The call to church planting, for me, has been in two phases. The first phase came when I initially decided to act upon my calling to enter into ministry. I was working as a middle school In School Suspension teacher’s aid and I was monitoring the hallways for students while taking a State mandated exam. Though keeping focused on the task at hand, I began to meditate on the direction my life was going. It wasn’t a lightning strike or a thunderous roar or even a student that was acting up that got my attention. Instead, I remember thinking that I needed to talk to my Pastor about starting a process that was several years in waiting. That would be the first step of my discernment journey.
It just so happened that my pastor was also my Dad. Some may now know him as Bishop Ruben Saenz, Jr., but to me he was Dad first and then my pastor. I spoke to him and he prayed with me and excitedly began to tell anyone who would listen that I was answering The Call! One of those who heard of my apparent good news was Bishop Joel Martinez. I would come to find out rather quickly that there was a new ministry in Harlingen, Texas that needed a young and culturally relevant pastor to follow a retiring pastor who had started Valley Praise along with some evangelistic lay people.
Within the course of three months, I was sent to licensing school and appointed as Lay Supply Pastor to FUMC Harlingen, TX with my prime responsibility being the growth of Valley Praise. In 2006, Valley Praise was an off-site worship service. We met at Gutierrez Middle School and we would unload and load a trailer each week for eight years. Over the course of four years, we grew from 45 to over 200 in weekly attendance with an emphasis on community involvement and a vibrant kids and youth ministry.
The second phase of my call to church planting came in the spring of 2010. I was at a New Church Leadership Institute in Fayetteville, AR and I felt the nudge of the spirit prompting me to ask our then Conference Director if I could be a church planter and if we could launch Valley Praise as a new church start. “We’ve never tried it with a Licensed Local Pastor, but it sounds doable,” was the response I heard. In just a couple of months we made preparations and procedures were followed and we became a new church start.
It is now October of 2016 and after two phases of new church work, I am blessed to say that we have a growing congregation of over 400 in weekly attendance. We experience baptisms and re-commitments of faith regularly and we have a growing number of kids and youth. We recently acquired the property to the east of our recently completed permanent facility and we are in the brainstorming stage of the expansion that will create more space for youth and children. Most recently, we have taken on our first campus in a nearby rural city and we are now one church with two locations. Worship at that campus will begin in January of 2017.
My call to new church planting has come more out of necessity than want. Valley Praise needed a young and culturally relevant pastor to lead the new ministry. Valley Praise needed to launch as a new church start so that to continue to grow and be fruitful and thus needed a planting pastor to oversee that project. I’d like to believe that God needed me and my lovely wife Iris, to serve in this capacity. The truth is that I needed church planting and without it, I may still be sitting on a chair in a hallway trying to focus on what to do with my life.