An Open Letter to RiverTree Community Church

I still remember the very first contact I had with my RiverTree church family. It was a weekday afternoon, and I was privileged to sit down with our very own Christian Shearer at a Biggby coffee place in Byron Center. At the time, I was engaged to my wife and entirely anxious about the future. Gently, Christian shepherded me through the details of my potential role leading worship and guiding a ministry team. He talked about the potential for continuing to discern my vocation and learning how a small, missional church operates, how relationships matter so deeply and community involvement drives vision. He has consistently supported me at every point of life, as long as I have known him.

Before I knew it, I was hired and we were swept up in our new community. We received so much grace as we transitioned; we must have missed five or six Sundays that first summer alone. Granted, we were engaged, then married; but regardless, we are so thankful for the flexibility we experienced.

photo credit: Naitsirh Nitsu

We cannot say enough about the generosity and grace that mark the community we call RiverTree. Loving God and loving one’s neighbor are not catchphrases; they are the deepest sense of mission and identity, the truest marks of every aspect of the purposes directing this faith community. These spacious concepts, breathed through Scripture, are the signposts for evaluating everything RiverTree pursues.

Our Grove grasped this reality. The Birds and the Sischos walked with Kaile and me over the bulk of our time at RiverTree, encouraging us and respecting us in our journey. Our Grove met us where we were, but gently prodded us forward in love and faith, carefully helping us to humbly yet boldly practice our faith. When we were at our financial low point, our Grove cared for us in a very practical way: they purchased a high efficiency washing machine for cleaning our cloth diapers. Tangible and spiritual needs alike were, at all times, our Grove’s priority.

The whole of the church did, in its own unique way, what our Grove did in its particular way. We have received friendship, encouragement, and grace. Russ Roseman plumbed the majority of our house for a pittance. Mark Kershner and Alan DeBoer have made my job a thousand times easier with their consistent work ethic and careful feedback. Heather Shearer has gladdened my heart with her humor every last time we have interacted. Jesse Byker has been ever-present with humor and willingness to serve. Mark and Janna Hasselbring have extended kindness and grace to both Kaile and me as long as we have known them. Gary Bird and Bruce Rhoades have listened to me and encouraged me. Paula Roseman, Sherry Bird, and Maria Kelly have encouraged and spiritually supported Kaile and me with gentle candor. Candace Carey has faithfully [and often humorously!] led our congregation in worship throughout every season of her life journey. Ken DeHart has given me feedback and grace and honest encouragement at every turn. Amy DeBoer has sung beautifully every time we have led together. Dan Pletcher and CJ have laughed with me and given my heart joy. Dan Vanderlaan Jr has been a friend and support while his father has given me new insights in many areas of life. Chris Lock has worshiped God with me and stepped forward in his faith journey, allthewhile befriending me. Jennifer and Bryan Pickett have been incredible friends both to Kaile and to me. Eli Shearer has been a companion to me and to Silas, always willing to throw his football with me, and his sister Shiloh has done the hard work of caring for Silas in the nursery. Fred DeJung has given me incredible insight and helped guide me in the ordination process. Dan Lehman has been a friend to me, and at times even asked for my perspective on things. I could list many more relationships that have encouraged my heart if space allowed. Each and every person in the RiverTree community has been of great value to me.

Ok, here is a tough piece of this letter. Would you permit me to leave each of you with a small piece of parting insight? Please, please, receive this with affection. Alright. Here goes. For the grand journey of humanity, life experience often proves an excellent teacher. As we gain years, we often gain massive insights. Sometimes we believe, however, that this process is somehow automatic. As middle aged people, we can fall into a belief that we have “more” than those who are younger, that we know better because we are older. My friends, age does not necessarily equal wisdom. Have you learned from someone younger than you recently? Have you met an older person who graciously listens to a child? In all sincerity, there have been times when I have felt personally diminished because I am younger than some. For a church to deeply embrace people of all ages, respect and curiosity must be the glue between generations. In a church that consists of many in the 30s-50s range, remember what it meant to be 13, and remember that you do not yet know what it is like to be 94. And remember that each of us experiences life differently! Telling someone, “you just wait!” is not helpful insight. At every life stage, we have no choice but to wait.

Please receive this insight with grace. Let it sit with you for a while, and please, please, search yourself and ask God if there is truth in my words that relates to you. For many of you, it may be general insight that seems helpful but not to you. For others, it may prick your spirit and lead you to a deeper examination of your attitudes and habits.

All of that said, I really sense that RiverTree will continue to flourish. I can just picture God continuing to do, through RiverTree, what he began to do many years ago. My little insight on a growth point for the community is only my little contribution. Surely there are other ways to grow as a community. But I would be remiss not to affirm the great strengths of RiverTree while also commenting on one blind spot.

During our journey as a community, all of you have seen my flaws, some much more than others! Some of you have been kind enough to provide me with insights on how to serve the church more effectively. If you have been around me enough, you will have noticed the difficulty that administrative details present me. Curating the worshipplanning website and the song database did not come as naturally to me as other dimensions of my role. Even as there have been numerous opportunities to see my weaknesses, you have also [I hope!] seen my strengths. You have seen my passion and drive, my sense of purpose and God-given direction. You have seen my concern for bearing witness to the power of God made evident in Jesus, and my interest in following the leading of the Holy Spirit.

As this season of discernment continues, please know that you are each in our prayers and thoughts, even as we adjust to a completely new area. San Francisco has been kind to us thus far, and we are growing greatly as a family. Our faith is enlarged and our compassion for the lost and the least is also expanding. From our hearts, thank you for everything. We miss all of you and ask God to be close to you in and out of season. In Jesus Christ, grace and peace to each of you.

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