I am writing these words with a grateful, but heavy heart. Today I am resigning as the Senior Pastor of Christ Community church in Murphysboro in order to accept the call to become the Lead Pastor of Bethesda Christian Fellowship in Knoxville Tennessee. This has been the most difficult decision of my life. In recent years I thought I would retire from this church, but God had other plans. The reason the decision has been difficult is because with every fiber of my being I love Christ Community Church and Murphysboro Christian Academy. There are bigger churches and schools, but there are none better.
Murphysboro and Southern Illinois are the only places my children have known as home. This has been the most wonderful place to raise our family. In August of 1993, Melanie and I and Natalie drove into Murphysboro with a few belongings and truck load of dreams. Kristiana and Noah were born at St. Joseph’s hospital. My kids were saved, baptized, filled with the Holy Spirit and given a wonderful education because of the ministry of this church. Murphysboro Christian Academy has helped shape my children’s lives. All three of my children would describe MCA as the best educational and character formation environment of their academic lives. Whatever sacrifices you may have to make to place your children in MCA I guarantee you that it will be worth it. We are moving to a city where the least expensive Christian schools are around $7,000.00 a year. I will make whatever sacrifices necessary to have Noah in a Christian high school. While our church has been very generous to us, Melanie and I have never owned a new car or even had a bank account to speak of. We have invested our lives and our finances in the kingdom of God and it is returning benefits that money can’t buy. My daughters wish they could be here to express their love and appreciation for you, but they could not be here due to school obligations. They will have the chance to say good-bye in the weeks ahead.
Christ Community Church surpassed all of our dreams when we came here. The volunteers of this church are the most talented and loving people of any church I am aware of. This is a friendly church and a great place to call home. At Christ Community we have majored in worship and the ministry of the Word. It has been my pleasure to baptize hundreds of people in my time here. I’ve probably performed a hundred weddings and preached at almost as many funerals. My goal when coming was to love our little congregation and perform weddings and dedicate babies and be a small friendly loving church. God had other plans. Big plans.
In the first year we changed the name of our church from First Pentecostal to Christ Community Church. Both our church and school quadrupled in size over the nineteen years. I have led the church through five building programs in these years and we went from a small church on 16th and Poplar to a beautiful church and school valued at over 4 million dollars. One cannot put a dollar value, however, on the impact this church is making. For over ten years my wife directed Amazed performances to sell out crowds and hundreds gave their lives to Christ at these events through the years. What value can one place on the missionaries that have been raised up or the people like Pastor James Clardy that were sent out from here to extend our ministry to other places.
I suppose one thing that I feel best about is the racial diversity of Christ Community. Our all white church started celebrating the Martin Luther King holiday 19 years ago and I wondered if we would ever see a diverse church in Murphysboro. Without forcing the issue, it has developed naturally and today we have a beautiful blend of people from many backgrounds. Easter Sunday felt like a culmination of all the things we had tried to accomplish through the years. There was great worship and singing. Melanie brought some of her dramatic production to the service as well. Many were baptized and saved and the dance team outdid themselves.
So how could I leave such a great church at such a wonderful time? I can only leave for the same reason I came-the clear call of God. Last November while minding my own business planning a great 2012, I received a phone call from a church in North Knoxville Tennessee. Their beloved pastor had died after a four-year battle with Mesothelioma. They had been without a pastor for almost a year and were now ready to begin the search for a new one. They knew of the reputation of Christ Community Church and wondered if there was any way I would consider coming. My next words were dangerous-”I’ll pray about it.” I did pray about it and agreed to at least come and visit on a Sunday and preach for them since I already had a previous engagement scheduled to speak in February at a Pastor’s conference at Whitestone which is a beautiful resort near Knoxville.
On a rainy Sunday in February I preached there and Melanie and Noah and I had a good experience, but I honestly doubted that I was being called away from Southern Illinois. A strange thing happened, however, while we were in Knoxville. Donna Sanders wrote this post on facebook to Melanie and I the very day after the Sunday we spent in Knoxville, Donna writes, “Melanie. When I was praying his evening about my problems, I believe I heard from the Lord a message I am supposed to share with you and Pastor Phil. I forgot how to cc him and you at the same time. I hope that this will encourage you both. We missed you guys this sunday. I believe the Lord told me this: You are both struggling with painful decisions. Go with what feels right no matter how painful it seems. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. Isaiah 55:8. Have a good evening. Love you guys.”
