Esteemed Fathers and Brethren:
Last year the President of the Western Classis began his report by noting that he had not received even half of the parochial reports six days after they were due. I’m glad to report that you did a little better this year, perhaps because I took it upon myself to badger you once or twice. In the end, eleven of the twenty reports came in on time. Nine were late (the last one arrived Saturday at 9:30 PM).
Timeliness is only slightly less of a concern for committee reports. Most of the Permanent Committees arrived by the deadline, although one was late and another has not yet come. The reports of the three Special Committees, on the other hand, were all late.
Let’s just note that we still have room for improvement both in timeliness and in the courtesy shown to others who rely on us to get their own work done.
Parochial Reports: Article 81 of the Constitution specifies that “the President ¼ shall annually submit a report to the Classis on the state of the Church, making use of the parochial reports.” Your reports indicate that the ministry of the Word of God is being carried out and the marks of the true church are evident in the Western Classis. The following précis of your reports tells the story.
Pastor Michael Voytek praises God for the blessings Rehoboth Reformed Church experienced in its first full year as a self-governing church. There were challenges as well, as the church relocated from a medical facility to an elementary school. Yet, even this proved to be a blessing. The savings of $1600 per month in rent allowed Rehoboth to put more into its building fund and expand its advertising. The church is also multiplying its activities and ministries well beyond the Lord’s Day worship service. With a desire for the church’s spiritual and numerical growth, Pastor Voytek asks that we join him in holding Rehoboth’s labors before the throne of grace.
The progress of the work in Anderson is not as optimistic. Although the gospel has been faithfully proclaimed and taught each Lord’s Day, the members of the church do not consistently avail themselves of its blessings. Pastor Bowen reports that “of our 20 communicant members, 11 attend 80% of the time or better,” meaning that almost half of the congregation missed at least three months’ worth of worship services throughout the year. Having not achieved his vision of rebuilding the membership, Pastor Bowen believes that the church might benefit from a new pastor and has therefore accepted a call to pastor Trinity Reformed Church in Modesto.
The one word that best describes the labors of Pastor Sam Powell is busy. In addition to his work at First Reformed Church in Yuba City and on various committees of classis and synod, he began teaching Hebrew at City Seminary last fall, spoke at a conference on Biblical sexual morality in Winnipeg in October, and has preached the evening sermon twice per month at Covenant Reformed Church in Sacramento since Pastor West’s retirement. He further reports that self-discipline is widely practiced at First Reformed, although in one case excommunication was necessary. New members have been instructed, with the result that fourteen persons were added to the church’s roll last year, and the prospect of adding more families in the current year also looks promising. Throughout the year, members of the Yuba City church were afflicted with various illnesses and injuries; however, they persevered by trusting in God’s mercy.
Why is it that a faithful church, or even a faithful denomination, might remain small and struggling while other churches that are less faithful seem to prosper? After raising this question, Pastor Schlegel reminds himself (and us) that we must trust our heavenly Father to do his will through his own appointed means, namely, the diligent preaching of the gospel. The fact that the Shepherd summons His sheep through His Word should energize every preacher to greater faithfulness. Thus, Pastor Schlegel has taken advantage of many opportunities to preach and teach the Word of God at Providence Reformed Church in Lodi and elsewhere. The life of the church, he writes, is that of “pilgrims walking to a destination with other pilgrims. Sometimes the path is hard; sometimes the pilgrims are distracted, wander off of the path and must be brought back.”
Ebenezer Reformed Church in Shafter, according to Pastor Paul Henderson, is an aging church, but he has found that its members exemplify the energetic spirit mentioned in Psalm 92: They shall still bring forth fruit in old age. He further reports that love is in the air at Ebenezer, as many couples either have married already or are planning to marry in coming months. However, the church’s primary occupation is the missionary mandate, supporting the preaching of the gospel locally and worldwide through its prayers and monetary gifts. Ebenezer Reformed Church is also pursuing a missionary opportunity right in its own backyard, so to speak, by calling Rev. Valentin Alpuche to begin a Spanish-speaking ministry. Pastor Henderson correctly notes that this is “a special and momentous occasion in the life of this church, as well as the RCUS, and, I hope, also for the holy, catholic Church.”
