February 2, 2023
A couple of weekends ago, a group of members from Ardmore Baptist Church who are part of our Vision and Navigation Team attended a Thriving Congregations retreat through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Those who attended the retreat were: Becky Bryant, DeNeal Fowler, Rick Jordan, Gail McAlister, Courtney Pollock, Jay Van Nostrand, and myself.
When we received the instructions from our leader, I was surprised to learn that our time was to begin in Zebulon, North Carolina. I did not anticipate how much I would gain from that experience. We were led by the Town Manager of Zebulon (Joe Moore) and one of the Board of Commissioners (Beverly Clark).
Moore began by telling us about the Little River Dam that had been built in 1858. It was built to feed a mill that was the center of town life. However, in the mid-20th century, as agricultural business dried up in the region, the mill was closed and the dam was no longer used. However, many people in the town still held strong feelings for the Little River Dam. They had family history connected to the dam (“my great Grandpa helped build that dam!”). Nobody from the town ever went to the Little River Dam; they simply liked to drive by and know it was there.
For a variety of reasons, in the early 2010s, Zebulon grew in population (moving from 4,000 to 10,000 in just a few years). Suddenly you had longtime residents of Zebulon interacting with newer families that were moving in. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew dumped a ton of water into Zebulon, and the Little River Dam burst. When it did so, it created a small lagoon, swimming area in front of the broken dam. Many of the newer families begin to travel down there and loved to have picnics on the bank, wade through the water, and simply enjoy the area.
But some of the longtime residents of Zebulon began to insist that the Little River Dam be rebuilt. An engineer was hired to assess the feasibility of rebuilding the dam. After doing his work, the engineer told the Board, “If you rebuild this dam, you will have to rebuild it again in 10-15 years. The river wants to be a river and the river always wins.” Despite that expert advice, some of the longtime residents continued to insist that the dam be rebuilt.
The Board began to debate and discuss what to do. They crafted a plan in which they would turn the area into a town park, not rebuild the dam, and put up signs that honored the history of the Little River Dam. It became a highly contentious and emotional issue. Board Member Clark told us that she had lifelong friends who ceased to speak to her when they found out how she intended to vote. When the vote was taken, it was a 3-2 decision to not rebuild the dam and create the park for the community.
After listening to this story, our group had a conversation in which we tried to connect this experience to the life of a congregation. How do we both honor the past and also innovate for the future? How do we handle controversial topics and yet stay unified together? But most importantly: How do we listen for the will of God as we decide who we are and what we do as a community of faith?
At the end of our day, we were encouraged to drive by the Little River Dam. Becky, Jay, Rick, and I rode together and as we parked our car, we noticed a young family resting on the bank, two people laughing and enjoying the water, and citizens enjoying the scenery as they walk their dogs.
Change is a difficult thing to navigate. And yet, we have no choice but to listen for God’s will for who we are called to be. As we do so, we should never forget: the river always wins.