The winds of change had been blowing for several years. Not in response to a particular problem, a mid-life crisis nor a lack of ministry fulfillment. Rather, it was a persistent, gentle unsettledness, resulting in a re-evaluation of life goals, ministry skills and God’s ultimate purposes; a journey of faith, growth and learning.

This is how Pastor Ray would describe the last several years of ministry. While certain circumstances make his experience unique, there are also applicable truths to anyone experiencing changes in ministry.

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly … who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best know in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who have never known neither victory nor defeat.  Theodore Roosevelt

Village Bible Church—Hot Springs Village, Arkansas

Village Bible Church is located in the heart of Hot Springs Village, a retirement and recreational community fifty miles southwest of Little Rock off of I-30. With over twelve thousand residents, Hot Springs Village is the largest gated community in the United States. It includes nine golf courses and six major recreational lakes, in addition to walking trails, swimming pools and tennis courts. Many people from Texas, California and the upper midwest have chosen to call The Village home. The majority of residents are upper middle class, retired, healthy and mobile. Most residents are part of the “builder” generation, with traditional values and high commitment.

Village Bible Church began as a church plant of the Evangelical Free Church of America in Hot Springs Village in July of 1982. The church has experienced twenty-five years of healthy and steady growth, with a commitment to the teaching of God’s Word, to personal spiritual growth and to world missions. The mission statement of Village Bible Church states:

Village Bible Church glorifies God by making disciples who become growing and serving followers of Jesus Christ.

Aligned with the mission statement is a vision statement:

Building the Kingdom of God by the Word of God.

Village Bible Church continues to be affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America and its doctrinal positions.

Dr. Mark Cain came to Village Bible Church in October 1997 from Pennsylvania where he had pastored for seventeen years. He holds a graduate degree from Dallas Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary. Through sound Bible teaching and compassionate pastoral care, he ministers to the congregation of Village Bible Church. Pastor Mark sums up his ministry at VBC in a statement from a letter sent to recent visitors:

My personal goal in ministry is to help facilitate the process of ‘glorifying God by making disciples who become growing and serving followers of Jesus Christ.’ One primary way of doing that is through what we term authentic worship. In each of our services, we endeavor to meet with God through song—usually both the grand old hymns of the faith as well as more contemporary songs—and through the preaching of the Bible. My number one investment each week is the preparation of a biblical, relevant and applicable message. I always strive to speak from the Bible to the real world in which we live.

Pastor Ray Glenn began his ministry as associate pastor at Village Bible Church in June 1999. A graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, he had previously ministered in Virginia and North Carolina. With increased staffing and administrative concerns, in addition to the demands of a new building program, Pastor Ray transitioned into the new role of Executive Pastor. In this role, he worked closely with Pastor Mark on specific ministry needs and cared for the day-to-day ministry needs of the church by overseeing the ministry council and church staff. Both pastors worked very well together and complimented the church’s overall ministry.

Ray has been married to Marlene for twenty-three years. They have four children—Jennifer, who will leave for college this fall, Andrew, a junior in high school, Ashleigh, age twelve and Kaytie, age ten. They have lived in North Carolina and Arkansas, so this will be the second large move for them.

Swan Lake Evangelical Free Church—Cottonwood, Minnesota

Cottonwood, Minnesota is located in the southwest corner of Minnesota, about two hours west of the Twin Cities and a hour and a half from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Cottonwood, along with Granite Falls, Redwood Falls and Marshall, establish a four-city commerce and community hub. Perhaps a recent Chamber of Commerce write-up best describes the smallest of these four towns.

Cottonwood, Minnesota, located on beautiful Cottonwood Lake in southwestern Minnesota’s Lyon County, is the home of approximately 1,200 residents. Cottonwood offers its residents both the advantages of a small community and the conveniences of a growing town. It’s a quiet, friendly town in which the values and traditions of the past haven’t been lost. Cottonwood provides its people with the necessities and pleasures of modern life by keeping pace with modern social and economic developments because of its numerous services and nearness to larger commercial centers.

Cottonwood is home to NorthStar Mutual Insurance Company, the Cottonwood Co-op Fuel Company, about a dozen other growing small businesses and, of course, numerous farms—both large and small. Southwest Minnesota State University is located in Marshall and Swan Foods also locates their headquarters in Marshall.

Swan Lake Evangelical Free Church

The early pioneers of southwest Minnesota worked to carve an existence out of the wind blown prairie; and they held just as firmly to the deep faith that carried them through the trials of settling the territory. Swan Lake Evangelical Free Church has roots that reach back to that faith, which, over the years have remained implanted in the Word of God, drawing back on His strength for nourishment and hope.

The first sparks of church life in this area flickered from the hearts of their simple homes leading to the organization of the Argyle Presbyterian Church. In 1890 the first Swan Lake building was erected south of Cottonwood on Co. Rd. 9. with extensive improvements being made in 1949 with the moving of the church from its original foundation and being set over a full basement.

