Saturday, January 30, 2021

My 2021 Annual Report for Lanse Free Church

Lanse Evangelical Free Church exists to glorify God
by bringing people into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ
through worship, instruction, fellowship, evangelism, and service.

Celebration Sunday 2020 Church Family
Drone Photo by Dalton Kristofits
The Annual Pastoral Report
Pastor Matt Mitchell
Year in Review: 2020

Dear Church Family,

I do not have adequate words to describe the last year of ministry at Lanse Evangelical Free Church. Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, 2020 was uniquely challenging for LEFC in numerous ways so that it is impossible to capture the year in a short pastoral report. In fact, as we begin this new year of ministry together, almost all of those challenges are still pressing on us without resolution. No question–it’s been a hard year.

And yet, the LORD reigns, and He is good to His people. The story of 2020 for LEFC was a story not just of difficulty but of blessing. Our Lord has been steadfastly faithful to us at every tumultuous turn, and we must give Him thanks.

Last year in my pastoral report, I wrote, “Staying faithful does not mean becoming stagnant or stuck in our ways. Faithfulness actually requires change to meet new challenges as we accomplish our unchanging mission.” I could never have foreseen  how true that would become for us in the year to follow! In 2020, we made many changes to meet the unexpected challenges of ministry during COVID-19, especially in the area of gathered worship. Read what our leaders have written in the pages of this annual report to see what kind of difficulties we faced and how the Lord has been faithful to see us through them every step of the way.

I believe that the Lord has been trying to teach us many things these last twelve months. One major lesson would be to hold onto our own plans loosely and not assume that we know what the next day holds. Trusting in His good plan, we need to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15). Our open palms can then be raised in worship.

Another major lesson we’re being taught is how to lament–to express our sadness, pain, and grief to the Lord. The Bible, especially in the Psalms, is full of godly lament and shows us how to pour out our sorrows to our compassionate King.
Laments of 2020

In the middle of March, COVID-19 disrupted everything in society including the normal functioning of our church. I think we all have deeply felt these disruptions and deprivations:

- Cancelling. We only met together in person on campus 37 Sundays in 2020. To help slow the spread of COVID-19, we chose not to meet in person for 15 Sundays (11 in the Spring, 1 in the Fall, and 3 at Christmastime). We made the painful decision to cancel major special church events like the Wild Game Dinner, Good News Cruise, and Christmas Eve Candlelight  Worship. And we canceled numerous smaller gatherings such as Link groups, prayer meetings, Kids for Christ classes, and Sunday School. We rightfully miss these things, lament their loss, and long for their return.

- Distancing. Even when we began to gather together again, it just wasn’t the same. We have asked people to wear uncomfortable protective face-gear. We’ve asked people to physically keep their distance from each other. We’ve asked people to  spread out over three separate worship times. For a few months, we even asked people to reserve a weekly spot for worship. Church is supposed to bring people together, but the most loving thing this year was to stay apart, and that was (and still is!) hard. 

- Waiting. All year long, we didn’t know how long these cumbersome disruptions and deprivations would last. We still don’t. One of the things I miss the most is celebrating the Lord’s Supper together as a congregation. The Elders prayerfully decided in March to wait until we could all be with one another (see 1 Corinthians 11:18-34), and it was really precious to partake together on Celebration Sunday. I still don’t know when we will do it next–which I think is both the right thing for now and also something hard to wait for. When will things return to “normal”?

- Suffering. One of the hardest things of all has been watching our people suffer through the whole ordeal including some getting sick themselves. I’m thankful that though several of our church family have been infected, many of their symptoms have been mild and quickly passing. Other cases in our church family, however, have been more worrisome and dangerous including one death so far. And the stress and strain of the pandemic is only one of the many difficult things facing our congregation. Life goes on and so do life’s problems in a fallen world. This is hard.

I’m so grateful that our Savior is a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief. He understands what 2020 has been like for us and invites us to follow Him in pouring out our lament and praying for the Lord to restore all things.