The parochial report of your servant shows that the work at Covenant Reformed Church in Sacramento is going well. Since the pulpit was declared vacant following Pastor West’s retirement, I have assumed additional duties, including extra preaching, the catechization of our youth, new member instruction, presiding over elders’ meetings and counseling members as needed. Recently, the church called Rev. Jimmy Hall to take up the pastoral ministry, but as of this writing (March 3) he has not responded. City Seminary continues to experience the Lord’s blessing as well. Rev. Sam Powell started teaching Hebrew last fall. Shortly afterward, three new board members were added after being examined by the Spiritual Council of Covenant Reformed Church.
Pastor Vernon Pollema, though retired from the active duties of the ministry, is anything but inactive. In addition to preaching at least twice per month in Lancaster before the arrival of Pastor Stetler, he also participated in a conference on church leadership that was co-sponsored by Northland Reformed Church in Kansas City and Heidelberg Seminary, and taught a two-week course on Creeds and Confessions at the seminary. His health remains good and he’s thankful to the Lord for the generosity and care of his people.
The Lord’s blessing on the Stockton outreach is evident in Pastor Jonathan Merica’s report. He writes of a lively preaching and teaching ministry, the baptism of the first infant born into the congregation, the fact that the work was able to submit most of its guidelines to classis and synod, and the attendance of many visitors throughout the year. Pastor Merica also helps with the work of Westminster Biblical Missions and is a member of the Interchurch Relations committees of classis and synod. He praises God for the loving oversight offered by the consistory of Covenant Reformed Church in Grass Valley and longs for the Lord to build his church through their labors together.
This year marks Pastor Gary Mancilas’ twelfth year in Chico. He reports a busy year of preaching, teaching, visitation, counseling and catechization. The Spiritual Council of Covenant Reformed Church is also busy, exercising diligent oversight of the church’s ministry and vigorously promoting prayer among the people. As a result, the church now holds prayer meetings on the first and third Wednesdays of each month. Pastor Mancilas’ sermons are broadcasted in whole or in part on the radio and Access Cable TV, and with God’s blessing will soon be available for download on the church’s website. Trusting the Lord to advance the preaching of the Word in Chico, the congregation maintains a strong vision and hope that the Lord will increase its numbers and effectiveness in the gospel ministry.
After Pastor Lloyd Gross submitted his report, your President was blessed to speak with him by phone. As our only octogenarian pastor, our brother is suffering the afflictions of age, including partial paralysis and constant pain from a recent stroke. Although his outward man is perishing, as is true for all of us, he continues to praise God for His covenant mercies. Let us uphold this dear brother and his wife in prayer.
Upon completing his twenty-seventh year at Covenant Reformed Church in Sacramento, Pastor Jim West retired from the active pastoral ministry on September 30th of last year. The key words here are “from the active pastoral ministry” because he has not retired from serving his Lord. Following his retirement, he spent several weeks moving and reorganizing his books and files. He also completed a book on new membership instruction, chaired the committee on Two Kingdom theology, preached in Grass Valley during Pastor Roe’s recent trip to Africa, preached in Modesto, and continues to teach one or two classes per semester at City Seminary. Nonetheless, he has found retirement to be “a strong draught of heaven on earth” and has enjoyed spending time with his grandson (and best friend) learning about trains and trucks and children’s books.
Pastor Tracy Gruggett thanks God for the opportunity to serve in Bakersfield and reports that the marks of the true church are evident at Grace Reformed Church. Last year he had the privilege of proclaiming the gospel of grace on most Lord’s Days, as well as on special occasions. The Bakersfield congregation has eight Sunday school classes, with a large number of adults in the adult class. Confirmation classes, VBS, men’s BBQs, women’s groups, and other activities help to promote sound teaching and edifying fellowship among the members. On the other hand, church discipline resulted in two erasures, one suspension and other “cases of church discipline under way,” all of which highlights, as Pastor Gruggett notes, the need for more evangelism, a vision for the future, and a reevaluation of various aspects of church life.
