After merger & growing pains, New Seasons envisions growth
“I got to thinking, Am I going to give this to someone I don’t know? A non-Southern Baptist? No!”
Samuels had met A.B. Vines, a younger but experienced black pastor at Highland Park Baptist Church, a congregation of about 200 “just a few miles away from us” in the city’s Paradise Valley area.
“He had a tremendous vision of what we could do in San Diego,” Samuels said. “I didn’t have a vision, but I had the heart. I visited his church. The preaching was phenomenal; there was energy, life, momentum” and a dynamic faith in God.
After the two churches met and got to know each other, they voted to merge in January 2005, becoming New Seasons Church. Both congregations lost members after the decision and a two-month transition, but a multicultural New Seasons Church emerged out of the chaos.
The churches decided that the English-speaking New Seasons congregation would meet at the larger Bancroft facilities and Highland Park’s two growing language churches –- a Tagalog-speaking Filipino congregation led by Richard Lee and a Spanish-speaking Hispanic congregation led by Guillermo Monje -– would stay at the smaller Paradise Valley site.
Vines’ first decision as pastor of the new church was to call Samuels as executive pastor, citing a lesson learned from his training in the FAITH/Sunday School Evangelism Strategy. “One thing [we learned in FAITH] is that your church will grow, so don’t put off planning for the growth,” Vines said. “I know that right now it may not make the most sense for me to have an executive pastor, but this is an investment in the future.
“Pastor Cal [Samuels] and I are learning how to work together, how to trust each other,” Vines continued. “That takes time. This way, when the growth happens, he and I already trust each other and know how to work together. We won’t miss a beat ministering to the people. You have to look to the future and plan your staff accordingly.”
New Season’s ministerial staff is far from traditional, but reflects the congregation -– black, white, yellow and brown.
When they go out, the multicultural staff sometimes gets attention. Samuels laughed when he recalled being “the only white person [at Black Church Leadership Week at LifeWay Glorieta Conference Center last summer] as a member of a predominantly black church staff. That was unusual, to say the least.”
What’s even more unusual, Samuels added, is for a white, older pastor to work under the authority of a black, younger pastor. In fact, Vines, at 40, is the youngest person on the ministerial staff.
Vines described his staff in sports terms. “On a football team, you’ve got the quarterback and, sure, he gets lots of attention. But you also have a guard. Is a guard a quarterback? No. But is he necessary to the team? Yes. Is he a great athlete? Yes. The kicker -– he may just get in once or twice in a game, but he’s often the one who wins the game. Everyone has to play his role. I love and appreciate the whole team here.”
New Seasons’ blended staff, each with his own specific ministry area, is united in their focus to reach the lost of San Diego. The new congregation began to grow as members caught Vines’ vision for being a spiritual hospital and a lifestyle transformational center for the city.
“I just believe God,” Vines said. “Nothing God does dies, but you can’t experience the growth unless you have faith. We don’t do anything from a small mentality. About 500 people now attend the two Sunday morning services. We plan for 1,000.”
Samuels said there are still some growing pains. While some of the old members have started coming back, there are still some people “who ... still won’t speak to me [because of the merger], but that’s okay. I know the Lord is pleased with this. Most of the members are glad to be here. There is a God-given energy that we never had before.”
Any growing pains, however, are not apparent on Sunday mornings. People hug and hold hands in the service. A little African American girl runs and hops in the lap of a white woman, giving and getting a hug. A young teenage girl helps a stooped elderly woman find a seat and then sits with her.
It’s quite a change from the first days of New Seasons. “There were some people from his church who said, ‘I’m not going to have a black pastor,’” Vines said.
“That’s true,” Samuels said, “but those were the same people who weren’t crazy about me either!”
Others, however, realized the potential.
“My first thought when I heard about the merger, was ‘Oh, my Lord, what are you up to now?’” said Narri Cooper, a member of Vines’ church who made the transition to New Seasons. “I was excited, expectant. And I trusted my pastor.”
Samuels’ wife, Pam, said the merger was a godsend. “I love going to this church! I love sitting under the teaching of Dr. Vines. I love that Cal and I have found our perfect niche. Cal is doing exactly what is perfect for his skills. He is happier than he has ever been.”
“God has blessed me by giving me Pastor Cal,” Vines said. “I love to preach and study God’s Word. I do conferences and mentor other pastors, but I don’t like the paperwork! Organization is not my gift. But Pastor Cal keeps things running smooth. He takes care of the administrative tasks and all the stuff that goes with that, leaving me free to do the ministry God has called me to do.”
Vines’ gifting is evident as he ascends the platform during the church’s spirited worship services. As he preaches, exalting the Word, the congregation responds and encourages their pastor as he paces across the platform, towel in hand, wiping his face as the Spirit moves everyone in the room. “Amen!” “That’s right!” “Hallelujah!” His voice soars to the rafters and then goes down to a whisper as he teaches. Attentive worshippers flip through their Bibles as he moves through Scripture passages.
Vines said about 75 percent of the church’s membership lives within a seven-mile circle around the church. “I’m hoping that will go up to about 90 percent,” he said. “I really want this to be a community church. I’m committed to being a community pastor. We will match our community, period.... I believe you should bloom where you are planted. If I’m in a multicultural melting pot, that’s what the church should look like.”
Samuels has done the demographics. In a seven-mile radius around the church, it’s 42 percent Asian, 22 percent Hispanic, 18 percent white and 10 percent black.
The area of San Diego where New Seasons sits is what Vines calls “the center city,” outside the inner city, but with many of the same problems. “There are meth labs all around us,” Vines said, pointing to the surrounding hillsides. Poverty is a way of life, he said, noting that 100 percent of the children at the elementary school across the street are on the government’s free lunch program. “With that comes all the other problems found in poverty-stricken areas –- gangs, violence, drugs and alcohol.
“What we want is for the community to see us as a refuge,” Vines said. “We want them to look over here and see us as their church, a center of ministry and healing.”
The community needs News Seasons. It needs that spiritual hospital where soul-sick people can go for rescue and healing. Vines sees the needs and his heart weeps for them.
“Lost people keep me up at night,” the pastor said. “I want to see them saved.”
Karen Willoughby contributed to this story.