Blessings of 2020 

At the very same time, we have seen the Lord’s gracious hand in everything that has happened last year, and He has given us even more blessings to celebrate:

- Amazing Unity! In 2020, we were blessed with wonderful unity. Even though, in many ways, we had to spread apart, we stayed together where it really counts. For example, in spite of the fact that we couldn’t all safely gather for congregational meetings, we still agreed together to do three major facilities improvement projects and even borrow money if necessary! Together, we also approved a new operating budget, elected officers, and changed a word in our doctrinal statement in the church constitution to emphasize that the return of Jesus Christ will be glorious.

And we really supported each other in 2020! We all had our own opinions about how to “do church” during the pandemic, but instead of insisting on our own way or judging others, we put others ahead of ourselves (Philippians 2:1-11). I saw many instances of patience, kindness, and prayerful support. One of the biggest encouragements to me, as your pastor, was to regularly hear people praying for each other to weather the storms of 2020.

- Ministry Innovation! Necessity is the mother of invention. We had to do things  differently last year, and I have been encouraged to see our church family embrace new ways of staying connected, engaging in worship, and serving one another. We began to utilize email, video, and social media in new ways and to take advantage of video conferencing. Our weekly Family Fellowship Meeting on Zoom brought new meaning to the words, “Link Group!” I’m so thankful that the pandemic hit us at a time when these technologies were readily available to most of us.

It wasn’t just “high-tech” innovation, however. We also added in a huge tent, folding chairs, outdoor sound systems, different print versions of the bulletin, new ministry teams, and new systems of rotations for ministry volunteers. We figured out new ways of using the postal service, dropping things off on doorsteps, and safe-distance visitation. We had to come up with innovative approaches to ministry–which can be hard for a church of our size and age–but we did it! 

- Dogged Persistence! Our church family has been blessed with resilience. We did not give up or give in during 2020. We stuck with it. As your pastor, I was very encouraged to see how so many of our people did what they needed to do to stay connected, to get involved in worship, and to find a path to participation even with all of the obstacles in their way.

I was especially blessed to watch what the parents of smaller children did to make sure their kids were involved in Christian worship and discipleship including but not limited to: gathering their family in their living room and using the worship at home resources, jumping on Zoom to interact with missionaries around the world, masking up the little ones and occupying the end of a pew, bundling everybody up and sitting under a tent in the cold, and whatever else it took. Our church never “closed” in 2020 even when we weren’t meeting in person.

- Great Participation! Accurately quantifying last year’s attendance is difficult because there is no good way of tracking how many people were actually using the worship at home resources on any given week. But for such an unusual year with so many limitations, we have had very good participation. Our average on-campus Sunday attendance was about 100 people, which is about 73% of where we were last year. That’s pretty good for a year when we had been paradoxically encouraging many people to stay home instead! The lowest attended Sunday was one of the most exciting–the first Sunday back on campus–June 7th with 54 people present. The highest attended was the highlight of the year–Celebration Sunday on September 27th with 169 people sprawled out across our field.

We were blessed to have a number of new families start attending on campus during 2020. I’m looking forward to the newer people getting to know the rest of the church family when we are all able to re-gather! And the videos we’ve produced have been watched thousands of times, hopefully by people who need to hear the truth about Jesus in the Word.

- Generous Giving! Our church was blessed with financial stability during 2020. Because of the Lord’s provision through the generous giving of the church family, we never struggled to pay our staff and our bills or to support our missionary partners around the world. And because of generous giving and strategic saving, we haven’t even had to borrow for the major facilities improvement projects. Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!

- Wise Leadership! In 2020, the Lord blessed our church with good leaders. The Church Elders’ team–Bob Gisewhite (Chairman), Keith Folmar, Cody Crumrine, Todd Dobo, Joel Michaels, and myself–ended up holding many extra meetings to navigate the rapidly changing whitewater of 2020. This was Todd’s first year as an Elder (what a year to get your feet wet!), and we were all thankful to have a medical professional join our team. In fact, we had a lot of helpful diversity of perspectives yet total unity in all decision-making all year long. In the spring, we developed eleven guiding principles for leading the church family through COVID-19 that helped us to make the difficult decisions in front of us. And we prayed and prayed for wisdom, love, and blessing for the whole church family.

