It was my privilege to serve as superintendent of the Southern California-Arizona Conference from 1978 to 1985. I have been asked to identify the most important thing that occurred during my tenure. While there are a number of things of import that occurred during those days, the most important one relates to church planting. Unfortunately time and space do not allow for the background history essential to fully understand why this was so significant.
My early tenure coincided with the Church Growth and Church Planting movements led by Carl George, head of Fuller Evangelistic Institute. My participation, along with many other regional leaders, in studies undertaken led to identifying the characteristics of successful church planters. The process our conference followed as a result of our involvement culminated at the only other Conference Session we held here at APU (1980 or 1981). We appointed three ‘tent-maker’ (i.e. self-supporting) couples to plant churches in cities selected on the basis of favorable demographic data. One couple went to Flagstaff, AZ; a team of two went to Rancho Cucamonga. A significant offering was taken at the conference which underwrote the health insurance and pension premiums for the year for all three.
The exciting history of Rancho Cucamonga is widely known. While our hopes for Flagstaff did not materialize, the pastor turned his efforts to the city of Kingman to the west and successfully planted a church there. That congregation continued until just recent years.
Given our history, the one major component of why church planting was so important at that time is the morale it generated among lay people everywhere. There was an excitement level generated that had great impact.
Having been retired for a number of years, my awareness of all that has been taking place in our conference is very limited. The reports I hear are certainly encouraging. Opportunities I have had to be with Superintendent Walkemeyer on special occasions at Long Beach Light and Life – a church dear to my heart – have been especially enlightening and uplifting.
My prayer is that God will bless the investment of our personnel and financial resources in the mission to extend his kingdom. May many new Christ-followers be the result.
During the time I served as Superintendent, 1985-1988, the conference consisted of Southern California and Arizona…but the Latin churches constituted a separate conference. Southern California and Arizona functioned as two districts, each with its own boards and committees but with a joint MEG and MAC. As Conference Superintendent, I customarily spent one week each month in Arizona and three in Southern California (reflecting the relative size of the two districts).
This was a very dynamic time in the life of the conference. Many of the churches experienced good growth, led by Garden Grove and Rancho Cucamonga (still a maturing church plant). And a number of new church plants were launched, including fellowships in Carpentaria and Sunnyside. I was kept very busy as Superintendent, monthly traveling between Southern California and Arizona and weekly driving many miles across both districts, visiting the pastors and churches.
I loved working with the pastors. But during this period, many (too many) fell prey to sexual immorality. I found dealing with these situations personally painful. But I learned a lot in the process, which I was able to put to use in the founding of Northeastern Seminary, where we have developed a strong program in Spiritual Formation as a necessary foundation for pastoral ministry.
Congratulations on 125 years of ministry in Southern California! I pray God’s continued blessings on one and all.
Funny, the things we remember! Things that really form us. I remember the sewer I used to play in as a child in Brazil; I remember the piece of metal flying off a truck on the 210 freeway hitting my hood inches from my face; I remember the chair I stood on to greet guests at the reception who had come when we married; I remember the moment my dad died; I remember the moment Corey was born. Likewise, stepping into a conference event brings many remembrances – each one a formative moment in living God’s call.
It seems like a lifetime ago. Some of you I do not know – I am sorry! Some of you know me well – I am sorry! Some of you I have hurt – I am sorry! Some are no longer here among us – I am sorry! All of you have shaped me – I thank you! When I am with you, a jumble of thoughts swirl. Mostly I am so grateful for the formative years of amazing Kingdom impact, and the incredible patience you had with me as I stretched and risked.
The day I was elected: Robert Andrews was bishop. The annual conference met at the Mountain View Church on a Saturday. Bishop Andrews said it would take just a few minutes and they would do other business. When the special session started I was seated in a front pew next to the center aisle. After a few hours of heated debate over the superintendency, I found myself gradually moving closer to the side aisle – and a potential way of escape! I can only imagine the angst of a seriously divided conference over bringing in a strange 34 year old to lead.
Planting a new conference: Within a year we set up the transition team to split the Southern California/Arizona conference and launch a new annual conference in Arizona. All of the attenuating issues resulted in handing the new conference a large cash infusion and the Emmanuel Pines Camp in Prescott. Then trying to convince the general board of administration that taking the word “conference” out of our name and replacing it with “Free Methodist” was really an act of loyalty, not rebelliousness. So we became the FMCSC. I remember.