We agreed to let the church in Knoxville know by April 1. One Sunday after church in March, Elder Russel laid her hands on me and started speaking God’s Word over me. She said “strength, strength, strength, transition, transition, transition.” Was God transitioning me away or was there a transition in my ministry here? The more time I spent back in Murphysboro, the more I felt like I couldn’t leave this church that I love so dearly. There were too many people here that depended on us and we still have a wonderful ministry in the church and school, I thought. Melanie often hears from God before I do and she felt we were to go, but I did not have a peace about it so we said “No” to Knoxville and happily continued my ministry in Southern Illinois.
All was well until I went to Israel. While I was in the holy land, God started speaking to me from almost the moment I landed until the time we left. On the first night, I wrestled with God like Jacob wrestled with the angel, because I felt God opening the door to Knoxville again. I didn’t want to leave my home and church that I love so much. After a fitful night I stopped wrestling. The whole second day in Israel I felt engulfed by the Presence of God. God gave me peace joy and excitement about beginning a new chapter in our lives. I still felt the pain about leaving dear friends, but I had a real peace that everything was going to be all right with Christ Community Church and Murphysboro Christian Academy and everything was going to be well with our family as well.
I can say that Melanie and I and Natalie, Kristiana, and Noah have accomplished the task that God laid out for us here. I feel great about the future here just as I do about our future in Knoxville. Today we have the finest elders and church board that I have worked with in nineteen years. One reason I wanted to stay at Christ Community was to have the pleasure of ministering alongside these guys. Bill West and Lloyd Roberts have been like Aaron and Hur and have walked with me through all of the joys and pains of the pastorate. Lance Carr who is on our board was my friend in grade school and we have become best friends again. He is a licensed minister, with a head for business and a heart for God. Chester Hood has been a church leader for many years and he is making an outstanding trustee. He is also a man of God and a very good preacher. Dean Pearson has one of the sharpest administrative minds I know and has been a friend to pastors through his lifetime in church work. He’s also making a great head usher. He couldn’t be here today, but he sent me the warmest letter of support.
Working with my godly and extremely competent parents has been one of the great blessings of my life. Dad is the simply the best pastor I know and my mother is a business woman, teacher, and prayer warrior, with a gift of hospitality. My parents aren’t going anywhere and they are going to help guide the process of a pastoral search. You can expect to see our overseer Rick McNeely quite often as well. Rick and my father and Paul Russel have several networks of ministers to draw from and we believe that God is already preparing just the right person to lead both the church and the school
It is incredibly hard to leave my staff. We are an extremely tight-knit group. Karen Smith has been with me for these entire nineteen years and provided the music to the move of God that we witnessed in this city. Gina Noble is the finest school principal I know. Nobody works harder, cares more, or prays more for our young people. She is the epitome of excellence and the school is in great hands. Darren has provided the artwork, and visuals that have brought the messages of God’s Word in ways that we can visualize. All of my staff are among my closest friends and will always remain that way.
In closing here is my request of you:
1) Stay loyal to the church and school and step up at the time your church needs you the most. Ask not what your church can do for you, but ask what you can do for your church.
2) Continue to give generously to the Lord through the church. This church needs everyone who calls this your home to do their part. Keep giving to the One campaign to keep the ministries of this church flourishing. I am keeping my commitment even after I leave. If you aren’t tithing or have stopped, start again. Not only will the church be blessed, but God promises to pour out his blessings on you if you will.
3) Pray for God’s person to lead this church. Get behind our overseers and elders as they lead our church through this transition.
4) Finally, pray for Melanie and I as we embark on this next chapter in our ministry. Know that we will always love you and will be as helpful to the church as we can be during the transition and will be happy to serve in any way that we can in the future. We will be here through the last Sunday of May.
I have often told you the story of my friend Kathy who died on the mission field. One of the last things I remember her saying was, “Christians never have to say good-bye, they just say “see you later.” So with tears in my eyes but hope in my heart I say, See you later!
In Christian love,