Our Stories (Let’s Go Back to the Mess)

I Love Easter

It was January, 2008, and a group of pastors had gathered in the downstairs of one of the larger churches in our area to meet with a representative from a church leadership group from Boston. A number of the guys there were church planters, and it was great to hear their stories. Then the representative told us his story, how he was in the middle of resuscitating a dying church. I listened to him talk and immediately connected with him. That day, I shared that I believe we give up on the church too easily. We dismiss older or struggling congregations in favor of planting new ones.

After we were finished talking and were enjoying lunch together, I went over to him and I shook his hand. Reflecting on my own experience and realizing that this was my calling as well, I said to him, “You know, resurrection is a lot harder than giving birth but they’re both miracles.” He nodded to me. Upon reflection, he probably had no idea who I was and just wanted to get back to his fried chicken. But the moment was poignant for me nonetheless.

I enjoy resurrection far more than birth. (I think that’s why I like Easter more than I do Christmas.) Don’t get me wrong. Births are awesome. My daughter’s birth was one of the most amazing moments of my life. But you can explain away birth using science and you can show how it all works in minute detail. After all, there are millions of births every year.

Resurrection, however, is an entirely different thing. You don’t see resurrection every day, or every millennium. In all of Scriptures, there’s only five people who were raised from the dead beside Jesus (2 Kings 13:21, Luke 8:49-56, John 11:43-44, Acts 9:36-41, Acts 20:9-12). Five people in a few thousand years? That’s pretty rare.

And scientifically, there is no explanation for resurrection. There is no way anyone takes credit for it. It is entirely and totally a God-thing. It can’t be otherwise. So if something dead is made to live again, you can’t take credit for it and you certainly can’t explain it. You can only bear witness to it and say that it was God’s doing.

The Power of the Resurrection

In John 11, there is a story of resurrection. Jesus’ friend and supporter, Lazarus, dies of some kind of quick acting illness. In only a couple of days, he goes from healthy and hosting parties to dead and buried. Jesus takes his time getting to the funeral, and by the time he gets there, Lazarus has been in the grave for days. The mourning is over and most people are moving on, dealing with their grief. Lazarus’ sister practically reprimands Jesus for not coming on time.

When Jesus gets to the graveside, he looks around him at his friends and disciples. He tells them to move the stone blocking the tomb. They freak out on him. And Jesus says,

“Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”

That’s it. That’s all he says to them. He prays to God, and then commands Lazarus to come out, like he is ordering dinner, and Lazarus walks out of the grave.

Resurrection is an amazing thing, isn’t it? When I read that story, I am absolutely blown away by how simple it was for Jesus to resurrect Lazarus. There were no rituals or special incense. There was no wiz-bang or amazing incantations. Jesus just says, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see God’s glory?”

BAM! Resurrection.

This book is a story of resurrection, particularly the resurrection of a couple of local congregations and their rebirth as Bedford Road Baptist Church. It is a record of Jesus saying to a bunch of people in New Hampshire, “You believed. Now stand back because God’s glory is about to hit earth!”

And it did.

Jesus rocked our world, and he did it without ceremony or big pronouncement. He did it without media coverage or government funding. He did it quietly, transforming hearts and uniting people.

This series of posts is the story of that resurrection. It is our journey from the grave into the light. It is the story of Jesus calling us out, commanding us to rise, and us opening our eyes to see the new reality we had never expected.

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

The People You Will Meet

In John’s story of Lazarus’ resurrection, we meet the people before we see the resurrection, so before we get into the story of our resurrection, let me introduce the people God used along the way.

This is not the story a single guy. Often I read church leadership books and get the impression that success stories are the tale of one man – Super Pastor – and his team of sidekicks. Although I am the pastor and did a lot of work, I am not Super Pastor.

This is a story of a community that was transformed by Jesus Christ and his vision for that community. It is the story of a team of dedicated team players who saw what Jesus had planned for his church and invested themselves wholeheartedly into it. Because they feature prominently in the story, I want to introduce them to you individually.