All of the LEFC leaders and staff have done an excellent job during a difficult year. Cindy kept the church spotless in a time when we were all worried about germs. The Facilities Team installed genuinely high-speed internet to make our high-tech ministry possible. The Deaconesses provided assistance to families financially impacted by the virus. The Hospitality Team still found ways to bless the church family with goodies. The Missions Ministry Team kept us in touch with all of our missionary partners. The Financial Team kept the bills paid. Everybody had a job to do, and they did it well.

Marilynn Kristofits deserves a medal for her ministry to the church family in 2020. She went above and beyond the call of duty marshaling all of the administrative details that kept us on the same page all year long. Not only did she create copious mailings, worship guides, and emails, but she also tracked all of the incoming data about the virus as well as the developing local, state, and national guidance that helped us to make safe and effective ministry plans. Marilynn’s ministry was invaluable, and I thank God for blessing our church with her.

I am also grateful for the leadership our church experienced from the district and national levels of the EFCA, our association of churches. In the Spring of 2020, we received a new Allegheny District Superintendent, Kerry Doyal. Pastor Kerry has been a constant source of encouragement, edification, and inspiration for me.

We have many losses to grieve, but we clearly have many more blessings to celebrate than lamentations to look back upon in 2020.

Pastoral Ministry

For the last 23 years as your pastor, I have understood the main responsibilities of my role as preaching the Word, equipping the saints, and shepherding the flock under my care (2 Timothy 4:1-5, Ephesians 4:11-13, 1 Peter 5:1-4). Last year, the pandemic drastically transformed how I carried out each of those responsibilities.

Preach the Word

I certainly never planned to be a multi-service, multi-venue, and video-broadcast preacher, but all of those things actually happened in 2020! In the spring, I had to quickly learn how to produce adequate-quality video messages so that our folks worshiping from home could all be fed God’s Word and be on the same page together. Then in the summer, I learned how to preach the same message several times in the same morning. For most of the year, I recorded the sermons outdoors and also preached outdoors at the 11:00am worship time all through the fall.

I hope all of that is temporary. I look forward to writing longer sermons again with more time to develop the biblical teaching that glorifies the Lord and changes our hearts and lives. I also eagerly anticipate the day when I can once again preach the message just one time on a Sunday to the whole church family at once indoors. Regardless, it was a great privilege to minister God’s Word to our church in 2020, and I would do it all over again.
Parking Lot Preacher

What did not change was our focus on and commitment to the holy Scriptures. In 2020, we completed our 80 message series, “Following Jesus,” on the Gospel of Matthew a theological biography of the most compelling Person Who has ever lived. Then we worked through (for the third time in my pastorate here) Paul’s letter to the Philippians which was exactly what we needed all spring and summer. We ended the year by diving deeply into the fortifying truth of the Psalms.
We were also ably served in the pulpit last year by guest preachers Donnie Rosie and Kerry Doyal and by our own David Catanzaro and Joel Michaels. These men were a big encouragement and relief to me as I preached more times in 2020 than I have in any other year of my ministry so far. Thankfully, I find preaching the Bible to be energizing and a tremendous joy. It is my life’s calling.

Equip the Saints

My ministry of preparing “God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up” looked vastly different in 2020 than in previous years. I had to find creative ways of meeting with leaders and help them to re-envision their ministries to meet the challenges of the pandemic. I also had to help some of them make the hard decisions to postpone, cancel, or pause their ministries because they just couldn’t be done effectively in this season.

My biggest encouragement in this arena in 2020 was seeing the fruit of previous years of investing in our emerging leaders. I look forward to seeing what they can accomplish when the restrictions and limitations are lifted!

