From Broken to Blooming: Pastor Zach Szmara and The Bridge

May 15, 2017

Pastor to Pastor Interview

Zach Szmara has been pastor at The Bridge Community Church in Logansport, Ind., since 2012. During that time, a tiny, dying, monocultural church in a declining community has been transformed into a growing, multicultural, multilingual congregation that is a cultural center of its city and the hub of the largest Protestant-church-based network of legal aid for undocumented aliens trying to normalize their immigration status.

Pastor Zach Szmra

But this story of remarkable success followed a hard landing after serving on the mission field that left Zach and his wife, Lyndy, emotionally broken, their marriage hanging by a thread.

Zach, welcome to Encouraging Pastors.

Thanks, it’s great to be here.

Tell me about Mozambique. What was hard about it, and how did it end?

Well, let’s back that up a bit. I had been involved in overseas ministry for about 11 years. I’d done just about everything from leading short-term trips, to relief work in various countries, to doing theological education in Papua New Guinea. I was single during all of that time; Mozambique was our first assignment as a married couple.

I was doing church planting and mobilization in the northern part of the country. Mozambique has a nominally Muslim culture where women are pretty much excluded. And we’d just had a child. So while I was traveling a lot, working hard, really thriving, Lyndy was dying inside and I just couldn’t see it. To tell you the truth, I was more in love with the ministry than I was with God. By the time I was aware of it, it was to late to do anything but come home. We left the mission field because Lyndy was diagnosed with severe clinical depression. We basically came home to heal.

Talk a little about the re-entry.

It was the hardest season of my life, honestly. It’s a miracle that we’re still married and I’m still in the ministry. We were very hurt and broken. Our home church actually asked us not to attend for a couple of weeks while they figured out how to tell the congregation what was going on with us. That still hurts, actually.

Obviously things are better now for you both. How did that turn around?

I remember being a real jerk when we came home. I was thinking that I’d given up my whole ministry for Lyndy and there was no way I’d get over the resentment. I figured we’d never be happily married. I didn’t know yet that I actually do better in ministry when my wife is thriving. It took God showing us a place where we could both thrive and minister more effectively because of that season of brokenness.

When we look back on that time, just four and a half years ago, it’s amazing that God so fully redeemed us in a way we never expected. Lyndy’s doing well now, fully recovered. She’s an administrator in the local school system. Sometimes people go through a dark time and never really understand what happened. We’re fortunate in that we saw very quickly what God was doing in our lives, and we came to wholeness and healing. We’re so grateful.

So you were both pretty broken, and you went to a church that was basically dying. Does that make sense to you?

Actually, I had no intention of going to Logansport. I was lined up to plant a church in North Manchester, Ind. While we were preparing for that, the superintendent called and asked me to do pulpit supply in Logansport. I said I’d pray about it, but that was a lie. [Laughs.] I knew the place had a reputation for being toxic. The previous pastor had left midyear, and this was a last-ditch effort to keep the church from closing. I was going to call back and tell him I wasn’t interested.

But then a guy from the church called me and said, “I hear you’re going to be with us for a few weeks,” so I agreed go there and preach for two Sundays.

The first week was a disaster. There were 17 people there, not counting my family. I hated it. People later told me I looked like I didn’t want to be there. After preaching on the second Sunday, a Latino couple at the church asked if we would have lunch with them, and we did. When we walked out of that restaurant, Lyndy said to me, “We’re home.”

That must have been some lunch. What happened?

I think it was just being with that family. They spoke broken English, and we spoke Portuguese. Their children translated for us. But they just treated us like people. They welcomed us. We basically never left. There was no official hiring. We just moved into the parsonage and went to work.

I was called to ministry when . . .

I was five years old. Our house was filled with drawings of me (self portraits) standing in huts, holding a Bible. I always knew I wanted to be a missionary. My childhood hero was Jim Elliot. It took me a long time to realize that my calling was to peoples and not places.

Before we get into the turnaround story, say something to the pastor who is where you were in Africa—seeing that ministry is hard on spouse or family but blowing through the stop signs.

I learned that I’d much rather hear Jesus say, “Well done, you’ve loved your wife well,” than, “Well done, you’ve been a great success in ministry.” I still struggle with this because I just love the work. I work long hours because I like what I’m doing. But seeing my wife thrive is more important.

So how do you achieve that?

I listen. I try to follow through when she tells me the balance is tipping.

The change came when I saw that what Lyndy does is just as important as my ministry. She serves at-risk kids in our community. Even though it’s in the public schools, she’s every bit as much on the front line of redemption as I am.

In Mozambique, my wife knew the language and culture better than I did, but she was not allowed to participate in ministry because she was culturally excluded. The moment I realized that, it changed everything for me. She has tremendous talents, and I want her to thrive because it helps me thrive.

We hear a lot about pastor burnout, but you guys experienced spouse burnout. How common is that?

