My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Turning Points: Third Installment - Manifestations Happen

At the fellowship I'm a part of, it's not too uncommon to hear phrases like this bantered about: “I got a download from God last night” or “God really down-loaded on me while in prayer this morning.” It's 21st Century lingo to describe those “light-bulb moments” (yes, a 20th Century descriptive phrase) when we suddenly have personal insight into a verse of Scripture or the character of God. As much as I get what they mean, my experience suggests that God rarely deposits truth into our soul in toto as you would get a string of binary code in a software program; rather, he sows a seed into the soil of our heart that in time, given the soil is good, bears fruit. But the moment the seed is cast a subtle turning point in your spiritual development occurs even though you may or may not be cognizant of that fact at the moment. But the truth remains that something new is growing in secret.

Turning Point : Fall 1993 – Manifestations Happen
This was the sanctuary I was used to
I wasn't raised in Pentecost. I was raised Lutheran (ALC, for those who care). So when I began attending Madison Gospel Tabernacle (MGT), a Pentecostal assembly, following my graduation from high school I was not only a new Christian but new to Pentecostal culture as well. Instead of standing sober in a chancel of wood and stone, people worshiped exuberantly with hands raised in a carpeted, modern sanctuary. Instead of the pastor leading us reverently from the Lutheran Book of Worship, a happy-go-lucky worship leader flanked by his band of guitarists, drummer and back-up singers led us joyously in gospel choruses projected on an overhead. Unlike a normal worship gathering of Lutherans where everything was done according to the book, many at MGT felt compelled to belt out a “Praise the Lord!” or “Alleluia!” during worship as the whimsy suited them. Frankly, if the worship hadn't made me feel so alive inside, I might have sneaked out the back door for all the noise.

And this is the one I moved to
But there were other things that took getting acclimated to as well, namely prophecy, tongues and interpretation of the same. At many of the Sunday evening worship gatherings of MGT, a person or two would speak out in tongues and either give the interpretation or someone else at the gathering would. It took some time getting used to. I don't recall hearing anything that I felt personally applied to me but often after the tongue and interpretation were given several people would cry or give thanks to God for speaking to them. It didn't seem to do me any good but I was new to the group and apparently this is the way church “was done.” Shortly after I had become a Christian, I had been baptized in the Spirit and spoken in tongues myself but the experience was anything but ecstatic. In fact, in the first two years of my Christian experience in Pentecost, I attended a lot of prayer meetings, special services and went witnessing on Thursday nights but for all that I don't recall any specific “encounters” that made me open to the life of the Spirit. So, by the time I left for Bible school in the fall of 1982, in retrospect I was a Pentecostal who knew some of the lingo but lacked personal experience of the same.

I attended Christian Life College (CLC), a small Pentecostal Bible school in northwestern Chicago whose forte was preparing people for ministry. There was a prayer room there though as I recall it, it was rarely used. The main officers of the Bible college were committed Pentecostals, spoke in tongues frequently during chapel and in the worship services of the church that the school was connected to but for all that I don't remember a lot of out-of-the-norm spiritual activity. If anything, I heard a lot of mildly sarcastic comments from some of my instructors, many of whom were pastors, about, frankly, weird people in the congregations they used to serve. We were required to take a class called “Pentecostal Distinctives” but it was only 1 semester in 4 years and its focus was on past experiences as opposed to modern occurrences of the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the life of a local congregation. I cannot speak for the rest of my classmates but for me the cumulative affect of all this was that by the time I graduated from CLC, my basic understanding of Pentecost was the “crazy”-stuff was behind us and as a movement Pentecost was becoming more mature and, er, palatable to the uninitiated.

