Tuesday, May 9, 2017

We go to Church and Find a Business Meeting

Riverpark Bible Church, Fresno, California
Riverpark Bible Church, Fresno, California
We didn’t mean to go to an annual meeting. We thought we were going to the regularly scheduled Sunday evening worship service, and the website didn’t tell us differently, but upon arriving at Riverpark Bible Church, we found a table full of annual reports in the foyer. We arrived a minute or two late and people were already singing a chorus in the chapel, but we knew something different was coming.

We were grateful to be assured from the platform that it was okay for us to stick around. In the introduction to the meeting, the pastor said that visitors to any church should really go to a church’s annual meeting; if you want to know if there’s unity in a place, you need to go to a business meeting (which is generally what a church's annual meeting is). I’ve been to business meetings that have shown the church was not a happy place to be, and I’ve heard about a lot worse (death threats and such). This was not a death threat type of meeting. It fact, someone said, “There is a high degree of love in our church right now.” And it certainly seemed to be the case.

An annual meeting is a good time to hear about a church’s ministries and philosophy of ministry. We usually have to ask a lot of questions to find out about the kinds of things that are the chief topic of discussion at a church’s annual meeting.

Riverpark Bible Church has an elder led form of government, as opposed to the congregational government in the Evangelical Free Church I grew up in or the hierarchal form of government found in, say, Episcopal and Methodist Churches, where many decisions are made outside of the local congregation.

There are elder led congregations that allow for no congregational input. The church I grew up in went from a congregational form of government to an extreme form of elder leadership, and because the elders had little regard for the thoughts and feelings of the congregation, the church fell apart.

That’s why I was pleased that Riverpark acknowledged the importance of bringing in the whole congregation in on important decisions and direction for the church, using Acts 6 as the Biblical basis. In that passage of Scripture, the Greeks in the congregation complained they were being ill treated, their widows and orphans not receiving the same treatment as the Jewish widows and orphans. The Apostles, who were the “elders” of the new Church, knew they needed help with these things, so thought the best thing to do was appoint men to care for these needs, men in the office to be called deacons. But they brought this decision to the whole church and “The statement found approval with the whole congregation.” They acknowledged a Biblical basis for a congregational say in choices. (In this explanation, the pastor said pointed for the need for a Biblical basis for their actions, “That’s why ‘Bible’ is in the middle of our name.”) They also pointed to Philippians 2 and the importance of the church “being of one mind.”

Ballots were distributed and we took one. (Mindy said, “Remind me not to vote.” In the church I last served, we were not actually members. When there was an oral vote, she often found herself responding in chorus with a firm “aye” vote.) Members were asked to raise their hands. Mindy (and I) managed to keep our hands down and there was a quick visual estimation. It was announced, “We have a quorum. So we’ll be voting on a few things: elders, deacons and the budget.”

There wasn’t much drama in the election for elders and deacons (and after last year’s presidential election I don’t think anyone would object to the lack of drama). Three elders and three deacons were nominated, and all six were voted in. “If all you guys could stand,” and all the men stood, the newly elected along with the incumbents.

Mindy noticed that two new staff members were mentioned in the annual report; one was a woman hired to oversee the children’s ministry. The annual report read something like this: “Adding a Children’s Pastor to our staff was a matter of prayer for some time, but then we realized that a highly qualified woman could do what was needed just as well.” This rankled. Does it mean the church decided to hire a woman to save money? Will she do the same kind of work a “children’s pastor” does, just not have the title? Or was the report just carelessly worded? (To be fair, both women on staff -- children's ministries and women's ministries directors -- seemed well qualified and enthusiastic about their work.)

The discussion about the budget was a little more lively. A solar project to provide for the energy needs of the congregation was proposed. Three of the buildings on the property needed roof work done anyway, so the installation of solar panels could be combined with that project. A committee, which included construction and energy experts, had come up with a plan, and a fifteen year loan from the Evangelical Christian Credit Union would pay for the project, and according to the church’s projections, the savings in utility bills each month would more than pay for the monthly loan installments.

A woman asked about collateral for the loan. She was assured from the platform that the sanctuary building, which will be used as collateral, was not at risk and could not be lost.

A man then asked whether it was wise to take on another loan, as the church is already paying a loan on another property (which the city had required the church buy in order to provide for parking). “Perhaps we could hold off a few months and see if God provides without taking out a loan,” he suggested.

