By Jimmy Adcox, “Reflections on 40 Years with the Same Church”
I can hardly believe I am completing forty years with the same church. In early September of 1977, at the youthful age of 25, my wife and I made the journey from Jackson, Tennessee to our new home with the Southwest Church in Jonesboro, Arkansas. With two little boys in tow, we crossed the Mississippi with youthful inexperience and started a journey we never imagined would extend so long – at least not with the same church. We told our shepherds we would commit to at least six years (that seemed like a long time – a quarter of the life we had lived so far). That’s how long I thought it would take to complete my Master of Theology degree before moving on to a doctorate.
Forty years later, here I am, sixty-five years old, still at work, wondering where the years have gone, and giving thanks for an amazing opportunity to see God at work in one church over a long period of time.
It has been a ride of highs and lows. We’ve experienced the best and worst of what a church can be. We’ve walked with each other through times of uncomfortable disagreements, oppositional confrontation, startling moral lapses, moments of traumatic and tragic loss (including a school shooting that shook the community and preoccupied a nation). There were seasons of conflicted leadership, leadership vacuums, and paradigm shifts that challenged our comfort zones. We have made mistakes, learned hard lessons, watched people we love leave, and have prayerfully depended on God when we knew nothing else to do.
And yet, we’ve seen God at work in powerful ways.
God has led us from legalism to grace, community isolation to significant community influence, from a self-perpetuating leadership model to church engagement in leadership selection, from tradition driven to vision driven, and from an elder model of decision making control to a shepherding model of empowerment. We have seen God move our church to become more missional by initiating a stateside church planting movement. He has inspired his people to become more intentional about community engagement outside our walls and about multiplying disciples and faith communities in our city. These shifts, and others like them, were not quick turns in the road. These are paradigm shifts that have occurred over time. Seeing God repeatedly revitalize a church and give new dreams is inspiring. In an existing church, with its own warts and struggles, such changes do not come through sudden decisions and quick fixes. They come through a refusal to be satisfied with the status quo and a long term commitment to keep pursuing the mission of God.
Such paradigm changes are all in the service of something more important – experiencing and witnessing the transforming power of God in people’s lives. One of my favorite moments is when I can pause before or during worship, look around the room, and see familiar faces whose lives have been shaped by God. In those moments, I recall their past challenges and struggles and take note of the spiritual victories God has given. I have felt my eyes moisten and my spirit soar to think of the difference God has made in the lives of these precious people. Serving as a minister provides a front row seat to God’s work in the personal and sacred space of people’s lives.
Ministry provides a beautiful opportunity to share in the holy moments of others. From births to baptisms to weddings to funerals – long term ministry provides a privilege to walk with families across the generations. As an example, after admiring and serving with one of the shepherds who brought me to Southwest, I have been privileged to perform weddings for nine of his children and grandchildren. I have walked with them through family losses, cried with them in difficult times, counseled with them in tough situations, been present for baptisms, and watched them grow into mature Christian leaders. Such relationships provide sacred moments to be present with people as we are all present with God. These are rich opportunities to see God’s influence bear on people’s lives over the long haul. Such experiences are multiplied many times over with individuals and families too numerous to count.
I’ve thought of doing other things over the years. I considered an opportunity to teach in a Christian university, but I couldn’t bear to give up the variety of ministry opportunities found only in a local church. The lure of other churches tugged at my thoughts at various stages of my life, but something convinced me there was much more to do where I already lived. I sometimes thought, “If I can’t be used by God to work through the issues we face here, what makes me think I can be more effective somewhere else?” There are surely wonderful reasons to embrace new opportunities and walk through other open doors (and, to be honest, I wonder what that would have been like), but sometimes those opportunities can also be distractions that keep us from seeing opportunities right in front of us – if only we are willing to stay engaged and give God time to do his work.
One of the joys of long term ministry has been growing together. A church took a big faith step 40 years ago when they entrusted ministry to a young 25 year old. It was as if we formed a partnership to see where God would take us together. The personal and congregational growth we’ve experienced has been both scary and exciting. Such growth forces the changes necessary to remain vibrant and relevant. We stay together because there is always a new dream – something else we believe God wants us to do. Robert Browning wrote, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.” From my vantage point, “the best is yet to be.” There is great satisfaction in seeing a church positioned and prepared to have its most promising impact.
Long term ministry is humbling. The ups and downs make you aware of your own weaknesses and flaws. You see them reflected in your church. You look back and remember how often you only knew to show up, trusting that God would use you – even when you knew you were completely inadequate for the task. And the thrill of ministry is that he did. He accomplishes his work through cracked, clay vessels – because the power is not in the vessel, but in the treasure entrusted to it. He accomplishes his work through us – and sometimes in spite of us. The privilege of long term ministry is a blessing of grace. It is the opportunity to witness the faithful presence of God in one family of believers over a long period of time. I am grateful for this unique vantage point to see how God has worked in the life of one church.