This is my normal worship mode today
What this all meant, ultimately, was that five years later when I arrived at Chetek Full Gospel Tabernacle (CFGT), I was ill-equipped to deal with the committed Pentecostals in our midst. As I shared in the last installment of this series (Turning Points: Perspective), we were at that time an odd assortment of old-time Pentecostals mixed in with a lot of former Lutherans, Catholics and Methodists who were drawn to the non-liturgical style of our worship service. One dear lady named Grace who dressed odd and sounded like she was from somewhere way south, felt persuaded that it was her ministry to prophesy in every service and when she did there was no need for her to use a microphone. Her, “Yeah, thus saith the Lord”s were like a freight train coming through our little sanctuary. Her husband was a decidedly quieter man but I remember being weirded-out for awhile by the fact that he seemed to reference the prophecies he felt he had received in prayer and recorded in the back pages of his Bible as much as he referenced Scripture. The adult Sunday School class, that met in the sanctuary right before Sunday morning worship, to me often felt like listening to “Dueling Banjos” as two women – one “old school” Pentecost and the other from the Charismatic renewal of the 60s and 70s – would verbally spar over various topics as it related to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our midst. I liked them both and that old school lady and her dear husband enriched my life on those Friday afternoon visits at their home west of town in my early years in Chetek. But personally my agenda became how to nudge sacred cows like tongues and prophecy out to pasture – or at least to a pasture that was not visited on Sunday morning. I never spoke out against them but people who were close to me knew that I had issues when either or both or people of their ilk did something to disrupt the service I had planned.

Sometime during 1993, however, I struck up a friendship with a pastor from Cumberland and we began to meet regularly for prayer and fellowship. Kent pastored a fellowship size-wise much like CFGT but his background was very different than mine. Unlike me, he had lots of experience with manifestations of the Spirit – prophecy, deliverance, healing and the like. In fact, what so endeared him to me is that here was guy who I could relate to, who laughed at some of the silly things unique to our Pentecostal tradition, but made the life of the Spirit sound so...well...normal. So in the fall of 1993 when he invited me over on a Sunday night for a series of revival meetings his fellowship was hosting, I went. I had no idea what was in store for me nor how pivotal that night would become in my personal journey as well in the life of our congregation.

There were about sixty people present and after a few songs, Kent introduced the speaker – Robert Fisher – who though from the States had spent a lot of time in South Africa and so there was at times a slight Afrikaaner lilt to his accent. He was a lanky guy dressed in a sharp suit but he looked like he was here to make hay. After he stepped into the pulpit he didn't attempt any small talk or share a humorous anecdote to endear himself to the audience. No, as I recall it, he went right for the jugular. “You think you're hungry for God?” I recall him asking rhetorically, “Well, you're not and here's why.” In the span of fifteen minutes he shared whatever message he was going to share in John-the-Baptist fashion. And then he invited anyone who wanted to come forward to respond to his message to do just that. After giving us a dressing down like he did, I didn't think he would get many takers – if any.

It was like this but even more bodies
Across the aisle from me was a heavy-set lady who was quietly crying. She got up and using a pair of crutches hobbled her way forward to Mr. Fisher. He didn't lay his hands on her or touch her in any way. He just leaned in and prayed this prayer: “Fill her, LORD!” And in short order she fell backwards. Fortunately, there were two guys on hand who obviously had been cued in to expect this very thing. Honestly, my initial response was to inwardly smirk at this display but it wasn't my place and she was, after all, a woman (I never attended a Woman's Aglow meeting during my years in Chicago but I had been told that this was a very common experience in that circle). After she had been laying there for a few moments, she stopped crying, was quiet and then, began to giggle. Meanwhile Robert was busily praying for others in the same manner he had prayed for her who, by this time, had ceased giggling and was now heartily laughing. Just like her, people were falling over left and right and the front of the sanctuary was beginning to pile up with prone people all of whom were laughing. That first woman was laughing so hard now that she was actually rolling on the carpeted floor. And at that moment I finally got where the term holy roller came from and thought, “Oh, I'm in for it!” From simply a sensory point of view, the night got sillier and sillier what with all the falling, laughing, rolling, guffawing and other antics going on. But inside of me I wasn't feeling creepy as in “This is too weird”; I was feeling joy. It felt right.

