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Third in a series on long ministry
Atheist Tom Sharkey became a Christian in college and was surprised when people urged him to become a pastor. “I kept hearing the word preach,” he says. “I just kept trying to push that out of my mind.” When a campus ministry asked him to preach for its service, he said no. But the group insisted, and afterward he received positive feedback.
Sharkey decided to consult the Campus Crusade staff, which he’d overheard saying people could serve the Lord without going into full-time ministry jobs like pastoring or missions work. Instead, the staff members saw him and said, “Tom, we were just talking about you. We were just saying you should go into ministry.”
Sharkey gave up. After graduation, he married his wife, Lucy, and attended seminary. But his new calling would come with plenty of ups and down.
In 1988, following pastoral experience at two churches, he began pastoring First Covenant Church in Youngstown, Ohio. Sharkey quickly noticed a problem: The church, with more than 500 members, had only 100 attendees on a normal Sunday. Sharkey learned that about 130 members had been “out of town” for a long time. He sent letters to follow up, received 110 replies, and began removing names from the membership accordingly. But the congregation bristled: The smaller roll “made them feel less important,” Sharkey says.
After nearly a decade at First Covenant, Sharkey contented himself with the numbers the church had, between 200 and 250 people. With his atheist background, Sharkey loved answering his congregation’s intellectual questions about Christianity. It was a joy to see church kids grow up and embrace Christianity. Many people attended faithfully, listened to his preaching, and grew in their faith. Still, Sharkey felt a portion of the church merely showed up and did not engage.
He says a consequence of long tenure at a church is “you go up, then you fall back. You fight up again, and then you take a nosedive.” In his case, the last five years have been the hardest. After a conflict with Sharkey, a worship team member convinced the whole team to quit, giving only a week’s notice. Another time, even though the church already had a youth group and youth pastor, a mother started a rival youth group out of her home. The church’s attendance dropped, and neither Sharkey nor his staff could tell what was wrong. At a local pastors meeting, he learned other churches were also shrinking.
Sharkey had opportunities to leave, but he did not feel God release him—until last year, his 31st at the church. After three prayerful months, Sharkey and the other leaders decided they should close the church via their denomination’s “Living Legacy” program, selling the building and letting the denomination plant other churches with the proceeds. But the congregation, aging and perhaps uninterested in attending elsewhere, voted down the measure. The church leaders and a sizable group of younger congregants decided to leave anyway. (The current church staff did not return my follow-up calls seeking comment.)
Sharkey struggles not to feel discouraged, but his son and friends remind him how God used him to help so many people grow. Looking back, he says: “The gospel is the thing that got me into the ministry and the thing that kept me going in the ministry. I often said that although I was hired by and paid by First Covenant Church, I work for the kingdom of God.”