Pastor Kevin Sanders

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

Tag: Sovereignty

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.

When God Makes Diamonds

diamond

I preached from this passage in the Book of James a couple of weeks ago:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
-James 1:2-4

I’m not sure why I felt drawn to the first chapter of James, but I suspect I my listeners needed to hear this encouragement.  I know I did–I felt like I was preaching to myself more than anyone in the congregation.

James presents an uncomfortable truth in this text:  there are some qualities God can only develop in us through trials.  Enduring these tests will give us perseverance (“steadfastness”), which will eventually result in maturity (“perfect and complete”).

I wish this wasn’t true–I wish there was some shortcut to being more Christlike and more dependent on the Lord.  But the experience of millions of believers (including yours truly) confirms what the Word of God teaches in this passage.

As I meditated on this text I started thinking about diamonds, which are some of the most precious stones in the world.  My mind wandered back to my whirlwind romance and my quest for the perfect engagement ring for Mare Cris.  I did a little research to get an idea of how these beautiful gemstones are made.  Geologists universally agree that diamonds are formed under crushing pressure and intense heat.

Think about that for a second: crushing pressure and intense heat.  God uses the most hostile conditions imaginable to create the world’s most exquisite and valuable objects.

He also uses trials and suffering to produce something of eternal value: a saint.  Please remember this if you are in the midst of a painful test.

When God Closes Doors

Locked_Door

I was lying awake in bed one night a few months ago.  Earlier that day I had received familiar news: I had been turned down for some kind of work/ministry position.  I don’t really remember the specific position or exactly how I was notified (email vs. “snail mail”).  This kind of thing has happened so many times that it has become a familiar and forgettable event.

But I do remember something different in my reaction: “You should thank God for closing that door,” I said to myself.

So I did.  Maybe I thanked God begrudgingly–the same way a child thanks a relative for a birthday gift he really didn’t want.   Gratitude can be difficult after months (or years) of hearing God say “no.”

But my heart did become more grateful as I pondered the ways God has used closed doors to guide me into His perfect plan.  I’m about a month away from an important anniversary: the day I left American soil for the first time to move to Manila (July 11th, 2002).  But I never would have made it to the Philippines if certain opportunities had opened up for me here in the States back in the late 90’s or early 2000’s (I’ve mentioned this before).   An incredible decade of ministry may have never even happened if God had given me what I asked for.

Lying beside me was my beautiful wife, an exquisite reminder of this truth.  She came to me after years of romantic frustrations and mishaps–some of which happened only months before I met her.  But it was all worth it, and now I’m grateful for every closed door that led me to her.  Here’s a line from my first love letter to her:  “I would take this path all over again as long as I knew it would lead me back to you.”  I meant every word.  I still do.

So I thanked God for closed doors that night.  Since then I have disciplined my soul to thank Him each time a promising opportunity turns into disappointment.  I know I can trust Him.

You can, too.

“What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.”
-Revelation 3:7

Photo courtesy of wiki commons.