Michel Aguinaga, often known as Pr. Mitch, serves as the sole pastor at San Bernardino Spanish Seventh-Day Adventist church. He currently lives in the city of Victorville, CA with his wife Angie and his two kids Micah and Chloe. Pastor Mitch was born and raised in Los Angeles and has been working in Southeastern California Conference since 2014. He is passionate about
I saw it with my own eyes, and it broke me down. And after all that I witnessed, my ministry was never the same again.
I was in my first years of ministry, working as a ministry coordinator in two churches. They were difficult years because my life was everywhere: I was working full-time in insurance, I was actively pursuing a degree in theology, I had my preaching, teaching, and administrative responsibilities in the district, and I was tending to a young family – my wife and I learning how to raise a newborn and a toddler. Looking back, I’m unsure how I survived all that: I thank God for the miracle he worked through me. But as tumultuous as my life was, God had placed incredible people around me for support, which made all this manageable.
Among those who helped me get through this was my mentor – my lead pastor – the individual I credit the most for opening doors so that I could minister as I do today. I learned a lot from him. He was a good pastor. He had depths of experience, a resolute personality, and was wholly committed to the church and the flock. I remember the conversations we had in his office. We talked about church, leadership, and preaching; he always gave good advice, gave heartfelt counsel, and would never forget to give tough criticism.
We became good friends. We could spend hours talking about anything. Frequently our conversations turned to sports: We would discuss baseball, soccer, Los Angeles Lakers basketball. We even went to a Clippers game (I couldn’t afford a Lakers game) and an Angels game (the only baseball team mentioned in the Bible) and thought of going to a world cup game (which definitely did not happen). His wife became a mentor to my wife; I learned to appreciate his family. And we developed a close bond that helped me as a person and as a young pastor.
Church administration was always a divisive topic among us. He had his way of doing things, and, naturally, they were different from mine. We also argued a lot. We would have disagreements in board meetings and difficult discussions in elder’s meetings. In our one-on-one sessions, we would say what we needed to, even if it was tough to hear.
But what I appreciated most was his toughness and grit never got in the way of our friendship outside the meeting doors. We knew that church business was church business – and it was tough business – but it did not have to divide us as brothers in Christ. From him, I learned to take criticism; but take nothing personally. Roll with the punches, but never let the bruises define you. He was a good mentor, a good friend, and someone worth looking up to.
The Phone CallAnd then, a phone call changed everything. It was about 8:30 at night. My phone rang, and the caller ID identified my mentor as the caller. I answered as I normally would, expecting a typical phone call – preparation for the weekend, potential meetings we had to attend, things of the like. But as soon as I heard his voice, I knew things were not right. His greeting lacked energy. His voice sounded shaky. Nervous. Sad. I could sense he was fighting back the tears. “I’m calling to give you some bad news,” he said. “I have been diagnosed with cancer. And it doesn’t look good.”
A flurry of emotions fell upon me. I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. As he explained the symptoms he had been feeling, the doctor’s findings, and the confirmation of the diagnosis, I started feeling angry in my heart. I could hear him battling through the details as I fought my heart on what to say and how to react. As he began to cry, he quickly ended the phone call, perhaps in an attempt to hide his humanity and show the strength I had always observed. Left with my phone in hand, I fell to my knees, and in anger and frustration, I cried, “Why Lord? Why him? Why curse your anointed? How does this make any sense? After a life of service, you repay him with this? How is this fair? Why would this happen? Why…? Why…?”
That day was the beginning of my mentor’s tough battle with cancer. He sought the treatments and followed the doctor’s advice. He went beyond what the doctor recommended, changing his diet, lifestyle, exercise routines, everything. Surgery was not an option, so radiation was the treatment of choice. Time off was taken from the church. There were good days. There were bad days. But slowly, inevitably, his body began to wither. His vigor of life that we had all come to depend on as a church began to slip from his fingers. The body was losing, and there was little we could do.
I saw it with my own eyes. I dreaded every visit. I knew every time I would stop by his house; I would see a weaker version of the man I wanted to be like in ministry. It hurt me to see him losing this battle. It hurt me to hear him respond to my questions without the snappiness and wit I had experienced. I prayed for him. I prayed over him. At his request, I anointed him multiple times – I believe he was seeking the assurance of forgiveness. I would share words of encouragement, not knowing if they were of any help. I prayed tirelessly for healing, knowing deep inside that the inevitable was coming.
And after my last visit, two days later, he passed away. My mentor. My friend. My pastor…
I didn’t realize it back then, but everything I witnessed in his battle against cancer changed me. It changed me as a person, as a father, as a husband, and especially as a pastor. I was changed because I realized that in this life, even our superheroes bleed. We sometimes look up to great individuals – we naturally gravitate towards them – and we forget that they are human and deal with the same struggles and battles as anyone. We lift our heroes up, only to find out that our heroes can be brought down – whether through a mistake, a moment of weakness, lack of health, or even cancer.
What I saw with my own eyes as my friend and mentor battled through this cancer reminded me that we can only depend on Jesus, even as pastors. Through that experience, I had to accept that life is hard – Oh! It can be so difficult at times – and sometimes, the strength we portray as pastors to our church members can be taken away instantly. Human strength can only take us so far; we need divine strength, the courage of the spirit, the peace of God – all of it to face the immeasurable challenges of this world.
I learned how important it is to share with one another our burdens; to help others carry the never-ending weights of life. Sure, we can’t solve each other’s problems, just like I wasn’t able to heal my friend with my prayers. But we can be there for those who are struggling. We can admit that we are battling through life as well. We as pastors and ministers can appear more human to others – which instead of bringing down the efficiency and power of the gospel, becomes an opportunity to highlight the grace of God in our lives.