Last year was especially difficult for Pastor Thomas Mayville. After taking a 10 percent cut in pay for the first seven months of the year and seeing several members erased or dismissed to other churches, the elders of Trinity Reformed Church in Modesto recommended that he look for a call elsewhere. He subsequently resigned, completing his duties in October but receiving a 90 percent severance pay through the end of the year. Pastor Mayville continues to serve the church in many ways, is currently looking for employment, and is not planning to seek a call at least until the beginning of next year due to his “severe mobility” of the last few years (five different houses in seven years), which has taken its toll on him and his wife.
Pastor Richard Stetler is the new-comer to the Western Classis, though his return to California is actually more like a homecoming. He began the year as pastor in Eureka, South Dakota, but finished it in Grace Reformed Church of the Antelope Valley. He assumed his duties at Grace Reformed Church on October 1st and was installed on December 6th. He hit the ground running, as they say, preaching first through Jonah, followed by a series of sermons on the birth of Jesus. He also taught Sunday school and catechism class, visited members of the congregation and made use of many opportunities to advance the kingdom of Jesus. Pastor Stetler further reports that a group of fifteen people (4 families) recently expressed interest in membership after coming to Reformed convictions following a lengthy study of God’s Word. He praises God for bringing them in and prays that they will all be knit together in the fellowship of the gospel.
Pastor Gene Sawtelle continues to use the strength God gives him to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Last year he preached four times in Yuba City and twice in Willows. In personal correspondence with yours truly, he added that his present state of health makes it impossible for him to walk across the room, let alone be in church regularly. Please pray for this faithful servant of our Savior and his wife Sharon.
The parochial report of Pastor Paul Treick confirms the reports of our other “retired” ministers, namely, that there is no such thing as retirement in the RCUS. Pastor Treick preached a total of twenty-four times last year in five different states. For the last three months of the year, he served as stated supply at his previous charge, Trinity Reformed Church in Modesto. He also serves on various classical and synodical committees, lectured at a Heidelberg Seminary conference in Kansas City, revised and reformatted his book Faith of Our Fathers, and edited the Reformed Herald. He sees the work in Modesto as an opportunity to rebuild and prays that the congregation’s younger families will embrace the challenge. Earlier this year, however, his own work was put on hold when he fractured his back. Thankfully, the surgery to repair his broken vertebra went well and, although his discomfort lingers, he is on the mend.
Pastor Gil Baloy is thankful for the RCUS and praises God that the work in San Diego is going well. He had the privilege of baptizing ten souls last year (seven adults and three children). The church’s membership roster now has thirty communicant members and seven unconfirmed members. Pastor Baloy is particularly grateful for the addition of one new elder and one new deacon. The members of Covenant Reformed Church, who have always been known for their Christian fellowship and promotion of the Lord’s missionary mandate, continue to excel in these areas, supporting the work of the Filipino brethren, engaging unbelievers in an open air ministry at Balboa Park, and networking the gospel to family and neighbors through a program called “Oikos Ministry.”
The Lord’s mercies continue to sustain the work of Grace Reformed Church in Willows, as reported by Pastor Eric Bristley. The Word of God is proclaimed, the sacraments administered, and discipline upheld. Two active and committed elders make it possible to provide a full range of ministry, including Sunday school classes, adult studies and catechism classes. The addition of another deacon also proved to be a blessing. With a view to the future, the Willows consistory encouraged the church to finish renovating its building. A local architect helped to develop a plan, which includes unifying the building, providing a welcoming face to the community, and expanding the worship and fellowship areas. Pastor Bristley reports that the congregation received this report “with enthusiasm.” Praise God for the unity of the church!
“Though beset by many weaknesses,” are the words of Pastor Neale Riffert, who reports that the work in Sherman has not yet recovered from the setbacks of the previous year. Moreover, his wife underwent two surgeries, his son was hospitalized for several days with a bleeding ulcer, and his oldest brother died on December 31. In each of these providences, Pastor Riffert recounts the Lord’s innumerable blessings. His ministry to the saints in Sherman includes preaching, teaching Bible studies and leading men’s fellowship breakfasts. He rejoices that God has given him and his wife “reasonably good health,” which has allowed him to serve on various synodical and classical committees. And even his son’s hospitalization was a blessing in that it resulted in the discovery that he had been given the wrong medication. Pastor Riffert concluded his report with this line: “In the words of a notable cartoon character, ‘I am what I am,’ and I rejoice that I am a child of the Lord, for which I give thanks continually.”
