Our Nutty Little Story
In 2013, the Covenant Companion magazine asked Pastor Don Bosley to recount the story of how God led two small West Sacramento churches through an unlikely 2010 merger to become Lighthouse. His account below offers some of the perspective and flavor of those memorable, and surprising, days.
Firstly, we should probably discuss procedure. There are ways to do these things, and there are ways to do these things.
Folks, we think we finally have a pretty good pastoral candidate. And, well ... uh, he comes with a building and some people....
Now, it’s possible that no one from Westside Covenant Church ever actually spoke these words in the summer of 2010, but the tale has taken on a minor mythical proportion now and there’s no way to stop it. The important thing to note is that there are many approaches to initiating a church merger, and not all of them are exactly conventional.
In my hometown of West Sacramento, Calif., it recently pleased God to throw an unconventional wrench into the direction of two small congregations who never suspected what He was up to. Next thing you knew, Westside and River of Life Church had come together to form the new Lighthouse Covenant Church, looking every bit like two longtime friends to whom the idea of marriage had suddenly, inexplicably, occurred Of course, it’s one thing to merely befriend someone, and quite another to enter into a shared life covenant with them. In a Christian culture that commonly celebrates a church’s “unique DNA,” the idea of adjoining to someone else’s unique DNA can set off a five-alarm panic. Would we have to change worship styles?! Would we have to change buildings?! Wait, can we still drink coffee in the sanctuary?! If you want to find out what sacred cows you’re nursing, simply propose a church merger - and watch the stampede.
For both Westside and River of Life, the unexpected road to a church merger blasted straight through those types of fond, familiar identity markers. Bit by bit, as the altar slowly piled higher with “essentials” that really weren’t, the emerging story of Lighthouse became a story of deference, preference and trust. And from that process emerged not just a new church, but an inborn calling.
West Sacramento isn’t the only city in America with an identity crisis, but it is surely one of the few where the crisis is self-inflicted.
With their berg cleanly separated from metropolitan Sacramento by a river and a county line, the city founders nevertheless decided to keep the name West Sacramento when they incorporated in 1987 - forever sentencing the city to its big brother’s shadow and its residents to a never-ending explanation that, no, we’re actually not part of Sacramento, thank you.
I grew up in West Sac, then a lovable mutt of a town that had spent more than 100 years as the sin sidekick to the City of Sacraments. West Sac was best known for its brothel hotels and bars back then, and indeed as a kid I caught the school bus in front of a rundown bar and bait shop. It was the kind of place you’d want to think about planting a church.
And people did. The church-planting blitz hit full-force in the late 1990s, with several upstart congregations populating schools and pool halls. By the summer of 2010 I was the bi-vocational pastor of one of them - River of Life, meeting in the same bar-and-bait-shop building I’d known as a youth. “Happy Hour: 10am Sundays,” was one tagline we briefly considered.
River of Life was just finding its feet again after a season of transition. Beloved planting pastor David Losey had retired, leaving me - his deer-in-the-headlights associate - as the next man up. Moreover, ROL had just gone through a painful split with its parent church in Sacramento. Nondenominational, isolated in the rural south of the city, and now gun-shy about deep partnership with anybody, our tight group of 70 had circled the wagons to heal.
By day, I was the director of a Youth For Christ teen center in downtown West Sac - where another one of those church plants had taken up residence on Sundays. Westside Covenant had been planted in 2002 by First Covenant-Sacramento, but by 2010 the fledgling congregation had collected some battle scars. Passionate planting pastor Clark Crebar had moved to a new calling in the Midwest, a season of fissures and tension had followed, and an 18-month pastoral search was dragging on with few candidates and increasingly fewer resources to attract them. The 50 remaining congregants were weary, worried, and wondering.
“Sometimes,” a Westside leader confided, as we closed up the teen center one night, “it feels like we’re just putting on a show for ourselves.”
The tipping point arrived in, well, disguise. Westside staged a harvest outreach featuring pumpkins, bounce houses, and costumed volunteers all around the 12,000-square-foot teen center. When the event was mentioned to the people at River of Life, dozens of ROL volunteers showed up to help. The two groups enjoyed it so much that they planned more joint outreaches for Mother’s Day the following spring, and then Father’s Day.
