Early in my ministry, I assumed pastorates where the previous pastor had been involved in ministerial misconduct. Some were guilty of inappropriate relationships with females. Some were guilty of embezzling finances. To some degree, it was easy to follow someone who had lived immorally. The bar was not very high as far as expectation. To be sure, there were messes to clean up, and trust issues with the pastorate did exist. Nevertheless, staying pure was largely all that was expected.
In the later years of pastoring, however, I had the privilege of succeeding two men whose lives were characterized by unsullied integrity. Tom Crichton founded the Greater Rhode Island Baptist Temple in Johnston in 1975 and pastored that church for thirty-seven and a half years before I succeeded him. Mike Edwards founded the Heritage Baptist Church in Woodbridge, Virginia and will have pastored it for thirty-seven years when the reigns are officially turned over to me on anniversary Sunday in June of 2018. Both men are the personification of character.
Though both men are vastly different in temperament, there are lessons that I have learned from both—lessons that have served me well as I build upon the foundations that they have laid. Let me share a few of these lessons with you.
Prayer Changes Things
Both men are men of prayer. Pastor Crichton and Pastor Edwards have different managerial styles. The common denominator is that neither depended upon their managerial style to build the church. They knew that was God’s job. Both men did more than tell me they were praying for me; they actually prayed! Church planting is more than difficult work; it is impossible work without the supernatural power of God.
The wisdom to know what to do, the strength to stay with it, the courage to be entrepreneurial all comes from the Spirit of God that strengthens with might in the inner man (Ephesians 3:16). There is nothing wrong with lifting a hand, but before you do, take a knee. Prayer changes things!
Love on People
Both Pastor Crichton and Pastor Edwards had their fair share of detractors. Much of the criticism was unwarranted, inaccurate, and unfair. But both men never allowed the hurts of ministry to keep them cold toward the people of God. They both prayed for and loved on people who had treated them dirty. Love indeed endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7), and it is always an appropriate response. Charity never fails (1 Corinthians 13:8)! I have seen both men pick up the children of those who were critical of their ministries. I have seen both shed tears over people. If love is the defining hallmark of discipleship (John 13:35), then certainly pastors ought to model it. And both of these founders did!
Grow Thick Skin
If ministry demands the heart of a dove, it equally demands the hide of a rhinoceros. The only way to avoid total criticism is to do nothing. And I am not even sure that do-nothings avoid it. Baptist brains are easily bothered, and people often become volatile over minor issues that maturity would let go. No matter what you do, someone will be offended. Even Jesus did not always get a “vote of confidence” from His closest disciples. It is unrealistic that people will always like us. Therefore, we have to live for the audience of One, for if we live for the praise of man, we will find ourselves out of the ministry. Ministry has its detractors, and we must not be swayed by the constant criticism that abounds (1 Corinthians 4:3).
Both men had a fifth sense about when it was time to retire and/or resign. Both men are in remarkably good health for their ages, and yet they knew that their continued presence would harm the ministry because they could not give it their best. I know the personal agony that I have experienced when contemplating resignation—the uncomfortable feeling of knowing that it is time for someone else who can do it better than you. If I know this as a successor, how much more difficult is this admission for one who has founded a church? The truly great, however, know that the cause of Christ is greater than the cause of self (John 3:30). Both Tom Crichton and Mike Edwards are humble men who truly desire for Christ to be exalted.
What a great life I have lived to succeed and learn from two of America’s greatest pastors. My life has indeed been blessed. Though founding a church is not my gift, I do hope that those who receive the baton from me will be able to see in my life the character traits of these two great church planters.