Unafraid of Change
Introducing the new superintendent of the Eastern District
On November 21, my wife, Jessica, and I turned a key in the lock of our new home in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. With that move we officially entered a brand-new phase of life. But we carried with us an amazing legacy that we knew God would continue to unfold in this new place—a legacy based on what He did in the spiritual soil of Staten Island, New York.
For nearly 13 years I had the joy of being lead pastor for Salem Church in Staten Island. My wife, Jessica, and I raised our only child there, who now proudly reminds us of two things: She will always be a “New Yorker,” and Salem is her church. I love that.
Not only did Madison grow up there, but in some ways, so did her mother and I. Being pastor for Salem was a “first” for us in several ways: first experience with an EFCA church (although I’d previously pastored another congregation), first ministry in a large city, first time to live in the northeast (Jessica is from Virginia Beach and I grew up in east Tennessee), and first church to serve for more than a decade.
Salem is like many churches in the EFCA movement: It has a tangible love among its members and a solid commitment to missions, and it places high value on the Word. In addition, we are grateful for its deep Scandinavian roots.
Many EFCA churches share these ethnic roots, but Salem’s may be deeper than most. In 1905, a group of Norwegian seafaring men held an evangelistic tent meeting in hopes of ministering to other Norwegian immigrants. Salem was birthed from that meeting, and its members spoke the native Norwegian tongue for the first 50 years. The early stories of how God worked at Salem and in the New York metro area are chronicled elsewhere, but suffice it to say, the stories sound like they are lifted from the Book of Acts.
Most of Salem’s 21 pastors have been Norwegian, including Arnold T. Olsen, who served as our pastor not once, but twice, and went on to become the longest-tenured EFCA president.
Salem was never overtly exclusive to Norwegian people, yet I think it’s safe to say that our knowledge and appreciation for who we were became a hurdle to making progress on what we needed to become. Change is not easy when you have a history worth celebrating.
Salem had to make deep cultural and systemic changes in order to be the church God wanted us to be. Change took multiple pastors, many years and tons of divine grace. We had to do no less than rewrite our constitution and go through an extreme cultural makeover.
As a result, we saw God do some amazing things. Salem grew from an ethnic Norwegian congregation to a place of hope and life for people from more than 30 nationalities. The cultural mix is equally varied: those who’ve grown up in the church, those who never went to church, recovering addicts, a few converted Muslims and even a few who used to be involved with organized crime families.
The gospel of Jesus Christ, made alive by the Holy Spirit, is what brought us together and made us a powerful witness. What we saw God do through our small church community when Superstorm Sandy hit our little island in 2012 was absolutely supernatural.
I know that the powerful restoration and healing God did in our community then was only possible because of the change and unity God had already orchestrated in us as a church. He had prepared us in ways we never could have expected.
Building on those lessons
Only a few years later, God began making it clear that some of what we’d seen in small measure on Staten Island, He wanted to do in broader measure in and through the entire Eastern District.
After some soul-searching last spring, Jessica and I had just begun privately praying about our future in ministry when I received a Friday afternoon phone call. Evidently, other leaders in the EFCA believed that my experience and personality made me a strong candidate for the leadership our district needed in the season ahead.
God made clear to Jessica and me in a matter of a few short days that this was the direction we were seeking from Him.
So after several months of transition, we moved from New York to Pennsylvania and jumped into our new lives. (On January 10 I will return to our beloved Salem as former pastor and current superintendent of the Eastern District, to install the new pastor.)
While serving the district, Jessica and I hope to encourage pastors and leaders in the great work God has called them to. We hope to help other churches—those that find themselves in need of change as Salem did—let God’s Spirit lead them into and through that challenging journey. We hope to plant new ministries for God’s glory. We hope to equip churches with more missional approaches to reaching out and making disciples.
We hope to see the kingdom of darkness that has such a grip on the Northeast be penetrated with the light of the gospel.