“Our people get along so well,” said Westside interim pastor Phil Sommerville, at one of the outreach planning meetings. “It’s too bad the denominational stuff gets in the way, or we could just merge these churches!”
He laughed. I laughed. We shook hands and went home.
And I didn’t sleep.
Now, sometimes I’m slow to pray about things because I’m foolish. And sometimes I’m slow because, in my experience, prayer has a way of putting you on the hook. The minute you mention something out loud to the Lord, you sorta have to take it seriously. And who could take this seriously? Merging churches! Phil had been kidding. What a yukster, that Phil.
Did churches even do that? I knew nothing about church mergers. Church splits, I knew about. Churches absorbing other churches, I’d heard about. But an equal-partnership marriage, sharing all resources and responsibilities and authority ... that must be harder than it seemed, because I’d never met anyone who’d done it.
At some point that night, prayer could no longer be avoided on the subject. My inquiry of the Lord was sheepish, almost apologetic. He answered with a vivid reminder that suddenly dropped on me like an anvil: Just six months earlier, I’d prayed in tears for Him to heal our orphaned River of Life and bring us a trustworthy, righteous covering. And these engaging Westsiders - it hit me - were part of something called the Covenant denomination.
My eyes grew wide, and so did Phil’s when I called him several days later. Could a merged church actually work? It would require wounded River of Lifers to trust the Covenant. It would require Westsiders to leave the teen center, relocate to a former bar, and then approve their former landlord - me - as their long-sought pastor. It would require congregants on both sides to fruitfully blend every ministry, from music to children’s to missions. It was, in a word, ludicrous.
But the thought simply wouldn’t be quiet, in our hearts or our prayers. After a few weeks, Phil and I agreed to share the ludicrous idea with our elders. They raised the same eyebrows, did the same quick calculations, went skeptically into the same prayers - and similarly couldn’t shake it. The process next repeated itself with wider circles of church leaders in both camps, with cautious intrigue growing by the day.
With every conversation, someone’s personal holy ground was unmistakably threatened. River of Life’s worship style was a little rowdier, Westside’s a little quieter. Who would have to compromise more? Westside was passionately vested in global missions, River of Life in local missions. Could the same level of commitment be kept to both? Westsiders would have to take on the debt and responsibility of maintaining an aging old bar. River of Life would have to let go of its cherished, prophetically-anointed church name.
“Not the name!,” gasped our prayer ministry leader, a woman much loved and respected for her sensitivity to the Spirit. Not two seconds later, she froze, closed her eyes, and slowly began nodding her head in humble concession. It was a sequence experienced by nearly everyone, on some issue or another, over a period of many weeks.
In the middle of it all, the Broderick Christian Center burned down.
It happened on a Sunday morning, even as I was preaching out of Matthew 25 - Jesus separating the sheep from the goats on the day of the Lord, according to how each person has cared for “the least of these.” Miles away, the city’s only homeless shelter was aflame and being reduced to ashes, injuring no one but destroying a longtime source of consistent daily food for the poor.
“This is it!” exclaimed one of ROL’s leaders, her voice breathless on the phone a few hours later. “This is our sheep-and-goats moment!”
All the churches in West Sacramento knew it. Within 24 hours, many of them had met together to formulate a plan. Within 48 hours, volunteers from nearly a dozen different churches were gathering daily at the teen center to make lunches and get them out to the homeless. The remarkable collaboration went on for six weeks, while the Broderick program regained its footing.
Among those passing the mayo on the sandwich line - virtually every day - were volunteers from River of Life, volunteers from Westside, and the teen-center director who was being proposed as their merger pastor. Predictably, some deep conversations materialized over the cold cuts. Testimonies were exchanged at the bagging station. Suddenly, Westside and ROL members were commonly praying for one another about issues that had nothing to do with church mergers. Personal stuff. Deep hurts and heart desires.
Day by day, the ludicrous was becoming the obvious.
After months of meetings, prayer vigils, shared sandwich making, joint worship services, and dialogue with Covenant officials, the churches conducted their separate votes on the proposed merger on Oct. 24, 2010 - and saw just one ‘no’ vote between them. That evening, with a combined worship band in full swing, River of Lifers welcomed Westside members to their new home with flying confetti and joyous embraces. The name ‘Lighthouse’ arrived via corporate prayer a few weeks later.
