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Church Appreciation 2012

This month I will begin my 17th year serving the local church as pastor.  God has blessed me with the privilege of serving three great congregations during that time:  Lantana Road Baptist Church in Crossville, TN (1996-2002); Ridgecrest Baptist in Trussville, AL (2002-2012); and currently Liberty Baptist Church of Dalton, GA.  I am deeply appreciative of the experiences God has given me at every place and for the people He has brought into my life along the way.  I am a very different person now than I was when this journey began.  Thank you, to everyone who has helped to mold me as a man and as a pastor.
This year we made a bittersweet move to Dalton, GA.  The bitterness came as we were called to leave a group of people we dearly loved and a place that was very much home in Birmingham, AL.  Added to the bitterness was the difficulty of watching our daughters deal with the natural challenges of leaving a place in which you are rooted.  Birmingham was really all they had ever known.  The sweetness came in the prospects of being called into leadership at a church that was very much alive, healthy, and had a great vision for the future.  Personally, although I thought I would never return to NW Georgia in my adult life, it was a special blessing to realize God was calling me back to my roots.  
In the short time we have been at Liberty we have experienced 7 of the greatest months we have ever had in 16 years of ministry.  Just two weeks ago we saw almost 100 people come to Christ and nearly 70 follow the Lord in believer’s baptism.  Each week I come to this campus wondering what will happen next.  You are a people who love Biblical preaching.  You are sensitive to the Spirit.  You are intentional about reaching the lost.  You are welcoming to the broken.  You follow leadership.  I absolutely love being your pastor.  I count it a great honor that God has brought me here.
This week you have shown your appreciation to me, my family, and our staff.  It is with great gratitude that I receive your love.  But I want you to know what I appreciate about you the most.  I appreciate the way you have received my family into this fellowship.  Your love for the Branams is the greatest gift you have given me.  You received my daughters as your daughters, immediately.  You opened your hearts to Shannon and I as not only leaders, but as friends.  You have overwhelmed us with your love.  I leave here each Sunday night astounded by the spirit that is in this congregation.  
Thank you Liberty Baptist Church for receiving me as your pastor and showering my family with your love.
Your Pastor,
BB, Gal. 2:20
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A Short Trip Down a Long Road

Last summer we drove to San Diego, CA and back.  It took us 14 days and we logged almost 6,000 miles.  Yet I can recall 100 great stories and 1,000,000 images from that trip in my mind in about 30 seconds.  I guess this is why everyday is 24 hours no matter how you approach it, but looking back makes life seem as if it happens way too fast.  
If I could sum up my ministry here at Ridgecrest it would be to describe it as a short trip down a long road.  There were times it seemed as if we would never get there and like impatient children we pleaded with God, “How much longer?”  By the calendar we have been together for about 9.5 years, but looking back it doesn’t seem long at all.
When a pastor enters a new situation the focus is on what must be done for the church.  The agenda is on where the church is headed.  What will be its new direction?  Where does it desire to be?  We call this vision.  Personally I can look back and realize there was another journey on the agenda of God.  He had a vision for me.  In the end where did He desire for me to be?  It was a long road.
I can say that I am at a much better place now that I was when I came here 9.5 years ago.  Our congregation has experienced a geographic relocation.  I have experienced a spiritual one.  The church has bought and sold campuses.  My soul has been humbled and my faith reconstructed.  When I came here I thought it was the church that had a long way to go.  Looking back now I realize that I was the one who had the greater distance to travel.
I am thankful for those who remained faithful and loyal.  You have extended great grace to me throughout these years and your love for me makes it very difficult to leave.  Yet we must continue to go.  There is another long road ahead for each of us.  
For the rest of my life I will recall 100 great stories and 1,000,000 images from Ridgecrest in my mind.  The mind replays memories at odd times.  Walking down halls.  Listening to the radio.  Driving down the road.  Eating a biscuit.  We see, hear, or smell something that reminds us of an episode in the past.  Memories are manufactured films in our brains that have been removed from time.  Our mind takes a minute to think about nine years.  It was a short trip down a long road for which I will be forever grateful.
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Random Thoughts on Friday (2/10)

