Celebrating a Five-Year Journey…
Five years ago yesterday, we officially began our journey of renewal and gospel ministry with the Emmanuel Baptist Church family. The months prior had been laced with many late-night wrestlings with God over His call and a lot of biblical counseling with godly, objective advisors. By May 2012, His word and direction were so clear and undeniable that we could only choose to obey or disobey.
The decision to follow God to Connecticut went against everything in us and in those who believed we were making a mistake. The decision also completely upturned our relational, ministerial, financial, and personal lives. On top of that, there were very few optimists about ministry in New England.
Personally, my greatest struggle was fear, in its many manifestations. I was afraid of hard conversations. I was afraid of the opinions and narratives of others. I was afraid of the financial implications for our family. I was afraid for my wife and kids emotionally and spiritually. I was afraid of what appeared to be loss and risk.
Most of all, I was afraid of the call—feeling quite unable and inadequate. Of course, God doesn’t give us those fears, and His perfect love and strength defeats them. But in those moments of decision, the fears were strongly shouting down faith.
On the other side of the decision, the last five years have been the most wonderful, remarkable, and challenging of our lives. In this post, I want to take a moment to thank God and others. This story—top to bottom—is a story of teamwork and encouragement from many directions. From day one, our strong desire has been to glorify Jesus and magnify His power manifested through weakness.
First, the thanks:
1. Thank you to the Emmanuel family of 2012, and to all those who encouraged us in faith. Looking back, I’m grateful for those who encouraged us—some in California, some in Connecticut, and family and friends from diverse places. They believed God. They spoke faith. They anticipated God’s blessing. They gave us the benefit of the doubt. They prayed with us, stood with us, blessed us, and believed that God was up to something wonderful.
On one coast, close friends saw that God was guiding our steps, and cheered us on. On another coast, new friends welcomed us with open arms and prepared their hearts to serve God together. They befriended us, loved us, and upheld us in hundreds of ways.
There were times I didn’t believe. I obeyed, but doubted. I’m grateful for God-given friends who reached out or showed up at just the right time! These friends never stopped believing from the first moment until now. Today, I’m standing on the shoulders of their prayers, faith, and encouragement.
2. Thank you, Dana, Lance, Larry, and Haylee, for following God together. No doubt, the first twelve months in Connecticut were the hardest of our lives, but we loved each other, held on to Jesus, and patiently clung to the love and encouragement of our new church family as God re-established our roots and settled our hearts. He provided for our needs, and grew us together each day.
I have loved seeing God strengthen our faith as a family, providentially walking us through this mysterious—and, at times, overwhelming—adventure. Seeing the blessings of redeemed hearts and changed lives makes it all worth it!
3. Thank you, Pastor Chappell and Lancaster Baptist Church family for twenty-two years of blessings. Following Jesus away from LBC was extremely painful and something we never imagined doing. Thank you for years of faithful mentoring and training. Thank you for allowing us to serve with you. You helped us shape a biblical philosophy of ministry. You loved us as we grew through so many mistakes and immaturities. The relationships we shared were real and deeply meaningful to us.
We will always be grateful for the ministry mentoring and fruitful years we cherished together. The memories of God’s grace unfolding in your stories are deeply etched into our hearts. Today, there is wonderful fruit abounding to your account in spiritually needy New England.
4. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for restoring your work at Emmanuel, and the deep work you have done in our lives. You took a weak church and a weak pastor, and You did something that only You can do. You proved again that the power of the gospel is unstoppable, undeniable, and unfathomable. You have drawn many hearts to place faith in You, follow in baptism, grow in discipleship, and mature in community with the Emmanuel family. You have provided in dozens of impossible ways for the repair and restoration of Your church. You have shown me in mind-blowing ways that You are God and that the gospel is still viable—even in secular, non-Christian, biblically illiterate cultures.
5. Thank you, Emmanuel family of today, for loving us patiently and serving graciously. You have tolerated my mistakes, forborne my eccentricities, excused my blind spots, and strengthened my weaknesses. You have encouraged my family, blessed my children, and given me time and space to grow spiritually. You have prayed for us, cheered us on, served with us, shared the burden, owned the vision, and lived out the dream.
You believed God could would build a healthy church even when I failed to see it. You reminded me of the call when I struggled. You rekindled my faith when I doubted. You pointed out the blessings when all I could see were the challenges. You stayed. You prayed. You gave. You served. You persisted. You participated. You engaged. You grew. You welcomed. You shared. You rejoiced. You baked banana bread, served coffee, grilled hamburgers, and served in thousands of other ways. You gave God glory for working in us, through us, and in spite of us!
Overall, this has been a more wonderful five years of pastoral ministry than I could have ever dreamed of. It’s impossible to appropriately put into words. I’m deeply grateful.