In 1992, the country church building was sold and remodeled into a family home and a new sanctuary was established in the town of Cottonwood proper. The congregation affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America in 1983 and in 2002 a new sanctuary and additional classrooms were added to house the growing church family.

In 2005, Swan Lake Church planted a new church in the nearby community of Granite Falls, fifteen miles north. Today, Swan Lake ministers to a growing congregation reaching into Cottonwood and surrounding communities. The church ministers to many young families with an average age of thirty six. Many come to Swan Lake with a Lutheran Church background. The Swan Lake Church congregation is tied to either the agricultural, educational, food service or medical sector. Its ongoing mission is:

To honor God by helping people find and follow Jesus Christ.

Sunday services are focused on worship and the preaching of the Word, with a blend of contemporary and more traditional music. Weekly worship attendance averages around 150. Swan Lake Church obviously has a heart for the teaching and application of God’s Word. The congregation is bound together with a rich sense of community, which also spills over into the larger community of Cottonwood. The church family is intensely interested in reaching the community, with significant outreaches into the local public school and Southwest Minnesota State University through The Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Special lunch events are hosted for local business leaders and they provide ongoing programs for children in the community.

The Process of Change

So just what was the process of moving from an Executive Pastor position in Arkansas to take on the role of Pastor in rural Minnesota? The actual process of changing ministry involved several years of praying, evaluating and consideration. During this time, strategic people were included in the process to confirm God’s hand. The final decision was confirmed in the Fall of 2006 through LEAD, Leadership Evaluation and Development, a course conducted by the Center for Christian Leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary. LEAD’s purpose:

As you move toward the second half of your journey, we desire to affirm the many ways God has blessed and worked in and through your life … in the first half. We also want to better understand what He is up to in the second half and give you some developmental ‘tracks’ to run on to fulfill His dreams for you. … LEAD is designed to help you better fulfill God’s purposes in your life.

Through the final evaluation review by Brad Smith of LEAD was the statement:

Because Ray has some ‘tweener gifts,’ he could continue as an Executive Pastor or be a Senior Pastor in a church the size he is in now.

The actual process of connecting with Swan Lake Church went very smoothly and moved rather quickly. After several personal and family visits and numerous phone and email conversations, Swan Lake extended a call to Pastor Ray and his family. It became obvious rather quickly that this move was more than just a change of ministry position, but was going to be a cultural, regional, and ministry move that would involve considerable adjustment from the entire family of six.

The first steps of change involved developing and executing an “exit plan” for leaving Village Bible Church—well. Through the candidating process at Swan Lake Church, Pastor Ray was able to include and solicit the prayer support of Pastor Mark and several key elders. Pastor Ray chose to pick up on Village Bible Church’s vision statement: Building the Kingdom of God by the Word of God” as his foundation for communicating to the church family concerning his departure. Over the next several months, Pastor Ray shared his decision with the entire elder board, other staff members, the ministry council members and then, finally, the entire congregation.

Pastor Ray used the following weeks to thank the church for the years of support and ministry and to confirm their ongoing ministry so that they might see his departure as just another step in their vision of expanding the Kingdom of God. Key ministry responsibilities were handed off to other staff and lay leaders. In the end, Ray and his family leaving Village Bible Church, while difficult, was handled in a positive and timely manner. Pastor Mark’s closing words at an appreciation celebration sums it up well:

Ray, there is great joy in seeing you step out in faith for this next chapter God has for you. In Him, you are ready—you are ready in Jesus. In a serious vein, Ray I will miss you. I will miss your willingness to tackle any duty I asked over the last eight years. I will miss your faith and optimism, often expressed with a single statement: ‘Aww, It’ll be fine!’ or ‘It’ll work out’—even when you did not have a clue as to how it would work out or be fine, but it always did. I will miss the ‘iron sharpening iron’ discussions we had about everything from theology to the latest fad to hit Christendom to … well … other things we talked about that I dare not put in print. I will miss your wisdom and discernment, I will miss your friendship. I will miss your passion for a party—every time I would leave, whether six weeks for a sabbatical or just a week of vacation, my return was always an occasion to party.

I do have a bit of ministerial wisdom, in all seriousness, to pass on to you. It’s a philosophy of ministry that I read not too long ago, briefly summed up from Stuart Briscoe, recently retired from Elmbrook Church in Milwaukee. It’s a pretty good one: ‘Preach the Word, love the people, and pray for the spirit to move mightily.’

The Challenges of Change

After a three-day journey, two 28 foot Penski rental trucks, a bad alternator and 1,200 miles, the move for a family of six, a dog and two rabbits was complete. Houses were sold and bought and a new adventure was about to begin. Although the transition is still very recent, already specific cultural and ministry changes are obvious.

A New Church Community

Church community and relationships, while important at Village Bible Church, pales in comparison to the relational aspects of ministry at Swan Lake Church. Many in the congregation have strong family ties or grew up with one another, sharing school experiences and early life experiences. Today, many work together throughout the week with various employers and interact throughout the week with their children at the YMCA or ballfields. They have and continue to grow close to one another through mutual life experiences. As a result, relationship is much more important than schedules, timetables or project completion dates.