Overhauling the financial systems: Every denomination I work with seems to have a competitive desire to develop the most complex formula for their “denominational allocations,” “district budgets,” or, as we called them, “conference apportionments.” I don’t know about you, but I have rarely met an apportionment formula that I completely understood! So we set about to revamp ours – to make it a simple tithe. Talk about arrogance…to disagree fundamentally with some of the top CPAs in the area almost to the point of breaking the relationship. Only grace, and a healthy amount of wisdom from John Hartley on Old Testament customs, kept me going. I don’t know how you fund the FMCSC now, but I’ve never seen the Lord honor the tithe so much. I remember.
Leadership Structures: Those who know me realize I tend to be a pragmatist and relentlessly pursue the mission. Some of the best choices I made were getting out of the way and freeing good people to do missional stuff — not burdened with bureaucracy but challenged by vision. As a rather radical shift to a leadership oriented corporate culture, it was liberating to watch Bill McKinney as Assistant Superintendent for Schools engage the 13 schools; Mark Logan as Assistant Superintendent for Camping build the retreat programs; Steve Fitch as Assistant Superintendent for Church Planting develop our multiplication systems; and Denny Wayman as Assistant Superintendent giving ongoing input and wisdom — all creating a collaborative partnership in leadership. At the same time, growing to rely on highly competent people in the office, I discovered that I really don’t know it all! Some of you remember Esther Hopper’s incredible efficiency and Carol’s amazing competence. And how I grew to respect and appreciate having a Controller next to me. Kevin Schamehorn taught me a lot. As did Hal Stewart, untangling the legal hairballs of immigration and deeds.
Pain: More than any other thing, I remember the pain – paralyzing, boot-in-the-gut pain. Upon arrival in 1989 every six months having to take the ordination credentials from some pastor in our conference. Broken marriages; lives destroyed; calls ended; families torn up; churches scarred. I will never forget the pain. I can see faces of each – and some of you were there with me. It wasn’t until countless middle-of-the-night wrestling began to yield to the deeper questions of intrinsic formation of the pastoral heart that I began to feel like we might turn the tide. All the counseling in the world, books on the shelf, or personal accountability questions imaginable were ineffective – until we started to put our priority on the deep, formative work of God in making us servants first, and then ministry leaders. To this day I find it difficult to do much speaking without quickly getting to the iceberg – who we are shapes what we do. If you’ve read my book The Integrity Factor, then you get an inkling of the circumstances of those days. My greatest prayer for you is that you will never forget that your identity beneath the waterline is the foundation on which all your activity will be sustained. I beg you — remember.
Shifting the culture: Character is not enough. Competence is part of walking worthy of our calling. I do remember pressing our conference, and some of you, pretty hard to raise expectations in our leadership. I remember the sadness of telling some that we could no longer deploy them because their competence seemed to lay in other areas. As the culture shifted, anxiety grew in some of our pastoral team, but in most cases the character of dear friends stabilized them in the face of tough realities. I know I was the cause of that anxiety and am sorry for the hurt, though I don’t regret the emphasis. Ultimately, a new environment characterized this conference – confident leaders competently engaged in making Him known. What a joy in that conference session when we celebrated for the first time 1000 people making first time decisions to follow Christ, and the multiple new churches launched.
Privilege of trying new ideas: The patience and mercy extended by this conference to me is beyond comprehension. I love living in the future; and your kindness in allowing me to start new things and try new ideas is a testimony to God’s grace in you. I remember creating the Century 21 Church Planting system, and Steve’s energy in implementing it here. I might let you know that what we created here is to this day the basis of the good growth of the C&MA across Canada. Selling our first church facility as a way to memorialize closing a church while providing the means to launch new ones. I thank those final members of the Lakewood Church. They cried with sadness when I told them we were closing the church. They cried with joy when I told them that out of their passing new churches would begin. Other interventions that were risky – putting the Regional Ministry Center at Foothill in order to buy down their suffocating debt; disbanding the board at L&L Long Beach to open the possibility for growth – the final holdout later in private confrontation wept profusely, “I don’t want to be a church boss. I just want my church to grow.” He is to be thanked, and he is honored in the testimony that L&L Long Beach has become under Larry’s tenured leadership.
So many pictures: The radical new idea of becoming a multi-ethnic conference visibly manifested by merging the Pacific Coast Latin American conference into the FMCSC. How could any of us ever claim a commitment to diversity while remaining institutionally divided? Launching new work in Ethiopia – I know it became a struggle for my successor in later years. I remember the Meta group, what a high energy group of radical mavericks; the .05 leaders who at times just needed protection from the intrusion of the denomination; struggling with legal documents to set up the Scholarship Funds for our young people. So many pictures and times that cannot be counted. I remember.
