How do you discern God’s direction and leading in your life? Do you pray and wait for God’s response, or do you use your God-given brain and the knowledge of experts to rationally figure out how to walk into the future?
That question, that tension, describes much of what has been happening at Forest Park Baptist Church for the last seventeen years.
It all started in 1988 when a two-flat came up for sale right next to the congregation’s property located at Harlem and Dixon. At that time the church complex included the church building on the corner and a parking lot with what used to be the custodian’s house immediately east of that. “I felt we should buy it,” Pastor David Steinhart remembered.
“I didn’t know why for sure.”
The congregation decided to purchase the two-flat for $81,000. Then in 1994 the next house in line became available for $55,000, and Pastor Steinhart was able to convince his people to purchase that one, too.
“When I first told the church leaders that we should buy the second house, they asked ‘what are we going to use it for?’ And I said ‘I don’t know.’ I was thinking about building a family life center, but I really had nothing concrete.”
“What I said was, first, that if our congregation was going to grow we would have to expand our facility somewhere, and that was the only place we could go. Second, I told them that we may never have the opportunity again. I think people generally saw the sense in it.”
So, in 1994 the Forest Park Baptist Church “campus” included”from north to south on Harlem Avenue”the church building, a small parking lot and three houses. The congregation used the rental money to pay for the mortgages. “We still didn’t know what to do with the buildings,” said Steinhart. “The decision time wasn’t yet.”
That decision time came in 2004, when the congregation paid off the mortgages and owned all three houses free and clear. The church’s policy had always been not to use rental income to pay for congregational expenses, so the church’s leadership had to make a recommendation regarding what to do next.
What they decided to do was spend what ended up being $10,000 on an architectural consultant from the Southern Baptist Convention who spent two days with the leaders of the church. “He went through the building on the first day and asked us all sorts of questions about our ministry and our needs,” Pastor Steinhart said. “He then spent all evening and the next morning working through the information he had collected and in the afternoon presented us with a recommendation.”
The recommendation included three phases:
Phase 1: Raze the first house and double the size of the parking lot. Estimated cost: $75,000
Phase 2: Build a new entryway off the parking lot with an elevator. Estimated cost: $520,000
Phase 3: Raze the last two buildings and construct a multi-purpose wing. Estimated cost: $2.3 million
The new entryway would provide a clearly visible way to enter the building. The elevator would make all parts of the multi-level building wheelchair accessible, the parking lot would be attractive to visitors and the multi-purpose addition would facilitate ministry to youth and the elderly.
Steinhart recalled the church leaders’ reaction to the proposal. “When we looked at phase two, the light bulbs went on. What a great idea. We would have never thought that on our own. This entryway idea is great. And the elevator will tie the whole building together.”
A number of things had come together. The property had been paid off. The committee had done some thinking on the new situation and had explored some options. And the consultant had made a proposal that made sense.
Steinhart said that what seemed like an instantaneous flash of insight was really the result of a long, 16 year process. “We had purchased the buildings, paid them off and identified some of the issues; but the consultant put it all together. We all saw it right away. I think the timing was really from the Lord. Before we met with the consultant we didn’t really know what to do with the property, but it wasn’t the right time.”
Steinhart noted that 2004 had been designated a “Year of Prayer and Fasting” by the congregation. “I don’t know how you quantify it,” he said, “but seeking the Lord in prayer”you wonder if that didn’t pave the way.”
So the congregational leaders grabbed hold of the vision”partly through prayer by faith and partly based on advice and insight from an expert. But what about the rest of the congregation, who would have to come up with close to $3 million if all three phases were to be completed? Would their faith and reason lead to the same conclusion?
Not only did the congregation approve the vision in January of 2005, but it seems to have energized the congregation and attendance has gone up some. Steinhart, reflecting on the events of 2005, said, “There were people who came to the church because they saw we were moving somewhere, and that was something that drew them. I’m not saying the building made that happen in itself, but the campaign has been a real encouragement.”
The next challenge would come in the fall. It is one thing to talk the talk of a great vision for the future. It is another thing to walk the walk of putting your money where your mouth is. So with “fear and trembling” the Capital Campaign leadership team planned a Kick-Off Sunday for October 23. The title of the sermon was “How to Prepare for a Miracle.” The team used a fund raising plan put together by Rick Warren of The Purpose Driven Life fame. The strategy called for a packet of information and a pledge card to be given to every member on Oct. 23 and sermon topics and a commitment Sunday on Nov. 20, when pledges would be turned in.
Commitment Sunday was preceded by a congregational dinner on Nov. 18 at which pre-campaign pledges would be announced. In mid-November, halfway into the campaign, the congregational leaders had no idea how much money would be pledged. Steinhart remembered, “Those of us who were leaders working on this capital campaign, we were very much praying, Lord, what’s going to happen here?’ We were really praying. You just don’t know.”
On Nov. 27″what the church called Victory Sunday”Ernie Hines, an elder, got up in front of the congregation and announced the results of the pledging. The goal had been $400,000 for phases one and two. A total of 92 people had pledged $348,967.46. The congregation erupted into applause. One person alone pledged $108,000.
Work on phase one, the parking lot expansion, is scheduled to begin this spring, depending on how the pledged money actually comes in. Don Allen, elder and co-chair of the capital campaign, said, “The plan is a three year commitment for phases one and two. We’re not going to build something without commitment. If we get $400,000 we can start planning.”
In other words, whether or not the vision”called Pathways for the Future by the congregation”will become a reality is still uncertain.
“A year ago we had to decide if we were going to come up with thousands of dollars for the consultant,” said Allen. There have been many successes at Forest Park Baptist Church since that decision was made, but the future is still, in Pastor Steinhart’s words, “fuzzy,” especially if the congregation is going to come up with the $2.3 million for phase three.
Allen said that the congregation understands that it will have to grow”perhaps double in size”if the vision of phase three will become bricks and mortar that enable effective ministry. In other words, even with several successes under the church’s belt, the long term future is still unclear.
Acknowledging this, Steinhart talked about what motivates him to carry on with the dream. “It helped me to see that God certainly is able and that we not be afraid to step out and go for things that are good. This is a good purpose of ours, and this is an act prompted by our faith. So I’m content to say ‘Lord, whatever you want to do is OK.'”