Everything I think and feel about my friend Mike Ayers would be a blog series unto itself. He was my youth pastor for just 2 years of high school until he left to plant a church. When Becky (then my girlfriend, now my wife) and I were having a very difficult time in the church, Mike stood by us. When just two short years into ministry myself I felt burned by the church and ready to throw in the towel on ministry altogether, Mike offered a safe place to grow and learn. He wasn't the first guy I looked to for mentoring, but he was the first to do it. Mike officiated our wedding. And when our marriage fell apart and our local church counselor seemed afraid to go deeper with us than "husbands should take out the trash without being asked," even though we lived in another state, Mike counseled us over the phone. As a kid, I was drawn to Mike by two things: His sense of humor and his conviction that the church existed to reach the lost with the gospel. Mike's conviction about the church has not changed. And neither has my conviction about him: Mike Ayers is one of the kindest, gentlest, wisest, dedicated men of the faith I've ever met, and I am privileged to call him a friend. He has saved my bacon more than once. You should probably also know that Mike is the Lead Pastor of The Brook Church Community, the church he planted in Northwest Houston, Texas in 1995, and he is a Professor in and the Chair of the Department of Leadership Studies at College of Biblical Studies in Houston. More importantly, Mike is husband to Tammy and dad to Ryan, Brandon, and Kaley.
Where did you grow up and how did you come to faith in Christ?
I was born in Emporia, Kansas, but after moving to three states because of my father's job, we eventually settled in my 5th grade year in a small north Texas town called Weatherford. I did not grow up attending church and only knew of God from what I saw on a religious broadcasting station (which frankly frightened me). My parents were blue-collar workers who loved me, but who made very poor decisions in their lives. They were both alcoholics at that time, and there was a lot of chaos and heartache associated with those years. My mother had been married twice before meeting my father, and I had three older half-sisters and two younger brothers.
It was out of the turmoil of my home that I began to have big questions about life and death. My resentment toward my father and mother only complicated the frustrations that I had as a 17 year old without purpose or security.
I began visiting a church with some friends from school. It was there that I met the youth pastor whom I enjoyed and to whom I related. One night he shared his testimony of coming to faith in Christ and that stirred in my heart a desire to know more. After a youth meeting, he gave me a ride home and shared with me the gospel of Jesus. I went up to my bedroom afterwards, laid down on my bed, and began to cry out to the Lord. I got on my knees beside the bed and asked Christ to save me and forgive me. I cried myself to sleep that night in sweet relief of my sin and woke up the next morning knowing that I had been transformed.
How did you know you were called into pastoral ministry?
After high school, I attended junior college in my hometown and essentially flunked out of my classes that year. I was working, dating someone there in town, and had no real purpose behind my education. I began to realize how much I enjoyed growing in Christ and being an integral part of our youth group. I was placed in leadership roles and personally mentored by the youth pastor. As a result of those experiences in church and with the youth pastor, as well as of lack of direction as to a vocation, I opened myself up to the possibility of ministry. This was a very radical notion given my background and far removed from what I ever thought I would do with my life.
I spoke to my youth pastor about it and he said, "Mike, if you can do anything else in your life besides ministry and be fulfilled, then you should do that. If you can't then ministry is likely the place God wants you." I came to believe that nothing else would be as worthwhile as investing my life in the church. Now after almost 30 years of ministry and the challenges associated with it, I've always appreciated the clarity of that statement provided by my youth pastor.
What was the process for you like in moving from student ministry to planting a church?
While it never stays there, vision begins with discontent. We witness this time and again in the Scripture. It begins with a wrong that must be righted, a need that should be met, an injustice that must be addressed, etc.-- and out of that void God says to individual, "I want you to go and make it right."
Up until 1993 I had always been in very stable and positive settings in the years that I spent in student ministry, but in that year I found myself in a church setting that was very challenging. Just six months after I was hired as student pastor at this church, the pastor resigned. We came to find out that the church was divided, unclear as to who they were, and unsupportive of the changes that the pastor had initiated. For the first time in my ministry, I saw a side of the church that became very disheartening.
After about 18 months of darkness, God renewed in my heart a pure passion for His Bride. My wife and I began to pray and talk about planting a church that reflected our heart for what we believed the church could and should be. I became convinced that this was the way God wanted me to spend my remaining years on the earth... and for me to die trying to build an Acts 2:42 community.
What are the particular challenges of ministering the gospel in a place like northwest Houston, Texas?
Here in the Bible belt there is a church on every corner. However, in Houston, just as in every metropolitan city, we have an ever-increasing population of unchurched people who do not know Christ.
When we first moved to Houston my wife and I were very intentional about building authentic relationships with neighbors and to pray that God would use us to share the gospel with them within the context of real friendship. Within the first two years we saw three of these families to faith in Christ. When it came time to plant the church, this experience confirmed in my heart the need for a church with a unique calling, and more importantly a church with the courage to have integrity to follow that calling with their full devotion (because after all, almost every church believes their calling is unique). That we would actually leverage ourselves in real ways to be and put into practice what we proclaim to be.