Leaving: It was in the chapel at Oak Glen for one of our pastoral retreats. Standing at the podium I reported the retirement of one of our denominational bishops. Within a few seconds of adjournment it was Marty Edwards who confronted me saying: “Don’t you dare!” It was he also, who later at another conference gathering somberly placed around my neck the beaded and glittered 8 inch sparkly gold cross; and put upon my head the three and a half foot bishop’s miter covered with gold-flecked elbow macaroni; and who also put in my hand the smiley-face-scepter of blessing – and the frowny-face of cursing! It’s easy to just see those things as funny memories. But for those who know Marty well, who have eyes to see, those were the deeply meaningful statements of personal identity. For me, it was God reminding me never to think too highly of myself or think that positions would define me. No matter what position we hold, we are all children of God standing on the level plane at the cross. I remember!
I cannot express enough my gratitude to this conference. You put up with my rapid-fire ideas; you lunged forward with me; you gently restrained me; you quietly shaped me; you overlooked my arrogant flaws. My greatest blessing? — you kindly befriended and love us. I remember.
I know this is supposed to be about the time I served as superintendent, but I really must say that one of the most important roles you played for Kathy and me was simply being our friends. After serving as bishop of the Free Methodist Church we went on to serve as President of the National Association of Evangelicals. In those years you were never more dear to us, for in that lonely role, at times we felt we belonged to no one. Whether I was enmeshed in the political issues of a national election or navigating drama in the public media around the fraying evangelical landscape, we found our hearts and our anchor here. I remember.
I am deeply humbled and grateful that you want to know my thoughts on my time in the superintendency. It is an honor for Kathy and me to call this our home conference. Most of my ministry now is beyond the Free Methodist Church and around the world but we are Free Methodists. Confidentially, there are very significant churches and organizations in the world who are really Free Methodist – they just don’t know that the bylaws or statements of faith I’ve written for them draw heavily from the FMC. As I have told the current bishops, my answer to the request of the FMC is a default – yes.
But you also know me well enough to know that I don’t like loitering in the past. Today is a new day. Don’t live in the past. Be aggressive. Lean into the future. Engage the tough issues. Be bold and be free. Strike out and take high risks – the Kingdom is worth it. God is calling us to see the institutional church through new eyes. Be inventive and creative. Re-imagine always the organization as the handmaiden of your mission. And constantly remain fluid in prayerful change that will keep your hearts alert. The FM church is a stream that flows into the broad river of God. Make sure this stream is deep, unobstructed, fast flowing, and always fresh with the current of God! Remember the foundations, but lunge forward with abandon in making Him known.
In anticipation of the 125th Anniversary Celebration of the Free Methodist Church in Southern California, I have been asked to write a reflective summary of my tenure as Superintendent. My service as Superintendent lasted for 13 years. I’m told thirteen years is the longest tenure of any Superintendent in our Conference history. Reflecting back on those long and transforming years must begin with the strange path that the Lord used to bring me into the role.
The Journey Towards the Superintendency
During the years leading up to my candidacy as Superintendent, virtually everyone would have said the idea of Steve Fitch becoming a Superintendent bordered on the far side of ludicrous. Yes, the Fitch family name was well known within FM ministry circles. My grandfather, Paul Fitch Sr., led three congregations to new heights as an ordained elder in the Texas, Colorado, and No. California Conferences. My father, Paul Fitch Jr., followed suit and provided highly effective leadership within the Texas and So. California Conferences as a pastor at Ontario and Redlands. He also served with distinction within the Philippine Provisional Conference as a missionary. It would seem that my ministry family DNA provided a clear path for my becoming a third generation FM Elder. In 1978, I became the Hermon Church Youth Pastor. That wonderful inner city congregation provided me with five years of fruitful ministry appointment service leading up to my ordination. The Hermon Church also proved to be the hot spot where I fell in love with and married Claudette. In 1982, I departed the Hermon youth pastor role and took on the challenging appointment of bi-vocational church planter and pastor in Rancho Cucamonga. Solid evangelism and discipleship growth at Hermon and Cucamonga provided a degree of positive notoriety within the FMCSC. However, I was also a bit controversial due to the worship and spiritual gift disputes that raged during the 1970s and 1980s. I was also an arrogant twit who needed to see the hand of the Lord usurp my pretentious egocentric plans. I was soon to discover that the Lord is well versed in redirecting twits.
