It’s that time of the year for retrospection.
After posting my Top Ten Songs of 2020, Top Ten Books of 2020, and Top Ten Hikes of 2020, I thought that I would turn my attention to things that might be considered more substantial, if perhaps not as tangible. Like ministry and family life. Ministry, in particular, is kind of messy and intangible. Especially in the midst of a global pandemic! Even in a “normal” year, ministry highlights cannot often be represented by a single image (if indeed there are images at all) or a single paragraph, like the other categories I’ve considered. Still, I appreciate the way that a retrospective exercise like this helps to heighten my awareness and appreciation of everything God has been doing. So I’m giving it a try, even if the results might be imperfect…
So anyway — without further ado, here are my Top Ten Ministry Moments of 2020, in ranked order:
- FaceTime conversations with M and J
- Leadership Table Conversations on Tuesday Afternoons
- The H2O Network ManMaker Weekend in February
- Deliberate Step Forward for Racial Justice
- H2O Network Summer Intensive
- Fellowship of the Hawk Fall Retreat
- Visits to Youngstown State University
- November Baptism Celebration in the Cuyahoga River
- Campus Prayer on Thursday Mornings
- Continued Partnership and Provision from our Ministry Team
And again, for any who might appreciate more context, my explanations for each selection are included with the listing (reverse rank-order), below:
#10 – Continued Partnership and Provision from our Ministry Team
I was pretty worried, back in the Spring. When everything started shutting down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I didn’t know how we were going to continue reaching Kent State students. I also didn’t know how we were going to maintain the team of ministry partners who would allow us to keep trying to figure out ways to reach those students. Wouldn’t they be hesitant to donate to a mission agency, when the mission field was so dramatically shifting? Weren’t many of them being furloughed from their jobs or losing income as the economy collapsed? The shut-down really did feel like an existential threat, and not just on the level of physical health. I worried for our livelihood. Fortunately, our team has remained committed and generous. So we’ve been able to keep pressing forward, even in this most unusual year. I praise God for His provision!
#9 – Campus Prayer on Thursday Mornings
Our Staff team decided to gather for prayer every day of the week leading up to Kent State University’s Fall Semester. And we managed to keep it up, rain or shine, every Thursday morning through the rest of the semester. We met underneath a stand of oak trees between Manchester Field and the Centennial Fields, with as many as fifteen and as few as three people praying together. It was quiet, slow-and-steady, behind-the-scenes ministry work. But I’m proud of that ministry work. I believe it made a difference throughout the semester, not least in my own heart.
#8 – November Baptism Celebration in the Cuyahoga River
On the last Sunday before Thanksgiving Break, the weather in northeast Ohio featured intermittent rain, 20 MPH winds, and temperatures in the 40s all day. Still all the different regions of our church gathered at the edge of the Cuyahoga River to witness our dear friend Dillon and my beloved son Cor publicly proclaim their faith in Jesus through baptism! “Because of your faith in Jesus, we baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” These words have accompanied the observance of baptism for thousands of years. So, in a way, our baptism in the Cuyahoga was unremarkable. At the same time, it felt special to affirm light and life in such a dark and dreadful year.
#7 – Visits to Youngstown State University
Back in the Spring Semester, before COVID, we hired a student-intern to prioritize the exploration of church-planting possibilities at Youngstown State University. I got to make that 45-minute drive East with “Intern Alec” several times before the pandemic shut things down. And we learned enough in those visits to see that there is great potential for ongoing ministry work on the campus of YSU. In the Fall Semester, our Staff took a couple of trips back to Youngstown to more seriously test the waters for an eventual church plant. And while nothing is certain at this point, it still feels safe to say that Youngstown State University is a leading candidate for an H2O church plant in the years to come. I’m going to keep praying this direction, at least! We’ll see what God does…
#6 – Fellowship of the Hawk Fall Retreat
Our Fall Retreat with H2O Kent was different this year. We felt it was important to minimize the risks of transmitting COVID-19, so events were organized with just a couple of Life Groups getting away together, instead of the whole church. Consequently, we didn’t pack out a whole camp-ground with a raucous crowd of college students. Instead, we camped out — each person in his or her own tent — in a grassy area behind the home of Regan’s grandmother in rural Stark County. And it was just seven of us from the collection of Life Groups we’ve come to call the “Fellowship of the Hawk.” Even so, we managed to hit all the hallmarks of a Midwestern Fall Retreat: s’mores, apple orchards (including apple-chucking), pumpkin patches, corn fields. Mostly, though, I’m going to remember simply sitting around the fire with Regan, Cam, Meg, Meg, Morgan, Cor, and Linda.
