Pastor Kevin Sanders

"He must increase, but I must decrease." -John 3:30

Category: My Journey (page 1 of 8)

El Paso: Six Months In

I try to take the time every once in a while to write about the places I’ve called home. I shared my impressions of Angeles City back in 2011–this was a big move after spending the previous nine years in Manila. I’ve also shared what it was like to move back to the USA and experience all the reverse culture shock that comes with being back here.

I suppose I’ve been a bit of a slacker in terms of this blog–it’s just not quite as high a priority as it once was. But I do look over these old posts from time to time, and doing so always puts a smile on my face. These little digital memoirs are vivid reminders of God’s faithfulness and abundant blessings.

It’s been a little over six months since we moved to our current location. I’m reflecting on this adventure while Mare Cris cooks some longganisa and eggs for our (late) breakfast on this sunny morning. Here are a few of my thoughts (in no particular order) about the city known as El Paso.

The Franklin Mountains

The road heading to the church office.

I have the privilege of seeing God’s majestic handiwork every time I drive to the church office. The Franklin Mountains are magnificent, colossal monuments to the glory of God. These majestic ridges from His fingerprint speak volumes to all who are willing to spend just a few moments in contemplation (Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:20).

Where the Wind Blows

Each place I’ve lived has it’s own type of natural disasters. Earthquakes and typhoons were a regular part of life in the Philippines. Alabama has had more than it’s fair share of tornadoes. El Paso is generally free of these, but it does have it’s own brand of destructive (or at least disruptive) weather: straight-line winds. They can howl angrily for hours (sometimes for days) and displace anything that isn’t securely anchored to solid ground. There’s probably a sermon illustration in there somewhere.

Military

El Paso is home to Fort Bliss, a US Army post. My dad was actually stationed here back in the 60’s when he was in the Army. The military presence is pervasive–we regularly see men and women in uniform at restaurants, stores, etc. Many who have chosen to live here permanently have done so after lengthy military careers.

This military presence is reflected in the congregation I lead–most of our church members are active or retired soldiers (and their spouses/widows). It’s an honor to serve men and women who have sacrificed so much for the sake of this great nation.

Border Town

El Paso is located right on the border of Juarez, Mexico. It still feels strange to look over into another country while driving through certain parts of the city. Mare Cris and I haven’t visited Juarez yet, but maybe we will one of these days. It would be a shame to live a few miles away from  Mexico and never go visit.

Scenic Drive, overlooking El Paso, the border, and Juarez.

The demographics of El Paso have been radically influenced by its proximity to Mexico. The city is now about 80% Latino/Hispanic.

Espanol

Spanish is ubiquitous here, and a significant percentage of the population is bilingual as far as I can tell. I have occasionally encountered situations in which I’m unable to communicate with someone due to the language barrier (this is rare, but it does happen). Sometimes it reminds me of my first few months in Manila–feeling like the odd man out because I don’t speak one of most-used languages. The longer I’m here the more I want to learn Spanish. I just ordered some flash cards (this is how I began learning Tagalog), so we’ll see if I can make some headway.

To be continued . . .

Life 3.0: Confessions of a Former Missionary

This post may get kind of long, so here’s the short version: I am gainfully employed!  I have begun my new job/ministry as senior pastor of Apollo Heights Baptist Church in El Paso, Texas.  Keep reading if you want the long version (over three years in the making).

Best laid plans

As many of you know, Mare Cris and I decided we would apply for her spousal visa and move to the USA after we married.  We were prepared to wait out the long (11-month) process together in the Philippines.  But neither of us realized just how long we’d wait for some sense of direction after arriving here.

I was interviewing with a church here in the States before we even left the Philippines (2013).   We had agreed to spend a week with them after we arrived here and enthusiastically took a (long) road trip with high hopes.  We assumed we’d be starting our new lives with me as pastor of that congregation.  Things with that church didn’t work out (long story), so it was back to square one.

I still believed God was calling me to be a pastor, so I took every imaginable step in pursuit of that goal.  I added to my theological library.  I read books and blogs for pastors.  I updated my resume and sent copies out nearly every day.  I (naively) assumed we’d find another church within a few weeks or months.

What happens in Asia . . .