In 1987, I received a surprising “exit invitation” from the area bishop as a result of disputes relating to the gifts of the Spirit. In retrospect, I was rightfully viewed as rebellious, but the truth is my sudden departure was a shock to my relational and spiritual sensibilities. The FMC had always been my ministry family. Further, several years earlier, the Lord had imparted a vision through me, which promised that I would see His Spirit move within the FMC in new ways. Suddenly my ordination status was no longer associated with the FMC, and the promises given through the vision appeared delusional. But, in the economy of God, human timing doesn’t matter much. Pastor Gary Enniss once told me, “We see through a knothole in the fence of time. God is above it all. His view is unobstructed.” Little did I know that “The One who is above it all” would bring Kevin Mannoia into the Conference Superintendency in 1990. Kevin became God’s conductor leading to reconciliation between the twit and the Conference. There is a lot more detail to the story, but for the sake of brevity suffice it to say that within a remarkably short time frame I journeyed from rebellious twit to Superintendent of the Conference I had so recently departed. As I close this section of my journey it should be noted that I ABSOLUTELY DID NOT want to be a Superintendent, but God never has been overly concerned with my knothole opinion.
Changes – Turn and Face The Strange
The FMCSC is a wonderful ministry family and blessed with a history of godly and competent leaders. I’m confident that each Superintendent has been powerfully used of the Lord, and want to assure the reader that my reflections are not a critique of my predecessors. Nevertheless the reality remains; over time, institutions experience ministry entropy and they must face new challenges associated with generational and cultural changes. Leading change is often strange and strained. The great philosopher David Bowie wrote, “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes – turn and face the strange.” The following is a list of the strange changes I sought to anchor within the culture of the FMCSC during my tenure as Superintendent.
1) A Functional Economic Structure Leading To Kingdom Expansion
Several years before I became Superintendent, my predecessor (Dr. Kevin Mannoia) revolutionized the FMCSC financial systems by establishing a flat 10% tithe for every member congregation within the FMCSC. The simplified approach meant that size and ethnic makeup no longer mattered. Each church was called upon to pay ten percent of their congregational tithes and offerings to the Conference to cover all staff and program expenses associated with our collective ministry efforts. The tithe system meant more funds stayed in the local church. As a local church pastor at the time, I wholeheartedly embraced Kevin’s approach of putting the local church first. However, there was one point of unforeseen consequence that I would have to personally face. Namely, the new tithe system also meant fewer dollars were flowing into the Conference coffers. When I accepted the role of Superintendent in June of 1997, I was surprised to discover that the FMCSC struggled to make payroll and cover its basic ministry obligations. At the time, there were virtually no operational reserves, which meant for the next few years we had to juggle bill payments.
The financial solution was clear. The FMCSC had to grow out of its fiscal limitations. The Conference needed to plant new churches, increase the size and viability of our existing congregations, and look for other revenue sources to fund essential endowments. I’m pleased to report that during my tenure, the FMCSC’s operational budget tripled in size, and until the “Great Recession” took hold we consistently ended each year with an annual budget surplus – which went into the endowment. Further, the endowment grew from a low of $198,000 in June 1998 to nearly $7,000,000 by May 2010. Most of the increase in the endowment followed the closure and sale of the congregations that were no loner considered capable of effectively reaching their communities for Christ. The sale of valuable properties allowed the FMCSC to provide millions in grants for church planting projects and also to buy property for break through congregations. But, oh Lord, what a struggle it turned out to be. Big ships make slow cultural changes. I now see through an enlarged hindsight knothole that God was on the move long before my tenure, and He remains mightily at work following my exit. The Kingdom is His – not mine – not yours. Still, we are His stewards and we do what we are called to do.
2) Kingdom Expansion By Rewarding Church Health and Multiplication
The New Testament is filled with stories involving aggressive and rapid expansion of the Kingdom through church planting. New Testament leaders were also boldly committed to correcting church dysfunctions. As a former church planter, I readily embraced the idea of expanding the Kingdom through the empowerment of new congregations. Church planting and church health became the twin focal points of my desired ministry culture shifts. However, the flip side of the New Testament model requiring leadership and congregational health proved to be quite unpleasant at times, and I felt obligated throughout my tenure to deal with leaders and congregations that refused to change and or grow.
