An Announcement

Grace and Peace, 

When I answered the call to become the Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Eustis over eight years ago, I had no idea what an incredible journey that God had in store for all of us, nor did I know what great challenges we would face together or the successes we would share.  

God has done amazing things in these past eight years, and I am privileged to have had a front row seat to all of them.  It’s been an incredible honor to serve as your pastor and C.E.O. (Chief Enthusiasm Officer).  

When we decided to come to Eustis, Merideth and I left a dear congregation where I had been nurtured in my early years as a pastor—a congregation we loved and who loved us back.  I will never forget that little church—the church where my wife spent many of her early childhood years.  I had several “on-paper” better offers to move to other churches when I interviewed with the search committee here at Eustis.  We came here for one reason, and one reason alone: We knew we were being called by God to do so.  God was in the midst of every moment of that decision, and Merideth and I have never doubted it for a second.  

Merideth and I both have been asked numerous times over the past several years if we had plans to ever leave First Church, and we’ve always answered the same way: “We’ll stay as long as God means for us to stay, and we’ll leave only when God calls us to leave.”

It seems that the time has come to answer that question a bit differently.   Both Merideth and I believe that God has indeed called us to leave our First Church family and pursue His call elsewhere.  

Last Sunday, I was officially invited by a vote of the congregation to become the Lead Pastor of Shepherd of the Hills Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX.  In much the same way we knew were being called to Eustis eight years ago, we know without a shadow of a doubt that God is calling us to Austin.   

This was not a decision that we made lightly.  In fact, this decision has involved weeks of prayer and discernment, and more than a few tears as we diligently sought and finally became sure of God’s will for us.  It’s scary to step out in faith.  It’s frightening to leave what we know and is comfortable trust that God is out there in the unknown, but we believe that this is, in fact, what God wants us to do.  

I know that the news I’m sharing will undoubtedly come as a surprise to many of you.  I also realize that there will be some of our members and friends who will be confused and perhaps even angry.  Some of you may find it hard to speak with me after hearing this.  I completely understand all of those emotions.  Know that I love you all, and I affirm you in whatever space you find yourself upon hearing this news.  

Some of you might wonder, “Why would you want to leave when things seem so great?”  That’s a good question.  Things are great at First Church.  First Church is growing in ways that I never thought possible. There are things happening now that I only dreamed about eight years ago.  

The only explanation I can offer as to why we are leaving is that we are absolutely 100% certain that God means for us to move—as uncertain as it is for our whole family.  In the same way we knew that God was leading us to Eustis, we know God is now leading us away.  

Merideth and I believe that we have a particular set of skills and gifts for ministry to help churches in transition find new vision, and to encourage people to dream God-sized dreams to do God’s work in the world.  We feel that we have the ability to help lead congregations to new vibrancy and to learn how to do church differently in order to attract the next generation of church builder , while bringing the traditions, histories, and stories of the past forward in relevant ways. 

We’ve used those skills to help First Church reach this place in her life, but we feel it’s time for someone else to help you write your next chapter.  

I believe that God has called us to Shepherd of the Hills in Austin, TX to use our gifts and skills to help them grow into a new understanding of what it means to do church differently in the 21st Century.  

We have had more than our share of signs and revelations throughout this process—and despite our resistance, despite our reluctance, all of us (Merideth, Jay, Jackson, my mom and my dad) all came to realize this is what we are called to do.  

Some people have asked me, “Are you mad?  Did we hurt your feelings?”  Absolutely not!  I know it sounds odd, but I am completely happy, and things are great for us—not just here at church, but everywhere else in our lives.  We live in a great community, our kids are thriving, our life is awesome.  

But we know that it’s time for us to go and do what we are gifted to do.  We consider it a blessing to be able to do so on a high note, when things are going great, when the goals and dreams we believed God gave us have been met and exceeded.  Far too many pastors are forced to end their tenure with a church when things have not gone well.  That is definitely not the case here.  

We are also 100% certain that First Church is so much more than her pastor.  I have become more and more aware of this over the past year as our church staff and volunteer leaders have begun to take on more responsibility and to lead, dream and guide our church without my direct involvement. 