Starting over has been a humbling experience.  My time in the Philippines was filled with all kinds of ministry opportunities: Bible study groups, speaking engagements, books, a radio show, interviews on radio and television, etc.  I still get speaking invitations from there via email (from those who don’t realize we’re no longer in the country).

But missionary experience is not what the typical pastor search team is looking for.  Most of them want candidates that have been staff members in the American church context for at least 5-10 years.  I’ve often joked that “missionary” carries about as much weight as “pizza delivery man” on a pastoral resume.

Supply, demand, and delays

I thought the ubiquity of the internet would make it easier for me to find a church, but I think it’s had the opposite effect: pastor search teams are now bombarded with hundreds of resumes if they advertise a vacancy online (one church recently informed me they had received 441 resumes, and I’m sure some receive more).  Starting out with a 1 in 400+ chance of getting selected is daunting to say the least.

I’m speaking from the perspective of a pastoral candidate, but I also have great sympathy for pastoral search teams: sifting through all these resumes must be an overwhelming task.

Then there’s the time issue: hiring a pastor is usually a 6-12 month process for the typical church (sometimes longer), so a vacancy doesn’t mean they will be making a choice right away.

Combine all these factors and you can imagine the outcome: months of sending resumes and waiting, interrupted by the occasional “God is leading us in a different direction” letter or email (I affectionately called these “dear John” letters).

Every once in a while I would receive a lengthy questionnaire from a church that wanted more information about me.  I would fill these out and return them as quickly as possible.  We even interviewed with another pastor search team in 2014 (in Alabama), but they decided to hire another candidate.

Rejection from all directions

As time went by I expanded my job search into more familiar territory.  I applied for a vacant position where I used to work as a drug abuse counselor before moving to the Philippines (a non-profit organization/ministry in Alabama).  I did good work for them and assumed that would give me some advantage.  I was wrong.   The first two times I applied I was interviewed, but not hired.  I was not even interviewed when I applied the third and fourth time.

2016

Mare Cris and I experienced another ministry search mishap early in February.  We thought we had found a perfect fit for us only to see it completely fall apart (another long story).  The experience was devastating for both of us.

A few more months passed without hearing anything new from pastor search teams.  Mare Cris and I made a decision not long after my 44th birthday: we would give up on vocational ministry if nothing happened by the end of June.  We had held on for so long, believing God was calling me to be a pastor.  But God’s only answer had come in the form of closed doors, so I was preparing to stop searching for a pastoral position.  We believed three years was long enough to wait.

A pastor search team did interview me (via Skype) in June.  We did really feel good about the interview but we weren’t sure how long we should wait for them.  Their timeline was “sometime before the end of the year”–not exactly what we were hoping to hear.

Mare Cris and I decided to plan a month-long visit to the Philippines not long after the June interview.  She had not seen her family in over three years, so it was time.  September seemed like a good month, so we made the arrangements.

I was going to go ahead with our plan to abandon vocational ministry if nothing positive happened by the time I returned to the States (we would still serve the Lord, of course, but I was planning to find another vocation other than full-time ministry).

Out of the Blue

I received an unexpected call on the morning of August 8th.  A representative from the Apollo Heights Baptist Church (El Paso, TX) called and asked if I would do a phone interview with them later that evening.  I had long forgotten sending them a resume so hearing from them was quite a surprise.

We spoke for a while that night and things went fairly well.  They called the next week and asked if Mare Cris and I would fly out and visit them before we went to the Philippines (the last weekend in August).

Our visit to El Paso went extremely well.  I was struck by the ethnic diversity of the church: black, white, Hispanic and Asians–all worshiping our Savior under one roof.  I’ve never seen so many ethnic groups represented in a church of this size (about 80-90 people).  I preached Sunday morning and shared my testimony Sunday evening.  We knew the church would be voting the following Wednesday and we left it in God’s hands.

We received a call Wednesday night (the night before we left for the Philippines).  The church voted and the overwhelming majority wanted me to be their pastor.  Mare Cris and I were a bit stunned by how quickly all of this happened.

