Chapter OneTHE BEST-LAID
The northbound traffic on the Meadowland Parkway was bumper to
bumper. Cars, vans, and SUVs crammed with people of all shapes and
sizes moved slowly toward VisionTel Stadium. Children clutching pennants
and baseball gloves-and hopes of catching a miraculous foul
ball-anxiously waited for their cars to inch ahead. This evening's game
was a sellout, and the fans were out in full force. Everyone with a ticket
to today's game was pumped.
Everyone except Ray Martin.
Ray was southbound on the parkway. As he passed the stadium on
his right, he glanced down at the ticket on the seat next to him. It was
a gift from a friend who had connections with the team. A friend he
would soon have to call with bad news.
Ray had planned the perfect day: church in the morning, first pitch
at 1:00 p.m., and back to church that night for a board meeting. That
was before a nine-game winning streak landed his team in first place
and ESPN selected this game as their Sunday night game of the week.
As a result, the game time had been moved to 8:00. So now, instead of
an afternoon of baseball, he was headed for an evening of bedlam at a
meeting of the board of the Meadowland Community Church. Ray's
eyes narrowed and his forehead creased as he glanced at the northbound
lanes of traffic headed to his game.
Who could blame him for being upset? No one in their right mind
would choose a board meeting over a pitching duel between two
potential Cy Young winners. Ray had no reason for feeling guilty. Not
even the pastor would blame him for wanting to go to the game.
Unfortunately for Ray, he was the pastor.
Ray had pastored Meadowland for ten years, and until recently, he
had never thought of his circumstance as unfortunate. In fact, Ray was
the founding pastor-he and he alone was responsible for the church's
fate. Or at least it felt that way. Lost in his thoughts, Ray barely heard
his cell phone ringing. He grabbed it just before it went to voicemail.
"This is Ray," he said.
"Are you ready for a great game?" the voice on the other end asked.
It was Joe Dickinson, the friend who had given him the ticket.
"Oh, hi Joe. I was about to call you. About the game ."
"From the sound of your voice, I'd say you aren't too excited about
it," Joe said, interrupting him.
"Let's just say the evening doesn't look too promising."
"Doesn't look promising?" Joe said, "This could be the game of the
"Yeah, well, I wasn't sure how I was going to tell you this, but I can't
go to the game, Joe. I have a board meeting at the church, and with the
new game time I just can't make it."
"I was afraid of that," Joe said. "Listen, I know it's tough for you to do,
but I think you'll be glad you skipped the meeting and went to this game."
I'd skip this meeting for a root canal, Ray thought. "Well, you're
probably right, but there's a lot going on right now, and I'd better be
there," he said dutifully.
"Well, you do what you have to do," Joe said.
"Thanks for the thought, Joe. I'll try to find someone to use the
ticket," Ray offered.
"No, you keep the ticket. I really believe that you and the church
will be better off if you go to the game, so we'll just see what happens.
I'll talk to you later, Ray. Bye."
Ray was puzzled by his friend's comment, and it added to his growing
sense of resentment about the board meeting. It wasn't too long ago
that the excitement level Ray felt over a baseball game was dwarfed by
the excitement of leading Meadowland, but not anymore. In all honesty,
it wasn't that he wanted to go to the game as much as he didn't
want to go to the church.
Ray was headed south in more ways than one.
* * *
Ray and his wife Sally, along with twelve others, had begun the church
in a nearby home. Their vision was pure and simple: to introduce
people into a relationship with Jesus Christ. More than a vision, it was
a passion. Ray met Sally while he was in seminary. She was a schoolteacher,
and he loved her enthusiasm for changing young lives. She
loved his single-mindedness and the passion he had for reaching
people for Christ. Together they would change the world, or at least
their corner of it. That was before things got so complicated.
It wasn't that Meadowland was a failure as a church. As their area
of town exploded, so did their attendance. In ten years the church had
grown from a handful of members to over three hundred. They had to
be doing something right.
If only Ray knew what it was.
It's not that he didn't know what he was doing. Ray was a good
speaker, and he knew how to run a church. He just had a nagging sense
that lately the church had begun to run him.
Their biggest growth had happened in year three when the church
opened its new building. Along with the people had come a mortgage
and a building committee. Finances, which were always important,
became the primary focus of Ray's world. With the building came a ball
field and a recreation ministry that "just made sense" and also made
some much-needed money.
Year four brought a successful Mother's Day Out Program to generate
revenue for the new building and, after all, would "reach the
community as well." From there it was a small step to a full preschool
and kindergarten program in year five, and their success had led to the
topic for tonight's board meeting: a new elementary school. In ten short
years, Ray had become a pastor, a financier, a recreation director, and
now, perhaps, a principal. What he didn't know was how or why he had
become all of those things.
