December, 2011 was a personal milestone. It marked the beginning of my sixth year as the Pastor-Teacher here at FBC. What an honor, joy and privilege it has been. I earnestly hope that the Lord will give us at least forty more such years together. Apart from a burning bush telling me otherwise, I am making every plan to do just that. I have served this congregation when I was young and pimple-faced and hope to still be serving you when I am old and wrinkle-faced too.

In order to see this commitment through, though, it will require a degree of personal stamina, a sense of vision, mutual understanding, as well as regular times for personal growth. With all of this in mind, I am humbly asking our church for its support in this direction.

At the end of last year, I approached our church leadership about taking a one-month period, in 2012, for pastoral renewal. I also asked that other such times be scheduled for the future. The staff, deacons, and Personnel Committee have all given their unanimous support. On January 25, at our business meeting, we will be asking for the congregation’s support as well. A motion will be presented as follows:

The Personnel Committee, with the full support of the deacons and staff, make a motion that the congregation amend the Pastor’s Covenant to include a one month period for pastoral renewal, to be taken in 2012, and a similar two month period for each five years of his service after this (i.e. 2017, 2022, etc.).

I do not ask this lightly and hope that you will prayerfully read the following explanation about this request, noting carefully what it means, what it does not mean, and why it is something that I hope you will come to see as important investment in our future together.

What is a time for pastoral renewal?

The business world calls it “professional development.” In academia, it is known as a  “sabbatical.” Specifically, my request is for approximately one month (March) of uninterrupted time to seek the Lord apart from the daily demands of ministry. I hope to seek Him on two fronts.

1) I will be seeking His Spirit to reenergize my walk with Him.
       Robert Murray M’Cheyne once said, “The greatest need that my congregation has is my own personal holiness.”  While I can honestly say that there are no disqualifying or serious sin issues in my life, I am increasingly aware of my “common-to-man” temptations and want to redouble my efforts towards godliness. I also need to graft some neglected spiritual disciplines into my life.

2) I will be seeking His Spirit to grant me a fresh sense of vision and direction for our church’s future.
(I will explain this below.)

During this time, I will be entrusting the weekly preaching and pastoral duties to our staff and other quality leadership. (Also, see below). The work that I will be doing includes spending concerted time in prayer, fasting, reading, writing, attending pastor-specific conferences, as well as giving my family some long-overdue attention. I also plan to interview several long-tenured pastors to discover the best ways to plan for decades of ministry in the same location.  In part, this is a time for your pastor to be pastored and for your preacher to be fed the Word himself.

Why am I requesting it at this time?

There are two main reasons for this.

Number one, I need refreshment. The average pastor’s tenure is 3-5 years. It is said, that if a pastor stays beyond that point, years 5-7 are the most fruitful and, yet, the most challenging. I have already found this to be true.

2011, my sixth year, was filled with some of the biggest blessings as well as some of the heaviest burdens that we have experienced together.  These burdens (in particular) have taken a toll on me personally and spiritually. When you add to this the effort required for finishing my doctorate it is even clearer why I feel so drained. Where others may have been tempted to bail, I prefer, at the right time and with the church’s full awareness and support, to take a brief step back and find the strength in Christ to forge ahead with renewed vigor. Jesus told the weary and frazzled disciples, “Come away by yourselves…and rest awhile.” That’s advice that I need to heed.

Number two, I need vision. Over the past five years the Lord has led us to embark on some awesome God-glorifying ventures. During this time we raised over $60,000 to build a new playground and pavilion; we re-prioritized our family focus by hiring a Minister of Students; we have added a second Sunday service; we have adopted an ambitious debt-retirement plan; we have begun working among an unreached people group and have implemented an annual emphasis designed to evangelize our community with Hope4Forest.  It has been an exciting journey!

As I consider what the next five years hold, however, I have to admit that I lack the kind of clarity and sense of God-given direction that I had on Day One. My vision-casting well has run dry. Rather than settle into maintenance-mode with its stale routine, I want to search the Scriptures afresh while observing some larger, healthy churches that are further down the path than we are.  I hope that, through all of this, God will give me a fresh energy and clear sense of direction for us.

