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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Ministry for the Sake of Christ and the World

By Joe LaGuardia

I had a conversation with a Navy veteran yesterday who served as a flight-deck officer for nearly 25 years.  I thanked him for his service and was grateful that he had sacrificed his safety in order to protect our freedom.

He reminded me of the time I wanted to serve in the armed forces too.

I was a senior in high school when recruiters visited our classes and encouraged us to make a sacrifice for our country.  They visited on behalf of the Marines, the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard.  My uncle had served in the Air Force, and I felt compelled to look into serving in that particular branch.  I am afraid of heights, but since I wore glasses I figured that they would not let me fly airplanes anyway.

When I came home to tell my father, he was not happy.  I did not understand why he was frustrated, and I began to explain all of the great things that can result from serving our country, and Uncle Joe served so why not?  Dad wanted me to go to college instead.

Although I trusted and followed my father’s advice, I still remember clearly–more clearly than ever when I spoke with that Navy vet yesterday–of the feelings I had in wanting to serve in something bigger than me, to make a sacrifice on behalf of a nation I loved and people that I longed to protect.

Since then, there were only two other times when I had that profound feeling of being called to something so profoundly inspiring.  One time was when I worked as a teacher assistant for an online college course through Ashford University.  It was a writing class, and many students I assisted were in the military or just released from the military.  Educating our troops and vets was my way of helping our nation yet again.

The second time came in college when I heard Christ calling me into the ministry.  I had gone through a litany of career options, praying for the right job that would allow me to serve others while supporting a family.  When it came down to either vocational ministry or practicing law, I met with my New Testament professor, and he gave me the lecture most of us ministry students receive.  Its the advice from the old Buechner adage that says that your calling is found where your deepest passion intersects with the world’s deepest needs.  I plunged headlong into ministry.  My father was happy.

Although I love church and ministry–I know I’m called to this because I cant’ do anything else–I often forget why I got into this business in the first place.  Yes, the Holy Spirit swayed my heart and Christ compelled me to serve His church as a full-time minister.  But there was also that profound feeling of serving others, the very same feelings I had when I spoke with those Air Force recruiters in the halls of Stoneman Douglas High School.

I think that when we ministers forget the source of our inspiration and the emotional reasons why we responded to God’s call–logic aside!–we forget the joy and passion that we are to bring to our vocation in church.

And I wonder if one of the reasons why churches plateau or die is partly because of us: We somehow lose that feeling of joining God at work for the sake of the world, and we fail to inspire others as our own passion dies a slow death under the weight of sermon preparation, balancing a congregation’s expectations with being true to yourself, and doing the busy administrative work that churches require.

I figure that if you do not have a love for every aspect of church and forget to rely on Christ’s love to fill you–whether visiting someone in the hospital or making a copy of your time sheet for your church administrator–then you might as well close shop and go home.

I enjoyed my conversation with that old veteran yesterday, and together we enjoyed a good meal as we celebrated a newlywed couple whose wedding I had just performed.  More significantly, I enjoyed what the conversation reminded me of: That we who call Christ Lord are to give of ourselves, and that there is no higher calling than to serve Jesus…To give one’s life for the sake of others, for there is no greater honor and privilege.

5 Lessons I’ve learned as a Pastor

pewsBy Matt Sapp

This Sunday our church will celebrate its 22nd anniversary. I’ve been at Heritage for two of those twenty-two years, and in those two years I’ve learned a lot.

To celebrate our anniversary, I thought I’d share a few of the things I’ve learned as your pastor.

1.      Slow and steady wins the race. Our work as Christians is best described as a “long obedience in the same direction.” Our life’s work is just one link in a much larger chain. We pick up where others have left off and others will come along to advance the work when we’re no longer here to do it.

The work of the church is not a sprint. It won’t be accomplished in a few months, a few years or even a few generations. Our job is to push the ball forward just a few feet. It’s not flashy. It won’t usually make the news. But over time it will lead to great progress.

As easy as it sounds to just do our small part, there are a thousand ways to stay where you are and only one way to move forward: develop a plan and see it through with discipline, focus and patience.

The reward of discipline, focus and patience is progress. It’s easy to wander from one idea or one program or one vision to the next. The only way to stay the course is to firmly believe that God is leading in the process and to trust that God will be present in the results, too.

2.      People matter. Nothing else does. Programs, plans, buildings, worship styles, strategies—Jesus didn’t come to save any of them. In fact, God hasn’t brought eternal salvation to a church building yet. As far as I know, no electric guitars or pipe organs have professed their faith in Jesus Christ yet, either.

Our biggest assets as churches are the people who serve in them. So our greatest investments should be in our people. Our time and energy and resources ought to be invested in building up and encouraging and equipping people for ministry.  

We think of buildings and programs and worship traditions as legacies that we can leave as enduring monuments to our faithfulness. But here’s the truth. In Jesus Christ, we’ll outlive them all.

What we do to bring people into the presence of God and to turn them into fully-functioning followers of Christ is the only thing that matters.

3.      The circle of who is included in God’s kingdom is expanding. It always has been and it still is. There was a time when we were excluded from the faith, when people like us—Gentiles—were universally considered to be beyond the scope of God’s love and salvation. But our understanding of God’s love and God’s kingdom has expanded over time so that we now understand that God had intended to include us all along.

One of the best ways to understand scripture is as a record of our expanding understanding of who God is and as a record of our growing awareness of the scope of God’s love.

One of the best ways to understand the incarnation is as God’s ultimate effort to explode every boundary we’d put up to contain and limit God’s love, and Christ still works among us to do the same.

We don’t have to wonder where Christ is at work in the world. Just like on nearly every page of scripture, God is at work among the people we’ve overlooked or excluded. I become more convinced of that truth—and it gains more power in my life—every day.

4.      What local churches choose to do in the next few years will be EXTREMELY important. The future of the church in the United States–its effectiveness, its impact, it size, and what it looks like to future generations—depends entirely on the independent, individual decisions of thousands of churches like ours. If most of us choose faithful, God-inspired paths forward in the next few years, the sky’s the limit.

But, if we choose to carry on with business as usual, doing the same things we’ve always done, the church in America is undeniably in real trouble. The statistics about the decline of the church in America are staggering. If we don’t do something new, then we’re facing a spiritual dark age in the near future in the United States.

The choice is real. The stakes are high. But here’s what’s so exciting. What we choose to do really matters!!! We have a real chance to make a real kingdom difference from right where we are. We can be one of the churches that tips the balance and turns the tide.

We could be on the leading edge of America’s next great spiritual revival.

5.      We serve a remarkable God. God is guiding the church. God is guiding Heritage. I honestly believe that. In the fleeting moments when I fully grasp that truth, it is genuinely awe-inspiring.

I’ll be honest. It can be disheartening at times to serve what is a shrinking—some say dying—institution. But in my best moments, I see a future for the church that is better and more completely God-revealing and God-inspired than anything we’ve experienced yet.

I believe God is moving among us, preparing us to do something amazing. And when I say us, I mean us at HERITAGE, but not just us. I mean little pockets of people like us all over the nation and all over the world. I’m not sure we even glimpse the possibilities yet.

Our tendency is always toward a smaller vision of what is possible. But God’s vision tends toward resurrection, toward new life where once there was only death.

So whenever you’re gripped by a small vision or find yourself with a deficit of courage, remember that you serve a remarkable God whose vision for you and for the kingdom is grander than anything we’ve yet imagined.