First, the Congregations

I’ll go over the story of the two congregations later in this chapter, but let me give you their names. First, there is Grace Baptist Church. They had a building and a lot of wounds. Second, there is Heritage Baptist Church. They had me and a bunch of people who had grabbed onto Jesus’ vision.

Greg J

Greg had been in leadership at Heritage Baptist Church since 1999. He grew up irreligious, became a member of a very prominent cult for some time and then, through a miraculous chain of events turned his back on his cult training and became a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. After serving in the Air Force, Greg went to law school and practices in a small city a couple miles north of us.

He is a student of the Word of God, a proud father and soon to be grandfather. When I met him in 2004, Greg was a deacon at Heritage, was leading music, teaching the adult Bible class, and leading the prayer group. He was also doing his best to lead a broken church. He was, for all intents and purposes, the interim pastor of the congregation.

Bob B

Bob served in a number of leadership roles at Grace Baptist Church, including serving as and elder and as the treasurer after the most recent split. He and his wife have faithfully served in many different roles as needed. Bob loves to laugh and is a professional presenter who communicates plainly and directly but generally lovingly.

When I first met Bob, he spent a lot of time not talking. It was a bit unsettling because I gauge people by their responses. As I’ve gotten to know Bob, I’ve discovered that he can be an excitable guy, and I think he was doing his best to be methodical and thoughtful about the process.

Ray B

(There were three elders at Grace and all their last names started with B.)

Ray was the chairman of the elder board as Grace was going through their difficult time prior to the merger. He is an engineer who works for a large aerospace firm. He and his wife, Brenda, have been in leadership at Grace for sometime. After the merger process was finalized, Ray stepped down as an elder so he could work with the teens and missions committee.

Donald B

Donald is currently our family ministry elder, but he often filled the pulpit during the split. Donald loves the Scriptures and his quiet questions are always based on the teachings of the Bible, even when it goes against his own thinking.

He is known to the kids in our church as Donald Duck, and to some of the adults as Don, although he told me when we first took a drive together, “My parents named me Donald”, so I just call him Donald.

Darin Shaw

Darin is the pastor of a local church a few miles from our location. He came to New England as part of Northland Community Church in Florida. Northland believes in distributing what God gives them, so they send preachers and musicians to churches in need around the nation. As part of that program, Darin preached at Christ Church in Amherst and eventually became their pastor.

In that spirit, Christ Church helped our congregation in a time of need, which ties directly into the story of the merger. Darin did his best to help the elders of Grace. Our relationship, which was not much more than acquaintances, became crucial to the merger. But more about that anon!

Let’s get into the stories of our congregations!

Grace Baptist Church and Their Troubles

Grace Baptist Church was started in 1974 by a church planter from the Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society (which is now called Missions Door).

The founding pastor, Stan Rockafellow, had already started one church in New Hampshire and started two more in the following decades. Within a few months, the church was up and running. They purchased eight acres of land just off the main road through the town of Merrimack, New Hampshire, and in 1975 constructed the first building.

When Stan left in 1979, the church had started a Christian kindergarten. This had been a component of the original vision for the church, although the school could be both a blessing and a curse. Under the next pastor, Harold Wheeler, the church continued to grow and the school continued to expand. They added an education wing in 1985, and the church and school seemed to be doing well.

Unfortunately, after Wheeler left in 1986, the church went through a series of ups and downs that tore the church to pieces. The school became a bone of contention for many people, and the church went through several pastors with the most durable lasting twelve years (1991-2003).

There were periods when the church had no leadership and when it probably had too much. They were deacon-led, then had interim pastors, then reorganized as elders and trustees led, then the congregation overrode the elders, then the pastor overrode the congregation. It was a mess.

Recognizing their struggles, the congregation asked Ted Brewer – a former pastor who had a local peace-making ministry – to serve as interim pastor and guide them through finding their feet and stabilizing. Ted, who we still support as a ministry of our church, is a caring, gentle man who did his best to teach people how to resolve conflict and work together.

