It takes a village to raise a minister

By Matt Sapp

This reflection is in response to the Reverend Sapp’s move to a new pulpit at Central Baptist Church, Newnan, Georgia.

It takes a village to raise a minister. Transitions are natural times for reflection, so as I’ve packed up books and files this week to get ready to move from one church to another, I’ve been reminded of how fortunate I am to be surrounded by the people who support me. I have a pretty great village.

Books on my shelves, now in boxes, remind me of college professors whose classroom lectures changed my life–people who were passionate about the things I was passionate about and who awakened new passions within me.

I’ve packed away papers that remind me of seminary professors whose critique and editing of my writing showed careful attention to my work and encouraged me in my thinking and study.

I ran across a file from Professor Peter Rhea Jones who offered this advice on my first day of seminary: When someone offers you any chance, however small, to preach or teach, say yes if you can. I took his advice to heart and it has been invaluable.

It takes a village to raise a minister.

This week, I packed up a ministerial robe that was given to me by minister and mentor George McCune. I met him at Wieuca Road Baptist Church. He’s passed away now, but he used to take me to lunch, write me notes, and call me on the phone just to say how much he appreciated me and that he was praying for me.

Later, when I moved to Canton and doctor’s appointments brought him my way, he would call to let me know he would be in town and come by just to say hello. During my first few months at HERITAGE he and I stood alone one morning in the sanctuary and he prayed over me and for my ministry. It was holy moment.

His profound faith and deep spirituality left a mark on me. I’m proud to wear his robe.

The robe still hangs from a Muse’s hanger, which lets me know that it was ordered and altered by George Henry. I never knew Mr. Henry, but his children and grandchildren continue to be important parts of my village, and I remember them, too, every time I put my robe on.

Before Rev. McCune offered me his robe I was fortunate enough to wear the robe of Oliver Wilbanks, the late father of my mentor and former boss, Mark Wilbanks. As the associate pastor at Wieuca Road Baptist Church, Rev. Wilbanks wore that robe to marry half of Buckhead, GA in the 1970s.

To have worn the robes of great men and ministers like Rev. Wilbanks and Rev. McCune makes me feel ten feet tall and very lucky.

It takes a village to raise a minister.

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As I’ve packed up my office I’ve seen gifts and notes from long-time family friends who in different ways and at different times have been great encouragers to me.

I’ve been reminded of friends from childhood, high school and college whose continued interest in my work and ministry provides a steady drip of encouragement that keeps me going.

I’ve remembered those who regularly encourage my writing and preaching by reading and listening—family members, friends, partners in ministry and fellow travelers now scattered across the globe.

It takes a village to raise a minister.

I’ve thought of all the people who have been patient with me as I found my way, who nurtured and taught me, and whose examples of leadership continue to make me a better minister.

I’ve paused to be grateful for my peers in ministry who invest in me by taking the time to listen, encourage, support and advise—and who provide a necessary outlet for laughter and commiseration!

And, I’ve thought, of course, of family. My wife and her family. My parents, my brother, my sister-in-law. Cousins and aunts and uncles.

It takes a village to raise a minster.

The one group of people I haven’t mentioned so far is my current church. There is no single group of people more important to my formation as a pastor than the people of HERITAGE Fellowship. In a thousand ways, large and small, the care and love of HERITAGE has formed me.

I can say without exaggeration that each member at HERITAGE has shaped me in a unique and specific way–so much so that to mention even one person by name would force me to mention them all.

It takes a village to raise a minister.

As I reflect on my village, I have a question for you: Who is in your village and when have you last paused to be thankful for them?

And even more importantly, how can you be a part of someone else’s village?

The most remarkable thing about the influence that so many important people have had on my life is how meaningful seemingly small gestures of encouragement have been to me.

There is no such thing as an insignificant act of kindness.

Never underestimate your ability to change a life. Today I’m grateful for the village of people who have changed mine.

It takes a village to raise a minister.

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Conflict and a Parting of Ways in the Church

By Joe LaGuardia

Being Christ’s Church is no easy task.  As far back as the New Testament, churches have been dealing with weighty matters from Bible interpretation to theological wrangling so much that we should not be surprised when some churches fight and split.

Scripture provides us with a blueprint for how to manage conflicts in church.  The question of gentile inclusion in Acts 15, for instance, reveals a process of discernment that promoted communication, testimonies, Bible interpretation, and compromise that produced healthy church growth.

A later incident in Acts 15 describes what happens when people in churches have irreconcilable differences that discernment cannot overcome.  What happens when the only solution to disagreement is a parting of ways?

Acts 15:36-41 recalls a sharp disagreement between Barnabas and Paul on whether to bring John Mark on a second missionary journey.   They did not come to a compromise and they arrived at an impasse.  Paul and Barnabas parted ways.

A close reading of the text reveals four effective strategies in managing a church conflict in which irreconcilable disagreements did not spell the end of friendships but exposed a new season of ministry inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The first strategy is that Paul and Barnabas keep their focus on God’s mission and don’t make the conflict personal.  The Bible clearly outlines that Barnabas and Paul had different personalities: Barnabas was a bridge-building who longed to keep everyone together.  Mark was family, so there was a willingness to give him a second chance.  Paul was all business.  He was not as forgiving, and God’s mission was at stake.

This strategy shows that when churches do conflict resolution well, they emphasize the mission of the church rather than resorting to personal attacks.

