Paul Prather

Church lucky to celebrate 13th year

Churches — like individuals, families and businesses — are living, changing organisms. This isn't an original observation on my part, but it's a true one.

On May 17, the congregation of which I'm pastor will celebrate its 13th anniversary. In many ways, it's not at all the same church we formed in 1996.

Back then, I'd been the pastor of a tiny Pentecostal church in Montgomery County since 1982. In the mid-1990s, we experienced a sudden growth spurt and no longer had adequate parking. We were looking to buy land elsewhere, build a new sanctuary and pave a new parking lot.

Just a few miles down the road, my dad had led another small, independent congregation for almost 20 years. Dad was 65 and starting to think about retirement. His church had more space than it was using.

To make a complicated story as short as I can, my dad and I decided, with the agreement of our churches' lay leaders, to merge the two congregations. My church would sell its property and move out to my dad's location.

Church mergers, I knew, are tricky. Each congregation has its own leaders, traditions and culture. There are myriad opportunities for bruised feelings and jealousies.

Our merger started remarkably well. Members of both congregations seemed optimistic. We had a great music team, great kids' programs.

Soon we had to extend the sanctuary to accommodate all the people.

We were even blindsided, in a good way, when one Sunday a spontaneous revival broke out. Marvelous speakers just showed up uninvited and unannounced. The building was packed. This went on for a week, completely unforeseen.

Our active membership topped 180 people, not large by many standards, but a 50 percent increase over the combined membership of the two congregations we'd merged.

I started entertaining visions of pastoring a megachurch someday.

And then everything went south.

In 2000, my wife, Renee, who led our incredible music, was diagnosed with cancer. For five years, she withered away, teetered almost daily on the brink of death. I became her primary caregiver. In the middle of Renee's illness, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. Within two months, she was gone.

Renee and my mom both had been much-loved pillars of the congregation who were as important in their respective roles as my dad or I.

By this time, my father was in his 70s and in poor health. He was devastated by the loss of my mom. They'd been married 50 years.

Trying to simultaneously take care of Renee, lead the church and cope with my mother's death pole-axed me. I grew frazzled, fatigued, withdrawn and depressed.

Slowly, the church almost fell apart.

People bickered with one another. They became offended at me. They were saddened by my wife's illness and my mom's death. They started exiting.

Renee died in 2005.

Our congregation's membership continued to drop, until it was about one-third what it had been at the church's peak. Friends and family worried aloud that we would have to close the doors. I worried about that, too. The whole situation was beyond awful.

But here's a remarkable thing.

We're back.

Lately, I've watched in wonderment as new members have come in. And a lot of the longtime members stayed with us the whole time; there's a core of people who never left, who instead stepped up and became talented leaders.

Numerically, our attendance still isn't where it used to be, but it's growing again — and enthusiasm is at a peak. What's more (I hate to jinx us by saying this), everybody gets along. The people who are there each Sunday seem to genuinely love one another. And me.

It's one of the best periods our church has ever enjoyed.

Who would have thought?

Still, we're not the same, either. The Bible says we learn from the things we suffer. I think we might be better today than we were 10 years ago, in the sense that the trials we've faced have made all of us less dogmatic, more reliant on God's grace, more accepting of others' faults and of our own.

Individuals, families, businesses and churches pass through various seasons: birth, growth, stalemate, decline. But sometimes, they experience a rebirth, too.

On May 17, Bethesda Church will celebrate its 13th anniversary with a day of festivities. Thirteen is supposed to be an unlucky number, but I don't think so.

We've got a special service planned at 10:30 a.m. That afternoon, we're having a cookout. We're dedicating our new picnic shelter to my father, in honor of his 60th year as a minister.

This is a special invitation to each of you who read my columns. We would love for you to attend. No obligation. No salesman will call. You can get directions to the church at our Web site, www.bethesdachurchky.org.

Please, come share our newfound joy with us. Help us thank God.

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