Bill Wilson recently asked me to reflect on my transition last summer from denominational work back to the pastorate, when I became the pastor of First Baptist Church of Bristol, Virginia.
Particularly, I reflected on the experience of joining a church that is dealing with concerns about decline in a changing downtown area.
After helping to coordinate the work of the Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for almost three years, I transitioned back into the local church as a pastor because I missed it—deeply.
I loved the time with our friends in Alabama churches but hungered to be someone’s daily pastoral minister again.
When we began to think about returning to pastoral work, we wanted to go somewhere that we felt our gifts and talents matched the current needs of the church.
We also wanted to go where we could invest ourselves in the community, build friendships and, frankly, know that we could make a difference.
The place did not have to be large or thriving or have vast resources. We did want to go where the people were authentic and not in denial about the challenges they face.
Being empty nesters did help us to be very open to many possibilities.
First Baptist Bristol offered me the opportunity to come and join a people with a great heritage and a very significant location and place in their city.
I also discovered a brave and wise core of leaders, many of whom are senior adults, who want their church to continue to make a difference in Bristol.
It was a plus to me that the church was also ready to welcome a new pastor into the fold after a very healthy interim period.
We are so thankful that First Baptist Bristol called us to join them and we feel that we are a good fit for this time in their journey.
Let me share a few things that are evident here as we work together. I suspect some of these things are present in many other churches with similar settings and dynamics.
1. We have joined a people who love their church.
Our church is not large or cutting edge. There are many things that we are working to renew, but the level of love and care for others is quite remarkable here.
Care for the sick, dying and the poor in the community is something we are already known for in our town. This desire to be a loving community is a strength that we can build on at First Baptist for years to come.
2. There is a good bit of anxiety.
Will we survive? Why have we declined? How will we keep up our facility? Many anxious and challenging moments arise in a church struggling with decline and renewal.
A great part of my work here is to commit each day to being the best non-anxious presence that I can be, while still offering authentic and honest leadership.
It is important to recognize and address the anxiety that creeps into a declining church and to speak blessing and encouragement once it is identified.
3. Self-esteem is an issue for the church.
Just like individuals, churches can suffer from low self-esteem; it is important to recognize it and address it.
It has been a joyful mission to call out the wonderful gifts and potential that already exist at First Baptist and to have conversations that boost morale when the low self-esteem bug bites.
4. Senior adults are a great strength for our church.
First Baptist Bristol is very intentionally trying to be the best church we can be for senior adults.
We are unashamed of saying that out loud, and we are very focused on our outreach to senior adults.
Our particular style, niche and demographic in Bristol makes this a great place for seniors.
Like many areas, senior adults are the largest age demographic in our region. It makes great sense for us to recognize and embrace that.
5. Healthy churches attract all kinds of people.
We are working hard to create a culture here that is healthy, authentic and centered on our strengths as we follow Christ. We are seeing pockets of all age groups drawn to that.
We are seeing some younger adults drifting back toward First Baptist. I believe the formula for that is hospitality, striving for quality ministry and worship, and finding a relational and service place for those who choose to join us.
6. Bigger is not always better.
It is my belief that the work at First Baptist does not necessarily center on becoming bigger.
I am very comfortable with that and love seeing us work together to become better. Better disciples, better at overcoming conflicts, better in communication, better ambassadors in our community.
A distorted desire to become “bigger” can often frustrate and even confuse.
The desire to help a church become “better” is a goal that, at least for me, is life giving and on target for all of us who are called to this work.
Answering the call to Bristol has been fulfilling and challenging in all the ways I had hoped.
I am grateful to walk alongside these good folks as we embrace the future.