I was like the guy on the right
I'm not exaggerating when I state that this meeting went on in just this way for several hours. That lady who was the first to fall down laughed uncontrollably for two hours. (I never saw her again but I often have wondered if her gut ached terribly the next day for that remarkable display of laughter). By 10:00 p.m. the sanctuary was full of stricken people laying all over the place. What's more, the original catchers had long since joined the people on the floor and for the last 45 minutes or so I was the one doing the catching until I became the last man standing at which point Robert looked at me and said sternly, “What about you, brother? Do you want prayer?” To say “No, I'm good” would not only not have been protocol it would have been untrue. As much as my eyes were being offended by what I perceived as some kind of mass emotional experience, I was willing to be prayed for if only for the sake of receiving a taste of what clearly many of them were experiencing. And so with a few wobbly ushers to catch for me, he prayed, “Fill him, LORD!” and I, too, joined everyone else on the carpet. The moment he prayed, I experienced a gentle wave of, for lack of a better word, electricity that began in the soles of my feet and moved steadily northward until I released myself to fall back. I never lost consciousness. I did not have an out-of-the-body experience. I was fully aware of my surroundings. But when I finally picked myself up from the floor and later after I said my goodbyes to Kent and Robert, all I know is that I drove home very conscious of an incredible new-found passion for Jesus. I just loved him like I hadn't in a very long time. On that 40-minute drive home I worshiped, spoke in tongues and enjoyed his awesome presence like I hadn't since my first steps over ten years before.

It was a turning point for me, a seminal moment of change in philosophy. I was so excited about what had happened I told Linda, Randy, who at that time was serving as president of our board of trustees, and Mary, my barber and fellow-member of a small prayer group that met on Tuesdays and within two nights they joined me as I returned to Cumberland for another evening of ministry with Robert. Following this gathering, I told Randy I wanted to bring him to Chetek and with his blessing within the week, Robert pulled up in his mammoth RV to camp-out on our lawn for a Sunday thru Wednesday night ministry event. Few came after his “go-for-the-throat” Sunday morning message – perhaps 15 to 20 each night – and those gatherings felt like he was breaking up hard cement but stuff happened and a new dye was cast for CFGT and for myself albeit in embryonic fashion.
People with issues like mine should read this
In that moment of lying prostrate before the Lord in that Cumberland church, my love for Him had grown exponentially far more than all the years of quiet times, devotional reading and studying had ever accomplished. And while I lay there I also was cognizant that I had not just been ignorant of spiritual things but willfully so which is the greater sin. A few weeks later I confessed as much to our Thursday night small group and then to the whole family on a Sunday morning. As Job had recognized, I, too, had “spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know...therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3,6). And from that time on until the present there has been a growing sense of wanting God regardless of what it does to the neatness of our Sunday morning gathering or who may be scared off by that untidyness (and it has scared others away). Early on, two books were very instrumental in firming up that fledgling recommitment to the life of the Spirit – The Beauty of Spiritual Language by author-pastor Jack Hayford and When the Spirit Comes With Power by psychologist John White. Both men whetted my appetite for more and to not be satisfied with anything less than the supernaturally natural life. It's a journey I'm still on all these years later wanting maybe more than ever for the Holy Spirit to come in whatever way he wants to.
A great read for those thirsty for more

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Turning Points: Second Installment - Perspective

In my previous blog, I began a series of sorts of reflections of my philosophical development as a pastor over the past two decades. Along the way there have been seminal moments where my ministry outlook began to morph into something altogether different. These turning points signaled subtle departures from the path I was on which ultimately have led to the outlook I now hold.

Turning Point: Month 4 (January 1992) Perspective – It really is all about how you look at it

Honestly, ever since arriving in Chetek back in 1991 I've never acted like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz looking over the fence of her backyard and wishing to be somewhere else. I've never had any board member of another church in another city call me up and slyly ask me “to pray about” sending them a resume or gone looking in the ministerial classifieds if only out of curiosity. No, I have been contentedly here the entire time. But about six months into my tenure as pastor of what was then Chetek Full Gospel, a seminal thought that has contributed to my longevity in Chetek was deposited into my heart while listening to a college classmate of mine preach from my pulpit.

In the early and mid-1980s, Pat and Diana Sheahan and I had all attended Christian Life College located in suburban Chicago – Pat a year ahead of me and Diana one behind. Following Pat's graduation, they had married and if memory serves me right moved out to South Dakota to serve at their first church. It had been a very challenging season in their lives and in the winter of 1992 that was behind them and now they were in that oh-so-difficult place to be in ministry, the place of “inbetween”. As a teenager, he had fished the waters of the Chain – had even had something of a spiritual experience out on Prairie Lake once – and given that we were now living here gave him ample reason to pay us a visit. Since he was in town for the weekend, I invited him to preach. I don't recall his text but I do remember three things about his message: 1) all his points were alliterated (each of his five points began with “W”), 2) at some point in his message he left the pulpit and walked half way down the center aisle to re-enact how he had done this very thing for dramatic affect at his previous church one Sunday morning only to forget why he had left the pulpit in the first place and 3) his allusion to a scene in Kevin Costner's award winning move, Dances With Wolves.

