BAXTER -- The announcement in the middle of the church service Sunday, some said later, was a bombshell that produced a shock like 9/11 for the congregation.
People attending Lakewood Free Evangelical Church in Baxter sat in stunned silence as it was announced that their senior pastor for nearly 12 years, the Rev. Randy Ahlberg, had resigned.
Elders announced in a letter to church members earlier in the week that Ahlberg was being placed on leave because of what they called "a personal crisis." On Saturday the elders received his letter of resignation.
Ahlberg was a dynamic speaker with a rich singing voice whose popularity was credited by many for turning the church just off Highway 210 into one of the fastest growing in the area. While the actual membership total was under 400, visitors swelled the church population to nearly 1,800 for the three services each Sunday. Church officials say nearly 2,000 people consider Lakewood their church home.
During Ahlberg's tenure the church went through four building programs. Fund-raising efforts are under way to add a multipurpose building that would offer room for a gymnasium as well as classroom and meeting space.
After the congregation sang a few hymns Sunday morning, the seven remaining pastors and members of the board of elders went to the church stage. Neal Gaalswyk, chairman of the board of elders, read the statement of the elders as well as Ahlberg's letter of resignation.
The elders' statement said that Ahlberg "acknowledged that this conduct has disqualified him from pastoral ministry here at Lakewood and he has resigned his position as senior pastor."
In his letter to the elders, Ahlberg said, "I am so sorry for my action for the devastating effect this has had on my wife, my family, my friends, my co-workers, this church and this community. I am so sorry."
After reading Ahlberg's letter Gaalswyk continued with the elders' statement, saying, "We believe Pastor Randy has demonstrated a broken heart and a repentant spirit. Therefore, while he cannot resume his role as our pastor, he should be forgiven by us as Christ has forgiven him."
The church held what was called a town hall meeting on the matter Monday night. Nearly 700 people attended. A prayer service is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday. And there will be another special service at 3 p.m. Sunday. The church picnic scheduled for Sunday has been canceled.
Throughout it all the church seeks to emphasize that Lakewood is not the elders' church or "Randy's church." The elders' statement said, "It was and is and always will be the Lord Jesus Christ's church."
Ahlberg relayed word through Gaalswyk today that he had no additional comments. But he said in a statement read at Monday's town hall meeting that he was not forced to resign by the elders "but by the standards of God."
Gaalswyk, in an interview today, said the elders "would prefer that this would be handled on a personal level and within the church. But if there are those who are concerned we would hope that they would raise Randy and the church up in their prayers.
"The goal here is forgiveness and restoration. Randy has been preaching grace and restoration for 12 years. I think we've taken that message to heart.
"Randy has had a great ministry and he's touched a lot of people's lives."
Monday's meeting indicated widespread support for Ahlberg.
In a sermon several months ago he spoke of the higher level of standards for pastors and elders, saying they were higher than the standards for members and those who attend the church.
Gaalswyk said Wednesday is to be a day of fasting and prayer before the 7 p.m. service. He said the focus of that service will be on "who God is, what He wants us to be, how He wants us to live and how Lakewood can continue to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ."
Lakewood Free Evangelical Church members were shocked about five years ago when their youth pastor, the Rev. Doug Aspre, was killed in a plane crash.
Saying that tragedy enabled the church "to draw closer together," Gaalswyk said today, "We've lost a senior pastor now. But I believe we're going to be stronger as a result of it. We just need to be faithful."
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