Here are a few major lessons God has taught us over these years:
1. Jesus is the only perfectly loving Lord. One counselor and older pastor said to me nearly six years ago, “Cary, you never get your direction from man. You get your direction from God, and you confirm it with the counsel of men.” This was tremendous advice, and a deeply probing question of lordship.
How vital it is that men take their place as “just men,” and that Christians make Jesus preeminent in life’s decisions. Jesus is worthy and trustworthy to rule our lives. His rule is loving. His purposes are perfect. His outcomes always bless us in far greater ways than our own. He will never misdirect, never fail, never exploit, and never oppress.
Christian, don’t be afraid to follow Him—be afraid not to! Be afraid to allow anyone else to encroach on His Lordship in your life.
2. Weakness, risk, destitution, and impossibilities are optimal circumstances for God’s intervention. Both Emmanuel and I were weak in significant ways. Some wished me to fail—and that was a genuine possibility. Some wished Emmanuel dead—and that was a potential reality. Some stood on the sidelines and criticized or scorned. Some said, “He’ll be back in California in a few years.”
Yet, some went to their knees with us and for us. On Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings we asked God to spare the train wreck and put His church back together in health.
He answered, and did this in ways and with means by which no man can take credit. He did this with weakness and doubt and fear and struggle. Faith isn’t the absence of these things—it is the smallest expression of trust in spite of these things.
3. The will of God, in big picture, is ultimately wonderful. Following God sometimes requires radical decisions and seemingly irrational abandonment of “comfort zones.” Sometimes and in some ways, God leads us into brokenness or pain that He might do a greater work of transformation and blessing. He led Jesus to a cross. What began with apparent failure, ended in ultimate triumph.
In addition, pastoral ministry (or ministry in general) sometimes gets a bad rap. Some shroud pastoring in mortifying descriptors and paint its burdens as incomprehensible to anyone not carrying them. While I would not encourage someone “not called” to pursue pastoring, I also would not echo the voices of negativity.
Pastoring in the will of God is a wonderful, beautiful, challenging, and thrilling experience; and if God calls you to do so, you will flourish in it. Yes, it brings with it many unpredictables, hard days, low moments, and some seasons of hurt. But it also abounds in blessed relationships and joyful rewards.
The delight of obeying Jesus and seeing Him work in hearts is so very wonderful. The perceived sacrifice or fear evaporates as God takes over and begins to unfold His plan.
4. God builds His church His way, and the real challenge is simply seeking and following Him. Emmanuel had a pastor and a part-time secretary the day we arrived in town. There was no other staff at the church. The financial challenges were alarming. The building needed a million dollars of urgent renovation. Our only options were prayer and preaching the gospel. In that context, God began to do what we could not.
In five years, He has exceeded our hopes and answered our prayers in hundreds of specific and jaw-dropping ways. He has providentially led an exceptional team of co-laborers—both pastoral and administrative staff. I’m not a good fundraiser or staff recruiter. This was not strategized in a master five-year plan. I’m certainly no architect of organizational revitalization. God orchestrated this journey, and our church family chose to trust and obey in a spirit of unity and faith.
Today, Emmanuel isn’t what everybody else would have made it. Emmanuel isn’t what I envisioned or imagined. Emmanuel isn’t what I learned in Bible college or what church-growth gurus model or prescribe. Every time I’ve tried to make Emmanuel “what I want” God rebukes me and reminds me that this is His church.
Emmanuel, in many ways, beautifully defies description. Emmanuel is a biblically saturated, gospel-centered, grace-based, love-driven church. We love God’s Word. We love unbelievers, new Christians, and each other. We love unity and authenticity. We love sincere worship. We love seeing God do His work His way. We love the green pasture and still water called “His church,” and we love how He leads and feeds and cares for His sheep through this gospel-shaped community.
Last week we partnered with a church planter in Mexico City. Friday we trained a staff team of thirty-five. Saturday we questioned four men for ordination. Sunday we worshipped with a flourishing church family. Today we sent a group to minister in Guatemala. This week we will follow up on the lost, care for the hurting, counsel the distressed, disciple new believers, pray for our church family, study the Word, and plan for a new fall season of ministry. We press on day by day in biblical ministry, depending on Jesus to sustain and guide us as only He can.
Each day, our EBC family fans out across the Hartford region as salt and light—a loving gospel presence saturating our community with truth and love. They serve, witness, encourage, and minster in thousands of ways that make Jesus more evident and visible to a very secular New England.
Indeed, there is a Christian revival happening in New England. As for me and my family, we are deeply devoted and eagerly anticipating the coming years of faithful and fruitful ministry. We love Jesus, we love our church family, and we marvel at God’s grace.
We give God thanks and glory for His gracious hand over these five years. We thank our church family for making the journey such a joyful adventure together. And we truly believe the best is yet to come!