* * *
The elementary school was the brainchild of Rick Stevens. Rick was a
young up-and-comer in the community who had plenty of great ideas
about what other people should do. This was never more true than at
church. It wasn't that his ideas were bad; in fact, they were often quite
good. But with them came a sense that Rick had his own agenda.
Interestingly enough, he had a set of twins moving into kindergarten.
Rick would be at tonight's meeting.
"Doesn't the school make sense in the grand scheme of things?" Ray
had been asked. "Why let all those Sunday school rooms sit empty during
the week? Won't the kindergarten graduates need a good school to
go to? Won't it bring in more people from the community?"
But who's going to hire all of those teachers? he thought. And who's
going to select the curriculum? Who's going to schedule the fire drills and run
the PTA? Ray knew whom the who was, and it wasn't Rick. The who washim, and Ray could feel it in the pit of his stomach.
The traffic to the game stretched out across from him as a nagging
reminder that his day had been ruined. A day of relaxing fun had
become a Maalox moment.
Why shouldn't I get to go to the game? he thought. Is it my fault they
moved the time? Is it my fault Rick had to have a school? I've missed board
meetings before. There was that time I was on a mission trip, and the time
Sally was in labor. We always survived. Besides, this is going to be a great
game. Don't I deserve a life? Where is it written that the pastor can't enjoy
himself a little now and then?
Ray's stomach lurched as he thought about adding another large
leadership helping to his already full plate. How could he keep all those
balls in the air? Sally and the kids would suffer. His preaching would
surely suffer. The rest of the church would probably suffer, too.
If only he didn't have to go to this meeting.
If only Rick didn't have children.
If only Ray could turn the car around and head for the game.
There was his chance, a cut in the median that offered him the
opportunity of escape. All it would take is a turn of the steering wheel
and he'd be free. One turn and anguish would become ecstasy.
One turn and, suddenly, Ray was northbound on the Meadowland
* * *
It took him a moment to realize what he had done. The car horn
behind him blasted him back to reality. His was now one of hundreds
of automobiles headed for the ballpark.
You can't do this! Ray's conscience screamed. You're the pastor, for
God's sake. And I do mean for God's sake. He wants you there. Who's going
to lead the meeting?
Actually, Ray knew that with or without him, Jim Benson would be
leading the meeting. Jim was the chairman of the elder board and a
good man. Ray had had the wisdom to not only share the burden of
leadership with an elder board, but to protect himself by not being its
chairman. Ray wasn't looking forward to that phone call: "Hi Jim, it's
Ray. By the way, I know you're a volunteer and I'm paid to be there, but
I won't be at the meeting tonight, okay? Great. Gotta go." There was no
way to make it sound good.
Maybe I could tell him I'm sick, Ray thought. Sure, why not compound
my lack of leadership with a lack of integrity, too?
No, the only thing to do was to call Jim and tell him the truth. Tell
him that when his pastor faced the toughest leadership decision of his
career, he boldly stepped forward and went to a ball game.
"What a loser," Ray said out loud without thinking.
The ring of the cell phone sounded like an alarm announcing a
prison break. Ray looked at the caller ID. Jim Benson.
Great. I've been caught. Barely over the wall, and I'm going back in, he
"Hi, this is Ray," he answered.
"Ray, Jim Benson."
"Hi Jim, how are you?"
"I'm fine," Jim said. "Listen, I know this is last-minute, but I've
talked to almost all of the guys on the board, and it looks like we're
going to be a little short on attendance tonight."
"Really, Jim? How short?" A small ray of hope flickered.
"Well, Rick Stevens will be there, even though he's not on the
board. But with him, it looks like there will be two."
Two? Ray's mind raced. How could Jim already know that he wasn't
"I'm sorry, Ray," Jim finally said. "I know it was a big meeting, but
something has come up and I can't be there either. I hate it, I really do."
"You mean none of the elders can be there?" Ray asked, trying to
disguise his great relief. "I don't believe it."
"I know it, Ray. I'm embarrassed to even call myself the chairman.
I'd understand if you wanted me to resign."
"What? Oh no, I don't want you to give it another thought," Ray
said. I know I won't. "We'll just regroup for next month's meeting and
cover everything then. Could you do me a little favor, Jim?"
"You name it."
"Could you call Rick and tell him that we're postponing the meeting?"
Ray knew that he should make the call, but he couldn't pass up
the chance to leverage Jim's guilt.
"No problem. I'll call him as soon as we're done," Jim said graciously.
So graciously that now it was Ray who felt guilty. "Thanks again
for understanding, Ray. I'll talk to you later."
"What kind of pastor would I be if I weren't understanding?" Ray
said, surprisingly without choking. "I'll talk to you soon."
It took a couple of minutes for the full impact of the conversation
to hit Ray. Not only was he getting to go to a great ball game, he was
avoiding the embarrassing situation of showing up at a difficult meeting
I still need the answers, he thought, but I'll think about that later. God
has granted me a reprieve, and I intend on taking the night off.
Ray had rarely been more wrong.