I met Dr. Michael Sprague at the Southern Christian Writers Guild. He spoke about self-publishing, his Katrina experiences that taught him to “Bet the Farm on God” and Grace Adventures, his latest ministry venture. Michael had pastored for twenty-seven years before God launched him into an “out of the box” ministry. His bio on the back cover of his book identifies Grace Adventures as a “Bible-based, Christ-centered, grace-motivated, kingdom building ministry that reaches out to political, business and spiritual leaders.”
I was impressed with the humble, soft spoken doctor of theology who set a timer to guarantee he did not speak beyond his allotted time. Even more impressed that he patiently waited two months before I found time in my schedule to interview him for an article on the Faith blog. I had recently made the acquaintance of Kerri Blache, Christian business owner of Vianne’s Tea Salon and Cafe, and thought that would be a good place for us to meet. I should have asked Michael if he drank tea. He didn’t. I drank a pot of tea while he talked about God’s ability to guide our lives into his perfect plan, and then he graciously paid for my tea. I meet a lot of nice people at the Guild.
A teenage Michael attended church, believed God exists and knew all of the Bible stories when he became aware of a void in his life. “I had good parents, lots of friends, did well in school, loved to play sports and always had a few dollars in my pocket, so I didn’t understand what was wrong,” said Michael.
He was walking out the back door of his church to play basketball with friends when a concerned Sunday School teacher stopped him. “Michael,” she said. “”I’d hate to get to heaven and not see you there.” Michael pondered her statement the rest of the week. He also thought about a scripture regularly quoted in his church: John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” As he meditated on the verse, it dawned on him that God loved him. Even though he knew about Christ, he had never trusted in him. The following Sunday, the pastor started the service with an altar call. “I made my decision to trust Christ as my savior that morning, and my life has not been the same since. When Jesus became the center of my life, the scriptures that were dull to me in the past came alive.”
Lacking clear direction on the next step in his new found faith, Michael floundered. The demographics of the sixty member Baptist church he attended fell below seventeen or over twenty-seven. His spiritual growth stalled without the assistance of a young singles ministry and Christians his age to fellowship with. His faith grew when a Christian family in his neighborhood took an interest in him. They studied the Bible with him, taught him how to serve others, and how to share his faith. They also brought him to Take and Give, an interdenominational Bible Study that met in a Washington DC auditorium. Every Tuesday, two-thousand young people Michael’s age gathered to study the Bible and learn practical ways to live out their faith.
Michael’s pastor recognized his spiritual growth and appointed him a leader of the church youth group. Once a year, the youth group conducted service. Seven years in a row, the pastor asked Michael to preach the sermon on Youth Sunday. Seven years in a row, Michael said, “No.” He was willing to usher, read a scripture, and even sing though he lacked the ability to sing, but not preach.
After graduating from the University of Maryland with a major in business, he obtained a job in the Commerce Department of the Federal Government. One of his co-workers, Donna, who later became his wife, had just graduated from Washington Bible College. He regularly ate lunch with her and plied her with questions about spiritual matters. She invited him to a Friday night Bible study for singles. He also visited her large nondenominational church, Forcey Memorial Church (later renamed Forcey Bible Church) in Silver Spring, Maryland. Michael realized he had outgrown his small Baptist church and changed his membership.
“I liked my job at the Commerce department but wasn’t sure I wanted to do it the rest of my life,” said Michael. “I heard a speaker at a conference say, ‘If you deepen your message, God will broaden your ministry.’ I felt God was telling me that he would use me in many different ways if I knew him better. When I enrolled in Capital Bible Seminary to learn more about God, I wasn’t planning to enter the ministry.”
When Michael started seminary, he met with the pastor of Forcey. “Michael,” said the pastor, “you will get your academic side in a class room, but you need to get your experience in a local church. You can get that experience at Forcey, but I will not ask you to get involved. You must ask me.” Midway through seminary, Michael formed several convictions. First, God’s heart encompasses more than the universal church that includes all Christians. Second, God strategically works not only through big churches but also through little churches. Third, God works in communities through local churches.
