Friday, January 26, 2024

My Annual Report for Lanse Free Church: 2023 in Review

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.

The Annual Pastoral Report
Pastor Matt Mitchell
Year in Review: 2023

Dear Church Family,

This past year was exceptional. 2023 wasn’t as difficult or tumultuous as 2020 and 2021 or as pivotal as 2022, but it also wasn’t very routine either. In our 131 year history as a congregation, there hasn’t been another year like 2023. 

Not only did LEFC reach the milestone of being shepherded by the same pastor for twenty-five consecutive years (exceptional for us!), but you also granted me a three month sabbatical to celebrate that ministry anniversary and recharge my batteries. For an entire quarter of the year, I was graciously relieved of my pastoral responsibilities and freed to travel, reflect, and rest.

But the church family did not rest! Our faithful team of Elders and other wonderful church leaders stepped up to cover all of the pastoral functions during my sabbatical and led our congregation forward in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. Read the other reports in these pages to get a sense of all that was accomplished. When I returned refreshed from my sabbatical, I felt so encouraged that the church family missed me but didn’t need me. That spoke volumes about how exceptionally healthy our church family currently is. 

You can read about our adventures in Great Britain and some of the ways that the Lord gave rest to my soul in my sabbatical reflections which are included elsewhere in this annual report (along with some of the 3,000+ pictures I took!). Thank you for granting me the sabbatical, praying for Heather and me as we were away, and so graciously receiving us when we came back. It is a exceptional joy to be your pastor.

And on top of all of that, the congregation unanimously decided to approve a part-time ministry staff position and begin a prayerful search for our very first Director of Family Ministry. There has never been a year like 2023 for Lanse Free Church!

An Exceptionally Prosperous Year

In my last annual report, I wrote, “I am praying for the Lord to ‘shalom’ us in 2023....I long for Him to prosper us more.” We had been learning the wonderful promise of Jeremiah 29:11 and the LORD’s plans to “shalom” His people with a hope and future. I was praying that God would bestow on us “the fullness of blessing and comprehensive peacefulness where everything is as it should be.” Shalom does not always mean financial or physical blessing, at least not in the short run, but it does mean that God provides an overriding and underlying peace in the midst of any situation and gives us firm assurance that no harm will ultimately befall us. Shalom is a foretaste of all of the blessings to come.

I’m pleased to report that in so many ways the Lord gave us an exceptionally prosperous year in 2023. He provided for us at every turn. He gave Heather and me “shalom” on our “shabbath” (peace on our sabbatical), and provided all of the resources for our church to prosper while we were off and away. Over the course of the year, all of our needs were met, all of our bills were paid, all of our missionaries were supported, and we were also able to remodel the men’s restroom and give over and above to various ministry initiatives like the FBW Missions Project.

In 2023, the Lord prospered us with more people! Our average attendance at worship grew 11.8% to 142 people per Sunday. The lowest attended Sundays had 106 people present (January 1st and July 2nd), and the highest attended Sunday was Resurrection Sunday (April 9th) with 200 people counted.

We have a lot more than 142 people who call our church “home.” Our attendance team tracked 293 distinct people who came onto our campus on Sunday mornings in 2023. A few of those were guests from out of town, but 235 different people showed up with some regularity.

The Lord also prospered us with many more members. Including the ones we are presenting at this annual reports meeting, we have added 19 new members since this time last year. That is a 24.3% increase in church membership in the last twelve months! I’m excited to see how we are blessed by and can be a blessing to Bonnie, Sue, Les and June, Scott and Karen, Rob and Bev, Frank and Joan, Art and Shelly, Will, Joe, Denise, Darren and Judy, and Chip and Kim as they assume the privileges and responsibilities of membership.
In 2023, the Lord prospered us with several baptisms. We celebrated the joy of salvation with Ron, Natalie, Carter, Darren, and Simon.