Lt. Dunbar heads West
Again, I'm prodding foggy-bottom here but as I remember it he was talking about perspective and how it affects the quality of our ministry whatever that ministry happens to be. In Wolves, Lt. John J. Dunbar wants to see the frontier before it's gone or so he tells the half-crazed military official from whom he receives his orders. So as requested he is assigned to Fort Sedgwick “at the furthermost post of the realm.” As John Barry's epic musical score plays, Dunbar's small wagon train moves slowly westward onto the vastness of the Great Plains. When they finally arrive at Fort Sedgwick, which is essentially two shacks literally out in the middle of nowhere, the loathsome mule skinner Timmons takes one look, spits and says laconically, “Ain't much of a goin' concern, is it?” But then Dunbar gets down from the wagon, looks around and says, “Alright...let's unload the wagon.” Timmons, of course, thinks he's crazy or something. “Ain't nothin' here lieutenant. Everyone's run off or got themselves kilt” to wit Dunbar says firmly, “This is my post.” To Timmons, who is just an opportunist, this really is crazy-talk. “This is my post...?” But Dunbar is resolute and says in no uncertain way, “This is my post! And these are the post provisions” and while his hand comes to lightly rest on the butt of his service revolver he adds, “Now get your [butt] off that wagon and help me unload.”
Fort Sedgwick

I don't know how many times since Pat shared that story back in the winter of 1992 I have thought of that scene. At that point we were here all of six months and still very much in the honeymoon-period of our ministry when everything still feels new and ripe with opportunity. Times change. Just like in life, the honeymoon passes. And while in twenty years I have yet to reach the place of wanting a transfer, there were moments in those early years when I would gaze upon my own Fort Sedgwick and have to tell myself determinedly for what seemed like the tenth time, “This is my post.” Back in 1992, our sanctuary had asphalt tile floor with a strip of burnt orange carpet down the middle. The altar area was covered with dark mahogany paneling and everything about our d├ęcor screamed “the 70s!” While our speakers were high end our mics were Radio Shack-quality. We had an odd-assortment of old-school Pentecostals mixed in with some former Lutherans, Catholics and Methodists which made our worship experience often feel, for lack of a better word, schizophrenic. We had a trustee who tithed his money to other ministries because - as he had no qualms sharing publicly - only “tithed his time” to CFGT and there were several people in the congregation who definitely considered him the most spiritual guy on the board. Sister “Amazing” Grace felt led to prophesy EVERY Sunday and usually did in screech owl fashion. Yeah, “this is my post” indeed.

A few years later I was in Calgary for the annual convention of the network of churches we belong to and I heard H.B. London preach for the first time. I don't recall what he said but he encouraged me so much that a year or so later when our local Christian radio station gifted area pastors with a copy of one of his books that he had co-wrote – The Heart of a Great Pastor: How to Grow Strong and Thrive Wherever God Has Planted You (© 1994 Regal Books) I read it soon after. The title of chapter 1 - “Every Assignment is Holy Ground” - is pretty much Lt. Dunbar's perspective of where he has landed in biblical parlance.

Says London,
Pastors find themselves in situations they dislike, in towns they despise and working among people unlike any they have ever known. Endurance must be transformed into adventure. Resignation is better than rebellion, and a stiff upper lip is better than subtle resistance. It's easy to choose tears, self-pity and complaints. But joy and fulfillment and unconditional involvement can be chosen. We can unpack our bags, stop longing for greener pastures and assume spiritual responsibility for our place of ministry. We can claim the territory for God and righteousness. (p. 27)