Pastor Dennis Roe thanks God for his thirty-one years in the ministry, the last nineteen of which were spent in Grass Valley. He describes a busy preaching schedule that has not only taken him to other RCUS churches, but to other states. He continues to work with Westminster Biblical Missions and with City Seminary. Sadly, however, the attendance in Grass Valley in 2013 went down 25 percent from the previous year, but the addition of one family in the fall and the current participation of two more families in membership instruction offers much encouragement to a church that has weathered many trials over the last few years. In particular, Pastor Roes praises God for the arrival of Matthew Davis, whom the church recently called to serve as an elder, and his wife Danielle, who have been “a great encouragement to all.” Pastor Roe urges us all mutually to pray for one another that we might “run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
Evaluation of Parochial Reports: As I read through your reports, several points of interest caught my attention. At the very top of the list is the number of “retired” ministers in the Western Classis. This, I believe, is a tremendous blessing. What young pastor has not benefitted from their vast storehouses of wisdom and experience? I, for one, love to hear them preach, and it’s their speeches on the floor of classis and synod that I anticipate with great eagerness.
The parochial reports of our retired ministers also make my head spin as I try to figure out how they keep up with their hectic schedules. Three of our retirees preached regularly last year, taught seminary classes, participated in conferences, and served the Lord in countless other ways. The two whose health did not permit greater activity nonetheless served their families and church communities, prayed for the success of the gospel, encouraged younger ministers, and spoke openly of their love for Jesus Christ. I think to myself, “If these men can flourish at a time in their life when the world tells them to slow down and take it easy, and do so in some cases with increasingly frailer health, then why am I not doing more for my Savior?” Their example inspires me to greater faithfulness and industry. I hope it inspires you as well.
A second observation is that the example of the retired ministers has apparently taken hold among our younger ministers. Our pastors are busy, BUSY, BUSY! At the age of twelve, our Savior told his parents that he had to be about his Father’s business. That seems to be your motto as well. One of my seminary professors once said, “A pastor who works only forty hours a week isn’t doing his job!” I’m glad to report that we don’t have any only-forty-hour-per-week pastors. The fact that your reports total forty-two pages demonstrates that your ministries are beehives of activity. I praise God for your faithfulness!
There are also a lot of exciting things going on the Western Classis. It’s not very often that we see seven adult baptisms in one church in the same year (San Diego) or four new families suddenly showing up out of nowhere (Lancaster). I rejoice with exceeding great joy to see many of our pastors involved in the training of the next generation of servant-leaders. Heidelberg Seminary is blessed by the labors of Pastors Pollema, Treick and Bowen. Pastors West, Bristley, Roe, Powell and Walker serve on the faculty of City Seminary, with Pastor Schlegel serving on the Board. By the grace of God, all the churches in the Western Classis, except perhaps Anderson, either have a pastor or at least a reasonable hope of securing one in the near future.
But the one thing that has piqued my enthusiasm more than anything else is the effort of the Shafter congregation to start a Spanish-speaking Reformed church from scratch. What a wonderful opportunity this is! And not only is the Shafter church aggressively pursuing this, the San Diego consistory has its heart set on doing something similar. How many more works like this can we undertake? My wife and I have prayed for years that the Lord would open doors of opportunity for us and that we would have the faith to walk through them. I’m confident that a more robust evangelistic outreach has been on your prayer list as well. Brothers, it looks like God has heard our prayers. Praise His name!
The one drawback, of course, is finances. Does the Western Classis, with only 662 communicant members, have the resources to take up such works? My response is twofold. First, we live in the most populous state in the union. With almost 38 million people in California, only 36 percent of whom are Protestant, we’ve got a lot of work to do. The Lord used twelve apostles to effect the conversions of at least 100,000 souls before the end of the first century. Couldn’t he do the same today? And second, our resources may be small, but those of our God are not. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and, as a dear Christian woman said to me thirty years ago, “All we have to do is ask him to slaughter one for us.” Our God can stretch the widow’s mite and make it do more good than all the money of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet put together. But do we trust him enough to step out in faith? Are we willing to find ways to make it work?