I am not a handyman, but when you are trying to sell a house you are motivated to fix things. For the past three weeks I have been repairing things I should have done 9 years ago. When you are not accustomed to stuff like this it is amazing how the little things can make you feel like a real man. I installed a new motion detector light over our garage. Our neighbor Ramone is an electrician, but I didn’t ask him to help because I’m a man. Yet after the whole thing was wired it wouldn’t come on. So I did an unmanly thing. I went down and asked Ramone why it wouldn’t work. “Well, its broad daylight right now. I bet if you cover the sensor the light will come on.” He was right. You the man Ramone!
This week is my final full week as pastor of Ridgecrest. I am not quite sure how to feel in this moment. There is a deep mixture of joy at what is next, but sadness that an important chapter of my life that is coming to a close. I know a large part of the memory of my ministry here will be associated with relocation. I hope it was about more than that. It was for me. These 9 years have been a spiritual relocation in my life. I am a much better man, pastor, and follower of Christ than I was when I came here in 2002. I will probably blog my thoughts throughout the coming week. Sometimes I can write much better than I can talk.
Ed Stetzer posted an insightful article about a decision made by officials in New York City to evict all churches that are renting space in public schools. It is amazing how quickly we are losing religious freedom in our country and the state is gaining freedom to discriminate against the Christian church. Last year people opposed a Muslim Mosque occupying a building in New York City. It was all over the news and the opponents were made to look like the devil, enemies of religious freedom. When the Christian Church gets the boot no one says a word. Read about it here: http://www.edstetzer.com/2012/02/big-apple-big-mistake.html
Have a great weekend.
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An Open Letter to My Congregation