My name isn’t on the sign out by the street.  I made it clear that I didn’t want it there when I got here.  And my name can’t be found any where in the vision statement of our church.  The vision  of First Church is to know Jesus and show Jesus, and it is this vision that will move this great church into the future, and to the next season of her life.  

Just to make you aware of what is happening at our church that has absolutely nothing to do with me… Here’s a list of things I am not remotely involved in… 

Center Street Kitchen happens completely without me. 
I am not involved in the Clothes Closet, either. 
I don’t have anything to do with any of the Lifetree Cafe locations. 
I don’t oversee and am not involved in Partners for Success, Center Street Kids, English as a Second Language or Buddy Break. 
I am not part of MOPS or Teen MOPS
I don’t teach any of our Sunday school classes for any age group. 
I am not leading our youth group programs.  
You won’t find me at Mission committee meetings either.  I am not part of the group that provides packages for our Troops. Nor do I knit or sew with the Busy Fingers and the Knitting groups. 
I don’t have anything to do with Be A Player, other than to cheer everyone along. 
I don’t have any part of our traditional music program—the Christmas Concert, brass, choir, bell choir… none of it.  I just give Cindy the stuff I’m preaching about and she takes it from there. 
I don’t even plan the worship services at the Crossing any more, Joy does almost 100% of it, with just a little help from me. 
I’m not really part of the Membership process any longer—there’s a team working on that, too. 
I don’t have anything to with our Property Team either—they are doing an amazing job without my help.  
I don’t plan VBS and I don’t really have much of a volunteer position there—in fact, this year they did VBS without me because I was at General Assembly.  
For that matter, I am not part of any of our children’s programs and I am not involved all that much in the new Preschool that is opening up next fall, or the Mom’s Morning Out program that is flourishing right now. 
I have not been part of the He-Brews group for quite some time either.  
When our church hosted the Presbytery meeting this past month, I only came up with the crazy notion to do it differently, our staff took it from there. 
I don’t have anything to do with planning or executing our congregational dinners.  
I also don’t write all of the articles for the monthly newsletter, the e-newsletter or the quarterly magazine like I used to—we have someone who does all of that now. 
And recently, I relinquished my direct supervision of all but the senior staff members to Melanie Howard who is now the Executive Director, handling a lot of what I used to do.  
We have more and more folks who are helping with visitation, including Rev. Dr. Tom Weikel who has been leading GriefShare with his wife Mary, leading communion services at Lakeview Terrace and helping me with hospital visits, hospice visits and so much more. 

At this point some of you might be asking—well what the heck do you do?  Well, it’s not like I haven’t been busy—it’s just that my role has changed.  For some time I have been focusing more and more on preaching, teaching, writing, coaching our staff, keeping the vision, empowering and equipping leaders, and doing the very best I can to give others the opportunity to lead.  Now I know why I was being led to do this.  I suppose God was preparing both myself and First Church for this moment—long before we knew it would be here.  

I want you to be filled with peace.  In the words of our Lord and Savior, “Don’t be afraid!”  You will be in great hands with your elders, our amazing staff and eventually a temporary leader who will help you through this time of uncertainty.  Steps have already been taken to begin the process of finding an interim pastor to serve you through this time of transition, and we’re working with church staff and leaders to plot the way forward.  

Recently, I read the words that the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica. Paul may have been an evangelist, a missionary, and church planter, but he was first and foremost a pastor, and he had a pastor’s heart.  I want to read these words to you:  

1 Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: 2 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3 We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.

11 With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. 12 We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I know I speak for Merideth when I say that this is our prayer for you—our beloved First Church.  We will always thank God for you—because we know that your faith, your love for one another have grown in amazing ways and will sustain you through this new season.  You have learned what it means to know and show Jesus so well, so completely. 

We also know that this church is a jewel among the 70-plus churches in our presbytery and an amazing space for grace, peace, life, light, mission, ministry—filled with people who have open hearts and open arms.  We have and will continue to boast of your perseverance and faith—even as we have all these years through all the challenges we’ve faced. 