Perspective really is everything
As I mentioned earlier, since Day 1 of our years in Chetek I have loved my post warts and all. But Lt. John Dunbar and H.B. London's words helped me embrace the city even stronger than I thought I had. Like David, I echo the words of Psalm 16, “Your boundary lines mark out pleasant places for me. Indeed, my inheritance is something beautiful” (v. 6, GOD'S Word Translation). Perhaps to my colleagues who labor in the Twin Cities or in far more affluent and influential parishes in other locales Refuge may appear to be “not much of a goin' concern”, just a ramshackle post on the edge of the frontier. But to me, this place is not only the place that God has assigned to me but also home and therefore worthy of my very best. Besides, I like to think that life and ministry here is one of the best kept secrets out there.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Turning Points: First Installment - The Numbers Game

Now that I have been in pastoral ministry for twenty years (+ 7 days), it gives me some perspective on seminal moments in my development as a pastor that have shaped my personal philosophy towards pastoral ministry. By no means do I consider myself an expert. Hardly. (Besides, I'd have to leave home and go somewhere where no one knows me in order to be considered somewhat smart about these kinds of things.) No, I'm just a guy twenty years into his chosen profession and still trying to figure it out. But looking back over two decades of pastoral work I can say with some degree of authority that there have been definite turning points where I began to look at ministry differently than I had before I became a pastor. Because I can't think of any hipper name or descriptive phrase than this I'll leave at that – turning points in my philosophical development. For ease of reading – and interest – I think I'll attempt to offer them installment-wise not necessarily in the order that they occurred but in the manner that they come to mind.

Turning Point: Months 1 & 2 (October-November 1991) – The Numbers Game
Because I never throw any records away, I can still recite here how many people were in attendance October 6, 1991 – my first Sunday as pastor of Chetek Full Gospel Tabernacle: 73. In our sanctuary, which probably holds at comfortable capacity 125 people (providing they are not Norwegians in need of a lot of personal space bubbles), that's a good showing. One week later there were 79 in the house. By my third Sunday, we dropped down to 70 but the Sunday of my installation service – October 27 – we hit 85. Since I didn't start journaling regularly until November 1, I have no record of what I felt the next day but it's a sure thing I felt better than that Sunday that we only had 70 present. (Keep in mind that we had several out-of-towners on hand for that special day among them my folks, my brother and my grandmother.) Looking over my hand-made spread sheets that I made for the benefit of our board members at the time, they show that for that first six months or so attendance at CFGT spiked and for a few months we were averaging 80s, 90s and – once in a while – a 100+ Sunday or two. That's strong medicine for a young pastor who hopes that every increase is directly related to his performance and worth. I was doing some things right – or so I concluded (and hoped my congregation agreed).

But eventually the bubble popped and our averages began to descend and come back down to earth. Strictly speaking averages, in fact, our attendance ran higher during the final year of my predecessor's term here in Chetek than at any time in my first year as pastor of CFGT – or, really – since. At the same time I was in my rookie season, a good friend of mine was in his albeit in Oakland, California. We would call each other once a week or so to talk shop and share progress reports. At the time, our congregations were approximately the same size but in a few months his church began to grow steadily and break the 100-barrier (which is something like breaking the sound-barrier in aerodynamics) and stay there. Admittedly, after awhile those weekly phone calls became personally inwardly tenuous for me as I learned of one more new breakthrough after another for my California brother. He wasn't bragging. There was no bravado in his voice. I, however, was feeling insecure about the fact that while he was regularly having over a hundred people in his sanctuary we were bouncing between 50 and 70 per Sunday as we have for twenty years now.

In that first month as pastor, I began reading Gordon MacDonald's book Ordering Your Private World. It was something of a must-read back in the 80s and now that I had the time for such reading, it was my turn to work through it. It was in Chapter 5 (“Living as a Called Person”) that a seminal thought was slipped into my heart that began to take root. In that section of his book, he spends a lot of time speaking about the life of John the Baptizer specifically as someone who knew his place and his role. As he elaborates in the pages of this chapter, when John shows up on the scene he is all the rage. People come from all over to hear this compelling prophetic voice in the desert and be baptized by him. You can almost feel the energy in those crowds that came from all points of the compass straining to get a look at this one who perhaps is the one they have been waiting for. He's like a rock star complete with security personnel (like Andrew) and a mesmerized audience. And then Jesus shows up and the crowds begin to thin and his star, as quickly as it rose, begins to fade. But do we find a man jaded by the fickleness of the masses? Not at all. When questioned by his followers if he isn't a little put out by the crowd beginning to flock to Jesus, he replies
John the Baptist preaching by Breugel