There is no easy way to say goodbye to a group of people whom you sincerely love.  With a great deal of sadness a meaningful chapter in my life closes and with a great deal of anticipation a new one begins.  Since October 27 of 2002 I have faithfully served as pastor for the people of Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Trussville, AL.  On February 22, 2012 I will begin a new assignment as pastor for the people of Liberty Baptist Church in Dalton, GA.
In times like these we feel an array of emotions.  Shannon and I, from the time we realized this move was immanent, have experienced a range of feelings from anxiety to excitement, from sadness to joy.  Birmingham is very much home for us.  Until recently, even through some of our most difficult struggles, we never considered leaving Ridgecrest.  It took a great deal of convincing through prayer for us to accept this move.  We did not approach anyone at any time about going anywhere.  Yet the whole thing has been very providential and God’s call for us is unmistakable.  We love this area and its people.  We think its funny that you talk college football 365 days a year and that the sports guy on the news shares stats from practice.  Only in Birmingham will people have their homes destroyed by a tornado, but still be sure to have plenty of Milo’s sweet tea on hand.  We will miss living in a town with a 1:1 ratio of BBQ joints to Baptist churches.  We will miss your gigantic iron statue of a guy in desperate need of shorts and your milk jug yard torch things at Christmas.  Indeed there will be some in our congregation who are simply saddened while others may feel angry and betrayed.  However you feel, I assure you of this.  Shannon, the girls, and I love all of you and I count it a great honor to say that I have served you as pastor. 
Vision and leadership is not only about seeing where you are going, it is also about being honest about the end.  The worst mistake a leader can make is to continue leading past his vision.  While I see many great things ahead for Ridgecrest, God has made it clear to me and to my family that our assignment here has ended.  Over these past 9+ years, together, we have experienced no small changes.  Our path to where we are now was no easy one.  We have bought and sold property.  We have made difficult decisions and taken responsibility for the consequences.  We have dared to do something most people thought would not work in purchasing a warehouse on less than two acres of property and making it a launch pad of missions and ministry.  None of it has been easy and everything we have done has come in rapid succession.  There is yet more to do in finishing the final phase of our current campus and in realizing the financial vision for missions and ministry God has given us.  The vision itself is not over, but God has shown me clearly that it is time for another voice of leadership at Ridgecrest.
In recent years God has blessed Ridgecrest and it has become a growing congregation once again.  It is difficult to leave those of you who are new to RBC, especially those of you who are rising up to leadership.  We have some promising men and women in our church that I believe will become crucial to the church continuing to increase.  To these I charge you to keep your hand to the plow and don’t look back.  Yet I want to also express how difficult it is to leave another group of people, those who did not quit.  No matter how long God gives me to serve Him, no matter where I serve, there will always be a special place in my heart for those of you who never gave up, who endured the days before our relocation, who submitted themselves to the crucible of change God put us through, and remained faithful to the end.  You did what you said you would do and I love you dearly for what you have done.
Certainly this has been a difficult week for all of us, and my announcement does not help.  The timing of all of this is unfortunate but beyond my control.  As much as I would like to delay this announcement, it has been made known to me that the news is out.  Therefore, it was necessary for me to go ahead and share this with you.  I would much rather tell my story than have it told for me.  As I say often, if you are going to read my mind, please allow me to write the script.  I shared the story with the church on Wednesday night, and I will do so again on Sunday.  In hearing our story I hope you will agree with me that for us to stay in leadership at Ridgecrest would be blatant disobedience to what God is calling us to do in going to Liberty.  Knowing then, that this is the call of God for us, please realize, it is also God’s call for you.  We should not see this merely as an end, but as a dawning of expectation.  What does God have for us next?  In our prayers about this, Shannon and I sought to know clearly from God that if we left, Ridgecrest would have a great future ahead.  God has shown us that indeed this is true, our call away is no mistake, and it is necessary for us to move on so that Ridgecrest may grab hold of what is next.  Yet change is never easy and we are tempted to listen to the voice of fear rather than faith.  You may wonder, what if things do not go well?  We have wondered the same.  What if the people of Liberty do not accept our leadership there, what if we fail, what if it all goes wrong?  This is not the voice of faith, this is the voice of the enemy using fear to quench vision.
To encourage our faith it is important for us to place markers in our past, altars of blessing that remind us of God’s faithfulness in difficult times.  When I left Lantana Road and came to you, it was a difficult decision.  God called a godly man to be their next pastor and the church has continued to grow.  The church is now a leading church in Cumberland County, TN and they have built a great facility on the acreage we purchased just before I left.  I left there knowing I would not be the man that built the next building because God was calling me to you. Even in that certainty I experienced fear.  What if things go wrong in Birmingham?  Ridgecrest was a hurting church with an almost non-existent vision when I came.  The Ridgecrest that we are leaving is not the same church we came to.  God has done a great work here.  There is a great vision now that you and the next pastor can continue to build upon together.  I trust that you will.  I am following a godly pastor at Liberty.  It is a great church with a wonderful vision - we will work to continue what God is doing there.  It is not about what is ending, it is about what is next.  For all of us, Ridgecrest, Liberty, and the Branams we must not allow fear to be the dominant voice, but rather the voice of faith and vision; for such is the Kingdom of God.  
Please feel free to call us.  If you have questions I will gladly answer them for you.  May God be glorified, His Son lifted up, and the church be edified in the days ahead.
Gal. 2:20
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We Bought a Factory

We bought a factory.  Our 3.5 year relocation project took our church from a 66,000 sq ft.  80’s style, traditional mega-church to a 30,000 sq ft. auto factory.  The purchase of this factory is the fruition of a vision God gave us and something He taught us while we waited to move. 