The Lord prospered us with newborn lives. Miles and Jen were blessed with Lila, and Josh and Katie were given Claire. Our church family got to pray for both of them as their parents dedicated themselves to raising these precious girls in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

The Lord prospered us with new ministries. I love how the Ladies Fellowship Hour has become such a vital part of life for many of the women in our church each week and how the Skacel’s Community Group fills a similar void for some of our families. My favorite new ministry of 2023 is “Snack and Yack,” our sermon-talk-back time for kids who join one of the Elders and their wives in my office to interact about what they have just learned in church. Not only is it lots of fun, but I think it may yield a long-term spiritual harvest in their lives.

The Lord prospered us with new missionaries in 2023. I look forward to seeing how our deeper partnership with Peter and Deb Bors of ReachGlobal will bring more help and hope for people around our nation going through a major crisis such as a flood, fire, or other disaster.

In 2023, the Lord prospered us with great leaders and staff. Our LEFC Elders–Keith (chairman), Joel  (vice-chairman), Cody, and Abe were all-stars this year shouldering all the burdens of pastoral ministry. The stalwart Cindy  kept everything tidy. The unflappable Misty “held down the fort” in the church office while I was away and kept us all pointed in the right direction. And when Misty was led to transition out of the office, we were blessed by the Lord’s provision of Jenni to take her place. Jenni has a heart to serve, a desire to learn, new ideas for the future, and a fresh can-do attitude. Holly volunteered to carry the weight of leading our burgeoning new Family Ministry initiatives. Because of these and other leaders, we didn’t lose momentum even when I was taken out of the ministry equation.

Praise God! The Lord exceptionally prospered our church family in 2023.

Pastoral Ministry

For more than a quarter of a century now, I have had the high privilege of serving as your pastor which I have always envisioned as a blend of three major responsibilities: preaching, equipping, and shepherding.

Preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2)

In 2023, I completed one major preaching project and began another. In the winter and spring, we finished “Uprooted,” our study of the Prophecy of Jeremiah. Fifty-two chapters in thirty-six messages! I loved getting to know Jeremiah the man and author and sharing his broken-record message about a broken covenant and the promise of a New Covenant that was on the way. 

When I returned from sabbatical, we launched into a study of The Gospel of John that we’re calling, “Life in Jesus’ Name.” It’s great to return to John’s Gospel which I preached before twenty five years ago and to see, feel, and proclaim once again how astonishingly wonderful our Savior is. His truth is mind-blowing and life-giving

Because of my sabbatical, I only got to preach 70% of the Sundays of 2023. I was out of the pulpit for more Sundays than I have ever been since I arrived at LEFC in 1998 (16 of the 53 Sundays). Our church family, however, did not miss even one nourishing spiritual meal! Our own LEFC Elders did almost all of the other preaching this year with Joel, Abe, and Cody taking on multiple weeks! You also heard from Kerry Doyal, Donnie Rosie, and a musical message for Mother’s Day with Jim Knepp. Special thanks goes to Keith Folmar for coordinating all of the pulpit ministry in 2023.

Equip the Saints (Ephesians 4:12)
I have often gauged my effectiveness in equipping others for ministry by noting how many ministry things happen without my presence being required. If I’m doing my job right, then very many good things are going on without my even knowing it!

By that standard, 2023 was an exceptional year for equipping the saints for ministry at LEFC. In the first four months, I focused on making sure all of the bases were covered for my departure, and in the last five months I worked hard at not taking back any of the ministry roles that someone else should be doing.

Of course, I still spend a lot of my time coming alongside our ministry leaders to encourage and resource them in their efforts and get involved in what they’re working on. But I’m also increasingly trying to stay out of their way.

One key development this year was seeing our Elders growing more into the pastoral side of their ministry. Joel led the baptisms for Carter and Natalie in April. Abe led the baptism for Darren and even taught his baptism class. Keith Folmar led the Child Dedication time for Lila. Cody is leading our search for the Director of Family Ministry. These may seem like small things, but I know that they are significant signs of ministry health, and I look forward to sharing ministry even more in the years to come.

