I’m glad to present this second in an occasional series of interview with lead and staff pastors. The first was with Jimmy Scroggins of Family Church in Tampa, Florida.
Today’s interview is with Dr. Eric Thomas, pastor of First Baptist Church of Norfolk, Virginia. Eric is the longest tenured pastor in the history of the church. I’m blessed to call him a friend and excited about the insights he shares today.
Marty Duren: Eric, thanks for joining this interview with LifeWay Pastors.
Eric Thomas: I’m glad to be able to take part.
MD: You’ve been at First Baptist Norfolk for how long?
ET: Thirteen years.
MD: Can you describe some of the leadership challenges that you have faced along the way?
ET: I walked into a bad breakup between church and pastor and that was my first leadership challenge. The church had experienced some significant decline at that point. I think when I came it was, I don’t know, 1,200 or 1,500 on a weekend. But more than the attendance—as always—it was a reflection of where the church was in health. They were just broken down.
So my first order of business was trying to discern where the lack of health was centered. How to help them, how to lead them well through that so they’d take ownership of things that they needed to own in the bad breakup. But they also needed to find strength in being a community of believers and get a renewed sense of vision and mission, which they had lost.
MD: Let’s stay on this for a bit because we don’t read a lot about how to come to a church that’s had trouble between church and pastor. There aren’t a lot of conferences on How to Come to a Church That’s Had a Bad Breakup with the Pastor.
ET: No, there aren’t.
MD: So what are some of the attitudes in the congregation that have to be worked through? What are some of the views they had developed about pastors as a whole? How do you work through some of those things?
ET: The first thing I recognized when I came in was a lack of trust in leadership in general. And I think that’s probably a common thing. They just had a great fear of leadership whether that was the pastoral leadership or staff leadership or lay leadership. They felt like the leaders had let them down. Whether it was the pastor who left, or the conflict between the core group of leaders in the church and the pastor, they just felt like everybody had let them down.
So they had this great level of distrust for leadership in general. As a result, coming in and being a strong leader would be something that you want to do, but the way you express your strength is not in dictums or autocratic type pronouncements or saying, “I’m here. Everything’s good, simply trust me.” When I came in strength of leadership was in meeting with a lot of people and talking to a lot of people and listening to a lot of people.
MD: And that’s true in any church.
ET: Exactly. So I had to spend time with people. I think people here would tell you I spent at least six months listening and watching, trying to rejuvenate the leaders that were here. The staff was demoralized. They had question marks about me.
When I came to First Baptist I was 35. People in the church were fearful that I was not old enough or smart enough or strong enough or whatever to do the job. So I had to help them gain trust in my leadership.
Then I had to help the church by being kind. Smiling and being nice to people really does go a long way in church life. Being available and accessible are often underutilized. Really, I spent six months to a year just doing that.
Part of what some guys may not understand is when you listen to people who are hurting, that hurt breeds anger. Sometimes their anger was directed toward me; but it wasn’t about me. It was about their hurt. This is where strength of leadership comes in, having the confidence to understand they’re upset but realizing they’re not upset with me. I need to help them identify some of the things that are causing the hurt. Listening goes a long way to doing that.
On the other hand, a lot of people wanted me to come in and fix everything. There was this interim ministry team—kind of an Elder board, with a couple of staff people and three lay leaders. They had a list of 200 plus items that needed to be resolved. So I met with them once, got the list, then I didn’t do much of anything with it because it didn’t need to be done. Those weren’t issues that really mattered to the life of the church. They were more of the detail things that would work out eventually. I didn’t try to solve everybody’s problems, but I listened to pretty much all of them as I could.
But all the while I was trying to move them toward mission. I think that was another aspect. If I could get their eyes focused on things that were of eternal significance rather than their own hurts, it would help them navigate through their hurts as they tried to accomplish something that God had given them to do.
For instance, in our story Vacation Bible School plays a very important part. When I came to First Baptist, it was during the week of Vacation Bible School. VBS became an emblem of mission: this is what we’re doing. Look at all the volunteers. Look at the kids. You know, that kind of thing. It really gave us something to hold on to. Then the next year we would pick different strategic elements that would help us move forward on mission, reaching people, seeing them come to Christ, and discipling them.
MD: Good. So did you use Vacation Bible School as kind of a rallying point, an example of success that would help them start rebuilding the trust?