Shepherd the Flock

The hardest part of my job in 2020 was trying to shepherd my flock from afar. I love to be present with you all in homes, workplaces, schools, hospitals, nursing facilities, funeral homes, gymnasiums, playing fields, theaters, and restaurants. That all pretty much ground to a halt when COVID hit.

So I switched tactics and started calling everybody on the phone and barraging everyone with texts and messages. I wore out several copies of the updated church directory. I stood on porches and talked through screen doors. I set up drive-thru visitation hours and counseling appointments on Zoom. I walked thousands of miles up and down the neighborhood chatting with you on my bluetooth-connected phone or praying over the requests you sent to me.

It wasn’t enough. I feel disconnected from so many of you. There are several people in our church family whom I haven’t seen in almost a year now, and it grieves me greatly. But I am thankful for every pastoral interaction I had with you all in 2020, and you are in my heart.

The distance between us makes everything harder but also makes everything more precious. In 2020 we celebrated the births of two healthy baby boys. We witnessed the joyful weddings of Zach and Haylee Simler and Matt and Amy Modzel. And we also grieved the deaths of loved ones. I had the solemn privilege of leading funerals for Johnalee Smeal, Marion Lace, Ruby Narehood, and Bill Morlock and of ministering to the family of Jolena Hampton.

I believe that even after we emerge from the shadow of COVID-19, the traumas of  2020 will linger for years to come. This has been a hard year in more ways than one, and while we are resilient, we are not made of rubber and won’t just snap back into place. As your pastor, I am committed to walking alongside you as we all process what we have gone through.  

A Personal Note:

Last year took a toll on me, as well, especially mentally and emotionally. Thankfully, I am in better shape physically than I have been in a long time, and I have good disciplines in place to maintain my mental and spiritual health, as well. But I’ve struggled to process all of the change and am very aware of my limitations.

Some of you have expressed concern for me in leading three worship times every Sunday morning. I do long to get it back to one again, but I find Sunday mornings to be mostly energizing. What’s more wearying for me is attempting to stay connected to you whom I don’t see regularly. For all my trying, I can’t keep track of everyone in my head. Thank you for being patient with me and for continuing to pray for me.

Our daughter Robin Joy recently moved back in with us after a successful 15 month experience living and working in the Pacific Northwest. It’s wonderful to have her around again. Our oldest son Andrew graduated from high school and began working full time as a backyard blacksmith. It won’t be long until Peter and then Isaac are also done with school. Heather Joy is taking good care of us all. Thank you for loving and supporting our little family.

Being your pastor has never been harder nor a greater privilege than it was this last year. Thank you for entrusting me with these responsibilities and following me through the minefield that was 2020. 

2021 Vision - Be the Church

As I wrote at the beginning of this rather long pastoral report, if we learned anything from the previous year, we learned that it is foolish to act like we know the future. Last January, I predicted a big year of being bold in our evangelism. I hope we were more bold in some ways, but it didn’t turn out anything like what I envisioned.

We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know Who holds the future. And we know the main thrust of what He wants us to do–to be His church.

I hope we also have learned some from 2020 to not put too much emphasis on church buildings. Buildings are wonderful tools for ministry, but they are not the church themselves nor are they even necessary for the church to be the church.

The church itself is the Lord Jesus’ worshiping family of gospel-centered disciplemakers. Jesus said that He Himself is creating the church and that nothing can stop it (Matthew 16:18). That includes COVID, cancer, conflicts, politics, and even the gates of Hades. As we live out the calling of the church, we are part of an unstoppable effort of God to bring glory to His name (Ephesians 3:1-21).

So, dear church family, let’s keep going in 2021. As we always say, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” The main thing is not for us get things back to “normal.” The main thing for the church is the gospel of Jesus Christ. We proclaim Him (Colossians 1:28). Let’s make sure we stay focused on being the pillar and foundation of His truth (1 Timothy 3:14-16).

In His Grip,
Pastor Matt

I hope next year I can post close-up photos of these precious people!