By Sharon Mager, BCM/D Correspondent
New Beginnings Church and Ministries, the church I had been so deeply involved with both physically and emotionally since its conception eight years ago, was struggling. The Pasadena, Md., church had always drawn a modest crowd, but attendance had dwindled down to less than 30 every Sunday. Finances were tight.
Then, in March, came what we thought might be the knockout blow: our founder and pastor, John Lovelady, made the heart-breaking announcement that the Lord had called him to minister in a church in Florida. John was bi-vocational but had invested countless hours and measureless energy into the church.
Despite the dedication, however, the church had fallen into a rut. We had barely enough to pay John a part-time salary. With the economy failing, we knew we would have nothing to pay a new pastor. We could just eek out the rent. We gave our wonderful pulpit supply pastors very small love offerings.
Our tiny leadership team struggled trying to keep up with administrative tasks, keeping the congregation informed, the pulpit filled and the ministries going. Continual meetings were wearing us out. We were fortunate that we didn’t have bickering or division.
The options were clear and daunting: we could move to a less expensive location, meet at another church at a different time, become a new church plant, or close the doors. I knew that merging with another church was an option, but one I personally did not favor and spoke against because I didn’t like losing our autonomy.
As a correspondent for BaptistLIFE, I attended a luncheon during Southern Baptist President Johnny Hunt’s visit to Baltimore. There, Dallas Bumgarner, now campus pastor of Grace Place, Dundalk, asked me how New Beginnings was doing. I shared with him about our difficulties.
Later that evening, Brian Zimmerman, pastor of Streetlite Christian Fellowship, Federal Hill, approached me and told me that he was talking to Dallas about looking for a satellite site in Pasadena. Dallas told him, “You’ve got to talk to Sharon Mager.”
So Brian and I talked while in a buffet line (as the true Southern Baptists we were) and after hearing about New Beginnings, Brian said, “Your leadership people need to get with mine.”
I had mixed feelings. I thought, “Oh no, here we go, losing our identity, our coziness and becoming one of those ‘new’ churches with a different leadership style.”
When Johnny Hunt preached that night I had the inescapable feeling that the Holy Spirit was speaking directly to me. Hunt told listeners that it’s not about what we want—God gives the orders and we follow.
And I realized that I was selfish, not wanting change because it wouldn’t be comfortable. If God wants to use a merger, or satellite, or any other vehicle, it’s His church and if this was the way He wanted to use our church to see people won to Christ, grow in their walks and ultimately planting more churches and furthering the kingdom, who was I to stand in the way?
I repented that night of my selfishness.
The two church leadership teams met. It was an amazing time of discovery as we found that both churches were similar. After several months of prayer, questioning and soul searching, New Beginnings voted to become Streetlite Pasadena, a satellite of Streetlite Christian Fellowship based in Federal Hill.
God had been preparing both churches for this merger, showing himself in so many ways—laying it on Brian’s heart to begin a church in Pasadena, bringing us together at the banquet, and even preparing the praise band at New Beginnings last year for changes that we didn’t know were coming. Our praise band included myself, playing flute, a guitar player and two vocalists. Last December, I began teaching myself keyboard and one of our vocalists, Karl Philhower, began teaching himself bass guitar. By January, we were both playing new instruments. We were amazed and we laughed about it then, not knowing God was preparing us. Bob Smith, now the campus pastor, assumed the lead role, and Karl played bass and back-up vocals.
The church was revamped with fresh paint, lighting and other renovations. It’s not the same. I knew it wouldn’t be. New Beginnings aren’t easy but sometimes they’re necessary.
Throughout the transition, I held on to one of my favorite verses from Jer. 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (NIV).
In other words, when it’s the worst of times, God still has the best of times in store for us.