Josh Howerton: A Hurricane of Grace—Part 2

josh howerton

“In eternity, our best fruit will likely be growing on other people’s trees.”

Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Josh Howerton talks about being a third-generation pastor, the difficulty of leaving friends at a thriving church to follow God’s call to Lakepointe, and taking over as lead pastor just as the pandemic hit.

I’m sure that this partnership and momentum was a significant relief—especially since you walked through a particularly difficult inner time. You’ve blogged very transparently about your struggle with serious anxiety. Tell us about that.

My world fell apart. I know that sounds melodramatic, but it’s true. I do not have words to explain how painful that experience was. If you’ve experienced such a time, you’ll understand. If you have not, you just won’t.

In hindsight, I was moving too fast to be emotionally aware of what was happening in my soul during the transition from The Bridge to Lakepointe. Jana and I grieved when we left, but I see now that our mentality was glib, superficial and, I think, biblically naïve. Our mentality was foolishly that we were going to be like David at the death of his son. Cry for a little while, but when we drive to Texas, we’d get up, wash our face and set our face forward. That would be it. That’s a great idea, but there are 150 Psalms for a reason. You don’t get to be done with real grief in a day. 

The result was that I drove to Texas with a reservoir of trapped grief inside of me. I did not realize it was there. I was moving too fast to be aware of it, and it was easier to keep moving than to deal with it. On top of that grief, I felt tremendous pressure. I was afraid of being a letdown. For real, I believe Steve Stroope is one of the greatest pastors our country has ever had. That may sound grandiose, but I think it’s true. Now I have to follow this dude? Very frankly, I didn’t think the congregation would like me. Do I have what it takes? Am I going to be the sacrificed pastor? All of these things are flying through my mind. I had left a staff containing my three best friends to move 800 miles away from every friend and family member I have—all of these things collided inside me. But I just kept moving.

That is until March 2019. I was preaching on worship, when, right in the middle of the sermon, I felt something. My gag reflex started triggering. Then my throat closed. My feet started tingling. I started feeling a very intense sensation in my chest and began sweating profusely. I didn’t know what was happening. I tried to pass it off as a coughing fit. I had to ask Jana, who was sitting in the front row, to bring me a mint. I now know that the mint helped me because it was centering for my mind and body, allowing me to focus on another sensation than what I’d later identify as an anxiety attack. 

The attack was bad enough on its own. But what flashed through my mind in that moment was, I’m getting ready to humiliate myself in front of 15,000 people. As you may know, when someone experiences an anxiety attack, your amygdala—containing the fear control center of the brain—essentially takes a snapshot of your surroundings to send a signal to your nervous system that anytime you’re in those same surroundings, you respond with flight or fight. This is not safe. Run away. 

So you—a preacher—imprinted on preaching as a threat? 

That’s exactly what happened. 

What a nightmare.

Literally. To have a panic attack in the middle of preaching—God allowed one of my deepest fears to come true in that moment. I’ve literally had recurring nightmares about something like that happening ever since I had started preaching. Then it happened.

But I didn’t know that’s what had happened. I finished the message and honestly didn’t think much about it. I made it through. But then for the next week I could not think about anything else. It’s going to happen again. And it got worse. Soon I could barely have normal conversations without my gag reflex triggering. What is happening to me? I wondered.

I flew off to Los Angeles later that week to interview a potential staff member. In my hotel that morning, I woke up with the same thing, gag reflex closing my throat, my heart pounding. I’m in pretty good shape, but when I started putting on my socks, I didn’t even have enough breath to put on my second sock without stopping. In that moment something inside of me broke. I started weeping uncontrollably. Like sobbing for 40 consecutive minutes, and I couldn’t have told you what I was crying about. I could barely put together a coherent sentence. 

I was supposed to preach that weekend, so I called Pastor Steve. I was not in a good mental place and simply said over and over, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Something’s broken inside of me. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He didn’t know what I was talking about, but eventually he calmed me down. I explained what was happening. “You’re probably going to have to find somebody else. I can’t preach.” 

“Hey,” Steve said, “you don’t have anything to apologize for. Josh, you didn’t choose this. And you don’t get to apologize for things you didn’t choose. I’m with you. We’re going to make this work. I’ll preach this weekend. You rest. We’re going to make it.”

I called Jana and caught her up on what I was experiencing. Then over the course of the next year or so, I saw a panic specialist who diagnosed me with acute generalized anxiety disorder. And while there were many different stressors that contributed to it, the core of the issue was this: If you don’t let grief out in a straightforward way, it will come out sideways. My grief had come out sideways by hemorrhaging anxiety. Over a fair amount of internal work, I had to go all the way back and grieve all the losses of leaving The Bridge that I’d never really acknowledged. Until I did that, I knew I was going to stay in that place of anxiety. 

My heart is heavy for what you suffered, but your honesty is beautiful. Once some of those realizations had been made, what came next? I expect your story possibly will validate experiences for some of our readers who are struggling, perhaps deeply, with similar challenges.

First, the number of pastors who have similar experiences is exponentially larger than I had ever realized. I found that there are tons of pastors who have had anxiety attacks while preaching, many of them wondering if it was the end of their career. That’s a large group. And it includes—for lack of a less annoying phrase—some very high-profile pastors. 

