The pioneer way

Father David Epps's picture

About 11 years ago, I became a pioneer. After 25 years as a pastor of churches that were established when I began to serve them, I chose to plant a new mission congregation. I became a “church planter,” a “pioneer.”

Not only that, I left a denomination that had been well established since the early 1900s and joined with a new communion that began in 1994. I was a pioneer pastor in a pioneer denomination.

I wasn’t sure what to expect but I knew that the whole affair would be a great adventure. I didn’t want to get to the place where my life was at an end, looking back over it, say, “I only wish I had ...”

So, at age 45 on the eve of my 25th wedding anniversary, a handful of people and I left all behind, loaded up our covered wagon and headed out to an uncertain future. Here are a few things I have discovered along the way:

1. Pioneering is not for the faint of heart. There are no established roads, no comforts, little money, and there are roadblocks, potholes, and hostiles in the land.

Pioneers have to down trees, clear the land, remove the rocks, live in temporary quarters, sometimes go hungry, never quite have enough, and beware of the snakes, the critters, and the arrows. It is much easier to live out one’s life in something that is well established and adequately financed.

2. Normal people will think you are nuts. Why in the world would anybody leave the comfort of the big city, or the comfortable church, and head west into unknown territory?

When I left my previous pastorate I actually had people tell me I had lost my mind. Why would I give up something great and certain for the possibility of losing everything?

3. Not everyone who starts out with you will finish with you. Some will find pioneering too difficult and lacking in comfort. For others, the romance of adventure will end quickly and they will leave disillusioned. Some will complain that the wagon master is taking them down the wrong trail.

For others, the uncertainty will prove too much. Some will long for the “way it used to be” and turn around and head home. Some will be undone by the temptations along the rough and rugged trail.

4. There will be times of discouragement. Sometimes, you will feel like the last man standing at the Alamo as Santa Ana’s forces are coming over the wall.

It is at that time that you will find out who you are. Will you run? Will you surrender? Or will you fight and struggle until your last gasp of breath because you believe in the dream that sent you into the wilderness?

5. You will become a different kind of person than you were. This pioneer life will toughen you up. Gossip, anonymous letters, criticism, and the like, will not trouble you as much. The opinions of those who are not on the trail with you will tend to have little influence. As you see the impossible happen, your faith will grow and your strength will increase.

6. You will learn to focus on the long view. You begin to realize that this journey is not about “How many will be in church next Sunday?”

You begin to think, rather, about the kind of legacy that you will leave for your children and grandchildren. After all, Denver was just an empty space in the road at one time. So was San Antonio, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, San Diego and other one-time wide spots along the trail. You may not live to see the dream fulfilled — but your descendants will.

7. Do or die. As Yoda said, “There is no try. There is only do.” Pioneers traveling from the American East to the west coast often had emblazoned on their wagon trains, “California or Bust.”

They meant that everything they had was invested in the journey. There could be no turning back, no detours, no opportunity for second thoughts. They would make it or die along the way. History records that enough of them made it to create a new vision for future generations.

Well into this journey and having experienced many of the thrills and heartaches of the pioneer way, I am still committed to the path. My life, our church (and by the way, we’ve helped to plant three other mission/pioneer congregations during our own journey), and even our new pioneer denomination has had ups and downs, exuberance and disappointment.

Still, it is a great adventure — one we have only begun to experience. Enough musing. The future beckons. Time to hit the trail again. “Head ‘em up, move ‘em out.”

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