December 27, 2020
Brothers and sisters,
I wanted to share several important updates and reflections before Anne’s and my sabbatical begins in three weeks.
It’s been miserable, hasn’t it? So many beloved people have died, our jobs and schools and families have been dramatically rearranged, our mental health is bottoming out, and our country is more polarized and isolated than ever before. Even still, we know the Lord has been with us through it all, and we have seen ample evidence that he remains actively at work among us. As one example, our key partner PAWKids began feeding thousands of Grove Park neighbors every week. We were proud to contribute $100k to help expand their campus and extend their ministry. Sadly, 27 of our members moved away or shifted to other churches, but 73 adults and 34 children joined — not to mention the dozens of new people who have worshiped with us online since March. Covid has even prompted some positive changes in many households. Let’s not forget to praise the Lord for every kindness he brings, however small.
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give generously to the church, as God has provided for you. Tithes and offerings this fall have come in below our projections, though we’ve managed to keep our expenses beneath them for now. Fulfilling our mission always takes all of us — our time, our skills, our prayers and our resources. You can give most easily on our website or app. If you mail a check, it has to be postmarked by December 31 to receive a 2020 tax deduction. Thank you!
New Church-Planting Apprentice
Remember the engaging African-American pastor who preached on November 15? His name is Steven Gilchrist, and we are bringing him on staff this year. Steven and his wife Ebony want to plant a church in the PCA, and we want to help equip them to do it. A special gift, along with some funds we have long earmarked for church planting, will enable us to do it. The Gilchrists live in Smyrna with their 7-year-old twins, Leah and Titus. Steven has been serving on staff at Renovation Church for the past three years while he finished seminary at RTS-Atlanta. Please help us welcome and draw them into our community in the new year. You can also reach out to him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As most of you know, the session has graciously allowed Anne and me to take a six-month sabbatical starting January 18. Our first sabbatical was in 2013. We’ll spend most of it in the metro area, worshiping with one of our sister churches. The main thing we will do during this time is write. Anne will work on her Quad curriculum, and I will work on a book. We’ll also tackle some long-neglected house projects, get some counseling, read some books and try to have a bit of fun. Depending on the progress of the vaccine, we are hoping to visit my brother in Europe in June. Above all, we want to return refreshed, with renewed energy to serve Atlanta Westside for years to come. Please pray for us, as we will pray for you.
We have been working for months to line up the best possible preaching while I’m gone. We’ve planned three sermon series: Habits of a Healthy Heart through March, Parables of Jesus through May, and the Psalms in June & July. About half of the preachers will be our in-house pastors & seminarians, and the other half will be guests. In recognition of Black History Month, all preachers in February will be black. Our most recurring guest preacher will be Bryan Chapell, former president of Covenant Seminary, pastor of several churches and now the Interim Stated Clerk of our denomination. He literally wrote the book on preaching that I and thousands of others studied in seminary. I’m excited to see how God grows you through these unique and gifted voices. I’ll return to the pulpit August 1.
Our Remarkable Staff and Leaders
It is a huge comfort to me that we are leaving you in exceedingly good hands. Our growing staff is the most gifted and cohesive team we have ever had, and the most ethnically diverse, too. Under the energetic leadership of our executive director John Gunter, they have consistently gone the extra mile for the sake of our body. Our elders and deacons have, too. By January 17, we will have 22 active elders and 22 active deacons. Elder Jim Irwin is rolling off of the session for the next couple of years so he can focus on preparing us to expand into the front half of the building in early 2023. All who serve in these roles consider it an honor, but it can be brutal, soul-draining, thankless work. Few people have any idea how many hours they spend on their knees and in the weeds of shepherding and mercy. Thankfully, none of them is in it for their own glory, but only the Lord’s. Bottom line, don’t be afraid to lean on them while we’re gone. It’s why they’re there.
As Covid cases, deaths and hospitalizations continue to rise at an alarming rate, the elders are making week-by-week decisions about whether or not to continue in-person worship or other events. So far, we have decided that the protocols we have in place are able to minimize the risk of transmission for those who choose to attend, while the majority of the church continues to worship and build community online. That said, protocols only function if they are followed, and as my doctor told me last week, even families are only as safe as their weakest link. That goes for pods or “quaranteams” of friends who live life together as family, too. Even as people have begun getting the vaccine (including some of our own!), this remains a devastatingly deadly disease. Please, please wear your mask, keep your distance and wash your hands. The lives of people you love, and people Jesus loves, are at stake. And don’t forget to pray for, encourage and perform acts of kindness for the many healthcare workers among us who are profoundly exhausted from fighting it the last nine months, with many more months ahead of them.
Transformative Community Series
For the next three weeks I’ll continue the Transformative Community series Michael Phillips started this morning. I’ll preach on Celebration, Conflict and Commitment, all from the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians. I’m excited to leave you with these essential messages for an important chapter in the life of our church.
If there’s one thing I’m convinced of, it’s that Atlanta Westside isn’t about me or any other individual body part, but about what the Lord does through all of us together. I wonder how he will stretch us and bless us and surprise us over the coming months? I can’t wait to find out.
Grateful to be your pastor,