By 2006, the congregation thought they had gotten through the worst of it, so they called a new pastor. They were so confident that they did a strange thing. When they first voted to call this new pastor, the motion did not carry. The congregation chose to hold a second vote, and this time, there were enough votes to call him. This division turned out to be a warning sign. In the thirteen months that he was with the congregation, this pastor alienated a lot of people and old wounds became festering sores. When he left in 2007, the church split. Most of the workers and money walked out the door. They lost the majority of their elders, as well as their treasurer and worship leader.

Grace remained without a pastor for two years. They did not even try to search for a new pastor for the first eighteen of those months. During that time, they were holding on for dear life. Financially, the church was in dire straits. Until someone donated $40,000 specifically for the purpose, the congregation did not have enough money to pay a pastor even if they called one.

Things looked bleak.

The elders, all volunteers and all passionate followers of Christ, looked everywhere for help. One congregation, Christ Church of Amherst, came alongside Grace and assisted them with music and preaching. The elders met with Christ Church’s elders and pastor as they attempted to sort out their next step.

The elders then made a difficult and potentially further damaging decision. In the spring of 2009, they knew that the congregation could no longer support the Christian School. They made the hard decision to spin the school off as an independent institution. The school would finish out the 2008-2009 year and then have to find alternative facilities. One of the elders’ wife was the principal of the school. Another long time member was the school secretary.

Thankfully, another local congregation had a facility that they were willing to share with the school. The school packed up their equipment and textbooks and relocated a few miles north, where they are growing and flourishing.

When the move was announced, a number of people left the church. Strangely enough, both the principal and school secretary remained with Grace. It was a hard time to be a church, and the road ahead looked pretty bleak.

At the same time they decided to spin off the school, the elders began actively looking for a pastoral candidate. They formed a search committee and received over one hundred resumes and application packets after they posted the position online.

This was when Grace’s story intersected Heritage’s story, so let’s leave Grace for a moment and recount Heritage’s story up to this point.

Heritage Baptist Church and Our Wanderings

In 1988, Paul Schultz moved his family from Illinois to New Hampshire with the goal of starting a church in Manchester. Together with a small group of volunteers from other churches in the area, the Shultzes began their work using a phone call campaign (read church telemarketing) and developed some good contacts. The following Easter, they started having public worship services in a public school auditorium and launched Heritage Baptist Church.

Growing steadily and needing more space, the congregation moved into a space in a Pipe Fitters’ Union Building just outside of town in 1995. They stayed there, ordained and called a youth pastor, and were doing well – or so everyone thought.

By 2003, Paul was worn out. The congregation was a mishmash of people who were mostly established Christian who had relocated to the area or had come over from a few similar congregations over the years. He was facing some personality issues with other leaders, and he had been going full speed ahead, doing both pastoral and physical work at the church to keep things afloat. In the fall, he announced that he was stepping down as the pastor.

That is when the problems began.

Between Paul’s last Sunday and my first one, Heritage went from about 100 people to 30. The youth pastor left because of a conflict with the deacons. One of the deacons left because of an issue with his son. The Union told the congregation they had to leave their worship space and find a new one. Our sound guy, Leo, was a new Christian at the time. He later told me, “My wife and I went away for the summer, and I told her ‘If there’s a church here when we get back, then we’ll stay’.” It was that bad.

Then came a near death blow. The congregation called a pastor, and he turned down the call to return to the mission field. Their hopes were dashed.

Around the time Greg contacted me, Heritage was scrambling to find a place to worship. They found a space in an old boat store and they invested most of their building fund in refurbishing the rented space. They installed HVAC and sprinklers. They built walls and offices. They removed a garage door and installed a window in its place. They did a lot of work, but they were still without a pastor.

Greg and two other deacons had set my resume aside the first time they reviewed it, but they revisited it and invited me to come preach for them.

My Journey with Heritage

At the time, I was the associate pastor of a fundamentalist Baptist church a couple towns south. I was teaching in the Christian school there, my wife Nichole was expecting our daughter, and we were planning to start a church in Manchester. It was a very busy time for us.

We had assembled a small group of people who were meeting regularly at the home of a couple friends, Tom and Becky, who had moved to New Hampshire specifically to help us start a church. When Greg sent me an email inviting me to preach at Heritage, I ran the idea by our little group and everyone thought it might be a God thing, so I went to preach for them.

When I preached at Heritage for the first time, it was only their second Sunday in their new space. You could tell that the congregation was still unsure of it – like when you buy a new suit and it is still stiff and you’re not quite sure which shoes to wear with it. But it was their new home, and they were very happy to have some place to be after months of chaos.

After the service, Nichole and I talked with the deacons for a couple of hours over sandwiches. We could see that we agreed on doctrine and the cardinal issues. One thing I remember saying was that I was young, and I was still learning who I was as a minister. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my youth Later Greg told me that if I had been much older, they would not have hired me. They wanted someone young and stupid enough to take some chances, do some crazy things. (Okay, they didn’t put it quite that way but that was essentially the deal.)

These guys were taking quite a chance themselves. I was a young, essentially untried minister who did not have any children; and I was going to be invited to pastor a congregation composed of people my father’s age. The whole thing could have blown up in their faces.

In November, they called me to be the pastor. I started the following Sunday, so there was little time for goodbyes at our previous church. While I kept teaching at the school to finish the semester, from here on out, I was a pastor.

Our church plant group came with us, which meant new faces, and things were looking up. In my gut, I knew that we needed to address the issues that had caused the problems in the previous months, but we got very busy very quickly. I was teaching three times a week, still teaching at a Christian school every day as well. We had a new baby in the family, and we had relocated our family to Manchester. The following year was more of the same. My wife and I bought a house. We got a new car. The church was growing, people were excited. Things were good.

And then, things fell apart.

Wounds which had not been addressed came to the surface. People who we thought were going to be pillars of the congregation left and took their checkbooks with them. Young couples who had joined us from a couple of other congregations got divorced. I started to hear a lot of criticism about the way we did things (or didn’t do things). More chaos – and I took it all personally. Without knowing it, I slipped slowly but inextricably into a depression. My wife watched helplessly as I became short-tempered, frustrated and listless. There was even a time when she thought she couldn’t go on living with me, that I was out of control.

I was out of control.

Around this time, I made a radical decision. If were were going to survive as a congregation, if my family was going to survive me being a pastor, then we needed to shift gears and we needed to do it quickly. No matter the cost, something had to give.

On a Sunday morning, I sat on a stool in front of the congregation and said simply, “I’m not sure I believe in all of this anymore. My faith is shaken, and my life is spiraling down.” Then, I added the really controversial part. “Beginning next Sunday, all of this has to go. We are shutting down all the programs and ministries of this congregation. Next Sunday, at 9:30am, I will begin reading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

And I did.

The following Sunday, with no nursery or children’s church or worship music or spoken introduction, I stood up at exactly 9:30am and began reading the Gospel of Mark. The following Sunday, I read the Gospel of John, finishing the next Sunday. Finally, I read the Gospel of Matthew. At the end of those four weeks, our congregation had been somehow transformed in a way I can’t really put into words. We were going to be about Jesus, because he is the Christ and the Head of the Church.

A few months later, we drafted a vision statement: Creating environments where people encounter Jesus and journey together. We plastered it everywhere. It dominated everything. People got tired of hearing me repeat it.

Then, a process kind of gelled for us. We would journey together through receiving Jesus as our Savior, Master and Model. These got put into a statement of sorts which we started repeating – over and over again. They were on our bulletins, on our contact cards, on the video screen.

People left and we let them. New people came to replace them, and we welcomed them. We converted our space from simply a useable space into an environment where people felt welcome and encouraged to grow. And as the vision statement and ideas and worship space began to change, we changed.

I don’t want to give the impression that all this happened overnight. The Sunday that I read the Gospel was in the summer of 2007. We did not convert our worship space until January 2009. For two years, we did little except focus on Jesus. The changes were not so we could be more godly. They came about because we drew closer to Jesus, and in these continuing encounters with him, everything began to change.