You will always be in our prayers—we will continue to be your biggest fans, your greatest cheerleaders as we watch God bring to fruition the good work that he began in you, and that we were a part of for these past eight years.  You are not done.  Not by a long shot.  Just because I won’t be walking with you, doesn't mean you don’t have places to go—and “Oh, the places you will go!”  I just know it.  

My last Sunday as your pastor will be on November 20th.  On or before that date, the congregation will be asked to vote to end our pastoral relationship.  Be assured, however, no vote, no procedures nor act of Presbyterian polity will ever release me from the very deep and abiding love that I have for First Church.  

In fact, I cannot express enough my love and my gratitude for all that you have given me and my family.  I can assure you, it was in far more abundance than anything we might have been able to share with you during our time together.  I am a better pastor, a better father, a better husband, son, friend… a better man because of my time spent with you.  

My hope and prayer for you all is that you hold on to one another and to God during this time of transition.  Support the staff members who have been leading you so ably.  Remain dedicated to worship, pray, grow, love and serve together.  To those who might be tempted to use this as a time to “check out” of church, I encourage you to redouble your efforts to stay involved.  Continue giving, volunteering and attending worship with joy, energy and hope.  

There may be some of you out there who just started coming to First Church, or who have been regular visitors for a while.  You are thinking to yourself, “Great!  Now what am I going to do?  The pastor’s leaving.”  I would encourage you to ask yourself a question:  “If God is sovereign, which means that God is in control of things like this, then why did God lead you here at this particular time in this church’s life.  Could it be that God means for you to be here?  To help this church through a time of transition?  To use your gifts to help this church write a new chapter?  

The chair of the Pastor Nominating Committee who called me to this new church in Texas started attending the church a mere nine months before the pastor of fourteen years announced he was leaving.  He, his wife and family asked themselves the same question, “Now what?” They decided to stay, and to get involved, and in a little over a year, he was invited to serve on the Pastor Search Committee, and is now being asked to serve as an elder.  His gifts for leadership were what the church needed, and if he’d left after the pastor’s announcements it would have never benefited from those gifts.  

I would suggest that God has called you here to this church in this particular moment for—as they say—such a time as this, because you were meant to be here.  Don’t go.  Stick it out.  God has something for you to do here.  

To those of you who have been longtime members, to those of you who have seen pastors come and go—you understand more than most that I am not the church.  You’ve been here before.  A few of our members can measure in the double digits the number of pastors they’ve seen come and go over the years.  

So, use your wisdom, your influence to help keep those who may be worried, and who may be tempted to check out—to stay involved, and to do even more to keep the church moving in the right direction.  

There will undoubtedly be people who left our church angry over the past few years—people who got mad at me, or who disagreed with the direction and vision of our church.  Don’t get stalled in your progress because of these people, don’t let them drag you into the past, don’t allow these people to return, and begin negatively influencing you to stop moving forward.  

For those who would be tempted to use this as a time to create dissension, anxiety and fear—don’t even think about it.  There are some serious prayer warriors, fierce men and women of God here who won’t stomach it for a second.  

Though it may be small comfort to know this, I have to tell you that the members of the Shepherd of the Hills Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX—the congregation who has called me to be their next pastor—is praying for you fervently, and have been for some time. 

What they know and what I want you to hold on to is simply this:  God is already preparing the heart of the person who will one day be the next pastor of First Church. Over the next year or so, God will also be preparing you all as a congregation to one day receive that person, and welcome them as you welcomed me and my family over eight years ago.   

I know that many of you will have questions, or would like to know more about this process.  Some of you may want to simply spend some time chatting with me before I leave.  To that end, I will be clearing my schedule as much as I am able for the next three weeks in order to meet with as many of you as possible.  Simply, contact Melanie Howard at our church office and she’ll do her best to get us scheduled.  

I will end this message, as I have signed every letter I’ve ever sent to you over the years with words that have always been close to my heart.   

My beloved congregation know that you are loved and prayed for daily. 

Counting it all Joy, Pastor Leon 


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