While in seminary, my family and I attended Salem Evangelical Free Church in St. Louis, MO. In a few days, as I complete my first five years of ministry, thankfulness for their investment in me is bubbling over. Here’s a copy of a letter I recently wrote to them.
* * *
May 26, 2015
Salem Evangelical Free Church
2490 Pohlman Road,
Florissant, MO 63033
Dear Salem Evangelical Free Church:
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). Those words are from the Apostle Paul. He wrote them, not after 5 years of ministry, but a lifetime. I can’t say what he said. But I can say that I’ve finished a certain milestone. And I’m writing to you, Salem Evangelical Free Church, to tell you thank you so much for helping me get there.
My wife, Brooke, and I were at Salem while I attended Covenant Theological Seminary. Five years ago, when we left Salem for my first job as a pastor in Tucson, AZ, we had 3 children: Noah, Hudson, and Eden. Now, we live in Harrisburg, PA where I’m a teaching pastor at Community Evangelical Free Church, and we have 2 more children than we when left: Izzy and Judah.
While at Salem, you graciously gave me a scholarship, so that (along with the help of others) we were able to finish seminary without debt. I can’t thank you enough for that.
And not only did you help us financially, we also received support in many other ways. There was encouragement and discipleship from Pastor Jeff. There was friendship with Tom, Brycen, and Marc (and Brooke with Kacey, Amelia, Megan, Esther, and Paula). There were young adults to share small group Bible studies with, people such as Andréa, Brycen and Kacey, Megan and Allen, Marc and Esther, and Sarah and Trafford. Then there was the men’s ministry, who listened to my occasional lesson. And of course, there were plenty of trees to drop leaves so that I could work on my “leaf raking skills” each fall!
I was also blessed by my opportunities to preach. Do you remember the time I preached Judges 19-20 during Advent? Yikes. Who lets a seminary student do that? And then there was the time I led a three-week Sunday school class on the Bible, homosexuality, and culture. If I remember right, in the class there were a few people in their 80s, and at one point, I had us looking at lyrics to a Lady Gaga song.
You also taught us about the importance of membership in the local church. In fact, I remember when we pursued membership, Pastor Jeff and Joe Fey came to our house for the interview and they listened to how the gospel message had changed, and was continuing to change, us. To this day, when Brooke and I think about what it means for the local church to be the “body of Christ,” we think about the time when our son Hudson was born. To say the least, things didn’t go well. But you, Salem, were there: ready to help, ready to serve.
And do you remember the time you threw us a going away party? We thought we were going to our last small group meeting, and as we rounded the corner in the church basement, my young daughter was so surprised to see the whole church that she dropped the bowl of chopped pineapples we had brought! For the party you even bought us ice cream cakes from Doozles, our favorite! And then there was your attendance at our annual Christmas party and cookie decorating competition (which, by the way, continues in it’s 11th year).
You’re commitment to us continues to bear fruit. In the last 5 years, I’ve helped launch 40 small groups and preached 55 sermons; I’ve officiated the premarital counseling and weddings for 9 couples (with 4 more to go this year); I’ve written 107 blog posts, 3 poems, 2 short books (with 1 more to come soon), and 1 worship song; and I’ve cried countless tears—some were tears of joy, others were not.
A seasoned pastor once told me that he wants to write a letter to everyone who listened to his first 100 sermons to say “thank you for tolerating them.” I have 45 to go, but even now, I understand what he’s talking about. It takes faith in God to allow opportunities for a young pastor to grow and faith in God to be gracious to him when he messes up. Thank you for having this faith in God.
Finally, I want to make sure I specifically thank Tom Reidy. Tom, in your message to me at my “sending service,” you prayed that there would be those in my life who would hold up my arms when I was too exhausted to hold them up myself (even as Moses needed this in Exodus 17). Church, you should know how faithfully Tom has done this for me. He has continued to read everything I write, listen to every sermon I preach, and, almost without exception, send me a note of encouragement once a month. Oh, and a few times a year, I get a book in the mail from one of my favorite authors. What a friend; what a brother! I loved the times we spent together before work at the “golden arches”—and not just because, for some reason, Tom always said it was “his turn” to pay.
In truth, I don’t remember most of the specifics of the scholarship you gave me. But I do remember one stipulation, namely, that I had to continue in ministry for at least 5 years, and if not, I had to pay it back. On Wednesday morning June 1, 2011, I started my first day of fulltime, vocational ministry in a local church. In just a few days, it will be June 1, 2016. I’m sticking this letter in the mail a bit early so that it gets there on time. I hope you’ll forgive my presumption!
Again, I am so thankful for all you have done and continue to do.
Grace and Peace,
[Family photo, Marti Aiken Photography]