The coronavirus challenged compassion-providing ministries in new ways
Second in a series on long ministry
For 37 years, Steven Thomas has served as pastor of Huron Baptist Church in Flat Rock, Mich. Looking back, he sees his own ambition as a persistent challenge to his ministry. But fully recognizing the problem took years.
At age 14, Thomas heard a sermon on Isaiah 6 that culminated in the prophet’s statement, “Here I am! Send me.” Thomas told God he would do anything God wanted, and he began pursuing full-time ministry. After high school, he attended a small Missouri Bible college, married his wife Sheree, then attended Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary.
In seminary, a professor told Thomas he was destined to pastor a large church. The professor meant well, Thomas says, but “a young man in his 20s can’t hear that without it having an effect on him.” For Thomas, the effect was subtle pride and overconfidence in his abilities.
The Lord uses sorrow to help His children topple their idols of self-assurance … and set the trajectory of their affections toward Christ.
In 1983, he began pastoring at Huron Baptist. The small church came with challenges (initially, his weekly paycheck was $100), but the people eagerly received Thomas’ expository preaching. Members were willing to serve, freeing Thomas to focus on preaching, counseling, and discipleship. The church grew, Thomas said, but “so did my proud expectations.”
He had been pastor for several years before one man began stirring division. Thomas says the man subtly criticized the church leaders to other congregants, suggesting, for example, Thomas was not serious about corporate prayer or about visiting the sick. Over time, the influence had an effect. In one year, church attendance dropped from 150 people to 75. Thomas had assumed the church grew because of his abilities, but the membership exodus taught him growth depended on God: Thomas couldn’t make people come or stay. The church ultimately disciplined the divisive member, who eventually left and joined another church.
In 1996, Thomas led his congregation through an even more painful case of church discipline. When his oldest daughter returned from college, her parents learned she was involved in an inappropriate relationship. When confronted, she refused to give it up. Thomas and his wife agonized over what to do.
“Many men that I know seem to try to present themselves and their families as the perfect role model,” Thomas said. “Well, if that’s what you’re trying to do, and sin touches the parsonage, so to speak, what do you do then?” The Thomases told their daughter she could not live in their home as long as she refused to repent. Since she was a member of the church, Thomas fulfilled his pastoral role by leading the congregation to bring her under church discipline.
By 2001 his daughter, Sarah Akens, had married, and she told her parents she had repented and wanted to reconcile. Her husband had also become a Christian. Today they serve together at the church.
Akens, 43, says the church discipline was hard but necessary. “I would not have been repentant if I’d been allowed to go on as if everything was fine.” She calls her current relationship with her parents “probably stronger than ever.” Her father has baptized each of her three children.
Thomas now sees the good that God accomplished even through all the painful years. “The Lord taught me to rein in my own pride in what I was doing,” he says. “The Lord uses sorrow to help His children topple their idols of self-assurance … and set the trajectory of their affections toward Christ.”