Our vision is simple.  We desire to be a debt free church who pours more money into missions and community ministries than we spend on ourselves.  The lesson God taught us is to fulfill the vision we must make efficient use of space.  We accepted the challenge and bought a factory.  We will remodel as the funds become available.  Every space we create will be versatile.  We will not dedicate any one space to a single use.  Our offices are classrooms.  Our auditorium is a fellowship hall.  For the first two years our senior adults used a space during one hour, the preschool occupied it the next.  What a metaphor of regeneration!  Nothing is convenient.  Everything is symbiotic.  It requires constant change. 

Another critical component to our vision is the understanding that we cannot build every space we need.  If we are going to be a debt free church, we must keep our operating expenses relatively low.  We encourage our people to start classes in homes, businesses, trees, large automobiles, the beds of pickup trucks - any place you can gather with other believers and study God’s Word.  This is why I appreciate my church.

Over the last two years God has not only transformed the thinking of the people who made the move with us, but He has blessed us with new members of the family who are attracted to the vision.  Our people study the Bible next to copiers, in warehouses, in cubicles, in living rooms, on Tuesdays, in the morning, in the evening, on Sundays, any day, anywhere, anytime.  I love it and I love our people for it.  They move chairs.  They have no sacred storage closets.  They are creative with space.  Even over the last few weeks more people have opened their homes.  Each time this happens the facilities of the church expand, we gain space, without driving a nail or spending a dollar.  Each den, kitchen table, and living room gets us closer to accomplishing our vision. 

Three weeks ago we created a new space.  At this point it is just a sectioned off area of the warehouse.  The walls are painted up to 15’, the floors are concrete, every class uses moveable petitions.  The first group to move into this space was the senior adult department.  There were no negative vibes.  They were glad to have new space.  This space is used four times on Sundays and it houses our AWANA program on Wednesday night.  It is very plain, but it is full of kids, full of adults, full of life.  It is in constant flux, constant change, it is always moving.  No one complains.  I love our people!   

I appreciate you RBC.  You are a wonderful family of faith.  I love serving you as pastor.
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He Leads Me Into Crisis

The former RBC campus at 12th court
God will not lead us into temptation, but He will lead us into crisis.  As C.S. Lewis pointed out about his allegorical lion Aslan, God is good, but He is not safe.  Psalm 23 is refreshing.  It is a Psalm of restoration, but it is also one of crisis.  If read in context, it is laced with trial and danger.  He leads me beside still water because the rest of the pools have gone dry.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures.  Just a few weeks from now the grass will be burnt to a crisp beneath the intensifying heat of the sun.  We move from crisis to crisis.  He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  Sometimes sheep eat food in places where they themselves could easily be eaten.  The only reason they survive is because of the shepherd.  He leads us to eat in crisis.  He is not safe.

He moved us from crisis to crisis.  When we moved here 8 years ago we did not know that we would be moving here to move.  We moved here to help the church recover its ministry in the neighborhood.  We did not know that recovery would require a move.  After 52 years of ministry in the same location, I, who had been there less than 3, had to ask the church to move. 

It is impossible to put into words what it feels like to know that God is going to lead you, and the people who follow you, into crisis.  It is not safe.  Perhaps one day I will write a more full account of what it is like to lead a church to relocate, but not today.  For now it is sufficient only to say there is a great deal of personal pain and crisis for everyone involved.   

The move was more than geographical.  It was a spiritual relocation.  It took us 3.5 years to move.  So far in my life, that period was the dark night of my soul.  It forced me to deconstruct every chord of theology I knew.  I slept very little.  I argued with God a lot.  I searched for loyalty.  I questioned friendship.  Everything I once thought God honored, I learned that He didn’t.  I realized what it mean to wait.  I lost control.  I gained trust.  I doubted.  I believed.

There is much more that I could say about our move, but the purpose of this week’s blog posts is to state appreciation.  On the other side of that move, today, stands a community of people for whom I am eternally grateful.  We have become thirsty and have been refreshed together.  Together we have experienced how God moves.  We have all changed.  To be your pastor now means something very different to me than it did 5 years ago.  Preaching to you now is a new experience.  I am grateful for how God has moved in us.