As in previous years, I continued to be involved in equipping ministry beyond our local church. I chaired our Allegheny District Constitutions and Credentials Board overseeing two ordinations of district pastors, coordinating the Stay Sharp Theology Conference, and helping our team transition the credentialing process onto an online portal. I served on the EFCA Spiritual Heritage Committee and coordinated the book review for the EFCA Blog. My book, Resisting Gossip turned 10 years old in September and is still helping new readers win the war of the wagging tongue.

Shepherd the Flock (1 Peter 5:2)

I loved spending meaningful time with our church families in 2023. When I wasn’t gallivanting across Great Britain, I got to visit in your homes and businesses, cheer on your talented kids at sporting events and concerts, and walk alongside you through hard things such as illnesses and deaths in your families. 

In 2023, I led funerals and memorial services for John Kendrick, Marie Krasinski, Carol Almgren, Albert Green, Janice Mitchell (my dad’s cousin), Rosella (Araway) DeyArmin, and Steve Lutz. I also got to spend precious time with Ron Bean and Betty Sankey in their final days.

I also got to listen and provide spiritual counsel to you as you made big decisions for your life and family. It is a great privilege to shepherd people at all ages and stages of life.

Thank you for allowing me into your lives and for praying and providing for me and my family, especially this year as you continued to pay me while giving me all of that much-needed time off and away. Thank you, also, for supporting the Allegheny District and my pastor, Kerry Doyal. I can’t overstate how helpful his shepherding is for me. Pastors needs pastors too, and I have an exceptional one.

2024 Vision - “You Must Love One Another”

As we travel through 2024, I am praying that we have yet another exceptionally prosperous year. I hope that this is the year that we find our first Director of Family Ministry. I am pleased that, after a couple of years of anticipation, we are finally getting to send a missions team to Malawi. I think we’re going to get another group of students together to return to the EFCA Challenge Conference for an awesome life-shaping experience. I expect us to make major progress on the Ark Park Pavilion project. I’m praying for more new members, new ministries, new leaders, and especially new disciples. I’m excited about our special outreaches like the Wild Game Dinner, Family Bible Week, and Good News Cruise and even more excited about our everyday witness to the gospel in our workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, and extended families.

I believe the Lord will prosper us in these ways and many more as we stay faithful to our mission–“the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace” (Acts 20:24). Our message is the gospel, our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and there is true life in His name.

One crucial thing I think we need to focus on in 2024 is actively loving one another as our Lord commanded us. Shortly before He was betrayed and went to the Cross for us, our Lord Jesus gave us these marching orders:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

As we contemplate the busy year ahead, we need to make sure that we are focused on  obeying this command, caring for one another and building each other up, pursuing each other’s best interests, and growing LEFC into an even more truly loving community.

Our church family has recently grown by leaps and bounds, and that is wonderful. But it also means that a lot of us don’t know each other very well. Loving one another will start with fixing that problem. We will all need to make a special effort to greet each other (especially those we don’t know very well), linger together after worship, use the church directory and mailboxes to make connections, check on each other, invite each other out or over for meals together, and pray for one another. We need to knit ourselves together into a loving community.

We’ll also need to bear with one another. Our church has changed a good bit over the last few years due to several factors including covid, culture, and the transfer of leadership from one generation to the next. New people also have new ideas about how to do things! While we are wrestling with that change and developing our plans for ministry into the future, we need to be patient with one another and bear with one another in our differences.

We must love one another for the sake of the gospel. Jesus said that the world will know we are His disciples if we love one another. The flipside of that is also true. We will wreck our witness in the world if we don’t. 2024 is another national election year which threatens to be as divisive or more in our country than the last one. Our society is beset with a massive epidemic of loneliness. Our globe is rife with strife and conflict. The world desperately needs to see followers of Jesus who exhibit counter-cultural love for one another (and even for our enemies). We won’t do it perfectly in 2024, of course, but we must make it our overriding goal to obey our Lord’s command.

Thankfully, our Lord Jesus has perfectly shown us how it’s done.

In His Loving Grip,

-Pastor Matt