Photo credit: Katey Erickson
"Launch an international school in 6 months; oh and pastor this small children's church on the side." That was our mandate when we were sent out to Guatemala in 2019. We were on a time crunch with starting the school because the paperwork was about to expire; we had to enroll students, hire teachers, and supply classrooms quickly. At the time, Iglesia La Gracia, the children's church, was made up of 2 groups - a children's church of about 30 village kids that would come to the extracurricular classes, Bible club and Sunday school- as well as a youth group of about 15. We weren't even quite sure what our role in the church was yet, nor if we would have the capacity to devote to it, (or the ability?), but we knew that we wanted to do what God called us to. Little did we know how much that little church of kids and our "side job" would grow, transform lives, and become a community of spirit-filled believers. We now are a church of over 40 children and 100 adults and growing steadily! We've seen dozens of baptisms, people coming to know the Lord, marriages restored, addictions and traumas healed, families brought together, and we've seen many mature in their faith. We've also had plenty of conflict, drama, hurt, and trials. Indeed this little church that we were called to serve has grown, refined, and matured us in ways we never would have imagined! The story is still being written, but I wanted to put down in writing some of our lessons along the way.
1.God's timing is perfect - “ In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” Proverbs 16:9.
Slow growth is good growth. Our church grew very slowly for the first 3 years and there were many times in the "slow growth" period that we wondered if we were doing the right things. We experimented and started initiatives; we struggled and stopped initiatives etc. Small groups would be small, then big then small again as interest in studying the Bible seemed to always peter out. Now I see how God clearly orchestrated the slow growth as an equipping period for us. We learned, handled conflict, overcame failure, and grew without the pressure of a large church. I look at all the small bumps along the way and see how they have equipped my husband for the larger and more frequent bumps that come with a larger church. The other day, Jon had some church members come to him with a conflict, but Jon said he had to try hard not to smile during the conversation, because this conflict showed that our church members felt ownership and cared about our church enough to bring up this issue. Because we've navigated so much conflict, mistakes and sin, we not only are able to more comfortably handle conflicts, but we are able to see see how God is working through them.
2. Lean on the spirit day-in and day-out - "Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season." Timothy 4:2
I never thought I would say this, but I am grateful that our learning period was also during COVID. We had a lot of trepidation about pastoring a church and launching an international school, but I remember haughtily thinking that if there was anything we could do well, it was plan, organize and put together a good calendar. We are great at spreadsheets and planning! Well, joke was on us, because our first 3 years of church growth can only be described as leaning on the Spirit (or flying by the seat of our pants). There were months where we were not allowed to leave our homes on Sundays due to curfew restrictions, months when we could only have 10 people in each building, or months when we confoundingly were mandated % occupancy rates (there's no firecode system with maximum occupancy here, so how do we calculate an occupancy rate?) One week, the government published the rules for every state except the state we live in, so we had no idea what to do (yes, they forgot an entire state!) The government rules would change weekly and we would have to make last minute decisions on how to run church. We also had to figure out a church virtual strategy when most people simply buy internet access by the day or hour. It was a maddening and stretching time to run a church, but it strengthened us. We learned how to give our best no matter the circumstance. We learned how to be ready to preach the word, worship and lead in every circumstance as Timothy 4:2 instructs: Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season.
3. We're not meant to go alone - If you aim to go fast, go alone; if you aim to go far, go together.
Like most growing churches, we went through the growing pains of learning how to delegate (not micromanage), vision cast (but still guide), organize (with clear communication), and most importantly trust others (while also discipling and disciplining). This is an area we are still learning and growing in, but it's true what they say: If you aim to go fast, go alone; if you aim to go far, go together. There are where God has answered our prayers and sent Iglesia La Gracia the perfect people to help us lead this little church. In fact, the growth of our church lately is largely attributed to an influx of mature believers who are on fire for the Lord and excited to lead and see God's Kingdom flourish in our little corner of Coban, Guatemala.
4.Practice makes perfect
One of my proudest wife moments has been seeing my husband's preaching ability grow in time. For years, he was the only pastor at the church and the only one preaching at the youth and later adult services. He would get a break for maybe 2 weeks out of the year when we would visit churches in the US (though he would be often asked to preach). While his preaching was always biblically sound, it was not always the right fit for our cultural context. Coming from preaching in San Francisco meant that his messages were speckled by references to multiple commentaries, philosophers and relevant world news headlines (lots of influence from training under Pastor Mark). However, many points would go over the heads of these high schoolers with barely a middle school education. I didn't know exactly how to help my husband, but I thought I would do my subtle best by listening to sermons on Youtube loudly within earshot. I would say it was for my spiritual benefit as I was still learning Spanish, but I was also hoping some of the more simpler and to-the point teaching would rub off on him. With time, experimenting and learning more about the culture, he slowly grew as a preacher and now his preaching is Spirit-filled, engaging, contextually appropriate and continues to be (most importantly) biblically sound. I genuinely enjoy and learn from his sermons which is saying a lot because we all know that the pastor's wife is the pastor's harshest critic.
5. Different types of soil
By far, the most painful part of our church has been seeing church members and even staff members leave. Some are due to positive reasons like our 1-year interns leaving each year, someone moving out of town, or a member taking a job elsewhere. However, some were due to conflict and hurt, some due to another church being a better fit, or some to cross the border against our advice. The saddest have been those who have walked away from Jesus altogether. We've shed so many tears, seen and unseen, over goodbyes. Like in Luke 8, the parable of the sower, I've learned first hand that as seed sowers, we plant the Word of God in people's heart with all the best intentions, but we never know how that seed will turn out. Some seeds are sown and birds eat them up, some fall on rock and some fall among thorns. Yet, some fall on good soil and yield hundredfold. In many cases we sow seeds and we never see see the harvest and in other cases our part is just a small part of their spiritual journey. While I want 100% of our seeds to fall into fertile soil and for spiritual growth to be easy, it is in God's control and timing. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what result we see, but what is important is that we keep sowing.
6.Rhythms of rest People often tell us, "I don't know how you do so much in ministry!" My answer is always, "We have a lot of help; God is our strength and carries us." But this comment always brings up a secret sin that I have always struggled with - I put my identity in my work instead of in Jesus. My prideful heart always smiles when I get this comment. What this means for our family, is that we have a hard time resting. Over time, we've learned that there should be a normal/natural rhythm of work and rest. I think we have finally achieved that in the last year and it has brought so much peace and harmony to our home, church, relationships and marriage. Our Saturdays are now protected as rest days. Even if we have to work harder on the other days to protect it, we now rarely let our work spill over into our protected time. If we have to use a Saturday for ministry purposes, we will discuss it, and generally make up the time another day - an afternoon off perhaps, a weekend away or a morning of family time. It took awhile for us to figure this out, but it has made a huge difference in our life!
We are so excited for this next season of Iglesia La Gracia. I feel that we have transitioned from start-up phase to building phase as we launch life groups, hire new pastors, and start new ministries. Please pray that we would continued to be led by Jesus and that we will continue to model his Word in this little corner.