Vindication. It’s not something we get to experience very often. I know that in my 15 years as a pastor, I have only experienced vindication one time. That was back after I stepped down as pastor from Trinity Baptist Church in Dallas (now closed). I was shopping at an area grocery store and saw one of the former members, Mary Alexander. Mary was the 92-year-old matriarch of the church (this is another way of saying that she thought that gave her a right to control everything). There was a sweetness to her, despite that, but she was my harshest critique and biggest challenge.
I remember one time in the midst of a business meeting, she announced that I needed to realize I was the CEO of the church, and that I was responsible for everything. It took everything I had in me not to say, “Well if I’m the CEO of the church, you are all fired!“
Another time she interrupted me in the midst of some presentation in a business meeting and wanted to know why we didn’t have a periodicals table. Apparently, at one point in the history of this comatose church, there had been a periodicals table in the lobby. It was full of things to read and that was the reason why the church was not growing and thriving… we didn’t have a periodicals table. Yes, let this be a lesson to all elders, deacons, control-freak matriarchs! Your church can only thrive as long as you have a periodicals table! After much debate, it was decided that I would put out a periodicals table in the lobby. We really didn’t have much for the table, so I would put out every piece of junk mail we got, including the catalog from the company that sells floor mats. That satisfied her… for a brief moment.
I did everything I could with that church to see if the Lord would turn it around. However, there wasn’t much I could do. No matter what I suggested, those left in the church were strongly opposed to it. The only suggestions I would get from them were things that were completely impossible in our state of expiring. For instance, Pete Smallwood, the lone mobile deacon, wanted me to start a youth club. That was the answer in his mind because the youth club brought them back to their glory days… aka the 1950s when every church thrived. There was just a small problem with that. We didn’t have any youth to start a youth club. We did have one family come once that had children the perfect age for a youth club. But the father never would return my phone calls. I imagine that he took one look at that congregation and realized what I didn’t want to admit to myself: the church was already dead.
The best thing for Trinity Baptist would have been for us to close the doors, give the remaining assets to area missions and all go join thriving churches. After all, this was in Dallas. There were no lack of thriving churches to join. I did suggest this at one business meeting, but quickly backed down once they started boiling the tar and plucking the chickens.
As time wore on, I slowly realized that there was nothing I could do with the congregation. I was doing my best to preach and pastor faithfully. I started by preaching through Ephesians, and after I finished that book, I went to the gospel of John. All the while, they were saying things like “great sermon” on the way out the door, but “you need to preach good Baptist doctrine” at other times. This really confused me. What was good Baptist doctrine? Given the fact that I was attending Dallas Theological Seminary, I thought I was preaching good Baptist doctrine.
I wasn’t. I was becoming a Calvinist in my convictions even though at that time, I was clueless about what a Calvinist was. Needless to say, but I’m still saying it, the Bible was shaping my convictions and beliefs. I guess TBC wasn’t used to that. They wanted me to preach on the evils of drinking, and have an altar call every Sunday. I hated that. I would give altar calls, and the same fellow student would walk the aisle every Sunday because of the convictions he was having about his sin. I’m glad he was convicted. But I didn’t really feel he needed to tell me about it every Sunday.
Finally, I did ask Mary about good Baptist doctrine. I was walking around the Sunday school classes before service one morning and over heard Mary trying to get the proxy vote from one of the other members (this is something that no church should ever allow. Proxy votes give one or two people too much power. Peter Smallwood used them regularly). I over heard her saying, “we’ve got to get rid of this pastor. He is teaching too much Dallas doctrine! I need your proxy vote.” The only reason I’m sure I heard her correctly is that the woman she was petitioning for the proxy vote was hard of hearing. Mary had to yell those words.
I couldn’t believe it. Mary was trying to muster the forces in order to force me out. What betrayal was this?
I confronted her immediately. She wouldn’t look at me or answer me. I pressed the issue. Finally she said, “we got to get rid of you. You keep preaching Dallas doctrine instead of good Baptist doctrine!”
“What is good Baptist doctrine?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but that’s not it.”
I was slowly coming to the realization that things were not going to work out like I hoped. Reality was slowly taking over foolish optimism. My days were numbered at TBC.
There are always signs to a church’s demise. The refusal to hear good, solid Biblical preaching is one of them. The other, is how they view the use of money.
The church had money, like a lot of old churches do. But they were unwilling to spend it on any real, significant ministry. I’ve come to the conclusion since that time that the worst thing that can happen to a church is to be given a large amount of money. The leadership tends to become tight-fisted misers and ministry goes out the window. In other words, holding on to the money is more important than reaching the lost. Pete Smallwood was the perfect example. He would do anything and everything to keep from spending money for ministry. I’m convinced that he was just waiting for the church to die off so he could pocket the change. After I stepped down from being the pastor, they did finally take some of my advice and sold the building. Pete was the one who worked the deal. He told the congregation he sold it for a mere $75,000. He told them it was an old building, so it wasn’t worth much. Never mind the fact that is was PRIME real estate in the middle of Dallas. I later met with the pastor who ended up with the building and found out that Pete got more like $600,000 for the property. The miser in him, kept the money hidden from the congregation. They later got it all, after Pete suddenly died at his desk from a heart attack. The hand of God?
It was after all that took place that I saw Mary Alexander in the area Kroger. She was sitting in a chair, clipping coupons. I really sensed the Spirit moving in me to go speak to her. For the first year after I stepped down, that would not have been a possibility because I was too hurt from the entire experience. I needed time to heal from it. As a typical man, a lot of my identity is wrapped up in what I do and my success in what I do. I have had to die to that idol over and over again. There is no room for it in the ministry. The point being that it really took some time to heal and seeing her on that day was part of the healing.
I smiled as I walked over to her. There was an empty chair next to her and a plopped down in it. She looked up from her coupons and smiled. We exchanged pleasantries. It was good to see here. Even after all that had happened at TBC, I was glad to see Mary. I asked her how things were going and she admitted not very well. That is when it finally came about. She simply said, “we should have listened to you when you were there. You were right.” I couldn’t believe that Mary admitted it. But she did and I simply said “thank you.”
That was the moment of my vindication. It was sweet. But more than that, despite all the conflict that Mary and I had, I saw the Spirit moving in her as well. For a good portion of time, I doubted her salvation. She was such a pain. I have realized just how much conflict true believers can have with one another. The question should never be, “is that person saved?” If they are in the church, professing faith in Christ, we must trust in that.
The question should be, “are they following the Spirit’s leading, or the leading of the flesh?” (Just look at the church at Corinth and all the sin that was taking place there.) For most of the the members of TBC, it was the more often than not, the flesh. Whenever the flesh rears it’s ugly head is the moment that a church becomes less and less healthy. If that continues, then God removes the lampstand, as He did with TBC. I’m sure that most of them have gone on to be with the Lord. That was back in 1995 when all that started. The fellow students that were helping me there, all graduated and went off to their own ministries and the rest of the congregation were in their 70s and above.
I’m glad I had the experience in hind site. But it wasn’t easy when I was there. When a church reaches a state that they are holding on to their past, or their money instead of Christ, they need to close their doors. TBC learned the hard way, despite my efforts. Yet God in His goodness, gave me that one moment of vindication. It would be nice to have more moments like that, but we have to trust the Lord. He is the One who is ultimately vindicated for His glory. That should be our focus, not our own vindication.