Informal Ministry

Coming from Village Bible Church where Pastor Ray’s day was rather structured and where much of his job was to develop structure and programs—and where he would not think twice about making appointments with individuals—this was a change. Now he must slow down and realize ministry and appointments occur throughout the day as you interact with people on the street, in the post office or across the fence.

Relational Ministry

With high relational ministry also comes high accessibility. Everyone sees the pastor as a friend and expects full accessibility. They want to see you engaged and involved with church, community and family events—and they might be hurt if you are not. Whereas before Pastor Ray might have been granted additional time—or another staff person might of handled the visit from the church—now Pastor Ray realizes smaller congregations expect him to personally enter into the celebration of a new birth or the sorrow of an accident or illness. One writer sums it up this way:

In general, small churches are unusually informal—and want the pastor to be also. Suggestions like, ‘Why don’t you call the office and make an appointment to see me?’ may be offensive to some. Pastors who are loved by a small congregation are usually those willing to be available in the grocery store and post office, as well as the church office. The highly relational nature of the small church encourages accessibility.

Accessibility

This informality and accessibility also relates to the business and decision making process of the church. At Village Bible Church there was a highly organized and detailed process for making decisions and accomplishing specific tasks—perhaps too structured. In smaller, relational churches, decisions are made quickly, after services in the foyer with one or two church leaders or even at the grocery store while picking out a can of soup. Plans and events, rather than following a school or church calendar, are much more susceptible to an agricultural calendar, with plenty of leeway given to planting and harvest.

Power Brokers

Obviously, many smaller churches also have key power brokers, individuals who directly or indirectly orchestrate much of what happens. As one district superintendent told Ray: ‘Quickly learn your power brokers, forge a relationship with them. They may not always agree with you and that is okay, but you must garner their respect.’ The challenge is fulfilling ministry as God is directing and keeping these individuals on ‘his side’ so they do not become hindrances to over-all church health.

Concluding Thoughts on the Challenges of Change

Village Bible Church, although it did have some specific distinctives such as being located in a gated recreational and retirement community, could effectively be summed up as a rather affluent suburban-type church ministry. Programs were mainly staff directed with lay supported. With growth at Village Bible came the necessity for the careful planning of resources, time and space. There was a certain expectation of excellence in programming. Smaller ministries are much more forgiving and actually the relational aspect of ministry usurps the program.

A New Social Culture

In a world of corn and soybean fields, endless hot dishes, the long daylight days of summer, cool evenings, time spent with friends and the occasional “uff du,” this also becomes the social fabric that is a small, closely-knit community. Relationships are as key on Main Street as in the church pew. Everyone knows just about everyone and knows much about him or her.

Building Relationships

It has been interesting for Pastor Ray and his family as they have settled into life in Cottonwood over the past two months. While on a tremendous learning curve of names and people, everyone already knows them by name. It is not unusual for Ray to walk into a business and hear “Oh, you are the new pastor over at Swan Lake, it is good to meet you.” Recently on a trip to Marshall (thirteen miles south) to register their vehicles, Ray was astonished to interact with a lady that could process his registration but also knew his name, the house he bought and details about his family. There is little anonymity in rural Cottonwood and there is a realization that news and communication travels quickly by word of mouth.

The Matters of Time

A quick trip to the dry cleaners can easily take forty-five minutes as you interact with individuals; to move along too swiftly will be seen as rude. One recent day, Pastor Ray left the house with several stops in mind fully anticipating being at church in thirty-five to forty minutes—an hour and a half later he pulled into work and, even at that, felt he had pulled away too quickly in a couple of conversations. Just like the agriculture calendar, time is measured not in minutes and hours but rather in seasons and relationships.

The Matters of Trust

It remains to be seen how accepting and truly trusting such a tight community will ultimately become. True trust will most likely be fostered over time. As Ray and his family have met neighbors, some have been incredibly warm and inviting, others have been almost scared, choosing to stop conversation and relationships at the front door, at least for now. It is hoped that time and genuineness will develop the trust necessary to minister, not just to the church family but to the community as well.

Agricultural Roots and Annual Calendars

Obviously the community is likewise tied to an agricultural calendar. Unlike Hot Springs Village—where the only agricultural concern might be purchasing peaches out of the back of a vendors truck or ears of corn in the produce market at Kroger’s—planting, harvest and the weather in between are all important in rural Cottonwood. With the short planting season of the northern climate, timing is everything; there are no second chances. Two weeks of drought or five minutes of damaging winds or hail can quickly take away the twenty percent profit margin for the year. All else must stop when planting or harvest time arrives. These dates are relative and depend fully on the year’s crop; however, once underway, fifteen and twenty hour days by many are not unusual. Other business—including extra church functions must be placed on hold.

Independent/Codependence

Agriculture, strong family ties, and harsh climates develops a community of hard working individuals dependent upon one another for success. This independent, codependence is Cottonwood. It
is a recommitment to hard work and a can-do