riding the roller coaster
The Adventures of Family and Ministry
by Howard Gwartney
Twenty-one years ago, our family moved from Grandview, Missouri, to Mesa, Arizona, to start a new Free Will Baptist church as part of Home Mission’s Target City Project. For us, the move was like riding one of the giant roller coasters at an amusement park…exciting but terrifying!
We faced a barrage of well-intended “encouragement” from people who asked, “Why in the world do you want to move to Arizona? You have it good here in Missouri. What about those girls of yours? Why would you do that to them?” Our girls were only five and seven at the time.
We had enjoyed a tremendous ministry in Missouri. The people in our church, district, and state organizations were wonderful to us. I had a great secretary and a part-time associate in a new church facility with plenty of room to grow.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Why would anybody leave?”
It all goes back to a moment early in my ministry. Roy Thomas came to my home church, and he brought with him a map with pins indicating the locations of Free Will Baptist churches. The image of the many places on the map without churches haunted me. I told the Lord that with His help, someday I would go to one of those large cities without a Free Will Baptist church and start one.
Even before Roy Thomas’ daughter Patsy and I were married, we talked about planting a church. It was an easy thing for her to envision because she had done it before with her parents. But truthfully, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. And we did not feel fully equipped to do the job.
I’m grateful to God for my Bible training at Hillsdale FWB College, but back then, there were no courses on church planting, and I knew of fewer than five books on the subject.
The pressures were great (from board, donors, new church family, and the fear of failures) and the obstacles were greater (exorbitant land and building costs, complications from the Mormon-dominated community, and the attacks of the enemy). By the grace of God, however, and through years of hard work and prayer, we were able to plant a strong church in Mesa, Arizona.
We have always felt that our daughters were special gifts from God. We involved them in our ministry from the start. At the ages of six and four, they helped us make musical recordings to assist with raising funds. When we started the church, the girls went with us to visit potential members. I would take one of the girls and walk from house to house on one side of the street, while Patsy would take the other down the opposite side of the street.
On Sundays, Patsy would say, “Girls, you better be friendly to people at church today! Talk to everyone!” On Mondays, she would say, “Girls, we’re going to Wal-Mart. Don’t talk to anybody that might be a stranger!” As the girls grew older, they worked in the nursery and children’s church, with the puppet ministry, prayed with people at the altar, and loved our church family.
In time, the church began to pray and save money toward building. After one service in rented facilities, Patsy could not locate the girls. Before long, she noticed that everyone in the church was going into one of the Sunday School rooms before they exited the building.
Photo: The Gwartneys during the early years of church planting.
Following a mother’s instinct, she investigated and found our “little darlings.” The girls had “set up shop” in a Sunday School room and were selling handmade bookmarks to supplement the building fund. We were thrilled about their concern for the church, but reluctantly had to close the shop! During the building process, the girls painted, laid tile, prepared food, and (most important) kept everyone laughing. They always used their musical talents in our church and helped our young people learn to sing.
Then, at 51-years-old, Patsy and I started itinerate again! Our plans were to move to Pinal County, Arizona, the second fastest growing county in America. Once again, we at the beginning of the roller coaster ride of starting a church! However, this time, as a veteran church planter, I know it is the Lord who builds His church!
The pressures and obstacles are still great! Already the new “ride” has been exciting and terrifying for our family. We have learned some important lessons along the way:
Stay in the Word and prayer. While it may sound simplistic and trite, it is absolutely vital to any Christian endeavor.
Prepare for home to become “Grand Central Station.” Using your home as a tool for evangelism can be both tremendous and taxing. Your wife and children begin to feel as if they “always” have church family around. Some people will latch onto your family because they have no one else. Be prepared.
Be sure both love and laughter remain part of your daily experience. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Learn to laugh at yourself. Have fun with your family. Cherish your wife. As one comedian often said, “Treat her like a thoroughbred, and she’ll never be an old nag!”
Don’t compare yourself to others or other ministries. Remember, Paul said that those who compare themselves are not wise!
Trust God for the results. Our church is what I call “high tech traditional.” Yes, we sing off the wall (hymnals get beat up moving them in and out each week). I use both video and power point slides in my sermon. Yet, we sing hymns and value a traditional style of church service. However, without the blessing of God on our lives and ministry, our best efforts are worth nothing. It’s His Church! Work hard, but trust Him for the results!
Our daughters were married adults when we moved to Florence. Pat Thomas, Patsy’s mother, came with us and has been a tremendous blessing to our lives and the life of our church. We were grateful when Nathan and Brooke Cowan (our eldest daughter and son-in-law) moved to Arizona to help us.
Photo: The Gwartney Family today (left to right) Howard, Patsy, Pat (Thomas), Brooke and Nathan Cowan
Nathan sets up the building for service each Sunday and is an outstanding usher and greeter. Brooke sings each Sunday, is a witness for Christ, and a tremendous encouragement to our church family. Ben and Fawn Gibson (our youngest daughter and her husband) are pastoring the Immanuel FWB Church in Winterville, North Carolina. Fawn surprised us by flying out to attend our first service. What a joy it was for our whole family to sing together that day!
As I look back over the roller coaster ride of life and ministry, I’m so glad we followed God’s leading and moved our family to Arizona. Along the way, our daughters learned to lean on the Lord, love people, laugh every day, and keep a song in their hearts. What more could a father ask!
ABOUT THE WRITER: A veteran home missionary and former college professor, Howard Gwartney and his wife Patsy are Home Missions church planters in Arizona. Learn more about their church at www.christschurchfwb.org or visit www.homemissions.net.