Intoxicating as it was, the merging of the churches wasn’t God’s greatest accomplishment in that season, as any charter Lighthouse member will now tell you. In prying the people loose of every identifier that wasn’t simply Him, the Lord transformed hearts and attitudes in some permanent ways.
These days, I watch amazed as once-tentative saints now help the nearby Nazarene church with a Vacation Bible School, or the Southern Baptist church with a monthly meal for the needy, or the Presbyterian church with an outreach to hungry children. They sorta do it naturally, not as part of any Lighthouse church strategy. Someone did a count recently and discovered that Lighthouse was in direct partnership of some sort with 13 other West Sacramento churches or ministries, at locations all over the city.
Three years ago, the merger helped strip these believers of their need to own every ministry, dictate every ministry, espouse a particular church flavor, or wave a particular church brand. On the other side of that, they have found the freedom to live fully into the role of mere kingdom servants.
“You know, it’s funny,” said one of our ministry leaders recently. “Westside and River of Life both persevered through some real tough times. In the end, we actually discovered that God wasn’t asking us to hang on ... but to dare to let go.”
THE LCC STORY, STEP-BY-STEP
MARCH 1997: A small group of West Sacramentans, including Don & Melody Bosley and John & Pam McKee, begin praying and working together in response to God's prompting to establish a Christ-based teen center in West Sacramento.
SEPTEMBER 1997: The teen center group begins a partnership with Sacramento Youth for Christ, headed by Gary Fox - a longtime member of First Covenant Church.
APRIL 1998: Seeking a local church in which to connect newly-saved teens, the Bosleys, McKees, Becky Hernandez, Nicole Ring, and others begin praying and laying the groundwork for a new church plant in partnership with Elk Grove CC.
JUNE 1998: The Evangelical Covenant Church, also looking to church-plant in West Sacramento, contacts Don Bosley about potential partnership with his group. Bosley declines. But politely.
AUGUST 1998: River of Life Community Church launches. Its first home is Community Lutheran Church, which lasts two weeks.
JUNE 1999: David Losey is called as River of Life's first senior pastor.
OCTOBER 2001: With a team comprised primarily of members from First Covenant Church, Clark Crebar leads the first planning meeting for the planting of a new Covenant church in West Sacramento.
FEBRUARY 2002: Westside Covenant stages its first Sunday service - at Evergreen Elementary School.
MARCH 2002: Against all conceivable odds, River of Life purchases a 5,000-square-foot building on 1 1/4 acres at 3605 Gregory Avenue.
SPRING 2003: The newly-named Collings Teen Center completes the purchase of a 12,000-square-foot facility at 1541 Merkley Avenue. Major, major rehab begins.
OCTOBER 2003: Westside members join River of Life in a Harvest Festival outreach on the Gregory Avenue property.
APRIL 2004: Westside moves into the newly refurbished teen center.
2003-2004: Westside pastor Clark Crebar and ROL pastor David Losey join pastors from around the city to stage a series of quarterly All-City Worship services.
FALL 2005: Westside pastor Clark Crebar is called to ministry in Minnesota. Worship leader Billy Kerr is called to be Westside's senior pastor.
AUGUST 2008: David Losey steps down as pastor at River of Life. Don Bosley is called to replace him.
FALL 2008: River of Life votes to separate from its mother fellowship, Radiant Life of Sacramento (formerly Elk Grove Community Church)
WINTER 2008-2009: Westside pastor Billy Kerr is called to ministry in Arizona. Phil Sommerville is called to pastor on an interim basis.
JANUARY 2009: On the cusp of losing its Gregory Ave. property, River of Life finally completes a long-sought refinancing effort in the middle of the worst recession in decades.
JULY 2009: Don Bosley becomes part-time executive director of the Collings Teen Center (hired by Gary Fox, a longtime contemporary of Clark Crebar's at First Covenant, and now effectively Westside's landlord at the teen center).
OCTOBER 2009: River of Life - returning the favor from many years earlier - sends volunteers in support of Westside's Harvest Festival outreach at the teen center.
APRIL 2010: At a planning meeting for another joint outreach, Phil Sommerville whimsically mentions the potential beauty of a Westside- ROL merger.
OCTOBER 23-24, 2010: River of Life and Westside Covenant vote overwhelmingly to merge their two church bodies as a new fellowship under the Evangelical Covenant Church, making its home at the Gregory Avenue property.