ET: Yes. Vacation Bible School’s one of the things that I would consider a sweet spot in our church where we can rally the entire church. In VBS no one’s worried about the music or the building or the satellite or any of those things. They’re focused in on one thing and that is to help these kids see Jesus and grow in love with Him. Everybody gets on board with that and has a great time, and our folks can be as creative and as crazy as they want to be.
Every year, for us, Vacation Bible School remains that rallying cry. For 13 years we’ve had ups and downs as a church in the ebb and flow of life. But Vacation Bible school has still been that place where we can return and remind ourselves again, okay, we’re doing something significant and it is for God’s glory and it’s gonna produce health and life in this church.
MD: Over the course of your 13 years, after you got to FBC and got settled in, what has proven to be the challenge that has recurred the most—the challenge that seems to always come around somehow or another?
ET: It don’t even have to think about it: the successes of yesterday becoming anchors for how you approach the future.
We have had great successes before I came and even since I’ve been here. But what develops in a 211-year-old church is a lot of shared memories. People look at the successes that we’ve had and try to determine what led to those successes. They remember a big choir or a voluminous television ministry or because of a building that we built or whatever. And all of those are ingredients of great, great successes—as some define success.
Well, times change. Leading people to the next journey toward faithfulness and fruitfulness, as a church, sometimes means that you have to give up those avenues that got you to fruitfulness 20 years ago. Faithfulness in 1976 may not look anything like faithfulness in 2016.
I had this exact conversation recently: that the way we did it before was great, and it was fantastic, and it was effective. But the way we do it today has to be different because people have changed and our culture has changed and the world has changed.
And so that’s the recurring challenge—it’s not music. Some would say it’s music, but it’s really not music. Music is a symptom of some deeper thing going on in our church, in my setting anyway. It’s the successes of yesterday that are the true challenge.
MD: Talk for a moment to the pastor who’s in a church where the DNA of the church needs to be changed in the way that you have just kind of hinted at. How do you encourage pastors to undertake a transition to where the DNA of the church can be changed over time, to where the metrics are different, the successes are counted differently. They’re looking for different things to define success. And they celebrate things that have happened, that are great but they don’t idolize them to the point that they’re always looking backwards. Give me three or four things a pastor who’s in a church that’s stuck and can start implementing to help them make that shift in DNA.
ET: The first thing is identify what needs to be changed—these have to be the deep things. Don’t focus on the externals; go straight to the deep things that need to be adjusted. For us it was moving from being attractional. And although we’re still attractional in some ways, we’ve moved toward a more missional mind and heart. That takes time. But we felt like that was the most effective means by which we could continue the legacy of First Norfolk into the future for God’s glory. We identified that as the deep things.
When you identify the major thing that needs to be adjusted in the DNA, you don’t worry so much about some of the externals. You’ll get to those in time. But you need to focus on the most important things and the things that really need changing. And so that’s one aspect.
Second thing I would say is you have to take time to do it. In my setting, again, it takes time. I’ve been at it for 13 years and we’re just now hitting our stride, just now.
MD: That’s significant.
ET: As a pastor, I came in with a long view and for our setting it needed a long view. It wasn’t going to be accomplished in five years. I was hoping it would be in ten years. We’re now at 13. Anyone wanting to transition a church with a long history like First Baptist must be patient. In fact, I would suggest that one of the great marks of a pastor is endurance toward the mission that God has given us and in that one local church. So I think you have to take time.
The third thing is: don’t get distracted by lesser things.
I hear pastors say they went to Passion or some leadership conference or to Andy Stanley’s church or went over to Bellevue and you hear what they’re doing and they say, “Man, we can do that.” Well, maybe you can but that’s not really the question. The question is, should you do it? Does it match where you’re trying to lead the church? Will it help develop the new DNA? If not, don’t get distracted by this or that new thing that’s coming out. You know, let’s put up a screen or a smoke machine or you know, let’s create a “worship environment.” That might be important but that’s not the main thing.
MD: In other words, don’t lose your ministry over whether or not you have a projector.
ET: Exactly! Over time, as you develop credibility with your people, you can help them see the importance of doing certain things. But don’t get distracted so that you lose your chips in one slot. If you’re gonna use your credibility chips, make sure that you use them on something that is of eternal significance, not on something that is of lesser significance.