In the twelve years I’ve been the pastor at Central Baptist Church in Palmyra, the church has been through a great deal. We have lost members to death, moves, and transfer. We’ve seen new friends come, only to be swept away again as their life-situations changed. We’ve struggled with the questions, “Who are we?” and “What are we meant to do?” We’ve even grown comfortable with the answer, “We don’t really know right now, but we’ll get back to you.” We stopped old fights and tried to make space for each other, and it’s mostly worked. If Central existed in the realm of “the pastor is institutional savior,” none of what we’ve accomplished would have worked. It’s not like I’m some great pastoral pioneer who blazes new paths and calls people forward. Really, I just want to be left alone to meditate, think, and write. Perhaps my greatest asset, early on in my pastoral call, was being generally oblivious to veiled criticisms of my very real weaknesses.
And yet, by God’s grace, our efforts did work. As we brokered a truce and called our fellowship to grow in our appreciation for one another, style differences included, things began to change. The changes were slow, but noticeable. Central began to pull away from where it had been, and the foundation of that church identity began to crack. As the cracks became noticeable we had a choice to make. We could continue on the new trajectory and allow that old foundation to break away completely, or we could rush back in a panic to put patches on the continuously expanding cracks. Either way, the old foundation was going to fail. The only question was, “Will the failure launch us into new pursuits, or send us crashing into the abyss?”
The deciding moment came for Central when one of our members took me aside and inquired about one of our previously aborted attempts at developing a transition plan. She simply asked, “What ever happened to that? I was looking forward to it.”
And off we went. It took two and a half years, and I really only led the process half-way to it’s completion. The final steps were spearheaded by our excellent team and and willing congregation. The Church is now gathered around “mission circles” which help guide and shape the way we live out our life of discipleship. It’s designed to be flexible – adding circles when needed, and even allowing them to “pop” when they’ve outlived their usefulness. It’s led to a great deal more life and freedom.
We’ve been in our new structure for a year now and are still kicking to get the feel for it. Yet in that year we’ve done some incredible things. Our Community Garden came back with some partnerships it had previously been lacking. Our wonderful creative gifts were put to good use planning our worship. Community events exploded, and our mission support has grown – culminating in a chili cook-off this past spring which raised money for Cedars of Lebanon.
It wasn’t until recently, however, that the transition really tipped toward our future. It happened in three special moments.
First, back in September a new family began to attend worship at Central. They were from Brazil, and the husband had been a pastor in that country. He’d followed a call on his heart to re-establish a Brazilian Baptist mission in our area. Central liked them immediately. As we discovered more and more of this pastor’s heart, we moved forward and discussed future possibilities. During one of these meetings one of Central’s council members quipped, “Well, they’re just another circle.”
The second moment came during our recent business meeting. Pastor Ronnie told us his story of why he left everything to come to America with his family. In response, the church applauded. Later I led us through a rough draft of what a relationship between the English-Speaking and the Portuguese-Speaking congregations might look like. We framed language not as “us/them” or “owner/renter” or even “host/guest.” In the draft the obligations of the Portuguese-Speaking congregation were no less and no more than those made of any segment of the Central Baptist Family. While we recognized our Brazilian Brothers and Sisters might have some things they might like to clarify or discuss, the Church simply said 1, “Well that makes sense.”
The last moment came during our final conversation with Pastor Ronnie and the remnant of the previous mission. Some members of Central’s Church council sat down to go over the draft agreement we’d approved as a starting point. It quickly became obvious all parties were in agreement and were ready to launch into this new partnership. When I asked Pastor Ronnie how he would like the wider church to refer to the Brazilian congregation he looked at me and said, “We are you, Central Baptist Church 2.”
This past Sunday IBC held it’s first worship service in their new home. Over forty people were in attendance, and whole Central Baptist family rejoiced.
We’d always used the word “pop” to describe a circle as it faded from our congregational life. It turns out it can also sometimes be a good way of describing the moments in which a circle forms.