Max De Pree teaches, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” The reality in the church world is many denominations largely exist to prop up small unhealthy congregations. Tragically, the pattern of empowering dead and dying congregations stifles Kingdom expansion, wastes valuable Kingdom resources, and chases away the next generation of gifted leaders. I knew “propping up” was inconsistent with the vision the Spirit had given me years before. I was determined to follow the bold leadership pattern of Dr. Mannoia who had already set in motion new Conference patterns that rewarded Kingdom performance. The hard part is rewarding performance came with a price. The price of transformation required the FMCSC to close almost one non-viable congregation (with property) each year during my Superintendency. The last sentence may sound awful to some, but in my defense I would ask the reader to recognize that significant net gains were achieved as the FMCSC repositioned the dormant assets. I can say with certainty that we were able to fund Kingdom mission at a heightened level as the repositioned funds were entrusted to:
· The educational endowment fund,
· Scores of new church planting projects, and
· Breakthrough congregations needing help with property purchases and/or improvement to their worship facilities.
It’s been five years since I departed the role of Superintendent and the phrase, “Building the Kingdom through repositioning” sounds so neat and efficient. The truth is along with the requirement to discipline fallen ministry leaders, the process of repositioning assets wore mightily on my soul. Nevertheless, as I reflect back, there is a growing sense of comfort in seeing how productive repositioning Kingdom resourcing proved to be. Long Beach, Lake Elsinore, Murrieta, Rancho Cucamonga, Garden Grove and Santa Barbara are just a few of the more prominent positive examples of churches that greatly benefitted from the process even as I realize most in the Conference have either forgotten or never knew about these things. But, the Kingdom is not about the steward and with this understanding my hope and prayer is that the repositioning of assets flowed from the heart of a servant.
3) Embracing Effective Out of the Box Ministry
One other noteworthy feature that occurred between 1997 and 2010 was the consideration of embracing non-traditional and apostolic forms of ministry that operated outside of Church and Conference walls. “Out of the box” ministries like “Black Sheep Harley-Davidsons for Christ” were formed with the full approval of the FMCSC. And, we put our money behind our convictions by funding crazy ministry ideas like Black Sheep, Heavenly Treasures, and Eden Reforestation Projects. Today, all three of these seemingly strange ideas have matured into ministries that are building the Kingdom in ways the traditional church is not necessarily positioned to experience.
Perhaps the reader already knows that I departed the FMCSC and went full time (on a part time salary) with Eden. At the time of this article Eden has planted over 92 million trees and sometime around mid 2015 we will surpass the 100 million tree-planting milestone. All of the tree plantings have been achieved by hiring thousands of villagers to care for their own environment. So far Eden’s “Employ to Plant” strategy has lifted somewhere around 10,000 villagers out of extreme poverty. Our overall objective seeks to fulfill the biblical mandates to care for the poor and creation. Eden accomplishes this in one nifty package. Now, that’s out of the box!
In addition, the FMCSC was also entrusted with opening or enhancing foreign mission fields. Ethiopia was the most notable example, and that wonderful and complex Horn of Africa was part of my ministry responsibility between 1998 and 2010. Amazingly, it matured to the point where in 2012 the collection of 42 viable congregations and five schools had matured to the point where it became its own Annual Conference. The Santa Barbara FMC also launched new works in Costa Rica and Antigua with the support of the FMCSC. What pleased me most is the pattern of aggressive Kingdom expansion that continues to this day, with consistent commitment to improvements in both means and methods.
I suppose there is much more that could be written, but focusing on the past tends to bore most readers to tears if the old story-telling coot (former young twit) carries on too long. There’s nothing worse than an ego that ends the story by making him or herself the hero. Hopefully, such is not my fate. As I’ve reflected, there have been occasions of tearing up as I’m filled with gratitude for thirteen years of life well spent with beloved friends and coworkers. I want to close out by thanking my hero, Carol Hart, and loving companions in arms like Glen Prior, Larry Walkemeyer, Denny Wayman, Gary Enniss, and so many more. I’m also thankful for the mentoring and friendship I received from predecessors Kevin Mannoia and Earl Schamehorn. Above all, I’m grateful to the FMCSC for tolerating my own Cha-ch-ch changes as we turned and faced the strange. I was a strange choice for Superintendent but strange seems to be God’s way sometimes.
To honor the lead Superintendent who followed me I’ll close with one slightly amended biblical text and two movie quotes:
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his strange power that is at work within us.” – Ephesians 3:20
“Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do things that no one can imagine.” – The Imitation Game
“That’s all I got to say about that.” – Forest Gump