Phil Stout has led Jackson First (commonly known as JaxNaz) since 1987. In the time that he has served as pastor, the church has grown in size from 125 to 1400 worshippers. A graduate of NTS, he did peace studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and earned a DMin from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Spring Arbor University and Olivet Nazarene University.

 

CPL: In what ways have you had to change and re-invent yourself as your congregation has evolved over the last 29 years?

I never thought of it in terms of re-inventing myself. I just knew early on that I would have to constantly grow as a Christ-follower, a learner, a theologian, a practitioner and a leader. I was eager to do that and I still am.

Now I have definitely had to change my leadership style. And I think “re-invent” certainly applies here. The skill set that is needed in my ministry today bears little resemblance to the skill set I needed when I first arrived. That has to do with the size of the congregation, the size of the staff and the changes in our culture. Leadership has been a moving target for me. I’m constantly challenged and always have to be open to adapting my leadership style.

I’ve found that the infrastructure of ministry changes radically as the church grows. Since the church has to be organized and operated in a different manner, the roles and relationships between pastor, staff, board and congregation must also change. If I’m unwilling to change, growth comes to a halt.

CPL: What have you done to stay vital in ministry and a life long learner? 

I’ve always been hungry. I’ve always yearned to learn new things and grow. I think that’s true of most of us. But we all struggle with making it a priority. Almost every preacher I know wishes she or he had more time to read and study. But we’ve got all these details screaming at us.

I had to come to the point where I viewed studying, learning and growing for what it is—the most important thing that I can do for my church. I don’t want to be the preacher I was five years ago and the people I lead don’t want that either.

When I look back over the course of my ministry here, it’s obvious what was most important. It wasn’t marriage counseling, finance committee meetings or building programs. It was trying to learn what it is to be a Christ-follower so I can stand before the people with excitement and passion to tell them what I’m learning.

I don’t mean to make that sound easy. It’s not. And I certainly haven’t been consistent all the time. There is ebb and flow in ministry. There are seasons when our growth is obvious and seasons that are pretty dry. But we’ll never look back and say, “I studied too much. I spent too much time alone with God. I read too many good books.”

CPL: What is the secret to staying at a church as long as you have? What are the benefits and joys?

As long as your vision is fresh, you have a purpose. If I have a compelling vision for this church, there is no reason for me to float my resume. I’ve always felt like our best days are ahead of us and I want to be part of those great days.

A couple of times over the years I’ve been contacted to consider another pastorate. I never even had to pray about those opportunities because my mind and my heart were filled with the tomorrows in this place. Vision has kept me here.

Of course, the first joy of long-term ministry that comes to mind is the deep relationships that are only possible when you walk together for years and decades. But it’s not simply a matter of knowing each other. It’s the powerful bond that comes from working, sweating, crying, growing and rejoicing together. There are handful of men and women who have been here through my entire sojourn at JaxNaz. We know we are different than we were twenty-nine years ago. We’ve got great memories and not a few scars. When you grow up together, you really are family.

CPL: In your sermon, you spoke about the scandal of the modern church being our radical ‘exclusivity’, where doctrine often trumps love. How do you teach your people how to be radically inclusive?

We teach by what we say and what we do. In structuring our church—our worship, our outreach, our ministries of compassion, our hospitality—to be radically inclusive, we form a value that is central to who we are.

You hear a lot of talk about prophetic preaching. I like what Walter Brueggemann calls “prophetic ministry.” To me that’s a more holistic approach, which Brueggemann says consists of offering an “alternative community.” We’ve tried to make our church a community that is different from the world around us and, quite frankly, different from American church culture.

I was raised with an emphasis on the theology of Paul, but without much emphasis on the ethics of Jesus. That left a hole in my understanding of what it means to be a Christian. So over many years now, the Sermon on the Mount that was delivered by the “friend of sinners” has been prominent in my preaching. Radical grace leads to radical inclusivity.

We are all so imperfect in our presentation of Jesus. We all preach through our own biases and wounds. But I’ve determined that since I’ll never get it exactly right, I always want to err on the side of grace. When I get criticized for preaching too much grace, I always feel like I’m in good company.