Knowing when to go
The bedroom community of Irving near Dallas felt like a pair of broken-in jeans and a sweatshirt. No place on earth could have been more comfortable. The congregation at Irving Bible Church spoke Texan. I understood their culture and could meet their needs before they knew they had them. Many of them were students, even a few faculty at Dallas Seminary, so we had no theological differences. Moreover, I had lots of friends in the area. As the church began to grow, Cynthia and I sank our roots deeper. After just a few months, I thought, I could do this for the rest of my life.
Four years later, I absent-mindedly opened the mail. Among the other letters, I noticed an envelope from the First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, California. Intrigued, I sliced open the letter and began reading. They had been without a pastor for almost two years and wanted me to visit their church and preach one Sunday—an invitation to consider serving there as pastor. In this case, there were no obligations on either side. No expectations. Just a casual Sunday with a possible future. But I was so content in Irving, I saw no reason even to consider visiting some other church—especially one in Southern California.
Around that time, Bill Gothard had just begun his youth-conflict seminars, and I wanted to attend one myself before sending any of our church members at Irving. Because I was going to be in the area, I agreed to preach a couple of my familiar sermons on Sunday. I would be what churches call "pulpit supply." And that was all! I emphasized that I was not candidating; I merely offered to be one of their many guest preachers that year.
As I prepared to leave, Cynthia said, "You might not be looking at them, but you can be sure they'll be looking at you!"
When I returned home, Cynthia met me at the airport with her hands over her ears and a smile on her face. Like me, she didn't want to hear anything that would pull us away from Irving. Like me, she saw no reason to leave; we loved our life and ministry in Texas. Our kids were healthy and happy. Why leave all this? Once we were in the car, however, she took a deep breath. "Okay, I want to hear all about it."
I said, "I don't know how to explain this. The situation in Irving is good. We've tripled in size, we just completed our new sanctuary and we need to pay for it—not a great time for a pastor to leave—and I could see us serving here indefinitely. I can't think of a reason not to remain here. Yet, everything inside me says it's the right time to go."
Again, I'm not one who makes decisions based on intuition. I'm a facts-'n'-figures guy. But I had since learned to listen to my instincts. If I may, my gut shouted, "Go!"
We agreed to have the leadership put me before the congregation as a candidate. A vote of the church members would determine whether they would extend a call. The search committee warned ahead of time that the church rarely if ever voted unanimously on anything. But, without telling anyone, I had already prayed, "Lord, if it's not unanimous, I will remain where I am." I thought, This is a good way to know if I'm making the right decision.
By the next Wednesday, I received a call from the leading elder. The church had voted unanimously to call me as their senior pastor. As I hung up the phone, I wept. Tears of joy for our future in Fullerton, tears of sorrow over the heart-break of leaving Irving. Reflecting on that departure, I learned three lessons.
1. Keep it short.