Dakotas church, staff step out on faith & learn God provides

BISMARCK, N.D. (BP)--"Pack and go to North Dakota as pastor of Riverwood," Ron Rich wrote May 4, 1993, in his “Experiencing God” course book, responding to the question, "What does God want you to do in response to today's study?"

While Rich answered honestly with his understanding of God's leadership, several problems existed.

-- Riverwood Baptist Mission in Bismarck, N.D., had been talking with Rich about becoming their pastor, but they had not yet extended a call.

-- The mission had seven members and, while salary had not yet been discussed, Rich knew there was no way they could even approximate his salary as pastor of the 200-member Southside Baptist Church in Oxford, Ala.

-- After a 22-year Army career accompanied by frequent moves around the world, Rich's wife, Betty, and their four children were comfortably settled in the schools, church and house where they had been for eight years.

Rich's contact with Riverwood had begun several months earlier when he and Betty had had lunch with Ron Owens of the North American Mission Board. Owens had told Rich about the fledgling mission in North Dakota, asked him to provide a resume and urged him to begin a study of the Experiencing God discipleship course.

By the time Ron and Betty flew to Bismarck in view of a call to Riverwood, they were convinced God was calling them to leave a comfortable pastorate, uproot their family and move to North Dakota.

"We knew this was not a move we could afford, but we knew God wanted us here. We believed if we made the commitment, God would take care of the provision," Rich said.

He received a unanimous vote from the seven-member congregation that offered the highest salary they could afford, $500 per month.

Then the morning after Rich accepted the call and the salary, the executive director of the North Dakota Baptist Fellowship, Dewey Hickey, told him the fellowship would pay the difference between his current salary and his Riverwood salary for up to 18 months. Hickey told Rich he believed Riverwood had the potential to become one of the strongest churches in the Dakotas.

Back in Alabama, Rich signed a contract on a house he had seen from the outside before leaving Bismarck but toured inside only via video. "We had never been inside until we pulled up in the driveway with our family and furnishings."

After his first Sunday as pastor, preaching to 13 people including five family members, he arrived at his office on Monday morning, closed the door, "fell on my face and began to cry. I prayed for people. God spoke to my heart in such a clear way. 'Go after them any way you can, anywhere you can, and I'll honor that.'"

Five and a half years later, Riverwood is living up to its potential. It led Dakota churches in baptisms in 1997 and has been second five of the last six years. It now has about 200 members and averages more than 150 in Sunday morning worship. It is an originator church for the FAITH Sunday school evangelism strategy. And Experiencing God has been at the heart of the spiritual growth of the membership.

Shortly after becoming Riverwood's pastor, Rich enlisted seven people to study Experiencing God. "God used that group as a catalyst" for growth, he said.

Then John Miller, director of church development for the Dakotas Fellowship, introduced Rich to the book, “Kingdom Principles for Church Growth” by Gene Mims, president of the church resources division of LifeWay Christian Resources. Mims enunciated what he termed the 1.5.4 concept of church growth. To carry out the Great Commission, he listed five basic functions for a church -- evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, ministry and worship. When a church effectively carries out the five functions, Mims said there will be four results -- numerical growth, spiritual growth, ministries expansion and missions advance.

"That book captivated me," Rich said. "I taught it to the church. It took me 14 weeks.

"The people bought into the five basic functions. Our church is built on them," he said. Each year, Riverwood has an all-church planning banquet and develops about six goals for each of the five functions.

For 1999, the top three evangelism goals include commercials about Riverwood, Vacation Bible School and 100 members trained in FAITH. Under discipleship, they identified parenting classes, a church-wide retreat and a prayer ministry in addition to existing activities. Fellowship goals include movie nights, six seasonal banquets and the annual planning banquet. Ministry actions include starting a food pantry, help-your-neighbor emphasis and prison ministry. And for worship, members cited the need for involving more people in special music and testimonies and having more prayer and drama in worship services.