The greatest biblical leaders have learned this lesson. Paul had this battle himself, also with a debilitating physical illness or defect, the proverbial “thorn in the flesh” that would torment him. But when he pleaded for healing, Jesus responded:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-11, NIV)
This is the greatest lesson I learned throughout that experience – and this has been the greatest lesson I have learned in ministry. I am nothing without Jesus. I am weak without Jesus. I am lifeless without Jesus. But with Jesus – WITH JESUS – my life has purpose, meaning, courage, and strength.
As Ellen White once put it: “We do not go forth in mere human strength. Christ has promised, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” (MS 25, 1897)
I miss my friend. I miss the pastor I once knew and worked with. His passing was difficult to process. But even in death, I keep learning from that experience. And I look forward to seeing him on that glorious morning.
And when I see him, I will thank him; because his life changed me in more ways than he knows. And his death reminded me that even my weakness, there is strength, mercy and grace in our loving savior, Jesus Christ.
Christine Pitt is the Lead Pastor at the Costa Mesa Seventh-day Adventist Church in Costa Mesa California. She has the joy of sharing life with her husband, William Pitt, and their blended interracial family of four children: Josiah (7), Hadassah (9), Abigail (14), and Lucas (15). They celebrate life together with every home improvement project, chore chart, homework night and family vacation. After seven years of higher education and eight years in the field of ministry she has come to the life-giving conclusion that our purpose comes from journeying hand in hand with God.
Humility. Have you heard of this ethic? Throughout my life, I have been told that as a Christian, I need to be humble. As a Seventh-day Adventist, I need to be humble. As a woman, I need to be humble. In every use of this one word, there are different meanings. Humility as a woman has been taught to me as being quiet, listening more than speaking, not taking up too much space or too much of the conversation, and never being bold or confident about your abilities. But, make sure you are always pretty and eloquent in speech and try to make everyone else look good. Humility as an Adventist, I learned, meant being a good representative of Christ because how the world sees you will determine how they see God. I was told we cannot be aggressive or political about your beliefs. But still, I was told we have the monopoly on truth, and the world will only be saved if we share this particular version of the truth. And as a Christian, humility meant respecting authority and being a law-abiding citizen that does not question the law or our leaders regardless of how they are destructive and discriminatory.
Humility. In my journey throughout the many seasons of ministry, this word has haunted me. It motivated me to stay in a toxic relationship with a man who ensured I knew he did not love me. I was taught "An Adventist woman doesn't divorce," or "a Christian woman needs to love her husband back to her and overlook all the toxicity," or "if a woman is God-fearing and humble enough, her husband will love her again." I lived in this reality thinking it was love. I believed that loving someone meant enduring every painful moment in order to somehow “make” them happy with your silent tolerance. I remember this pressure from my home life matching the pressure from ministry. I felt the pressure to do bigger programs to attract more people to somehow “make” them happy. Support evangelistic series that taught, “salvation by the spoon” or join in the scorn of a woman fleeing an abusive relationship. Silence as humility is the virtue I was taught. This was the theology I was living in as a family stuck in a fishbowl for all to see and judge everything we did while trying so hard to hide the messy realities of life in hopes our "perfect" family tricked others to believe in the “Adventist Home”.
When this “fishbowl” was broken into pieces and I could no longer hide the mess, humility took on a different meaning. I spent two years trying to figure out if I could put together the pieces of our fishbowl and somehow reverse time to what I thought was "perfection." I had to finally realize my definition of humility, my theology, and my faith could not hold water in the face of the imperfect reality of life. As I sat in many moments of pain and uncontrollable crying I would demand God to give me back what I thought I wanted. I would “claim promises” and talk with God as if He owed me for my “holiness”. When I finally stopped demanding God to give me back the perfection I thought I needed, I discovered true humility.
Humility isn't silence. Humility is speaking out. Humility isn't endurance. Humility is change. Humility isn't protecting perfection. Humility is admitting the mess of life and seeking authenticity. Humility doesn't know it all. Humility is a willingness to learn just how much you do not know. One night, after a healthy and long cry with God, I finally listened to the only One I should have ever listened to, God. I heard the Lord say the words that cut me like a knife and helped me abandon this futile attempt to rebuild the broken fish tank. The Lord asked me, "Am I not enough?" All this time, I was trying to be enough. I was trying to be enough for my husband, enough for my kids, or enough for my church. All the while, I was saying to God that my Lord was not enough for me. In my attempt to reclaim what I felt I had lost, I was ignoring the growth and depth with God that the Lord had for me. Friends, let me tell you, if I had not allowed myself to change in my understanding of the Bible, the church, my relationships, and God, I would not be a Pastor today. I found a faith that holds water, a belief that said I didn't have to have all the answers, the world wasn't dependent on me to save it, and God is truly enough.
We are called to be bold in the faith but humble in our assumptions about God's work. We must live in the humble reality that we are sometimes very wrong and must be willing to grow and change as God grows and changes us. This is the confidence of transformation in Christ. In this journey with God I was able to leave an unhealthy relationship and humbly receive counseling and long hard moments of transparency with God and myself. I have been humbled enough to love myself and be honest about my flaws and toxic attractions. I have engaged in more authentic faith practice and ministry, giving permission for my congregation to be transparent as well. And by God’s grace I was humbled enough to start dating and be ready for the man my heart longed for in the right time and right season. We have four beautiful children and all the beautiful mess that comes with blended families and co-parenting. This journey is the one I know I can walk in, because I am finally being honest and journeying with my Savior who is enough.
Author - Jon Ciccarelli
January 28, 2021