#5 – H2O Network Summer Intensive
Our network of churches was concerned about exposing our students to the health concerns associated with a Leadership Training program in Estes Park, Colorado. Instead, we decided to invest in our student-leaders through an online environment we called the Summer Intensive. We met three times a week on YouTube and Zoom, in various group sizes. Each church in the network took responsibility for recording one of the Thursday night large-group sessions (I thought the way we did our session in our downtown Kent office was especially well-executed). And I feel like this is where we really learned how to do online ministry. We learned what worked — and what didn’t work. We figured out ways to have meaningful interaction and invest in the lives of our student-leaders. And I hope that we’ll keep applying the lessons that we learned even after life and ministry gets back to “normal.”
#4 – Deliberate Step Forward for Racial Justice
We’ve learned a lot about racial justice this year! Our church had been slowly learning and growing over the previous couple of years. But we took a big step forward in May when we decided to have our Staff team and our student-leaders read through a book called The Color of Compromise. Deeper national dialogue was sparked by news reports of racial injustice in Georgia, Kentucky, and Minnesota. And then that national news became local news in September, after racist messages were painted on the large rock in the front part of Kent State’s campus. Consequently, our church felt this was an important moment to take another deliberate step forward for racial justice. We wrote a couple of open letters. We joined some demonstrations on campus. And we’re praying and planning for continued work to overcome a history of injustice, for God’s glory.
#3 – The H2O Network ManMaker Weekend in February
This event feels like it belongs to a different year — maybe even a different decade — because it was pre-COVID! Still, it happened in 2020. And I’m really proud of the role that our team from H2O Kent played in making it happen. We may not have fully understood just how complicated and labor-intensive it would all be, when we volunteered to coordinate everything. But after taking on the task, we put in a lot of work ahead of time to identify everything that would need to be accomplished. We delegated tasks among all the different leaders who would be on hand. We prepared carefully. And then we all executed the plans with excellence. We had about 350 young men, from 9 different universities, together for 24 hours. And it was a big win for our church and our network.
#2 – Leadership Table Conversations on Tuesday Afternoons
It’s been a year and a half since my co-pastor Matthew moved from Kent to Bowling Green and we cobbled together a team of Senior Staff to fill the gap. We’ve learned a lot about each other and about servant-leadership throughout our time together. However, the pressure-cooker of 2020 (the second half of this “Leadership Table” period) has been an extra accelerant to the development of our next generation of church leaders. It’s not always been easy or pleasant, but it’s definitely been worthwhile. Some of our conversations were in person, or fireside, or in nature preserves. A lot of our conversations were over Zoom. But I’m really proud of the way that God has been using this team to lead our church through a perilous period. And I look forward to seeing how He will use Lauren, AJ, Daniel, and Mark in the years to come.
#1 – FaceTime conversations with M and J
I have only the vaguest recollection of meeting the young woman I’ll call “M” before the COVID shut-down. We certainly weren’t close. But we got to know each other quite a bit better when I started texting through the list of people on my ministry GroupMe channels, back during the April COVID shut-down. She was very open about her struggles. With COVID, but also more generally. We quickly shifted from text messaging to video conference calls. And our conversations became so full of the Gospel that they became highlights of my week. Shortly after we decided to start studying Romans together, M asked if her boyfriend, “J,” could join. Later on, M’s brother joined us, and another friend joined a couple of times. I believe that M already had a relationship with God through M’s faith in Jesus when we started talking, but it was a young, untested relationship. And it was largely solitary. Until — of all things — the separation of COVID sparked a new level of community in Christ.