March 17, 2011 by
Categories: Church planting
This spring, John Butler will plant Sovereign Grace Church near Dayton, Ohio, joining a group who have been waiting several years to see a Sovereign Grace church planted there. (For more of the story, see our interview with Brad and Paula Sanders, who are part of the church-planting team.) John has been a pastor for a total of 21 years. He and his wife Beverly have two grown children.
In part 1 of our interview, John explains how God used some unexpected events to lead him to Dayton.
Where did you pastor before this church plant?
I was saved while attending the University of Maryland and immediately became involved at what would eventually become Covenant Life Church. I served as singles pastor at Covenant Life from 1987 to 1988. We then relocated to serve in a church plant in Virginia Beach. I served Sovereign Grace Church (Chesapeake, VA) for 17 years—eight of those years as senior pastor. I then relocated to serve our church in Atlanta for a couple of years. I left ministry from 2007 to 2010 (more on that below). We’ve been living in Charlotte, North Carolina, and were part of CrossWay Community Church during that time.
This church plant has an unusual story. How did you first hear about the group that was assembling there? What led you to move to the Dayton area and lead what’s been called the “backwards church plant”?
My story is a little different too. In 2007 we went through a very challenging time as a family, and I pulled back from ministry for a season to concentrate on understanding the situation and caring for my family. The break from ministry allowed us to learn about the unique needs of our family and pursue a long-term plan to meet them.
During that break, I also had opportunity to think about pastoral ministry and what I would do differently should the Lord allow me to pastor again.
I experienced a few periods of unemployment and had to depend on the Lord in ways that taught me, I believe, greater compassion for others, the unwavering love of God for me through Christ, and faith and trust at deeper levels than I’d previously known. We also learned more about God’s unconditional acceptance and his grace. I think the life lessons learned during that time gave me a deeper love for people, compassion for the many difficult things—often inexplicable things—people walk through, and a desire to bring the gospel to bear on life in every situation.
My wife Beverly and I have learned that everyone has a story, and each person’s story is unique. The love of God in Christ is unique for each person, and he meets each one of us in our own story. I think of the crazy man running naked through the tombs (Mark 5). He was abandoned by all human warmth—utterly alone and completely hopeless in the world. Jesus made a purposeful visit—through an utterly overwhelming storm—to see this man, put him in his right mind, and commission him with his life purpose: to tell the good news of what Christ had done for him.
All of that is to say that the Lord really used the time off in a number of ways which proved beneficial for my family and me.
As I began to think about ministry again, I really didn’t know what was going to be next. My efforts to return coincided with the major economic downturn, and no church I knew was in a position to fund much of anything. So I made a proposal: I appealed to my friends on the Sovereign Grace leadership team that I think I have enough energy left to make one more good run planting a church.
That’s when I first became aware of the group in Dayton. I wasn’t initially keen on Dayton as a city—I liked and always imagined I would finish my life living in warmer weather. That is not Ohio. Additionally, I had attended the University of Dayton as a freshman in college many years ago and had decided I wouldn’t return. But as I really questioned my next step in ministry, I conversed with a friend who serves overseas as a missionary. He said, “You need to go where you’re wanted.” That encouragement was really simple, but it was profound for my wife and me. As I met the Dayton folks and began to learn more about the odyssey they’d been on, those words rang in my ears. Pastoral ministry is about the people, not the place primarily. I began to see how the Lord had prepared their story and my story to come together in a way we never could have imagined. I was impressed by the way they asked good questions and that they took an interest in us as a couple and family. They are people who’ve thought about their doctrinal beliefs, about their need for help, about their desire to give themselves to mission. We are grateful for our new friends.
I could never have planned this myself. Someone had appealed to Sovereign Grace Ministries asking, “Isn’t there an older guy somewhere who could pastor this group?” And I’m praying, “Lord, is there a place for me somewhere? How is this going to work?” And here we are.
Check back tomorrow for part 2.