I think it’s very common on the mission field. I would guess at least half of our missionary families have at least one person on antidepressants and really struggling, but we don’t talk about it. I still believe in overseas missions, but I want people to know these dynamics. Missionary spouses shoulder a huge load and they should know what they’re getting into. I wish someone had told us this, but they didn’t.

Let’s go back to Logansport. You’ve been through a big turnaround there. Walk us through that.

When I got there four and a half years ago, the dwindling Anglo congregation had decided to allow a Hispanic congregation to use the building part-time. Seeing that the church wasn’t going to make it, the district stepped in and decided to merge the two congregations. That was about seven months before we go here. I wouldn’t have come up with that model, but I decided to embrace it.

So rather than being a white church that provided some ministry to Hispanics, we became fully multicultural. We sang in both languages, and the worship leader spoke Spanish so the English speakers had to adapt. We preached in Spanish sometimes and had English translation via headsets.

That sounds like a recipe for conflict. How did that go over with the Anglo congregation?

To tell you the truth, they didn’t have much fight left. The church was on the brink of closing, and I figured I had nothing to lose. If it closed, it wasn’t my doing. Most leaders left pretty quickly because they didn’t want change, but we attracted a lot of people, both immigrants and Anglos. We’re a church of about 100 now, and we’ve always had about a 50-50 mix of Anglos and immigrants.

Pastor Zach Szmara counsels a couple at Immigrant Connection

So how did the Immigrant Connection come about?

Logansport is an immigrant city. Of a population of about 18,000, about one third—6,000 people—are immigrants. At church one Sunday, someone asked me, “Can you pray that we find a better document forger?”

I was like, “Whaat?”

I found out that people were looking for pathways to normalize their immigration status, but they didn’t know what to do. I thought sure there would be a resource in the community, a legal center or something, but there was nothing.

About that time, I had a meeting with a few leaders in our denomination to talk about ways to serve immigrants. I found out that a nonprofit organization is allowed to provide low-cost legal services to immigrants after getting some training from the Department of Immigration. I decided to get the training and do it. We launched Immigrant Connection three years ago, and we’ve been able to serve over 1,000 immigrants from 67 nations.

So these are not all Hispanic immigrants from the south.

Oh, no. I’ve dealt with people from Czech Republic, Russia, Spain, pretty much all over the place.

How has the immigrant ministry impacted your pastoral work?

Well, the church has grown. About 85 percent of our growth is from unchurched people. I feel like I’m getting to use all of who I am in this work. The research, the legal issues, I love it. And I feel like I’m preaching out of the overflow of my walk with Jesus. I hope I never have to choose between immigrant connection and the pastorate. To me, it’s all the same thing.

From this little church, I’ve trained 120 individuals from various denominations to do this work in their own communities. We now have 14 sites with 19 people working. In the first 18 months we launched four sites. In the next 18 months we launched 11 sites. For the most part, these are small churches with bivocational pastors.

Why is this work growing so fast among smaller churches?

Usually we let the big churches innovate and we copy their success. That trickle down doesn’t apply here. Small churches can innovate much more quickly because there are no administrative layers to get through. With a big church, that can take years. If a small-church pastor or a key leader wants to do this, they can make a decision and go. Plus it’s a great fit for bivocational ministry. Immigrant Connection is a natural extension of the work pastors are already doing.

I think a lot of people would find social justice ministry intimidating. Has this been hard for you?

I think pastors need to be speaking prophetically on justice issues. I realized that the things my people are talking about Monday to Saturday are the very things I should be preaching about on Sunday. We may not agree on political solutions, and that’s fine. But I want them to think about it through the lens of Scripture, figuring out what Jesus thinks about it. I’m glad I can do that, and I hope other pastors will feel the freedom to speak about the tough issues we face.

Logansport is a declining community, 10 percent population drop in 15 years. What would you say to other bivocational pastors working in in that kind of context, perhaps with a declining population and membership?

I’d say allow the Holy Spirit to help you fall in love with where you are so that you see all the assets that this place has—and that your call is to activate the assets that are there so the kingdom can fully break in and come the community that Jesus wants.

I’ve been offered two full-time teaching positions since I cam here, which was my dream a few years ago. I turned them down. I love this city, and I love this church. This is where I want to be. Everyone warned me that it was toxic here, but I’ve seen what it could be. The church was supposed to close, but if you ask anyone around here they’ll tell you that it’s now a centerpiece of the community.

The site is about encouraging pastors. Anything you want to say to encourage a pastor today?

Yeah, it’s something I learned from a friend who took a sabbatical recently. He thought that experience would be about God dealing harshly with him, sort of stripping him down and building him back up. But he said, “I realized that God likes me. He loves me, of course, but he likes me too.”

I think pastors need to hear that. God likes you. He celebrates you. When you’re going through a dark night, Jesus is not at the top of the pit looking down. He’s there with you. God really likes you.


Resources

Contact Zach
The Bridge Community Church
Immigrant Connection

Lawrence W. Wilson

Twitter

I blog about pastoral ministry and issues affecting the local church. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.