God leads us into crisis.  Psalm 23 is laced with danger.  The pools we are enjoying now will become stagnant and dry.  Something will cause us, once again, to move.  The next move may not be geographic, but much like the last one, it will require us to relocate spiritually.  We must find new pools.  We must tread through valleys.  We must eat where we may be eaten.  He will lead us. 

I love being your pastor.
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A few weeks ago I was invited to preach to a church near Talladega, AL.  Our six year old, Kiley, is a vocal child.  The pastor and music minister led worship.  Kiley provided the commentary.  Most people are built with the ability to change volumes.  Most mommas call this, “Using your inside voice.”  Kiley was not born with this ability.  She has no inside voice. 

Kiley is very comical.  She is inquisitive and honest.  A child with no vocal, intellectual, or social filters in a small church can be very exciting.  As my wife sang Kiley freely commented on how beautiful her momma is and how great she sings.  Kiley wanted to know why the pastor has so much to say.  She wanted to know why certain people pray so long.  She wanted a theological explanation for hymnals.  She wanted me to read her the entire Book of Isaiah.  Yet nothing she vocalized previously compared with the confession she would later make during a testimony.  A wonderful lady in our church, Tresa, was there to share her testimony.  In telling the story of her conversion, Tresa recounted how she had always attended church but had never been truly saved.  When Teresa said, with microphone in hand, “I realized I was not saved”, Kiley confessed, with no microphone needed, “Well, I’m not either.” 

While Kiley’s soteriology is another story, rest assured, salvation is a constant teaching in our home.  She does believe Jesus is her savior, but at this point she equates the language of “being saved” with fulfilling some formal process of the church.  Unfortunately, so do many adults.  I’m not sure Kiley believes she has ever sinned.  At the very least I would observe that to her sin is no big deal.  Unfortunately many adults also share this view. 

I pastor our church.  I am also just a dad.  Within our church, my daughters have many teachers who influence their lives.  A critical concern for pastor/dads is whether others will help lead our children to Christ?  I have baptized a few hundred people in 14 years of ministry.  In 2006 I baptized my eldest daughter.  It was a wonderful moment for a pastor/dad.  It was also a grand testimony of our church and its devotion to the gospel.

I taught her in our home, but God used the people of our church to also lead her to Christ.  Like every other parent we have carried diaper bags and handed off our babies to the loving arms of the nursery.  Like every other parent on Sunday afternoons, the backseat of our car is a treasure trove of glued and glittered crafts.  I am a part of the meetings in which we hammer out the final ministry budgets for the year, but my daughters experience VBS just like any other kid.  The pastorate is a leadership ministry of shepherding, but it is also a relationship of trust.  I may preach on Sundays, but who will teach my babies?  Will the church I pastor minister to my own family?  Will my sheep help lead my children to Jesus?

Many pastor’s children unfortunately witness their fathers being devoured by wolves.  This crisis of the church is all too common and the result is many pastor’s kids turn away from the church.  In this respect I greatly appreciate my church.  You are a caring and nurturing family of souls that genuinely care about my children and help me lead them to Jesus.  I appreciate every teacher along the way, the nursery care they once received, every deacon who has prayed for them, and every person of the congregation who has helped create such a positive environment for family growth.  As a pastor/dad I am greatly indebted to all of you.    
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She was very blonde, very 2, and very opinionated.  She walked into the front door of our new home, stood in the middle of a room full of boxes, looked around and declared, “This is not my house, I want to go home.”  Morgan had expressed what Shannon and I silently feared.  What if Alabama never becomes home?

The day I became pastor for Ridgecrest was victorious and surreal.  We walked out of the auditorium, put Morgan in her car seat, got into the car, looked at one another speechless, and drove away.  Shannon had conveniently slipped Lynard Skynard’s “Sweet Home Alabama” into the CD player.  For a few minutes we jammed.  For the next 2 or 3 hours we drove in silence.  We didn’t have a destination or any real clue where we were in Birmingham, we just drove.  We drove circuitously, realizing there was only one place on the map we didn’t want to go.  We didn’t want to go home.