Putting things in perspective

I should clarify something before I go any further.  I don’t want you to get the impression that the past 40 months have been all bad.  They haven’t.  Mare Cris has been able to meet and get to know my family (they love her almost as much as I do).  We’ve successfully navigated the visa process and are close to acquiring her US citizenship. God has given me several opportunities to preach at different congregations in the Birmingham area, and our time with these churches has been extremely encouraging.  God has also provided for every single financial need, even in the absence of a steady paycheck (needs including extensive dental work, fees for visa/citizenship processing, day-to-day expenses, and even helping family members back in the Philippines–I could write a whole blog post on His provisions).  He has richly blessed us in spite of all the uncertainty and disappointments.

But being in limbo for over three years has taken a severe emotional toll on both of us.  Sometimes we questioned our decision to move to the States.

From the Tropics to the Desert

Franklin Mountains

Franklin Mountains (the view from behind our house).

So here we are in El Paso, Texas–we packed up and moved soon after making it back to the States from our Philippines visit.  The palm trees of the Philippines and the pine trees of Alabama have been replaced with a majestic view of the Franklin Mountains. This is all unexpected, like many of the greatest blessings in my life. We are looking forward to this new journey and we covet your prayers.

2015: The Year in Review

2015hourglassThere are only about 12 hours left in 2015 and I’ve decided to write a few reflections. It feels like the past year has flown by, but this isn’t really easy for me to explain. This year hasn’t been especially eventful for us. It has been more like stopping by a tiny town at midnight to gas up your car as you head to another destination. Regardless, I like to keep a record of what God has done in our lives. Here are a few things that come to mind when I think about 2015:

New Orleans:

I think the highlight of this year was our vacation to New Orleans, a place I had not seen in 14 years (I lived there in 2000-2001). Mare Cris and I enjoyed visiting this historic city together. It brought back many memories from my time as a student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. And we had the opportunity to build new memories in a place that’s near and dear to my heart.

New Friendships:

Mare Cris and I have met quite a few new Filipino-American couples over the past year. This actually started not long after we arrived here, but the number and depth of these friendships grew significantly in 2015. The interesting thing is this has all happened “coincidentally”–we’ve just met people who know other people. It’s always a blessing to make new friends and to stay in touch with the Filipino community.

Ministry:

God has continued to give me opportunities to preach at different churches here in the Birmingham area. Needless to say, we are hoping and praying for a permanent place of ministry in 2016. Until then we are doing our best to be faithful with every chance He gives us to minister.

Grateful and Hopeful:

Mare Cris and I would like to thank all our friends, family and prayer partners for the many ways you have blessed us in 2015.  More importantly, we are thankful to God and look forward to seeing what He has in store for us in 2016.  Hopefully I will have some exciting updates to share with you soon.

The First Hello: Four Years Later

One important tip I’ve learned for strengthening a marriage is to celebrate your story. It makes sense to remind each other of how you met and the infant stages of the relationship. That wasn’t too long ago for Mare Cris and me, but we enjoy talking about it nonetheless. It brings back really great memories and emotions that we want to preserve.

Meeting your spouse on Facebook has one distinct advantage: you can go back and look at some of your first “conversations.” I decided to do this a couple of weeks ago. It took a while to scroll up through thousands of messages, but I eventually reached those first few paragraphs that marked the beginning of our relationship. I copied and pasted them to a word document so we’d have easy access to them.

That very first message from Mare Cris came four years ago today.

I had just moved to Angeles City the evening of All Saint’s Day. I chose to move during this holiday because I knew there would be minimal traffic to interfere with my exodus from Manila (virtually all schools/businesses are closed on November 1st). Everything went smoothly: I had somehow managed to downsize just enough to allow all my possessions to fit in the moving truck. The trip to Angeles City took a little over an hour, and unloading everything took about the same amount of time.

The apartment (things still in disarray).

The first floor of my apartment on November 2nd (still in disarray).

My new apartment was half the cost of my place in Manila. It was located in a really nice subdivision near every imaginable amenity (grocery stores, coffee shops, etc.). Erwin, a dear friend and ministry partner, lived just a short walk away. Everything just came together beautifully.

My life could not have been better . . . or so I thought.

The very next day would bring a blessing in my life that I had not planned or even hoped for: a message from the beautiful woman I would marry just a few months later.

Life has never been exactly the same since that first “hello.” For this I’m extremely grateful.

Macau (December 2011)

Macau (December 2011)

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