A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:27-30, NASB)

In other words, increasing or decreasing are not my department, says John. Being faithful to what I am called to do is. Of course, MacDonald's words are far more fluent than my own but that was the gist of it. In my rookie season, that ten page reflection on the life of John the Baptizer had a profound influence on my perception of my own experience as a pastor of a small church in a small town. As MacDonald put it:

Whether I increase or decrease is His concern, not mine. To order my life according to the expectations of myself and others; and to value myself according to the opinions of others; these can play havoc with my inner world. But to operate on the basis of God's call is to enjoy a great deal of order within. 
 (Ordering Your Private World, p. 61)

I typed that very quote up on a piece of paper and taped it to my bookshelf and for years it was a regular reminder to me that there were certain things that were under my control and certain things that were not. I don't say that I embraced this truth immediately. Any day there was a snow storm or just a low Sunday, inwardly I fretted about the attendance. When my fellow rookie pastor and neighbor began to experience significant growth at his church as much as I slapped him on the back and gave him an “attaboy” , inwardly it distressed me a bit that his church was growing and mine was not. But gradually over time, I experienced more and more peace and internal freedom as the truth of this statement came to roost in my psyche. Whether there were 51 or 101 in the house didn't in itself mean anything about my value as a person or as a pastor. There was no need to hang my head in shame when around colleagues with far larger congregations. That day sitting my office reading chapter 5 of MacDonald's book was a foretaste of the greater feast of inner peace to come.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Twenty Years Later

CFGT as it looked in Sept 1991
In August 1988, I was traveling north with my father-in-law, my pastor and one of his staff to attend Duluth Gospel Tabernacle's annual summer convention. Linda and I were living in Whitewater in the southern part of the state at the time having just moved back from Illinois with the intent of planting a church in nearby Fort Atkinson. I went along on this ride north because my father-in-law offered to pick up the tab and my pastor suggested it would be good for me. After about four hours on the road, we pulled off of Highway 53 into a town I had never heard before – Chetek – in order to gas up. We pulled into a place called the Keg 'n Kork and while my pastor filled up, I got out to stretch my legs. He began sharing that the Fellowship of Christian Assemblies – the small network of independent churches that we belonged to -actually had a church in this town. I recall him mentioning the current pastor – John Tuttle – and the founding pastor – Runar Mattson – but what I remember most about that moment is that while he talked I looked down the main drag – Second Street – and distinctly said to myself, “I”d never want to live in a place like this.” That's a true story. I'm not making that up or embellishing it one iota. Three years later, on October 1, 1991 our little caravan consisting of me driving a 24-foot U-haul (and towing an 8 foot trailer) and Linda trailing in our Pontiac station wagon with Christine (3) and Charlie (1) nearly buried among all the other stuff we had managed to cram into it, pulled into Chetek to begin our ministry here.

The house at 636 Banks looks the same today
It was a Tuesday and we came into town around 7 P.M. four hours overdue. But the receiving crew consisting of Dave Cartwright, Art Harelstad and Dale Waterhouse were on hand to help us move in all the same. As I remember it was nearly 11 by the time we got the main stuff into the rented house at 636 Banks Street. We couldn't get our box spring up the narrow staircase and so later that week, we had to take the storms off of one of the upstairs windows and by rope and muscle lift it up to the second story. The next night – Wednesday – I met with the current board of trustees – Dave Cartwright, Art Harelstad, Arlie Schomburg, Dale Waterhouse and Randy Waterhouse. It must have just been an informal meeting because I have no agenda or notes from that gathering. But I do recall somewhere in our discussion asking a few practical questions. “Who does worship here?” There was an awkward silence, a few looks shared between the guys and then one of them timidly offered, “Well, Pastor John used to do most of the time.” “Okay,” I said. And then, “Who does youth?” Again, an awkward silence followed and then they informed me that the couple that had been leading youth fellowship had just left to do a Discipleship Training School in Montana. I was on my own here and starting with that meeting beginning to learn one of the realities of the small church: You are not the Senior Pastor; you are the Everything Pastor – preacher, Sunday School teacher, youth group leader, worship leader and, in a pinch, called on to sweep out the place. But the truth of the matter was I was so excited to be anywhere that taking on these responsibilities did not seem burdensome whatsoever. And so our ministry in Chetek began.
The sanctuary as it looked October 1991