Home at the time was Crossville, TN.  We lived there 6 years.  I had an aunt and an uncle in the church by blood, several grandmas by adoption, many friends, scores of people I had baptized, and Morgan had her own personal nanny named Sherry.  We had to tell all of these people we were leaving.  Crossville and LRBC would no longer be home.  Three weeks later we were gone.  That night we were standing in the doorway of our new house and Morgan declared that she wanted to do the one thing in the world we couldn’t, go back.

For a pastor, changing churches is like transplanting oaks.  Technically it can be done, but the roots go so deep that not all of them can be extracted, and no one knows if the thing will find new life in foreign soil.  Will it grow?  Leaving a church rips at the soul.  Beginning again at a new one is unnerving.  Will these people accept me?  Will they love my family?  Will any of them be a friend?  How long will this last?  If it doesn’t work, where will we go? 

Morgan is now 10 and there is another one, a Kiley one, a Birmigham born one who is 6.  We tell Morgan often of Crossville, but sadly she doesn’t remember any of it.  Birmingham is home.  The only church my daughters really know is Ridgecrest.  The roots are deep within the soil.  There are friends.  I still miss my uncle Roy and aunt Geneva (and the fishing).  Morgan doesn’t know it, but she misses Sherry.  And oh yes, I have plenty more adoptive grandmas. 

Alabama is a sweet home in a way that can only be adequately expressed by a southern rock band.  You have loved my family and allowed me to grow.  For you, RBC, I am deeply appreciative.
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Church Appreciation

Somehow October has become pastor appreciation month.  While I don’t expect NFL players to be wearing black leather KJV gloves and shoes anytime soon, it is nevertheless a meaningful month to my fellow compadres of the cloth.  I am very appreciative to all who sent personal cards to me and my family during the month.  I am also appreciative to Frank and Terrie C. for their kindness on Sunday and for the entire RBC family for the gracious acknowledgement.

This past week also marked 8 years that I have served the people of Ridgecrest Baptist Church as pastor.  I was reminded of how significant a mark that is in my life as I also had to, last week, renew my driver’s license.  This is the first time, since gaining the privilege of driving, that I have lived anywhere long enough to have 3 copies of a license from the same state.  The good news is that in 8 years I have stayed fairly consistent with my weight (wink, wink).  8 years ago I weighed 207.  At my first renewal I reported 208.  Yet, if I were honest that day it was probably more like 220 - 225.  The second pic in the sequence would bear this out!  This past week, on the morning of my second renewal, I weighed in at 207 once again.  The lady at the DMV acknowledged my weight loss.  I told her that it was the most difficult pound I have ever lost, as I had worked on it diligently everyday for the last four years.

These past 8 years have been a metamorphosis for so many of us.  To commemorate my appreciation for the people of RBC, I will dedicate this week to sharing a few of my favorite memories of the journey thus far.  I also want to acknowledge another group of people who occupy a very special place in my family’s life; the people of Lantana Road Baptist Church in Crossville, TN.  I began my shepherding journey there in October of 1996.  Perhaps one day I will share more fully my memories of that wonderful God filled ride.  Those years were milestone moments in my life as I witnessed some incredible movements of God.  LRBC is the place where God showed me what it means that He is faithful.  Every young pastor desperately needs that lesson.  LRBC also taught me another vital early lesson; the church is not mine.  A more experienced pastor once said to me, “Never forget, God has more invested in this than you ever will.”  I have been parsing that word of wisdom now for 14 years.  The longer I pastor, study Jesus, and meet the people of God the more I understand what he meant. 

Thank you Jesus for your church.  Thank you church(es) RBC and LRBC for being such a meaningful part of my life.
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