My first pastor, after I became a Christian, died a week ago. His name was Tom Ferguson and he served the Lord in ministry for nearly 50 years. We reflected on Tom and his ministry during his memorial service on Friday and let me tell you, it was powerful. Tom started a church in Everett, Washington in 1974 called New Life Center. The church grew quickly because people were drawn to Tom’s authentic and sincere brand of Christianity. I joined Tom’s church in 1982 and attended there for over 10 years. Tom was a true pastor. He was never pretentious, or loud, or flashy, or overly charismatic. He was just your average, run-of-the-mill guy who really loved God. But I think the thing I admired about Tom the most is that he held his people with a loose grip.
That is the advice he gave to an associate pastor who was being sent off to plant a church in a nearby area. “Hold your people with a loose grip,” he told Pastor Bob as he sent him out. This was great advice for any pastor then or now. He told him, your people are not something you own, but are instead something you are a steward over just like anything else.
Because the success of a many pastors is measured in the size of their congregations, this struck me as a powerful testimony to Tom’s lasting legacy. One after another, the speakers at his memorial service brought testimonies to Tom’s life that he was fiercely competitive. He loved to compete and make a game of everything – and he loved to win! But in the world’s measuring stick for “success”, the size of one’s congregation, Tom choose not to be competitive. He lived the example he set in holding his people with a loose grip.
This is a powerful piece of wisdom that we need to get a hold of today. People come and go from churches for various reasons. We can chase them, or placate them by watering down the more “offensive” parts of the gospel so they won’t leave, or we can follow Tom Ferguson’s example and hold them with a loose grip.
People do not belong to pastors or churches. They are part of the kingdom at large and if they belong to anyone, they belong to God. And what does God do? He holds them with a loose grip. They are corporately the same people who worship at the other church or live across the street from you. I think the saying we’re all familiar with is, “All God’s people…” exists for a reason, because they are “GOD’S people.
Leaders need to embrace the idea that if they are following God, that’s all that matters. That was Tom Ferguson’s example; to pray, hear and obey. The parts may change from time to time, so too will the number we have as well, but in the end all that matters is that we are going after God and doing what He says. When we “seek first the kingdom of God,” then we are on the right path. It is the only path. If the old saying is true, “You can’t please all the people all the time,” then, please God instead and do what Tom did, and leave the holding tightly to others.