But to answer your question in a straightforward way, I’m genuinely past the panic attacks. There was a time I did not think that would have been possible. Occasionally—maybe once every three to four months—just before I preach, my throat will tighten. But I’ve had enough experiences of the faithfulness of God that I can tell myself, Bro, you’ve probably preached 200 times since that happened. He’s been faithful every time. You’re going to make it every time. It’s not an issue anymore. 

But that did not happen overnight. It was an 18-month process of gradually diminishing anxiety waves as I dealt with the root causes of the attacks. 

Again, thank you for your generous transparency with this story. Now let’s return to your leadership during COVID-19. You were set up well to be successful, partly because you and Steve bore the pressures together. But I imagine there were still significant milestones from that time. 

As Spirit-filled, godly leaders, of course we experience fear, pain and loss in a time like COVID-19. Fear is always going to see a crisis, but faith has a way of seeing opportunity. In our case, we felt that Dallas was about to have needs they’d never had before. I know a lot of people hate big churches, and I have a lot of thoughts on that. But what is true is that, if stewarded well, big churches can make a big difference for their communities.

Lakepointe has been blessed financially. Proverbs says something to the effect that in the storehouse of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a fool spends all he has. We know storehouses are where people stored grain for times of famine. We felt that God had blessed us with storehouses that were full of resources, and that the time had come not to hoard them, but to open them, to try to meet every imaginable need this city had, so that when the crisis was past, people would remember a church that loved them. And so we stepped into every imaginable need we could. 

Early on, we were on a phone call with the governor of Texas to try to find ways to help. One of the greatest fears were all the children and elderly who were dependent on government-sponsored food programs that the pandemic would affect, so we stepped heavily into meeting that practical need. We worked hard to say yes to any true need that came to us as a benevolence request. 

We reached out relationally. Depending on how you count, 40,000 to 60,000 people call Lakepointe Church their home, whether they attend ever or not. We got on the phone and made personal phone calls to every single person on our lists, twice. We catalogued prayer requests, visited elderly shut-ins, delivered food to people who didn’t feel safe going to get groceries for health reasons. Pardon the slang, but we freakin’ got at it. That paid massive dividends both during and after. We showed up.

And we did our best to share. One thing I’m proud of is how our tech team gave their expertise away. A lot of smaller churches were not prepared for church to move online. We were like, If any church in the Dallas area needs help figuring out church online, or you need to record your message for your church, if you can make it to Lakepointe, our tech team will help. We’ll record it, edit it, give you the file and help you figure out how to broadcast it to your people. Because in order to reach Dallas, it’s going to take more than us. It was very openhanded, and I think the Lord blessed that, and it opened people’s hearts to something bigger than any of us. 

The missional emphasis of meeting needs is powerful. If I can meet somebody’s needs, it’s going to open their heart to receive what I have to say. That has been in Lakepointe’s DNA from Pastor Steve forever. COVID-19 reinforced that.

For instance, when we had a big freeze here in Dallas where we lost power, we almost immediately set up a significant financial reserve partnered with two plumbing companies. And we said, “If you meet any low-income people with burst pipes who can’t afford to fix anything in their house, we’re going to pay for it. Pay for it out of these reserves. Lakepointe is going to do that.” That was a direct result of the strategy and culture we’d cultivated during the pandemic.

Did any definitions of ministry success change for you during that time?

This is probably not the right answer, but no. Our vision is clear. What we are called to do is help people know God, find freedom, discover calling and make a difference. So the “win” didn’t change, but how we accomplished the win radically changed. In fact, everything about how we accomplished that vision radically changed. But success was the same. 

What’s on the horizon for Lakepointe right now? 

Someone on our staff said that we feel like a kite caught in a hurricane of grace. That’s well said. We are riding a unique, Spirit-given momentum right now. Regathering has gone exceptionally well. These past months have witnessed the greatest salvation harvest season that we’ve ever seen as a church. 

But in that momentum, two things are being birthed in my heart. The first is the Strategic Launch Network for our church planting. With the increasing secularization of America, I feel like when I’m dead and gone, and when every person currently a member of Lakepointe is dead, the thing that will probably make the biggest difference in eternity might not be at this church or even in Dallas. It’s probably going to be churches that Lakepointe Church planted. In eternity, our best fruit will likely be growing on other people’s trees.

So right now we’re being very intentional about leveraging the momentum we have for church planting in secular cities. And we want to scale that up about tenfold in the coming years. I am very excited about growing Strategic Launch Network and simply planting lots of churches.

And that brings me to the second thing that gets me excited for the future. You probably know the stats—everyone keeps talking about how evangelicalism is collapsing in America. The problem right now is not that the church is going away. The crisis is not that there will be no churches. The crisis is that there won’t be enough people to lead these churches. It’s exactly what Jesus said. The harvest is plentiful. We’re not going to have a harvest problem. The issue is that the workers are few. We’re going to have a leader problem. If we can get leaders, God will bring the harvest. 

With this in mind, we are starting to develop an intentional, and highly resourced strategy to build some in-house school of ministry that raises up people that we hope can become the next generation of pastors and leaders for the church. 

We are very excited.

From Outreach Magazine  Randy Frazee: Macromanage From Mission