“As I studied the Bible and served the Lord, people acknowledged my God given gifts. I was open to God’s leading and constantly evaluating my life. Eventually, everything came together and convinced me to the core of my being that God had called me to be a pastor and given me the gift of a shepherd’s heart.”
By the time Michael graduated from seminary he had experienced every facet of a thousand-member church. Forcey created a new full-time position, and hired Michael. Two years later, he learned Dallas Theological Seminary was offering classes in Philadelphia. The faculty included some of the top pastors and academics in the nation. Michael enrolled to pursue a Doctor of Ministry based on a passage in Proverbs, “He who walks with the wise will be wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm.” Michael wanted to rub shoulders with the wise.
The other staff members at Forcey had their niche: counseling, Christian education, worship leader. Michael had the heart and passion of a pastor. His pastor nourished that gift by allowing him to preach Sunday nights and Sunday mornings when he was absent. He also allowed Michael to work with leaders in the operational side of the ministry when the church launched new ventures. By the time he finished his Doctor of Ministry course work, Michael was ready to be a senior pastor.
“Michael, don’t accept any church,” said his mentor at the Dallas Seminary. “Too many young ministers find themselves in a bad fit. I want you to meet with a series of counselors and mentors. Take a battery of test that will make you think through how God has wired you, and what would be the best fit for you.” Michael embraced his mentor’s wise counsel. After months of tests and counseling, Michael wrote a list of fifteen things that would make a church a good fit. Then he asked his wife, “What do you want my salary to be?” She quoted a figure. As a joke, he added it to the list.
Two years had elapsed when Michael received a phone call from Trinity Church in Covington, Louisiana. The pastor search committee had obtained Michael’s outdated resume from Dallas Theological Seminary. They wanted him to send an updated resume for their consideration. Within days, the committee reduced twenty-seven applicants to seven. A few days later, Michael’s phone rang. He was in the final three. They wanted him to meet with an FBI agent who was on their search committee. The meeting went well, and Michael soon found himself on a plane to Louisiana for a rigorous four day interview. As Michael processed the four days he had spent with Trinity Church, he realized they possessed every item on his list of fifteen things that would be a good fit for him as a senior pastor.
On the way back to the airport, he said to his wife, “Let’s find a community to see what it looks like.” He took the next exit off Hwy 190 and made several turns before he entered a subdivision they thought looked nice. Michael pointed to a house. “I would like a home like that one.” His wife nodded in agreement.
Several weeks later, Trinity Church called again. He had advanced to the final stage. Michael and his wife returned to Louisiana to meet the leadership of the church and congregation. This time Michael asked a realtor to show him houses. The realtor said, “I have a community I think you will like.” The realtor drove to the subdivision Michael and his wife visited and pulled into the driveway of the house Michael had pointed to.
“I can be pretty dense,” said Michael. “God really did not want me to miss this opportunity. He provided a church that fit fifteen out of the fifteen items on my list, and then he gave me the experience of the house, which we later purchased. Up to that point I had not mentioned compensation. All I wanted was to be where God wanted me to be. As long as I had enough to provide for my family, money wasn’t an issue. The chairman of the board quoted my salary at the end of my second visit. It was the figure to the penny that Donna had given me two years earlier.”
Trinity Church flourished under Michael’s philosophy of servant leadership. The staff grew from three to twelve as forty ministries blossomed to meet the needs of his congregation and to serve their community. He had served Trinity for a decade when he spent a year crafting a seventy page strategic planning initiative complete with graphs, charts and projections detailing Trinity’s new direction in ministry to commence September of that year. The leadership adopted and unanimously approved the plan three weeks before Hurricane Katrina changed everything. During the difficult months that followed the storm, Michael abandoned his strategic plan and learned how to “Bet the farm on God”. His Katrina experiences are documented in Disaster (Xulon Press 2011). His Grace Adventures of spreading God’s word to business, political and spiritual leaders led to his current position as State Chaplain with Capitol Commission.