This in itself has been the most challenging. People attend church in Houston for many reasons: status associated with attending a particular church, a family tradition, obligation they feel to God, etc. So to create a place where authentic followers of Christ gather to serve, give, study, worship and relate to one another as expressed in Scripture is very difficult. In the middle of a consumer-driven church culture, we find ourselves at The Brook always needing to paint a clear and compelling picture of the counter-cultural claims of the gospel and the nature of what true worship is- that giving and serving and loving is where joy is found as far as Jesus is concerned. I've found that there is a detox process that often must occur. For unbelievers who come to our church, it must occur from the consumer culture. For believers and churchgoers who come, it must occur from the church itself.
Tell us about a time you felt especially discouraged, depressed, doubtful, or otherwise downtrodden in the life of your ministry. How did you come out of that, and what did God teach you during that time?
In 1998 (only 3 years after starting the church), I was 36 years old, worn out, and frustrated in ministry. Regardless of my authentic passion for the church and my desires to see good things come about, I was new to pastoring, new to this level of church leadership, and naïve in what I thought this experience would be. The church was not growing as I expected, and there were disagreements about what the church should be and do. Personally, there was also deep stirring in my heart- something unresolved and broken - that left me unsure and without peace.
After several weeks of doubt about my leadership and the feeling of failure in my ministry, I began seeing a counselor. Over time I learned that the challenges in the church were really not about the church, but primarily about me. They were about a leader who was insecure, one who had never truly owned the trauma of his past, and one who didn't affirm nor celebrate his true identity in Christ. So while acknowledging the void produced by the home in which I was raised, I was oblivious to how it drove my life as a parent, a spouse, and a leader. I began to recognize how I was living out the meeting of my personal needs in the roles that I held in life including pastoring.
It was through this deep time of looking within that God revealed some of my own misguided motivations. As a 19 year old I had surrendered myself to ministry out of a love for God, a love for the gospel, and a compelling vision to see people's lives transformed. But, somewhere along the way, ministry for me became more about proving to me and to the world what a great person and leader I was through external measures of success.
Without knowing it, those needs for unconditional love and acceptance I never received growing up lingered into my Christian journey and unknowingly fueled my church leadership. Although disguised in spiritual and altruistic terms, a larger church, a bigger salary, and more prestige in ministry was what motivated me. It was only after the difficulties and failures I experienced in the challenge of planting a church that I "hit the wall" and became aware of my need for healing within. The challenges of ministry, marriage and parenting, as well as the awareness of my need for something more eventually drove me to sit in front of that counselor and search for other kinds of answers. Here I began to learn about who I truly was, how I had been unfaithful to that identity, the false assumptions that I had about "success" in ministry, and how deeply character affects leadership.
It took almost 2 years and countless hours of introspection and prayer to gain perspective on these things. At the end, I've concluded that God is much more interested in doing a great work in us as doing a great work through us. That faithfulness to God's calling is success. That leading from a measure of security and health is leadership that is truly effective; and that ministry on this side of wholeness is worthwhile... both to those I lead and to myself.
As you disciple, mentor, and teach young men new in or aspiring to ministry, aside from the biblical qualifications for eldership, what are some things you impress upon them as essential for faithful shepherding?
Just as in my experience, I always try to stress to them that we lead from who we are. That is, who we are in character affects what we do in leadership. This is not a command as if to say we should lead from who we are. It is an axiom of truth: we do lead from who we are- whether we know it or not. Every one of us. This fact may be a detriment to leadership, or on the other hand it may create a powerful, fulfilling and fruitful experience for every leader.
So the greatest asset we have as leaders in ministry is a healthy and whole understanding of our identity in Christ, and then a true estimation of what is important in God's economy (and by default what's not important). So many leaders chase after things that I think don't really matter to God and they are driven by comparisons to other pastors and churches. I believe in a much more ontological approach to leading and an understanding that God has not first called us to "success" but to obedience.
Here's the irony. It's been true for me and for others. When we focus on faithfulness, God has an amazing way of bringing fruit. The good news is that that fruit comes from Him, is a result of His power and work . . . and therefore, He gets the credit.
What has been your greatest joy in ministry?
Having the blessed privilege of being an eyewitness of God's work in calling men and women into His blessed kingdom, and then seeing their lives absolutely transformed by the love of God. God's still in the business of changing human hearts!
This concludes (for now, anyway) the Pastors I Admire interview series. I trust hearing the personal and ministry testimonies from some very different folks pastoring in different areas has been a blessing to you. Previous weeks have included interviews with Steve Benninger, Roland Mitcheson, Steve Rahn, and Ray Ortlund.