"What God has done at this church, he's done through our people. They step out on faith," Rich said.

Rich has sought out four staff members the same way he was drawn to Riverwood -- by laying out the opportunity based on his understanding of God's leadership, making clear the church lacks full salary funding while emphasizing his conviction that God will provide.

First was Rick Ackerman, a summer youth evangelist leading a three-man team conducting 16 youth revivals in eight weeks in the Dakotas. When Rich proposed that Ackerman consider returning in the fall as Riverwood's minister to students, Ackerman, who grew up in First Baptist Church, Daytona Beach, Fla., said he'd have to have some clear direction from God.

"It was a step of faith first and then God provided. That's the way it's been here," Ackerman said. After starting with housing provided by a church member, some outside support and a part-time job in a Christian bookstore, Ackerman went full time in May 1997. He also married the Richs' only daughter, Andrea.

Next came Allen Spencer, a Mississippi native who served two terms as a summer missionary in the Dakotas while a college student. He had returned to Bismarck after college, married his wife, Stefanie, also from Mississippi, and begun working at a power company. After being laid off, he and Stefanie sold their house and were preparing to move back to the South when Rich approached him about joining the staff as minister of music and drama, again with no promise of salary.

Allen Spencer has been a staff member three years, raising some support from friends, and Stefanie serves as ministry assistant. He anticipates full church support within two years.

"I love the people here, the informal atmosphere,” Spencer said. “We have CEOs and former inmates. This is an accepting congregation of second chances." He noted about 30 inmates reached through the church's prison ministry hold membership through Riverwood.

The most recent staff addition, in July 1998, was Dave Stacey, minister of outreach. Stacey, who had committed his life to full-time vocational service at age 16, had gone on to develop a career in banking. A member of Riverwood, he learned last May he soon would no longer have a job. Rich first approached him about becoming the church’s minister of education.

But Rich and Stacey -- individually and then jointly -- came to believe God was calling him to a ministry of outreach. He now works three days a week at the church and five nights a week as a computer trouble shooter, arriving home after 2 a.m. Stacey's wife, Roberta, has gone from part-time work at Wal-Mart to full-time. They also juggle their schedules to homeschool their children, ages 7, 8 and 9.

"We don't want to put God in a box. That's the most wonderful thing about Riverwood," Stacey said. "These people dare God to do his best and then stand back and let him do it."

As a catalyst for moving to the next level of growth, Rich launched a church-wide emphasis on Experiencing God in February. Ackerman taught the seven realities of experiencing God to all youth and adults during the Sunday school hour. On the last Sunday of the month, Rich used the worship hour to tell his story of coming to Riverwood and challenged members to sign up for the course. He hoped to have 64 participants; 69 registered.

Nine groups now meet at various times throughout the week, including a group of senior adults who also pray for the pastor, staff and outreach of the church. In addition, 10-15 FAITH participants go out each Monday to minister and witness.

Chuck Avery, a layman participating in a Sunday night Experiencing God group, said of the church, "The atmosphere is so open. You're family at Riverwood and you never stand alone."

Larry Hansen, a businessman who with his wife, Donna, hosts the Sunday night group in their home, said he was attracted to Riverwood because people are being saved.

"I realize I need to see that and I need to be involved," Hansen said.

For the future, Rich envisions continued balanced growth.

"My dream for Riverwood is that we can really penetrate this area for Christ. We will have to be a strong church to do that. We also want to be a source of encouragement to other Southern Baptist churches in our area," said Rich, who also serves this year as president of the Dakotas Fellowship.

Miller, a member of Riverwood as well as a Dakotas Fellowship staff member, said, "We haven't had a church that has grown like Riverwood in recent memory. They have experienced numerical growth, but they also are a congregation of growing believers."

Reflecting on the past and looking to the future, Rich said, "I get choked up when I think about what I believe God's going to do here. I'd like to be here for the rest of my life."

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