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Report from Director of Church Health—March 2023
Rev. Larry Austin
Almost forty years ago, God made it clear that he was calling me away from a promising vocation in business to serve as a pastor. In August 1983, I left that vocation, my family, friends, and the church where I came to faith in Christ to prepare for the ministry. I had no idea of how that calling would unfold. I packed everything I owned into my 1978 Caprice Classic and set out to a place I had never visited, let alone lived. I remember having an note card with Mark 10: 29-30 taped to my dashboard as I started the 1800 mile journey west: “Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” Thirty-nine years on the other side of that moment, I say a hearty AMEN and give thanks for God’s faithfulness. What stands out is the immense faith family—brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers–that I have been blessed with in all the places I have lived and served. My gospel calling has not been easy, but it has been overflowing with true riches!
The past fourteen years I have been blessed to serve the pastors and churches of EFCA Central in the role of Director of Church Health. The decision to leave a fruitful local church ministry was another big step of faith into the unknown. Yet the promise of Mark 10: 29-30 remained true. As I write my final report in this role, my heart is full of thanksgiving for the friendships and gospel partnerships that emerged from this calling. True riches!
One might ask, “Are our churches healthier than when I started?” Whatever the measure, church health is an elusive target. “It depends” is an honest answer. A better, even more biblical question is, “Are our churches bearing fruit?” Are churches raising up mature, reproducing disciples? Are they more intentional in gospel influence and good works? Are they anchored in the inerrancy, sufficiency and power of God’s word and faithfully preaching Jesus from it? Just like our personal journeys with Jesus, progress and not perfection is the measure. Our churches are not perfect. In 2022, I have spent more time than ever wading into conflict and tension in our local churches. Yet where the people, word and Spirit of God are found, fruit is being borne, often in spite of the church. God is always faithful! The church with all its imperfections is still his plan for Kingdom work. What an honor it has been to serve the churches of EFCA Central!
2022 was a fruitful, encouraging year! Once again, some of the best fruit came from coaching and equipping pastors to be more effective in disciple making. Our Zoom based cohorts allowed me to connect men from across our district. I walked participants through the process of developing simple definitions, measures, pathways and processes that help people grow in the character of Jesus and competencies that help them bear gospel fruit and multiply other disciples. The secret sauce of these cohorts is collaboration and peer review. Last fall, I added a second cohort focus—helping churches design and build church-based disciple making core courses. Whether through large groups or small, disciple making is the essential work of the church!
These continue to be challenging days for pastors. As such, pastoral care remained an emphasis in 2022. I attended several of the regional ministerial groups this past year. They are so encouraging. Ministerial groups are a safe place to receive prayer for the challenges of ministry. We are blessed by so many mature leaders that convene and lead these groups. I thank God for them! Paul Bauman and I collaborated on a well-received conference breakout on self-leadership that became a discussion at each of our spring regional affinity retreats. These retreats were well-attended and served as a “sabbath day with a purpose” where we emphasized the importance of leading from the inside out. These retreats were also a place to share burdens and learning. As a follow up to our self-leadership conversations, I launched a fall learning community designed to help pastors abide and sabbath better. Men gave two hours to a weekly sabbath exercise and then connected for an hour on Zoom to share their progress and struggles. This was such a helpful and encouraging process!
2022 was a year for being intentional about succession. As I move to part-time, there are responsibilities I need to pass on. After thirteen years of organizing the November Workshop on Biblical Exposition, I handed off the leadership of the workshop to Chuck Mullikin and Westchester Church. Chuck has a team of Des Moines area pastors around him including Todd Hessel who did a great job with the important work of assigning texts and building small groups for this working conference. Jeremy Nelson was our local expositor. What an encouraging message he brought! The Des Moines workshop has a deep bench of leaders, allowing it to accommodate over eighty participants. Our November workshop in Judges was our second largest workshop ever. As we move into uncharted, choppy waters culturally, it is crucial that men stay grounded in the sufficiency of God’s word preached with gospel clarity and power.
I am handing off several processes to Mark Farran and Todd Brooks, creating detailed process charts, walking alongside them and offering advice when asked. I have been blessed to work with so many good leaders and teammates during my time at EFCA Central.
What’s next? I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to serve our pastors part-time as a Regional Health Coach. In 2023, I will serve EFCA Central in the following ways:
- I will continue to equip and coach pastors in the ministry of disciple making. I am a life-long disciple maker and long-time disciple making coach. I will continue to leverage that calling and experience to equip and coach pastors in becoming more fruitful disciple making leaders. I will use the platform of Zoom based cohorts to help pastors develop simple pathways and processes so that our churches flourish in the making and multiplying of disciple makers.
- Even with thirty years of books and conferences on leadership development, the church is still struggling to raise up and multiply spiritual leaders. I will be working with a few churches a year to help build scalable leadership pipelines to help local churches address the void created by the huge volunteer offramp that COVID created.
- I will continue to work with pastors in learning to live and lead better. I will repeat the eight-week learning community where men learn to abide better, live at sustainable pace, and as a result lead in a more God-directed way. An occasional retreat experience is planned on the same topic.
- In any setting, shepherding involves three P’s—pursuit, presence and prayer. Intentional pursuit and connection with pastors will continue to be a focus. Listening to, encouraging and praying with pastors will be a priority in my new role.
Finally, I want to give all glory and praise to Jesus for using this broken vessel to serve his people, leaders and churches. What a privilege and blessing to walk in his steps!