes. A lot.
I hurt people. People hurt me (one even called me the mini-pope - which was weird).
I was invited to come and not do the ministry of the church on my own, but to develop leaders and then send them out to be the ministers of Markey Church. But when the culture of the church is the exact opposite of this, that sort of cultural change is difficult. Maybe impossible? And excruciatingly painful.
This year has probably been the most difficult.
I think I feel like this with every anniversary. We've seen a lot of staff change this year, more programming change, and we've continued to say goodbye to folks for whom the changes I'm leading are simply too much.
Also, we continue to connect with a wide group of folks, mostly younger, who don't have a church home. But their habits around regularly being part of our common life together are not as developed as our older crowd.
Super-honestly moment: it's really difficult to prepare sermons, worship songs, prayers, and an entire sequence of a common gathering, holding the faces and stories of particular people, knowing that the work you're doing is designed to be helpful to them, to bless them, and then have many of those same people not engage with your work. It's just hard, and I'm not sure what to do about it.
It's been the year where we're far past the point of no return in our plans for organizational change within our church and spiritual renewal within the hearts and lives of our people, but STILL not yet to the point where I can see the fruit of all the work I'm putting into this place, these people, this church.
It's as if I stumbled into an old, somewhat forgotten apple orchard. One that was beloved by an older farmer, but had seen better days.
I’ve been invited to tend to that orchard. I had graduated from orchardist school, been an assistant farm-hard on other properties, and now I was ready for my own, real-life orchard.
When an apple tree gets old, it still may be producing some fruit from those towering branches, but there’s all sorts of decay, disease, and gnarly growth that needs attention. Sometimes you can nurture it back to health. Sometimes you can't
The wise orchardist knows that in order to revive an old-growth apple orchard, one needs to do a few things, because the goal of an apple orchard is growth and health and...apples: 1) apple trees that are showing signs of disease need special care and attention, and at times need to be cut down, 2) new trees need to be planted in their place, and tended too with love and care, and 3) every tree needs some significant pruning work.
Because sometimes, God calls you to come with a knife.
Pruning hurts like hell, but it's through the pruning that we create the conditions for new growth to take place.
So I began my work of loving the old trees, but seeing to their removal when necessary (some we tended to until they reached the end of their life-cycle, and some we had to remove, because they were no longer bearing fruit).
I began my work of pruning those that remain, and through the process learned to submit to the pruning of the Creator in my own life.
And I began my work of procuring new seedlings, planting them in good dirt, full of compost (the rotten stuff of our lives) and tending to them, so that one day, they can produce fruit that’s worthy to nourish those that come to them hungry, looking for wholeness.
The problem with tending to an orchard in this way is that it takes times.
Lots of time. Like, waaaaaay too much time.
A typical apple tree takes 5-7 years just to begin to produce fruit from a seedling. A culture within an organization is the same.
And even then, apple trees don’t reach full maturity until year 10 or more. That's when they begin to bear the fruit that they were designed to bear.
So, here I am. Tending to this orchard. We’ve removed the old diseased trees that were not bearing fruit (mostly, they've removed themselves). We’ve planted so many new seedlings that are not yet producing fruit. And we’ve chopped off so many branches from the otherwise healthy trees, so that they can continue to produce healthy, lush fruit that nourishes those that come to them hungry, looking for wholeness.
As I survey the orchard I tend to, my honest feelings at this moment are wrapped up in the lack of harvest. As an apple orchardist, I LIVE for the harvest. I long to pick a fresh Empire or Macintosh from the branch, and take that first bite from its sun-warmed flesh.
It truly is what feeds my soul.
And yet….the harvest has not yet materialized.
And so I go on hope.
There has been hurt, and pain, and betrayal, and biting letters, and rumors behind my back, and ill-intended words. To be sure, this is from a small, but persistent bunch. This has significantly died down in the past few years, but the pain lingers.
There has been my own failure to care, my own failure to use my time wisely, and my own incompetence in tending to the orchard with grace, love, and care.
But this is where we are. We’re on the cusp of a new growing season. One where our young seedlings are beginning to show signs of health and growth. Where they can begin to spread their branches toward the sun, in worship, as only apple trees can do.
The picture above is one of the behind-the-scenes fruits of my labor. It represents so much praying, dreaming, wrestling with God, setbacks, and heartbreak on behalf of both me and the leaders I serve alongside of. I'll write more about it in the coming week.
That we’re raising money is not really the point. The point is that we’re raising trees, able to withstand the rigors of life, that continue to grow toward the Sun, in worship, in reverence. Trees that will bear much fruit
That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
So I take heart today, knowing that my work is in process, as is God’s work in my own life, and in my own heart.
I trust that God is at work in your life as well.
Recently, Steve Wiens reminded me on his podcast that we're all building something. It’s something worth building. And anything worth building takes time.
It takes time to rebuild a fruitful, healthy apple orchard.
It takes time to grow a marriage, a family, a life.
It takes time to nurture a dream. To work up the courage to act on that dream. To withstand the onslaught of folks who tell you that your dream is not worth pursuing.
They'll tell you that you're mad - and that you're unworthy of doing your work.
But your job is not to listen to those folks.
Your job is to do your work. To do it well. To do it unto the Creator, for that's what you've been made to do.
And your probably not going to see the fruits of your labor tomorrow. Or the next day. Or maybe even next year.
It may take a decade.
It takes time to build a church, because the church is the people, and people are a mixed up bundle of life and lies, hope and doubt, joy and sorrow.
God has chosen to work through people to bring about the renewal of all things.
So there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
We are in imperfect bunch, Markey Church. Always will be.
I'm an imperfect pastor, as you all know. But I'm learning. I'm growing. I'm asking you to give your lives away for something greater than yourself. Because that's what I'm doing, and I just want you to join me in this work.
So may you know today that God is with you.
May you know today that God is for you.
May you know today that goodness is to your right and to your left.
May you know that your Father looks upon you with kindness, and that your Father is proud.
I'm so grateful to be on this journey with you all.
Here’s to another year!