SALISBURY, Md. (BP)–Lee Hughart was happily working as a bivocational pastor and assistant curator of a historic fort in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina swept through and wiped out his home, church and community.
Hughart and his wife Allison packed their few remaining belongings into their Kia, strapped in their two young children, then-2-year-old Clararuth and six-month-old Roger, and headed to Hughart’s parents’ home in Baltimore.
Shortly thereafter, Hughart accepted a position as interim pastor of Harvest Church in Salisbury, Md., and stepped into the midst of another big storm.
He quickly found out that the church was in trouble. Harvest was pastor-driven, with just the former pastor, a youth minister and a team of five trustees making almost all of the decisions. When unresolved conflicts grew, the pastor, four trustees, the youth pastor and the church secretary left. Much of the congregation followed. There was a leadership crisis. Hughart knew he had to move slowly and deliberately to help the church pull through.
Darrell Fearin, the one remaining trustee, admits it was hard not to bail out, but he felt God wanted him to stay.
“It was a very, very, turbulent time,” Fearin said. “Lee not only provided leadership, but he also understood the church was still hurting.”
Hughart became a strategic part of the church’s transitional team, which began taking care of core issues, including determining membership, church rules and finances. They set up procedures to elect finance and buildings and grounds committees and trustees.
“Instead of limited leadership making decisions, it became more congregational decision-making,” Hughart said. “That doesn’t sound like much, but for them, it was a huge step in making changes.”
Hughart began preaching through Nehemiah, encouraging the beleaguered congregation that God could rebuild their church.
“We began refocusing on the mission of the church and looking at the results God wants,” Hughart said. “The result is not the number of people, but the number of people becoming disciples.
The church began exploring issues they had never discussed before and they grew closer to one another.
“Lee really focused on helping us heal,” Fearin said. “He didn’t just take things the way they seemed. He would question things and didn’t accept quick answers. He always tried to get to the root cause of what the problems were.
“He also did some really neat things to bring us together,” Fearin continued. “… He pushed us into having quarterly get-togethers, lunches, dinners and harvest parties.”
After about six months, some members who left began returning and new people began joining, which surprised Hughart since the church was still in a transition phase.
When the congregation was healthier and was prepared for a new pastor, Hughart helped them form a pastor search committee.
He made sure he was away during the calling process, so the church would bond with the new pastor and his family. When the new pastor came on the field, Hughart took a sabbatical and stayed away more than a month.
So how are things going now at Harvest?
“Quite good,” Fearin said. “We’re voting on a constitution. We’re a typical Baptist church now and we’re up to 150 to 165 people regularly. We’re close to meeting our budget.” In December 2005, the attendance was only averaging 103.
Hughart returned to the church with his family and have been making friends and are happy at Harvest.
Keith Myer, Harvest Church’s current pastor, is now a huge fan of transitional pastors after seeing what Hughart did. Too many churches are so anxious to fill the pulpit and not look at the church’s needs, he said.
“It’s almost like when you’re having guests over and you stuff everything in the closet. That doesn’t take care of the clutter problem; it just makes it look better. Lee had them realize some of the problem was themselves. No one thing was a factor.
“Lee came in here and calmed everyone down and focused them on what’s most important,” Myer said.
“It wasn’t me,” Hughart said of Harvest’s turnaround. “It was God working through them, showing them, demonstrating to them what He wanted to have done.”
Not having any training to face a crisis as an interim pastor, Hughart said he did a lot of praying and God showed him what steps to take. Later when he went to transitional pastor ministry training sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, he discovered that the same principles God had shown him were what experts recommended. He saw it as confirmation that he did the right things.
Hughart said he wishes he had the training first. “I could have done a better job and moved the congregation further through the transition. I think it is a great model to guide a church through the transition between pastors.”
Sharon Mager is a correspondent for BaptistLIFE (www.baptistlifeonline.org), newsjournal of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware.