New Church Plant

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“Now those who were scattered
went about preaching the word.”
(Acts 8:4)

New Church Plant

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Maryam and I worshiped Sundays at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church in McLean, Virginia after we were married there in 1984, commuting for two years from Shirlington and then from Centreville where we purchased our first home. The half-hour commute from Centreville, however, became tedious and made participation in activities after work during the week difficult. When we received a circular in the mail about a new Presbyterian congregation being organized in Centreville, we were eager to check it out.

The circular directed us to Chantilly National Golf and Country Club on Braddock Road, about 2 miles down the road from our home on Shipley Court. On that Sunday morning on January 18, 1987, we had wet slushy snow so we were happy not to have to drive to McLean. The meeting room was in the back, down a long, narrow hallway past a small bar with patrons sitting on the stools who turned around and gave us the eye as we walked past. While Maryam would normally turn heads when she walked by, I was not used to such attention—even in my suit. The meeting room was packed with 40-50 people, most of whom we had never seen before.

The pastor that morning, Richard (Dick) G. Hutcheson, Jr., was an experienced and stately speaker, a retired Navy chaplain who had attained the rank of Admiral. I remember the elegant pacing of his voice and his ability to employ rhetorical flourishes when he spoke. I do not remember what he spoke about, but the group was quickly hooked and most of those in attendance returned the following week, in spite of being relocated to a drafty, neighborhood clubhouse in Little Rocky Run.

The relocation took place because the congregation was dis-invited by the country club. Apparently, the patrons at the bar were not excited about having church folks see them tipping beers on Sunday morning. It is most ironic that this Centreville mission began its corporate life by being kicked out of a country club.

Ben recruited me that first Sunday in Little Rocky Run to join the pastoral search committee, but what made my commitment meaningful was Pastor Hutcheson, who had been drafted by Vienna Presbyterian Church (VPC) out of retirement to launch this church plant. Unfortunately, Dick’s heart was set on writing a book, not on pastoring another church so he stayed for six months and left. Left to fend for ourselves week after week, we were subjected to supply pastors of all stripes, some better than others, but most not willing to get involved in the hard work of organizing a church. Within a few weeks of Hutcheson’s departure, Sunday morning attendance dropped to under 20. Along the way I was invited also to join both the steering committee and the choir, in part, because there really wasn’t anyone else available.

The choir normally met in Mary’s townhouse, just off Newton Patent Drive. Being good friends with Mary, Maryam used to come with me, but she did not sing. Other choir members included Ken and Cathy, Jean, and our pianist, Sherry. We had a good time practicing hymns and choral music borrowed from other local churches. On a good Sunday, the choir made up as much as half the congregation and the choir was also well-represented on the steering committee.

This early steering committee worked rather informally relative to a formal session, in part, because few in the group had a Presbyterian background—I was one of the few—and, in part, because two-thirds of the committee represented other churches. Things happened a bit mysteriously because business got done somewhere other than in Centreville, either in VPC or National Capital Presbytery (NCP). The absence of a permanent pastoral moderator contributed to this informal operational style and to the rise of Ben, a charismatic Centreville volunteer, as a key leader in the steering committee.

The pastor search committee shared this same three-group structure, but, because VPC financed the Centreville mission, a quiet, fundamentalist from VPC, Sam, chaired the search committee. The already Byzantine call process outlined in the Presbyterian Church’s Constitution, known better as the Book of Order, plus the three-way political divide within the group made the pastoral search process long and hard. After about 18 months of reviewing personal information forms (PIFs) and interviewing selected candidates, the committee narrowed the list to three candidates—one for each of the groups. NCP volunteers supported a local female pastor who had previously organized a local church; VPC volunteers were enamored with a pastor from Indiana; and Centreville volunteers focused on a well-educated pastor, not unlike Pastor Hutcheson.

The committee decided, on my recommendation, that each of these three pastors be called in the above order until a candidate accepted our call. The NCP candidate refused the call because the vote was not unanimous; the VPC candidate refused the call over because of the financial terms; the Centreville candidate, Horace Houston, was the only one to respond to the call and he accepted. News that the search committee had called a pastor gave hope to the long-suffering congregation, exhausted by poor-quality, supply pastors—Sunday morning services, already meeting in Cub Run Elementary School for over a year at that point, were so weak that even members of the steering committee stopped attending and several left the group never to return. This announcement freed up members of the committee, like myself, to devote time and energy to other pressing needs in the group.

Still, I was exhausted. As a member of both the steering and pastoral search committees, I was only able to keep up at that point in my career only because Maryam and I delayed having children until I moved into finance and my career began to take off.  As my career began requiring more time and effort, the temporary lull in work in the Centreville mission was short-lived. Ben and Horace did not get along. When Ben’s wife volunteered to take over the group’s finance setting up the prospect of further conflict, I proposed that the sterling committee divide finances between receipts and disbursements, making it necessary then to volunteer to serve a treasurer. Horace quietly planned his own departure which he announced on the anniversary of his arrival, sending the mission into crisis—I was not the only volunteer at the point of exhaustion.[1] Pastor Peter James at VPC sensed the threat to the group and convinced NCP to initiate an accelerated call process to replace Horace.

When the new pastor was properly installed, Maryam asked me to take a breather from church leadership for three years. Taking Maryam’s request seriously and sensing the need to give the new pastor breathing room, I divested myself of the jobs that I held at the time—membership on the steering committee, the treasurer’s job, writing the annual report, chair of the chartering committee—and focused on singing in the choir.

References

Hutcheson, Jr. Richard G. 1988. God in the White House: How Religion Has Changed the Modern Presidency. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 1985. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): Part II, Book of Order. New York.

[1] Horace preached an excellent sermon on Psalm 103 that Sunday in June.

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