Second, Paul and Barnabas valued communication.  Paul could have easily went along with Barnabas only to flirt with resentment if things went sour later in the journey, but Paul was honest with his friend.  He trusted Barnabas with his concerns, and the “sharp disagreement” shows a deep sense of honor between the two men.  There was mutual respect, and in Paul’s later letter to the Corinthian churches (1 Cor. 9), Paul still considered Barnabas his peer and equal after the division–they may not have agreed, but they still affirmed each other’s mission.

What we should emphasize is not the conflict, but what Paul and Barnabas have in common–a zeal to share the Gospel” – St. Crysostom.

A third strategy is to have an understanding of God’s sacred time: there is a season for everything.  What may appear to be discomfort, disagreement, or discord to us may simply be the Holy Spirit’s way of inspiring a new season of ministry.

In this season of ministry, Paul recognized that Mark was not the right guy for the job.  Later, after Mark matured in the faith, Paul recruited him to minister to churches in Colossae as Paul remained in prison (Colossians 4:10).

The focus remained on the mission and Mark was not necessarily the problem–sometimes the problem is with our sense of timing.  When seasons of ministry shift, change and discomfort result from that restless anxiety that tips our hat to the movement of the Spirit.

In times of discomfort or disagreement, we need to STOP, LISTEN, and ASSESS where the Holy Spirit may be at work to break us into a new level of revival, mission, zeal, or ministry.

Last, in parting ways not by discord but by effective conflict resolution, Paul and Barnabas expanded God’s mission.  God’s mission does not collapse or implode or falter.  When we resolve conflict by our own strength and design, churches split and bring some ministries to an end.  When God’s mission remains our focus and we make decisions because we are in tune with the Holy Spirit, God replicates and multiplies church communities.

As a result of their parting of ways, Barnabas and Mark ministered in Cyprus while Paul began a second missionary journey that ventured as far as Macedonia.  St. Crysostom wrote about this text, “What we should emphasize is not the conflict, but what Paul and Barnabas have in common–a zeal to share the Gospel.”

When conflicts arise, our first step as Christians should be to put in place a process of spiritual discernment that seeks to bring reconciliation and restoration in the church and the church’s mission.  When irreconcilable differences occur, however, we must put in place a process of a different kind; yet, our concern should always be the same: Are we living deeper into God’s holiness and are we proactively reaching the lost with every decision that is made?

Standing in God’s Greatest Commandment

By Joe LaGuardia

This was presented at a Stand on the Side of Love gathering at the Vero Beach Courthouse on 16 August 2017 with neighbors, friends, and concerned citizens.

Here I stand.  I am the third-generation son of Italian refugees who escaped poverty, injustice, and fascism in Europe in order to seek a better life for themselves and their family.  They did not speak any English and their customs differed from many Americans at the time, yet Lady Liberty greeted them all as equals and with dignity as she had in years past and for a people vast.

When my family arrived in America, things were not perfect.  They ventured into ghettoized neighborhoods with other Italians, relegated to deplorable, cloistered tenement houses in New York.  And yet, in that place, they made it.  The American dream had become reality.

It is this type of liberty that defines who we are as American citizens and it is this type of hospitality and love that defined my family and shaped who I am as a minister of the Gospel.

But not all of our citizens had been afforded this kind of liberty.  Though foreign and different, my family had champions and advocates who fought for our rights as Italians—like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who represented ethnic communities in Manhattan and shamed a nation bent on spending more money on the military than on feeding poor children in one of the largest urban centers in the US.

And we also had the color of our skin going for us too.  Though I was raised in a family in which everyone, friend and stranger alike, had a place at the table, the stain of racism had reached into my neighborhood.  I grew up in a neighborhood segregated by streets and blocks, and the truth that liberty had not reached into communities of color was something I realized as I matured.  Who advocated for the “other” who were ghettoized and held captive by the projects and a crumbling education system?

For all the talk of statues and history in the news, of “us vs. them” and “who’s right and who’s wrong,” our public discourse largely misses the point: Much of our nation—the very one that welcomed my family with open arms while oppressing large populations of others—was founded not on a faulty democracy, but on a defunct medieval theology that pitted some people against others, declaring that some are superior humans deserving of all the rights afforded by our Constitution while others are only worthy for subjugation, a theology that insisted on a divine mandate that “This is God’s will for us.”

This theology continues to dominate and rear its evil head in the fabric of our communities even today, and it continues to justify inequality in our relationships just as it had for over four centuries by way of imperial-inspired sermons, seminaries, and church cultures that perpetuated colonialism, Manifest Destiny, slavery and Jim Crow, a biased criminal justice system and systemic discrimination in housing, public education, and fair-wage opportunities.

Standing on the side of love means first standing in a position of repentance, for we cannot be united by love—God’s love—without first recognizing our own lack of love, our own depravity as flawed creatures, our silence to push against this defunct theology and its ingrained toxins.  So I am a proud Italian-American, and I am a proud Baptist, and I am proud to serve Christ my Savior—but not so proud that I do not ask forgiveness for the racism and oppression and injustice that reside in my own heart.  I repent of the many ways my mind makes thousands of subconscious judgments against those who are different than I, or who speak differently or think differently or vote differently than I.

When I say “Here we stand,” I do so in humble submission to our Creator and in service to our community.  And I promise to love and respect you more today than I might have yesterday, and hope to love and respect you more tomorrow than I do today.