In order to plant a new church in Europe with the IBC (the International Baptist Convention), we had to undergo an assessment. We ended up in Naples, Italy in October 2019. Even though we had already planted a church, the trials and pitfalls of international church planting can be daunting for the most experienced. As constant learners, we knew there was much to learn, and this was an optimal starting point. For us, it was a renewing, encouraging, and revealing time. The assessment was Europe-wide, thus we experienced the assessment with other couples planting in Germany and the UK and met seasoned couples in international ministry.
One reward was befriending IBC pastors in Europe, South America, and the Middle East. Several were Southerners. For the unacclimated, that is the South – with a capital S. Where there are Southerners, there are SEC football fans. Even in Naples, Italy, we soon heard “Hotty-Toddy” and found die-hard Ole Miss fans in our midst.
We immediately saw the pastor couples’ favorite teams. They literally wore them on their sleeves with their shirts for the day. SEC football reigned: Florida, Auburn, and Tennessee. Major League Baseball was represented too. Being in the thick of the World Series, Houston Astros fans stayed up late to follow the games. My initial attention and connection went first to the Rebels, and I soon found Ole Miss fans who eclipsed me in knowledge and fervor. We were immediate family, as only the shared passion and burden of sports teams can birth. Our new brother and sister, John & Lucy Helverston, were from Laurel, MS, at that time pastoring an IBC church in Munich. Like everyone, they were encouraging and excited for us. As Mississippians, our first five minutes revealed all our mutual friends, as we dove into the time-honored tradition of uncovering “who are your people.”
The pastor who led the overall teaching time was Bob Marsh, also from Mississippi. His wife, Myra, is a Jackson native. They served churches in Mississippi and Atlanta before becoming pastoring IBC churches in Europe. The Marshes graciously took time to visit with us, to get to know us, and to encourage us in this new adventure. They were “retired,” yet by his teaching, one understood his love of communicating the Bible gave him the gift of devoting his entire life to equipping others. This was inspiring and instructive to witness: the joy of a couple in ministry who continually found excitement in their faithful service. As they carved out time to meet with us, they motivated us in our new endeavor. Hearing “How exciting,” and “What an adventure,” or “We are so thankful for you” gave us a shared connection and conviction, generations apart. Their own humility was humbling.
Meeting couples serving churches outside their home context is renewing for me. It’s not a regular occurrence, yet it connects with my own internal call that has been conflicting at times. The conflict arises as I’ve felt allegiance to my native home while concurrently a call to go outward and elsewhere. Seeing others from my own home, then leaving to serve God and others, lets me know I’m not crazy. There are others who’ve felt similar stirrings, wrestled with them, and surrendered to them. To offer definition: it’s knowing well the place you are from and can function within, yet compelled to another place, of a different culture, where you could flourish. This never diminishes your home base or your fruits there. It’s only the consistent pressing of being called outward to a place that is physically unknown, yet in your spirit its known as where you are meant to go.
This made meeting these Southerners in Naples affirming. The mind-set, conviction, and vision were the same wavelength. Temperaments and gifts differed; the worldview to go was the same. When I’m back home (Mississippi), I don’t regularly connect with as many of these kindred spirits. Not because they’re not present because they are. It’s many have gone elsewhere to serve. I had to be where these people were out in the world to find more. For us all, we can come back home, it’s always there. Yet we choose to make a home away from home. Those we got to know in Naples, serving God had become their ultimate home, wherever He led.
I believe you can be from a specific place, give to it, leave it, and take what is best with them. That place is a big part of your life as you journey to another. I hope to bring the best of Mississippi to Paris. I aim to build a pipeline, bringing Paris back to Mississippi. This can help enlarge others’ vision for what God is doing in the wider world. As that occurs, further partnerships and possibilities come to life: more people can go and see too. When we do so, we awaken to the fact our own destinies lie in many destinations.
Who would have thought we would meet Jackson, Mississippi natives in Italy? Or great folks from Laurel, MS? Naples, Italy was our destination last October 2019. Although we planted a church from scratch before, wise leaders from the IBC deemed it necessary for us to be assessed for international church planting – with its own unique problems & gift set.
I am not a Mississippi native, but I have learned that the entire state is a small town. You don’t play the game of six degrees of separation in Mississippi (do you know someone I know?). You play the game of 2 degrees of separation – even as a non-native Mississippian. Upon arriving, I discovered a couple whose wife grew up on Fairview St in Jackson (5 minutes from our home) and studied at Belhaven College, whose niece had a child in the same grade and same school (Jackson Academy) as my oldest child, and a Laurel couple who had good friends whom my husband taught their children (also at Jackson Academy). Common bonds bring instant familiarity. The ladies embraced me, as I did them.
Friendship arises in many forms, but the best kinds are ones where you are always growing. These ladies are more seasoned in life, but most importantly, they have survived the peaks and valleys of formal Christian ministry, particularly international ministry.
If you are not familiar with church culture, which I was not as the young age of 28 and moving to Mississippi to be a pastor’s wife, there are hidden vices. The local church can be a hotbed of gossip – yes, that is a sin, but one often ignored. The local church can be a stomping ground for people eager to prove something – to themselves or to others – and that is the antithesis of the cross of Jesus Christ. The local church can be brutally draining to a pastor and his family, with expectations of 24/7 care or “ghosting” (suddenly disappearing or cutting off contact with a letter in the mail or possibly without a word) – yet no one is to stand-in for Jesus, the ultimate shepherd.
I greatly admire older couples in formal Christian ministry, and I am particularly speaking of lead pastors and pastors’ wives, who remain faithful, eager, and joyfully undeterred in their mission to share good news. I have told John Hugh there is no greater profession that leads to hypocrisy than Christian ministry, aside from politics. As a religion centered around creeds, of which my favorite and earliest is “Jesus is Lord”, it is so easy to profess Christianity with words and look like you are a Christian. I have met too many pastors’ wives, wives of elders, wives of deacons, wives of small group leaders, who feel pressure to maintain a picture perfect Christian backdrop – and they miss the whole point of ministry.
To lead people to Jesus well, you have to be willing to grow. You have to take risks – in your faith life and in your heart. Too many people come to Christian ministry as a safe bet. Why? Because it’s an easy profession to act like you are growing when you are not. The two couples from Mississippi stood out because their lives are a very act of risk. To leave the comforts of Mississippi, no small task when the draw and pull to stay close to home ties the state together, and to proclaim the good news all over Europe is no small feat. And to be still doing it in their wiser years unveils a deep conviction and fearlessness.
Endurance is a sign of conviction. Joyful endurance is a sign of something special – and in the Christian world, we call it the work of the Holy Spirit. In COVID-19, we are all being tested in our endurance.
You may not be in formal Christian ministry like we are, but I challenge you: are you growing or are you stuck? Maybe you can’t move to another country like the couples I mentioned have. If you are rooted in one place, are you taking risks emotionally? God is greater than all our regrets. We don’t have to let the past hold us back. Grace is the only thing that is ever enough (2 Cor 12:9). “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times” (Martin Luther). I loved meeting some daring Mississippians who still love their home, wherever God has moved them. When you have grace, you can have a daring confidence.
ARE YOU STILL MOVING? YES…
Yes, we hope to move this summer 2020. We are committed to this mission, regardless of a pandemic or other deterrents. If you are interested in partnering, please join us in our journey today.
THANKS FOR READING!
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