Men who put Skin on Jesus: Mike M.

I had been serving Banks 15 years. “Don’t call unless the appointment makes your heart sing,” I had told my District Superintendent (DS), Kate. In my denomination’s vernacular an “appointment” was a church to serve as pastor.

In addition, I had told my leadership team what I had heard from my DS, “There were no churches open, so I’ll be staying another year.”  

But, the next afternoon after I had told the team, Tuesday, March 3rd, I answered my phone and heard my DS Kate singing to me over the phone. “Brian! This is Kate!” I knew there was a new place for me to pastor. My heart started to beat as if I was running a race, sweat broke out on the back of my neck and the palm of my hand grew sweaty holding my cell.  

In my denominational environment, the church leadership seeks to match the church’s needs and the pastor. On her end, Kate handed the phone to another DS, Bonnie, who told me of the church for which my name had come up, within her district. At the name of the church, I felt excited and scared. It was like a man and a boy responded alternatively within me. I had admired the previous leader’s work for years and had thought on more than one occasion, that I could not do that type of leadership.  

Bonnie gave me 24 hours to tell Karen and for us to pray before saying whether or not I would accept this appointment.

Karen was then tutoring, so when her client left, I asked if we could chat. We went into the laundry area, a small hallway that led to our downstairs’ bathroom, and closed the door. The church, Westside, was the only successful church plant in our geographic area. The founding pastor, after serving for 14 years, had accepted another appointment many miles south. We prayed and sensed this was it even though it was a move to a very different type of ministry, from a small country church to a dynamic community, with two bands and two worship times. We told Gabri, our youngest, due to graduate that June, and drove to see the building. The nondescript building in the middle of a residential area had nothing special about it to set it apart. We still sensed God calling. The next day I called the DS, Bonnie, and accepted the offer.  

Over the next two weeks, I met with Westside’s leaders on two occasions, and met with the current pastor. On my 50th birthday, March 22nd, the announcement was made at each church of this new appointment.

Meeting with Westside’s multi-cultural leadership teams was encouraging to me. The people I met were beautiful, spiritually sensitive, and seemed to be growing disciples. I was excited to grow with them over the next years. In one of those meetings, one of the women asked how I handled conflict within a congregation. I responded with some of my experiences and asked about what she was experiencing with conflict at Westside. She didn’t really respond to this.  

At a clergy event in May 2009, another clergy leader came up and told me, “You won’t last 3 years at Westside.” I asked what she knew about it, and she told me about coming to lead workshops with them. “They have a lot of conflict,” she acknowledged.  

In the months between March and July 1, when I would begin, Karen and I looked for a house. Westside had a parsonage, but it was rented out to another family, and the current pastor owned his own home. So, over the next month, Allan, our real estate agent began driving around with us to show houses. We settled on a place in South Beaverton and made an offer. Our move-in date was June 4th, which gave the Banks church the month of June to remodel some of the parsonage for the incoming pastor.  

Meanwhile, at Westside, there was steam building under the feeling of betrayal.

Many members lacked understanding about how the denomination functioned and assumed their previous pastor would stay forever. Apparently, the DS had scheduled the first meeting of the leadership as a brainstorming opportunity for them to share the kind of pastor they felt was needed to move forward. But then, having met me, invited me to this meeting and introduced me as the incoming pastor. Some felt like this was a bait and switch. 

The stories began to circulate around Westside. One said, I had manipulated the system to get their pastor out and get me into this church. Another told how their current pastor had told them he did not want to leave but was being forced to do so. A third imagined the DS had purposefully lied to them, inviting them to brainstorm then introducing me. As they began to grieve the loss of their beloved pastor and their director of worship, his wife, anger began to foment.

Grieving brings feelings of anger which if not understood get projected onto others.

The adjustments in leadership over each of the bands caused conflict among them. But alongside these stories and conflicts, I received numerous emails from folk excited to have me coming, asking questions about various aspects of the plans for summer, and asking how they could help us in the move. A group of people showed up to move us in on June 4th, and in July, many came to help us repaint the interior of the house.  

Although I was then 50, inside, I was still the two-year-old running away from his mom across the field behind our house; a 5-year-old abused by the associate pastor of my home church; an 8-year-old whose favorite dog had been killed on a Sunday by a hit-and-run driver, one month after my abuser had left the church and had threatened to kill my dog if I ever told; a 10-year-old confused, uncertain as to his own identity and gender. And I was stuck at many other places as well.

As an adult, I operated from many “kid perspectives” in life.  

Westside was a tough place at times those first two years. The stories still circulated, people left and slammed the doors, others stayed and stirred the pot. Conflicts seemed to erupt everywhere. It was a church sustained by fundraising events which were exhausting the energies of the people and producing little. The finances were tight, as the treasurer would come in week by week asking what she ought to pay first and what she ought to wait on. My first work with leaders was to shift away from fundraising to stewardship. Then, people leaving would threaten me with the loss of their tithe as if I would beg them to stay for that reason.

The stress of all this began to take its toll that first year physically and emotionally. My doctor told me, “Your body is telling you that you are being dishonest and holding onto things you need to release.” I battled continual headaches, weakness, nausea and vomiting. No matter what I ate, I would feel sick. This went on for months. For the first time in years, I missed a Sunday that first fall because of these physical symptoms. Karen preached for me that Sunday, as she had also come on staff to work with the bands.  

It was for this season, in the midst of this battle, God sent Mike.

I had known Mike since 2003 when we both had been asked onto the Alumni Leadership Team with our seminary, flown to major events across the nation and trained to be emissaries in our areas. The team had lasted several years, but the best impact had been our friendship. 15-years my junior, Mike pastored UMC congregations in Virginia. You can read more about us in my post “There’s Nothing Like a Friend.”

As I began at Westside and ran into the stress that came with this appointment, God prompted Mike to call me twice a week. His calls came on Monday and Thursday nights about 6 pm, and we would talk for perhaps 15-20 minutes while he was on his drive home from church. Invariably, he would encounter one of the kid-parts within me and like a police negotiator, talk me down off the railing of the proverbial bridge. He gave me a way to tell the story of the day before I got home. He helped me release some steam, without taking it all home to Karen.  

Photo by max laurell on Pexels.com

If he were writing, he would tell you how much I mean to him. We are a mutual admiration society, for certain. And in those calls, Mike too shared some of his life. It was a breath of fresh air to me when he called with something he needed support on. But Mike was God’s man to put Jesus on display in my life during these very tough years. I was not self-aware, then, that I was operating from many kid-places within me. Mike gave me a place to just feel the pain without judgment, while helping me reframe the situations.  

A year into this appointment, Karen was called to serve another church, her first full-time appointment. In that second year, 25 of the major leaders at Westside left, I felt like a failure, but then God showed up in a new way bringing revival. I began to find my rhythm, God brought biblical storytelling into my life, and renewal through my sabbatical in 2016. Mike made Jesus more real to me in this season demonstrating how present, accessible, open, and willing to listen He was. Mike was a cheerleader in my effort to revive and grow the congregation. His wisdom and love sustained me then, and he continues to reach into my life today.

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