“You’re a Crown guy, aren’t you?” was the initial response from the platform. "That's fine. I'm a Crown guy too." Crown Financial Ministries was cofounded by Larry Burkett to help people with their finances, and a basic principle of the ministry is staying out of debt. Again, there was an assurance from the platform that the utility savings made this a practical financial decision.

Someone asked, “What about the elevator project?” (We never did hear in full about this “elevator project,” but apparently a previous project had cost overruns leading to a decision that on future projects, a committee with experience would make the plans, and any prospective indebtedness in excess of 10% of the annual budget must be approved by congregation.)

But again, there were assurances from the platform of the wisdom of this choice, “Solar is the way to go in the future.” Eventually, after it seemed people had had their say, a vote was taken. “That was exciting,” the chairman said after the votes were collected.

It was time for verbal reports from the staff.

Eben Sherwood, the Executive Administrator, said, “I don’t think the buildings are what is important, it’s the people. We have a warm, caring congregation but we need more small groups, people getting together. Who’s discipling you? Who are you discipling?...That’s my report, such as it is.”

Karen Drew, the Director of Women’s Ministries, said,  “Just put girl or woman in front of everything Eben said.” She also talked about Mirror, Mirror, an upcoming event with what was described as a very unique fashion show.

Mike Bohr, the Worship and College Pastor, said, “Let me say a word about the music ministry here at Riverpark. God will use all different kinds of music. We all have preferences, but we want all ages to worship here at Riverpark. We no longer have choir robes but we desire to see all generations worshipping together.” About the other half of his job description he said, “I love, love college ministry.” He also talked about the staff at Riverpark, “Everytime I go into Eben’s office I get saved. As a staff, we all talk all the time, and we are all on the same page, and we love one another.”

John Cox, the Pastor of Adult Ministries, has been on staff less than a year. He said, “I’m new to the church, but not new to ministry. The plan is to make every little area of the church about discipling. In the parking ministry, we want the parking people praying for the people that park. We want the people who visit here to be greeted by seven people on the way into church. There is much fruit in the church, we want more.”

George Posthumus, the Senior Pastor, spoke last, “We’ve got to be mindful of younger people. I’m a part of pushing for changes so we have all generations worshiping God. Blending songs so generations are brought together. Ties are not a part of that. Robes are not necessary; if God said wear robes, we’d wear robes. If you look at the pictures from 1905 on the walls at the Spaghetti Factory restaurant, you’ll see things have changed. We need to give the Gospel without distractions. Paul said in I Cor. 9 to be all things to all people. I do all things for the sake of the Gospel.”  He spoke about the importance of making choices in the church in a Christlike manner,  “We disagree agreeable. We have preferences, but we have to put preferences aside to reach other people. Good Bible teaching attracts people to church, but relationships connect people to a church -- discipling, doing life together.”

Then he said he was changing the subject. “I’m hard of hearing, so you need to say, ‘New subject.’ My Mom would see something and say, ‘That’s a disgrace to the ministry.’” He talked about certain things his mom might call a disgrace to the ministry: the restrooms in the Family Center, the Chapel, and the children’s check-in area. He had proposals to improve all those areas. He also talked about a relaunch of the website. Speaking about the ministry in general, Posthumus said, “I have intense optimism.”
The results of the vote was announced: 207 ballots, with at least a 2/3rds majority in favor of all the issues.

Pastor Posthumus said, “We want to be stewards of what you give to the Lord’s work.” To us as visitors, that certainly appeared to be true. If you take worship as a means of honoring God and serving Him, this annual meeting was a fine worship service.

Service Length: 1 hour 10 minutes
Sermon Length: Though not a sermon, Pastor George spoke for about half an hour
Visitor Treatment: People around us were pleasant, and we weren’t the only non-members there, but beyond a nod or two as we entered, there wasn’t much in the way of greeting visitors
Followup by Tuesday Morning: None (we filled out a connection card and dropped it in the offering box in the lobby, but that had probably been emptied for the week after the morning worship services)
Our Rough Count: 225
Probable Ushers’ Count: 250
Snacks: none
Musicians: acoustic guitar (man)
Songs: "I Believe/The Creed"
Distance to Church: 4.5 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: 1
Church Website: riverpark.org