What will I be doing during this time?

During this time, I will be resting but not vacationing. I intend to be just as productive, as I normally would be, but in a different, though equally vital, arena.  Most of my daily ministry efforts now involve the grinding out of sermons, studying, and attending to immediate church needs. This renewal time will give me the freedom to take a step back and prayerfully seek the Lord about the big picture of FBC for the next five years. Since I will still be working (just off-site), I have asked to be compensated as normal, including travel expenses for the two conferences that I plan to attend.  All other expenses during this time will certainly be my own responsibility.

During this time, I will be attending other churches but NOT candidating.  I cannot stress this enough. Inevitably, when a pastor takes an extended time away, rumors begin to swirl that he is eyeing “greener pastures.” I am not…let me repeat…am NOT doing that at all. I say that with absolute honesty, integrity and transparency.

I do hope, in visiting other churches, to see how they operate, minister, organize themselves and reach out. I have been attending Forest for 13 solid years now and, honestly, have very little awareness of how other congregations even worship. I am praying that this exposure to other Christ-honoring churches will give me a fresh sense of direction for us. (While I have been invited to be the guest preacher at one church during this time, rest assured, it is a favor for a pastor friend who is happily-serving his own rural flock in Florida.)

Who will handle the pastoral responsibilities while you are away?

God has blessed our congregation with many capable leaders, both staff and lay. The leadership and I have developed a plan, utilizing these men,  to insure the smooth operation of ministries and services while I am away.

The church staff and deacons have agreed to handle the pastoral duties including counseling, visitation, and administrative tasks. To insure a level of continuity, brother Gaylen Leverett has graciously agreed to do all of the Sunday preaching. The Wednesday services will be led by the staff and others within the church. A full, detailed schedule will be planned for every service before I leave.

Why does the motion include provisions for years 10, 15, 20, etc.?

While I hope this time for pastoral renewal will energize me for the next five years, I am keenly aware that the next cycle of church life at FBC will contain its own challenges and burdens (as well as joys and blessings). This future provision for additional renewal time provides a preemptive safe-guard to prevent eventual burn-out as well as the opportunity for personal evaluation and vision-renewal at key intervals. The leadership and I feel that this is also a wise incentive to put into place at this time.
At the conclusion of each pastoral renewal time, I intend to prepare a report of all that I did and where I sense God leading us in the days ahead.

What will your schedule be?

Below is a calendar for how I hope to spend my time away from FBC. 

February 26 – March 4 (Florida)

Family Time, Interview long-tenured pastors, Write articles and book proposal, Preach at Wachula Baptist Church in Wachula, Florida

March 5 (Virginia)

Day of Rest & Reading

March 6 – March 12 (California)

Attend Shepherd’s Conference (John MacArthur) & Grace Community Church

March 13-14 (Virginia)

Interview long-tenured pastors (SBCV), Spend time reading & writing

March 15-19 (Washington DC)

Attend 9 Marks Weekender @ Capitol Hill Baptist Church (Mark Dever)

March 20-21(Virginia)

Family Time

March 22(Virginia)

Interview long-tenured pastors, Spend time reading and writing

March 23-25 (North Carolina)

Attend Hickory Grove Baptist Church, Interview large-church (5,000) pastor

March 26—29(Virginia)

Days of Prayer & Fasting, Vision Clarification and Writing

What is next?

As I mentioned, the church will meet, in our regular business meeting on January 25, to consider this motion. While there will certainly be time, in the meeting, to answer questions, please feel free to contact me, the Personnel Committee or Deacons as you need. I hope you will receive this request in the same spirit in which it is given. I always want transparency and trust to govern our relationship as shepherd and sheep. I pray that God uses this towards that end.

May He grant us, by His grace and for His glory, many more focused and fruitful years as we seek to be “together for the gospel.”