Even in the difficult years, it wasn’t all bad.
My journal records a conversation with a deacon almost 25 years ago.
At one point he said, “Pastor, you know that I voted against your coming to our church. But God has shown me that I was wrong. You have meant so much to me and my family.”
We were talking about the church’s response to my first two years there. In a word, let’s just say it was lacking. Lukewarm. Tepid.
It was a Sunday night and we had just completed a weekend revival with a preacher friend of mine who was as fine and godly as anyone I ever knew. His messages were anointed and straight from the throne. I had so wanted our people to hear God’s message through him. But so few had turned out.
The problem was his style. He was low key. He would often stand with his hands in his pockets and talk in a conversational tone.
The congregation could not abide that. They had been conditioned to believe that powerful preaching is loud and bombastic, accompanied by guilt-inducing tirades and finger-pointing assaults. (They would have been so surprised to learn that Jesus sometimes preached sitting down in a boat!)
As we discussed the church’s lack of response during my first two years, I said, “Sometimes I wish God would send someone here whom they would respond to.”
If that sounds like discouragement, it was.
“Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you. Surely, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
Sometime around 1996, our minister of education installed a desktop computer in my office. “You’ll be needing this,” he said.
He was more right than either of us could have ever imagined.
Then, sometime around the year 2002, my son Marty, knowledgeable about computers in ways and depths that elude and astonish me, emailed me. “I have reserved www.joemckeever.com for you.” He added, “You’re going to be needing it in the future.”
I scarcely knew what a domain was. But I thanked him.
The website sat there unused for 2 years.
“Lord, let these people know there is a God in Israel. And while you’re at it, let them know that I’m your servant” (My paraphrase of I Kings 18:36).
A friend said to me, “Whenever I heard someone running the pastor down, I tell them to pray for him.” I said, “May I make a suggestion? While I appreciate your telling them that, a better thing would be to tell them strongly that you disagree, and say why you love your pastor. They need to hear this.”
Yesterday, when my wife returned from her annual doctor’s appointment, she told me something fascinating.
On her way out of the office, two assistants spoke to her. “Isn’t he wonderful?” “We have the best doctor in the building.” Bertha agreed. We love Dr. Paul Vanlandingham.
I found myself wondering what if the church staff did that when people come into the office? “Don’t we have a wonderful minister?” “We’re so blessed to have such a godly pastor.” “The Lord has blessed us by giving us such a spirit-filled leader.”
That sort of thing.
What if the ministerial staff said something similar as they interact with church members and others during the week?
“Delight thyself in the Lord and He will give thee the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
My ministry in that church was uphill all the way. Everything was hard, it seemed. There were few rest stops, places where we could take a breather and enjoy a sense that we are accomplishing something significant for the Lord.
The church had few financial resources due to a heavy debt load, made worse by a major split in the congregation 18 months before I arrived as pastor. The ministerial staff had little money for the outreach and educational programs they wanted to do.
It was a tough time in the life of that church.
Perhaps I was tired. Or discouraged. Or needed a boost of some kind.
Anyway, one day, on the way back to the church office from lunch I prayed a prayer unlike any I’d ever prayed before.
(from my 1990 journal)
Before I saw her dead and murdered, I enjoyed her yard and ate her mulberries.
For only the third time in my life, I walked by Miss Boshell’s house and stood in her yard the other day. This time it was Spring. The yard is rich in green and the daffodils are everywhere. Mom says those flowers are from the bulbs Miss Boshell herself planted. Since she’s been dead 39 years, that’s quite a record. Buttercups–aka jonquils–must be more formidable than they appear. The trees have been cut down so what was her house-place looks a lot like an open field.
The first time I came here was in late summer around 1950. I was 10. Mom and several of us stood around in her yard and on the porch visiting. The simple white frame house was shadowed on all sides by large trees. The most interesting to us children was the mulberry tree out close to the road. Its fruit was large and juicy and hung down within reach. Nearby her muscadine vines competed for our attention. It was good to be in Miss Boshell’s yard that day. If the children talked to her at all, I don’t recall. Mom did that. We had other business.
