I’m Jon Lawler, chair of the CSPC Pastoral Search Team from 2017 to 2020, and this is how that time helped me live deeply.
We found James Forsyth by mistake. Before we even assembled as a search team, a committee had gotten together to define the attributes CSPC needed in our next senior pastor. It boiled down to four things: someone who was strong in the pulpit, had strong executive gifts, had a heart for missions, and had a strong leadership/shepherding gift. That’s a pretty hard person to find. Many senior pastors are strong in one of those areas, maybe two, but rarely four. Our search process was going to the leaders of EPC and PCA churches and saying, ‘You know Cedar Springs. Who would you recommend?’ Someone had said, ‘You ought to check out this senior pastor at McLean Presbyterian in McLean, Virginia.’ So we did- our team members went to the website and listened to the preaching, which was how we stumbled upon James. It turned out the guy who’d been recommended had left and James had been named senior pastor. So the next time we got together, we all looked at one another and said, ‘Mr. XYZ isn’t there. However, there’s this young Scottish guy there, and darn, he’s impressive.’ On our team we had a couple people who were big-time researchers, so they got into it, discovered James’s story and everything. We all listened to more of his sermons and talked to people who knew him, then said, ‘Okay, let’s call and see if he’ll meet with us.’ That’s what led to our first meeting with him in November 2017. It was just preliminary, not a formal interview, but he was now very much on our radar. Then, in February 2018, we as a team had what felt like our clearest evening of hearing from God, where we felt like He was saying, ‘James is the guy.’ The problem was, James wasn’t clear he was the guy. When I went back to him that month, he said, ‘No, Jon, I’m not going to come interview.’
From there, we as a group had to kind of finesse this delicate balance. On the one hand, we had to move ahead and accept the possibility that maybe we didn’t hear what we thought we heard. On the other, we were still holding out hope that James might indeed be the guy. One of the psalms we prayed together regularly as a team was Psalm 130, which says ‘I wait on the Lord. My soul waits on the Lord, and in His Word I put my hope.’ Waiting was a big part of this- we were waiting to see what would happen with James long-term while having to, with open hands, say ‘Maybe he’s not the guy. Maybe we didn’t hear that.’ It was interesting to travel that road from 2018 all the way to 2019, when James finally agreed to come visit Knoxville. He came in late May/early June, met with three members of the search team and their spouses, and I thought, ‘Okay, this is going to happen now. This is it.’ But after it was over, he said, ‘Jon, I just haven’t been released.’ As you can imagine, the team was totally crushed. He ended up breaking our hearts that year. At that point, the team needed a month off. We thought we’d reached the finish line, but the truth was it was kind of a false summit. It wasn’t happening because God still had some work to do in James’s heart to make him ready to come to CSPC. There were things he needed to push into personally that would give him insights into how he should lead vs. how he was wired to lead at the time. It was a dance, and we felt like he should’ve been following our lead, but fortunately he wasn’t. He was willing to listen to God and allow God to lead and shape him, in order that he could say ‘yes’ to our lead if he ever felt released to come to CSPC. Fortunately, James and I had a good friendship throughout all this and I stayed in contact with him. So one Sunday night in May 2020, my phone rings -I’d been expecting a call from my parents, who live outside of town part of the year- and my wife surprised me: ‘Answer the phone- it’s James Forsyth on there!’
James asked: ‘How is COVID in East Tennessee?’ He and the family had vacationed in the Smokies the year before and were thinking of doing it again. So he and I talked about that a little. Then I hung up the phone and told my wife, ‘That wasn’t just about vacationing in the Smokies.’ The next morning I sent James a text: ‘Hey, your call wasn’t about vacationing, was it?’ He said, ‘Yes and no. Call me.’ (To his credit, they really did want to come back for vacation.) I called and he said, ‘I’m thinking I’d like to come down with the family, maybe meet with a few search team members.’ Then I told him, ‘If you’re coming, you either need to come ready to interview or not. So what process do you need to determine whether you’re going to do that? Because I don’t want just another visit.’ We went through a process that week -he consulted with some mentors- and by Wednesday night, he had finally agreed to come interview. The team was having its weekly meeting at my home the very next night. On the agenda: to decide, out of the four criteria we wanted in a senior pastor, which one of the four we were willing to let go. (By this point we’d enlisted some consultants, and this was what they’d recommended.) Meeting time came, everyone was sitting around in a circle, and I said, ‘Everybody have your agenda? Tear it up.’ Then I took them through what I’d been doing that week. When I said, ‘He wants to come interview,’ the team was dumbfounded. Several of them just started crying. A couple members said, ‘Until I see the wound in his side, I won’t believe it.’ Torrey McMurray even went home to Summers and told her, ‘I don’t believe it. I won’t believe it until James is at Jon’s house for an interview.’ So James came in the next week and interviewed. It was great, and that’s when we voted to recommend him. A week later the session found out, and then weeks later, in June 2020, the whole congregation found out.
Chairing the CSPC Pastoral Search Team was probably the most satisfying leadership experience I’ve ever had. I actually had an opportunity to interview for a job outside the state during this process- seemed like sort of the perfect candidate, was interested in it, but I didn’t get the job. They chose someone else. One reason for that, I think, is because I needed to finish this process. I had really cultivated the relationship with James. We do really well together- we enjoy one another, we respect one another. When he finally accepted our call, I thought, ‘This is the reason I’m on this team.’ It was super-fulfilling because he was absolutely the perfect person to lead CSPC into this next season. God taught me so much during the search. Pursuing deep, intimate, trusting relationships with a team to successfully hear God’s voice, then respond to His leading in a faithful way- that’s what this was all about. God was at work, but because we did the work of developing trust, intimacy, and dependence on Him together, we were able to not mess that work up. If you don’t have trust in God and one another, you’ll often end up chasing a rabbit down a trail and doing something you shouldn’t do. To this day, I just have a connection with and closeness to the 13 members of that team unlike any group I’ve ever worked with before. For years, we prayed the same psalm together every day and had a separate psalm for every distinct day of the week. In our weekly meetings, every single person on the team always had something significant to contribute to the discussion and process. All of them really stayed in sync with the rhythm we had established of praying the psalms each day and using those as guideposts to help us hear God’s voice. When you give yourself on a regular basis to working together, joining God in His work, it bonds you so deeply. One of our psalms was Psalm 133: ‘How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity.’ That kind of captures it all.