Not everything in your reports is positive, though. This year the Executive Committee met once again with the Modesto consistory. Prior to this, Pastor Mayville had submitted his resignation, planning to conclude his ministry at the end of the year. Your committee, however, believed that it would be better both for the church and for the Mayvilles if the resignation were to take effect sooner with the proviso that the church continue Pastor Mayville’s salary at 90 percent through his original resignation date. Both parties accepted our advice and the pulpit was declared vacant as of early October. We can be thankful, though, that the Lord has provided a new pastor for the Modesto flock. Pastor Bowen plans to begin his work there next month.
Pastor Bowen’s acceptance of the call from Trinity Reformed Church means that the Anderson church will soon be vacant. Brethren, let us seek God’s favor for its future.
Committee Reports: Your President finds nothing in the Permanent Committee reports to comment on. The work of the church is being done, and for that I praise God’s name.
The Special Committee reports are another matter, though. The Special Committee to study our practice of adult baptism in light of Article 185 has presented a rather lengthy report of its findings. We will consider its report at this meeting.
I’m not exactly sure what to say about the Special Committee on musical instruments in worship. The committee’s chairman sent out both a majority and a minority report; however, I’m hearing that it was never anyone’s intention to present a minority report. At minimum, it seems that there’s a lot of confusion as to how minority reports arise and are presented for consideration. We’ll have to see what happens.
The report that is of the most interest to me is the one on Two Kingdom theology. As my predecessor noted in his report last year, the Two Kingdom view is already gathering a significant hearing in the Reformed world at large. It has also started to affect the RCUS. Unfortunately, the committee studying it was hindered from completing its assignment by the relocation of one member and the injury of another. As a result, the committee is asking for another year to complete its work.
Statistics: I must admit that I get a little discouraged each year when I look at the statistical report. I see, for example, that the Western Classis lost eleven communicant members in 2013. While that’s statistically small (less than 2%), and due mostly to the exceptionally high number of transfers from our Modesto congregation, it’s not a solitary statistic. Reviewing the Abstracts from the last ten years, I was shocked to find that there was only one year in which we actually gained members (fourteen in 2008). Since 2004, the number of communicant members has decreased from a high of 754 to 662 (a total loss of 92 members — more than 12%).
The problem is not that we’re failing to bring new members in. Nor is it that we don’t provide sound instruction, so that our members can grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Both the parochial reports and the statistics confirm that these things are being done. The problem is that we’re not bringing in more people than we’re losing.
Being Reformed, we understand that Jesus Christ is Lord of the harvest, giving an increase by his Spirit as he sees fit. Thus, discouragement need not turn into despair. But we must ask ourselves some hard questions. Are we making the best use of our resources? Are we equipping our members to engage in personal evangelism? Do we ourselves go out into the highways and byways and compel people to come in? Is our elder visitation program effective? Do we as a classis have a long-term plan and vision to expand our horizons, or do we just take things as they come? Do our churches have plans to improve their outreach? Are we using modern technology to its fullest potential in promoting the gospel of salvation? What about the social media? How much is the economy to blame for our losses? Are fraternal churches losing members proportionately?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I wish I did. But I do know that we need to talk about what we’re doing and how we do it with a view toward improving our ministry. We need to make evangelism a much higher priority, and we must devote ourselves even more rigorously to seeking our heavenly Father’s blessing in prayer.
Conclusion: The marks of the true church are certainly evident in the churches of the Western Classis. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. We can all be thankful that the Lord has given us a church where the preaching of God’s Word is central, the sacraments are reverently administered, and Christian discipline is carried out, however painful it may be at times.
Yet, there is much work to be done. The fact that the Lord has blessed us so richly should arouse us to greater zeal and enthusiasm. We have the promise of Jesus Himself, who said, “Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18)
Brothers, I thank you for giving me this opportunity to serve.
Rev. Frank Walker, Elk Grove, CA