The night of our installation
I would have to re-read all my journal entries from that first year or so or go through my board meeting agendas from the same time to reconstruct my mindset at the time. I'm pretty sure though I sincerely believed that with some leadership on my part and some sprucing up of the place and God's blessing (probably in that order), Chetek Full Gospel Tabernacle would begin to grow exponentially. The funny thing is that it did. During those first few months in Chetek we picked up a family a month – the Schaffs, the Kellens, the Knights, Rae Olson and her son, Aaron. In retrospect, that our weekly attendance grew by nearly 20 people a week had very little to do with me. Oh, God used that little growth spurt to put some confidence in this rookie pastor but I don't believe we weren't necessarily growing because of my efforts to grow it. I think I just lucked out and happened to be on post when these families were in search for a fellowship to call their own. Twenty years later, our attendance levels ebb and flow in 2011 pretty much as they did in 1991. - between 50 and 70 on any given Sunday. Like most fellowships in the United States of our size, we cannot seem to get past the 100-mark our best prayers and efforts to the contrary. Truthfully, I have come to the conclusion that much that was touted as “church growth” in the late 80s and all of the 90s were marketing ploys that only by chance made a few disciples and a lot of religious consumers and most of them lived in suburban America not in places like Chetek. Here I was trying to grow oranges in northern Wisconsin instead of taking care of the apple tree that others had left for me to nurture.
Christine, Charlie and I that first Christmas in Chetek

Refuge as it looks today, Oct 1, 2011
Well, that was then. I'm grateful that my best laid plans to put Chetek Full Gospel Tab on the map did not come to fruition. But with the loving patience of that congregation who invited me to lead them, some godly mentors, and a boatload of God's grace, I began to un-learn what I thought was required of me. It seems like I did a lot of un-learning those first years. I was going through my ABCs of on-the-job training and while I didn't get a lot of As, I managed to pass enough lessons to keep them retaining me. And two decades later that is another reality of ministry I've come to understand: if you keep showing up and loving those you are called to serve not as you want them to be but as they are, they'll hold on to you.

When I recall that inner monologue I had that day in 1988 I leaned against my pastor's Cadillac pulled up to the pump at the Keg 'n Kork, it always brings a smile to my face. I think it must put a smile on God's face, too. Now, truthfully, I can't imagine living anywhere else. I've been here long enough to see three of my four children graduate from Chetek (now Chetek-Weyerhaueser)HS, to buy our first home and totally remodel it (and some of it, twice!), to see Chetek Full Gospel Tabernacle embrace our new name – The Refuge International - to take part in launching new endeavors like The Garage and The Well and helping projects like the referendum of 1999 that brought nearly 10 million dollars worth of improvements to our school buildings become a reality. Those things are secondary, however, to the web of relationships that have developed between fellowships and individuals over that same span of time. So much, as I have come to appreciate, flows out of relationship – our relationship with God the Father and then our relationship with each other. We can do more together and if there is anything I am grateful for it's that network of life-giving relationships that enhance the contour of our lives here.
Runar and Ruth served here and our buried here
"There is a time to be born and a time to die"

Simply speaking longevity, I have now surpassed Runar Mattson, the founding pastor of our fellowship. He and his wife began their ministry in 1955 and he served faithfully until his untimely death on January 1, 1975. But remaining in Chetek is not about setting any kind of record. Ultimately, the bottom line is that if we have ministered here steadily for two decades it is because the Lord has sustained us and graced us to do just that. Brianna, the young woman who is currently living with us, said to me this morning: “I'm not living here 20 years, Pastor Jeff.” Yeah, I don't think she will either. But God has hard-wired my heart for this little place and twenty years from now if I am still here it'll be because God has continued to grace and sustain me with the ability to do just this. So until further notice, I will continue to echo the words of Psalm 16:

LORD, you alone are my portion and my cup;
you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the LORD, who counsels me;
even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the LORD.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”
Psalm 16:5-8, NIV