Long before I became a pastor, I attended a retreat led by a pastor I greatly respect, whose conversation topic for those few days centered around healthy leadership and ministerial self-care. This pastor shared of deep conflict that had existed in her church, weathered with lots of prayer and a group she referred to as her “discernment group.” Comprised of lay leaders who covenanted to work closely with the pastor to ensure the greatest health of the congregation, this group was critical to navigating those sensitive waters. Amidst the many takeaways from those few days of retreat was the strong exhortation from this pastor: “no matter the church, no matter the landscape, no matter the level of health among the congregation, a pastor’s discernment group is among the greatest gifts to both church and pastor. Everyone needs one!”
First Baptist, there is no doubt that we are a healthy church. Those attributes are numerous: real love for one another; strong commitments to the mission, vision, and values we recently affirmed; creative ministries and powerful missions; sustained growth; and most importantly, an unwavering love of God and neighbor revealed and expressed through Jesus that binds us up with one another no matter our differences . There’s also no doubt that we are well within several substantial changes, any one of which would be gracious plenty for a church like ours to take on at one time. Those changes are plentiful: a once-in-a-lifetime shift in our church’s facilities to make possible our future; an impending major capital campaign to enable it to happen; the end of long-beloved ministries and the beginnings of others; newer staff; and an extraordinary season of growth (nearly 30 new members in just four months).
Couple all of this with seismic cultural shifts in how we talk and listen to one another, how we perceive information, and how we engage with the world around us as a people with good news to share, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we are in the thick of quite a historic moment at First Baptist Church on Fifth!
Remembering that long-ago exhortation about a discernment group and with all of our church’s ongoing transition in mind, I shared with our Deacons last month a recommendation that we create a similar Pastoral Discernment Group to assist us in ensuring the greatest health and well-being for our church in a season where any one of the transitions we face could create an environment of uncertain health and well-being. Among other details regarding logistics of the group’s term limits and ongoing meetings, my recommendation said this:
The Pastoral Discernment Group is a small band of trusted, wise, and faithful church members who, upon the affirmation of the Deacons, gather regularly with the Pastor for careful listening, honest speaking, and prayerful discernment about the communal life of our church. The Group will meet on a regular basis for such conversations included but not limited to: conversations that stretch beyond the clear purview of any existing leadership body; those that demand a high level of confidentiality and trust before broadening to a wider circle for discussion; those that come among division or conflict within the church or its leaders; those that consider the shape of our public witness; those that represent some of the most complex challenges (of theology, direction, leadership, unity, etc.) facing our church in this unique cultural moment.
The makeup of the Pastoral Discernment Group will be as follows: Chair of Deacons, immediate past Chair of Deacons, Chair of Personnel, three at-large members (filling out the demographics to create a well-rounded & wise representation of the congregation), Pastor, church conflict expert (as needed), and other ministers (as needed).
The hope in creating such a group is to have a forum for complex conversation and deep discernment. This forum would be advantageous in seasons of calm, as well as seasons when conflicts or tensions are either on the horizon or present among us. By covenanting with one another to be fully honest in speech and loving in posture, this Group will be the forum to share what we’re hearing from God and one another. The Group will hold in highest regard the health of our body, as the church pursues God’s vision for First Baptist in this time and place. The Group will practice and model for the congregation how to do hard things together, how to disagree agreeably, and how to bind up — not in uniformity, but in unity — for the sake of God’s church at First on Fifth. Shared guidance and mutuality in love will give space for a clearer path to unfold before the Group that none could see alone.
After some discussion about where such an assembly would fall within the organizational structure of the church and ensuring that the creation of a Pastoral Discernment Group was appropriately guided by our Bylaws, this recommendation was unanimously affirmed by the Deacons. In consultation with the three aforementioned leaders elected by the church whose role places them on the Pastoral Discernment Group — Randy Peters (Chair, Deacons), Kelly King (past Chair, Deacons), and Wally Cox (Chair, Personnel) — together we named the three at-large members to join us, including Nancy Baxley, Smitty Smith, and Anna Harris. Chris Gambill (church expert and Vice Chair, Deacons) rounded out this band of seven.
We gathered on Monday night of this week in my home, sharing first around the table in a delicious meal and meaningful stories of our love of and life with First Baptist. Group members’ ages and span of membership at FBC stretch across the decades, and the group certainly occupies a wide range of life stages, viewpoints, convictions, and passions. No one seemed to hold back on their opinions, and we certainly hit places of disagreement throughout the evening. We didn’t emerge with any sort of pronouncement, nor did we, in the words of my grandmother, “solve all the world’s problems.” But as we held before God all that faces our church right now, it seemed that grace and honesty were our welcome guests. For even as the task at hand was held in common, nothing was more unifying than our shared love of God in Christ, and our certainty that it is upon this rock that our church’s foundation and any future discernment is built. The ground upon which we stood that night was unmistakably holy.
In the days since, I have reflected on one phrase that punctuated our conversation: that in relationships with one another, we are to “love the rough edges away.” Like sandpaper smoothing a rough-hewn piece of wood so as to avoid splinters, may we all heed such a call from the One who makes all our rough places plain!
Together in the work of Love,
Ps- You won’t see an “Emily’s Post” next week, as I will be on vacation with my family (Josh, kids, parents, brother) in our annual sabbath spot on the sandy beaches of South Carolina!