Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Formations (pt. 5)

The final formative event that launched me into ministry -- and into the Free Will Baptist Church, occurred during that summer of 1987. I served from May to the last day of August, and in those four months or so, I learned a lot. Paul Sizemore was probably the best preacher I'd ever heard in my life. He certainly was in the top 3. No one taught me more about the art of preaching than he -- not in Seminary, no one, no where.

Still, it only took a couple of weeks for me to discover that Paul and I had very different personalities. He tended to be spontaneous, whereas I liked to plan ahead, map things out. There were days when I had my time planned out -- study, preparation, visiting, appointments with a youth in the church -- and Paul would walk into my office first thing and say, "Let's ride to so-and-so today." We'd get in the car and go.

When you act spontaneously like that, it can be a sign of faith and reliance in God. In Paul's case, that's what it was most of the time. But I wasn't there yet. It didn't work for me. It clashed with the way I was made. But it certainly stretched me.

The real "event" that sent me in a different direction of ministry involved Paul. When I'd come to serve as youth director, Paul had given me "carte Blanche." He'd told me he trusted me, and that I was free to work with and counsel the youth of the church as the Lord lead me. In early July, that promise was put to the test.

A young woman in the church -- she was just 17 -- met with me to talk about her upcoming marriage. She was engaged to a young man from South Carolina who was a Free Will Baptist. Since she was born and raised in the Southern Baptist Church, she had no idea what FWB's believed or practiced.

During the course of our discussion, I gave here some literature from Free Will Baptists. My paternal Grandparents were FWB's. as were a number of other family members. In fact, I've since learned that my "FWB heritage" runs at least 5 generations back. Since I'd corresponded with men such as Dr. Robert Picirilli of Free Will Baptist Bible College and Floyd Cherry of the Carolina Bible Institute -- both well known leaders in two different FWB groups -- and studied their beliefs, I felt the literature I'd given them was balanced, clear and informative.

Later that day, Paul busted into my office. "Did you give out literature about another denomination to one of our youth?" He was red faced, clearly angry.

"Yes," I responded, "She asked for information about her fiance's church, and I gave her some so that she'd know more about them."

"You never, ever, give out any literature promoting other denominations," Paul exclaimed.

"I didn't," I insisted, by this time becoming angry and flustered myself. "I gave her information about the denomination she is going to join when she marries, I didn't give her 'promotional literature!"

"Tell you what," Paul continued, "from now on, you give out no material without approval from me."

"Paul, that's not what we agreed to when you asked me to serve here," I said.

"Well, I'm the Pastor, and I have the authority to change that policy."

"Yes, you do," I responded, "but you're wrong, and this decision is wrong and unfair."

"And as pastor, it's my decision to make. When you are a pastor, you can make those decisions in your church."

"Fine," I said. By now, I was red faced, angry. I felt betrayed, and I still believe with good reason. Oh, Paul was right, it was his decision. But he didn't listen to me, and he went back on a promise. Shortly, I went to the office of the Church Secretary, Ellen, and told her I was taking the afternoon off. As I walked to my car, there was, fittingly, a storm coming up.

I didn't eat lunch. I spent a good while praying that afternoon. As the storm raged outside, a storm was raging within me as well. I'd talked to Paul about licensing and ordination, but I no longer had any peace about it. I couldn't serve under a pastor who was so different than me -- who'd so quickly withdrawn his trust, and not even tried to listen or reason with me.

Just then, as I prayed, I sensed the Lord telling me, quite clearly, that I was to minister in the Free Will Baptist Church. That's as close an experience to actually hearing God's voice that I've ever come. And this leading was punctuated by a loud clap of thunder.

Now, I'd been born and raised in the Southern Baptist Church. I had no desire to leave, even though, quite honestly, I agreed more with FWB doctrinal distinctives. I remember thinking, "God, I don't know anyone personally in the FWB church. If you want me to go there, you provide the place and the means." It's not always smart to challenge God, but in this case I honestly think God laughed at me and said "okay."

Two days later I was perusing at a small Christian bookstore in downtown Wadesboro, and met the proprietor. We struck up a conversation, and I learned his name was Thomas Parrish, and he just happened to be an FWB pastor in the nearby town of Hamlet, NC. I confided in him that I thought God might be leading me into the FWB church, and to keep his eyes open for the possibility of a youth ministry position in a FWB church in the area.

A couple of days later, he called me and asked that I come to his bookstore and see him. When I arrived, he sat down and offered me a position as Minister of Youth and Education at Highland Pines Free Will Baptist Church, where he was Pastor. Furthermore, he'd gone to the church and asked that they cut his pay and pay me from his salary, so that I could minister part time at the church. I was amazed.

As overwhelmingly generous as Thomas Parrish was, I was even more blown away by how God had intervened, answered my challenge, and opened doors that I never even knew were there -- and all in less than a week! I knew then, and still believe now, that this was God's hand. He was guiding me into the place He wanted me, to mold me and form me according to His will.

I was licensed to the Gospel Ministry in November of 1987 at Highland Pines, and in October of 1988, I was ordained, just a few weeks following my marriage to Tammy, and my call to be Pastor of Mount Tabor FWB Church in Creswell, NC. At the time, I thought I was going to become the Pastor of a growing church, and one day I would break attendance records somewhere in some great, thriving fundamentalist ministry recognized as a model get the picture.

I had no clue where God was really leading me. But for the next 17 years, God would put me through school continually as I attempted to serve Him in two different FWB denominations, Pastoring three churches, across three states, throughout Seminary, as a church planter, and as a professor in the denominational Bible College. Oh, the lessons I learned....

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