In 1990, during a 12-month break between two pastorates–what most call unemployment–I kept a journal recording what was happening, what I prayed would happen, and what I feared might happen. Below is a little reverie from that time when I was praying for the next pastorate, worrying whether there would be a next one, and anxious to get on with it. In this piece, I imagined the Lord stepping in to answer our prayers.
God said to Gabriel, “This guy has me cornered.”
“He came when I called him to the last church and served where I sent him. He turned down a bigger opportunity and a hundred thousand dollar bribe to see a difficult situation to its conclusion. In the process, I showed him the 66th psalm.”
Background: One night in the middle of our firestorm, Margaret and I had sat on the back porch reading Scripture and talking. I began to read Psalm 67. Quickly, everything inside me said, “No. Psalm 66.” Now, I could not have told you the difference. One psalm was the same as the other. But I read Psalm 66 out loud, and we were amazed. We saw the Lord was sending us a message. In verses 10-12, He perfectly described our situation.
In September 1939, Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty for the second time. A quarter of a century earlier, during the First World War, he held the same position. To assume the leadership of the greatest navy of the world twice was an amazing thing. To do so 25 years apart was even more remarkable.
Churchill thought of all the great officers he had worked with the first time. They were all gone now. He alone was still living and serving. In one of his books on the Second World War, Churchill quotes this little piece from the Irish poet Thomas Moore….
In an article on this website, I told how Bertha Fagan and I met last February 15 and quickly came to see, in the words of Psalm 118:23 that “this is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our sight.”
Making plans for marriage–at some point; we’re still undecided as to when–is certainly exciting and more than a little scary. A relative said, “I admire your courage.” I thought to myself, “Courage is the right word. It takes courage to uproot your lives, sell your homes, downsize your possessions, and merge your existence with another person for the last years of your life.”
It takes faith.
There are so many issues, questions to be settled, matters to be determined before we take that step.
“Hitherto the Lord hath been our help” (I Samuel 7:12).
We’ve come this far by faith; I can almost see the lights of home from here.
Meanwhile, we who are in this body do groan (2 Corinthians 5:2).
This morning I thought, “I’m going to miss this neighborhood. I’m going to miss my early morning walks down these wide, empty streets.”
Today was the last Thursday I’ll be doing this. The movers come on Tuesday.
I don’t actually live in New Orleans proper. River Ridge–my home since May 1994–is a western suburb, an unincorporated barnacle on the underbelly of metro N.O. I pastored First Baptist Church of Kenner, across the street from the airport, from 1990 into 2004 before becoming director of missions for the SBC churches. Since 2009, my retirement ministry has kept me running. Meanwhile, I have continued living in this house and worshiping at the same church. Now, that is all about to change. Margaret, my wife of 52+ years, died in January 2015. Twelve months later my son Neil moved his family to Mobile to be closer to his job. In February of this year, I met Bertha. The widow of a seminary classmate of mine was teaching English in a community college just outside Jackson, MS. Within a day or two, we both knew that “this” was the Lord’s doing. We’ve chosen a house in metro Jackson MS (the northern suburb of Ridgeland) and as I sell here, I’m buying that one.
I’m moving to Jackson in a few days.
“Over ____% of churches in America have plateau’ed.” (The percentage depends on who’s talking.)
Let the pastor dedicate himself to growing the church as much as possible.
Let growing the church be important to the shepherd.
But let the growth be the real thing, not something hyped up. Solid growth, not inflated numbers.
A generation or two ago, pastors in our denomination took it for granted that if they wanted to (ahem) move up to a larger church, they needed to show numerical growth where they were presently serving.
Before long, some less trustworthy preachers decided to play that game to the hilt and ruined it for everyone. They grew creative in their counting, they schemed and plotted and even lied about numbers, and doctored the records to make it appear they were experiencing greater growth than they were.