In fact there was even a time when I had one of the most vivid dream I’ve ever had, and it was about the church. In getting ready to write this, I re-read the email I sent to the deacons after having the dream, and it was amazing to see how many things I saw have come to pass. (I’m not a prophet or anything, don’t worry.) In the midst of everything that was happening, there was a voice in the dream that said, “Make the best of where I put you.” Do I believe that was God speaking? Yes, I do. It had a tremendously calming effect on me, and then as we moved forward, we became content in where we were and what we were doing. Things fell in place.

After remodeling our space in 2009, we knew our lease was up. The economy was in the toilet, and people did not have the money to keep paying for the space. We had to decide on something to do.

During the previous year, the deacons and I had been discussing the possibility of merging with another congregation. We started exploring the options.

This whole idea of a merger may seem alien to you. It is certainly not a common thing in the Church, but the more we started thinking about it, the more it made sense. Over time, we became more and more convinced that this was, at the least, an option for us. Our reasons were essentially theological.

Jesus had prayed for his church to be one, and yet in our region there were dozens of churches who were essentially the same but were all struggling in their little niches. Whether it was the battle to keep a pastor or to manage a facility, it seemed to us that Jesus’ prayer was not being lived out. The big churches kept getting bigger, and the small churches kept struggling in their little niche. Perhaps the idea of merging congregations was something that would free all of us to minister more effectively.

The road to our merger was not a string of successes. In December 2008, I had reached out to a larger church in the area about the possibility of a merger. They responded definitively that such a thing was not on their radar. They eventually called a relatively well-known church growth guru to be their pastor.

In March, I approached one of the elders of another church whose pastor had announced his imminent resignation to become a regional leader in their movement. Even though there were a number of people who knew each other in our two congregations and were quite literally about three miles apart, they did not even entertain the notion.

The following month, I approached a guy who had started a small church that was struggling to stay afloat. We talked about joining forces. We had a space they could share with us, and we could try things on for size. We even planned to get the two congregations together for a picnic; but then in June, he resigned from the church, told all the people to go somewhere else and took a position at a church in Massachusetts.

Let’s leave this strand of the story right there. In order to get a perspective of the next steps, we need to rewind back to 2007.

Bike Rides and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

With all of this going on, I had met Darin Shaw in the fall of 2007. My wife Nichole was singing in a community theater production of “The Sound of Music”, and she became friends with her music director. This was the age of Myspace, so they became friends online. Then Nichole hopped from her new friend’s page to a guy named Jesse, who was the music director at a church in Amherst and played in a band with the pastor, who was wearing a Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey in his profile picture.

You should know that I am a Buccaneers fan – because of a happy accident of childhood that I won’t go into here. When Nichole saw this pastor, named Darin, in a Bucs jersey, she immediately called me into the computer room. In a matter of weeks, he and I were sitting at Panera Bread, talking about churches and football over coffee.

Darin and I became blogging buddies – reading each others blogs and commenting on them. Our congregations were far enough apart that we did not get together again for awhile.

In 2008, I took a part time job at an investment firm to help pay the bills at the church. Because we only had one car, I would ride my bike twenty-two miles round trip, literally over hill and dale, to get there. On the route, there were signs for Grace Baptist Church, and I would pray for that congregation as I rode by.

Little did I know that in December 2007, Grace had gone through the split I already told you about. They needed prayer.

Darin was helping them out, trying to encourage them.

At Heritage, we were rebuilding – being transformed by Jesus and glimpsing the vision he had for us. At Grace, they were at rock bottom and going down further.

It wasn’t quite time for the two to come together, but the pieces were all moving into place. This catches us up to the first moment when I contacted the elders of Grace.

Originally, I had written quite a bit about the process of actually getting to the merger process, but I think it is better handled with a quick summary. I reached out to Grace, as the pastor of Heritage. They considered my qualifications as a pastor, then met with me individually. I shared Jesus’ vision, and they concluded after prayer and discussion that it was His vision for them as well.

We’ll pick the story up from there in our next post.

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