This is the letter that my dad sent out to Grace Church-our church in CO. This is bittersweet--I am so hearbroken for my family but of course, selfishly, I am excited for me.
Dear Grace Church Family,
This is the email few want to write and even fewer want to read. As I prepare to say what is on my heart, Paul's words to the church in Philippi ring in my ears, "I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (1:3-6)." There are no words to describe my love for Grace Church. She has caused me to be infuriated at times but has changed, blessed, stretched, and encouraged me over the last four and a half years. I am a different person because of you and that impact will last into glory. With that firmly in mind, please proceed.
One writer likens God's pursuit of His children to a hound's pursuit of a rabbit. It is never fun being the rabbit, but as Christians, we know that His pursuit always ends in the arms of the Father. Over the last few months, I have been running from a call I feared would end in my departure from Grace. I feared that it would because for some fifteen years, I have been compelled by a vision of a church being started in downtown Memphis, TN. Memphis, having just earned the title of the number one violent crime city in this country, has lived in the shadow of deep racism and an ever growing disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots.” It is the city that hosted the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, the garbage workers strike, race riots, and more. I have heard stories from those in my parent's generation of white people locking arms to keep "blacks" out of "their" churches during the days of integration in the late sixties and early seventies. Whereas laws and some perspectives have changed, segregation and racism still exist-- even, and to some degree especially--in the church. The accepted way to do church is for African American and white people to go to their respective churches. I have always felt the great need for this to change. Paul tells us that the gospel is the very tool for that change. He reminds a racially and ethnically diverse people, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:26-28).”
So how could a vision to plant a church in Downtown Memphis be compelling from the vantage point of Fort Collins, CO--Money Magazine's number one city in the country to live? The story of Nehemiah may provide some insight. He received word that Jerusalem, the great city which he loved, was in shambles. It so impacted him that King Susa, the king he served, recognized his sullenness and asked, "What is it you want?" After praying and being led by the Holy Spirit he responded, "If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it." (Nehemiah 2:4-5) That communicates my sentiment in so many ways.
I am at an age, or stage in life, that I am asking the larger questions, like, “How has God gifted me and where would those gifts be best utilized in His kingdom work?” After a lot of soul searching and prayer, I think my strongest gifts are in creating a bold vision for a place and people trusting God to bring about His work through gospel preaching and living relationally authentic before and with those people. That is pretty much who and what God has made me to be. Though the work here is far from finished, it has been strongly begun and is moving forward in this direction of gospel ministry and culture. The gospel vision is clear, you guys are firmly committed to it, and, I am convinced, will never compromise it.
In the midst of asking these questions, and possessing the longstanding pull to downtown Memphis, a church in that city approached me about the possibility of planting a church there. I told them about my compelling vision for a racially diverse church and what would be needed to plant such a church. At first they were not on board with this vision, but eventually came around. In the midst of this I struggled with the timing, our love for Grace and the uniquely strong relationships we have built and will always cherish. At the end of the day, however, this vision for Memphis, the assessment of my gifts, the burden of our aging parents, and the needs of our family have come together to convince me to take this call.
So what about Grace Church? Please know that I have thought, prayed, and sought counsel long and hard about you all. The future health of Grace and the strength of Grace moving forward have been first and foremost on my mind and heart. The first comfort I have in my departure, however, is the clear calling and giftedness of Scott Lowe. I met with Scott in early November to tell him of the possibility and asked him if he and Amy were committed to staying at Grace long term. After consulting with Amy, he affirmed that they feel called, and are settled and committed to the vision, mission, and people of Grace. In his words, “We feel called here and do not want to leave!” Since that time he has affirmed this call and even feels that his call has grown stronger. Another comfort is the surplus of leadership that exists at Grace. In our denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America, the leadership of the church lies in the hands of the elders. Whereas we do not have elders trained and ordained as of yet, Scott and I were ready to begin the training process this past January. We postponed the training due to me processing through this new call. Thus, we may very well begin this process soon and see elders in place before my departure. The final comfort that I will mention is the backing of our local presbytery. I spoke with the chairman of the committee that has oversight of our church plant and he affirmed his willingness to back Grace in any way possible. He and the committee will be available to advise and for counsel with our leaders and congregation along the way toward finding the right man to serve as pastor of Grace.
I also want to communicate that another big concern in our decision was the uncompromised desire to see Restoration Now and RUF move forward. I do not want to compromise their support or viability in any way. These two ministries are vital to the vision, mission and life of Grace Church. Whereas there is no way to completely control the affect on them, my hope and plea is that we rally around the Bakers, the students, and the Roloffs in this transition. Both of these ministries are in great hands with Ryan Baker and Josh Roloff, but they will need our support during this time!
So what is the process of moving forward? I will not be leaving until this summer which gives me a good amount of time to work with our leaders, Scott and presbytery to formulate a solid plan. We will be answering questions like, is it wise to train and install elders before Richard’s departure? What are the gifts and role of the pastor coming in relation to the present needs of Grace? What is Scott’s role in this? Etc. As these questions are answered, we will waste no time in moving forward.
I know, by the reaction of the few I have told, that this will hit many completely by surprise. I fully understand that this will be a potentially hurtful announcement that may cause much fear. Please know that this is about God’s call on my life, my family’s life, and nothing else. We love Grace Church more than you can possibly know. It has been a gruelingly painful process to discern this call over the last couple of months. We cannot imagine life without the relationships we have witnessed God build here and are having to die a real death to even make a decision to leave. I am confident, however, that the gospel will continue through you for years to come!
I also know that some of you may want time to process this with me. The reason I sent an email, which seems so impersonal, is that I might give you all a time to process and then talk. I will be available at the church tomorrow (Saturday) at 2 p.m to answer any questions that you may have. I will also stay around after worship on Sunday for the same reason. Please be in prayer for all involved and impacted by this decision. As I pray for you, my hope is that you will pray for me, my family, and a future church in downtown Memphis. May we all unite around the desire to see the gospel go out to many in varying places!
Much love and grace, Richard