Roger Poppen reflects on 20 years at Laurelglen
by Myra Holmes
Roger Poppen has pastored one of the larger Mennonite Brethren congregations, Laurelglen Bible Church (LBC) in Bakersfield, Calif., for 20 years, yet he doesn’t see himself as the kind of charismatic leader often associated with large churches. “I’m not a rah-rah, visionary type of leader,” he says. “I’m more of a steady shepherd, taking seriously the command to ‘feed my sheep.’”
He and his wife, Naomi, recently retired after 40 years of steady shepherding, including those last 20 at Laurelglen. According to Pacific District Conference (PDC) minister Gary Wall, that’s the longest lead pastoral run in the PDC at one church. LBC honored the Poppens with a farewell celebration Sept. 20, attended by 1,600 people.
When asked about highlights over two decades at LBC, Poppen has quite a list, starting with over 850 baptisms. LBC has been involved in church plants in Utah and in Bakersfield, both of which are flourishing, as well as a church plant to the deaf community within the LBC congregation.
Wall points out that during Poppen’s tenure, LBC has more than doubled in membership, constructed a new worship center, weathered significant challenges and developed new ways to reach out to their community.
But Poppen says the biggest highlight for him has been “teaching the Word of God in a way that ministers to the hearts of people.”
Indeed, he has a well-earned reputation as a Bible teacher. Wall says, “Roger is an amazing student of the Word. The people of LBC have received some of the most exceptional Bible teaching these past 20 years.”
Poppen’s approach is book-by-book expository teaching, which he says is more likely to produce biblically-balanced and healthy followers of Jesus than, say, a topical approach. “Someone has said that the advantage of expository teaching is that you have to address certain topics whether you want to or not,” he says, “and the disadvantage of expository teaching is that you have to address certain topics whether you want to or not.”
Poppen uses a method for study and sermon preparation that he learned in seminary, which discerns the timeless principles in a particular passage, then seeks to apply those principles to today’s world. “I am consistently amazed at how relevant the Bible is even for today when you use that approach,” he says.
Of course, two decades have brought challenges as well as highlights. As he talks about specific conflicts and about general challenges, Poppen comes back again and again to the importance of staying true to God’s Word. “The only thing that God has promised to use is his Word,” he says. “So we preach it, we live it, we model it as best we can as leaders and trust God for the results.”
Poppen says he sometimes wishes he were more of a visionary leader, but he recognizes that’s not his gifting. And he seems OK with that. “I have no regrets,” he says. “I’ve been faithful to how God created me, and I’m not sure that I would do it all that differently.”
Well, maybe he’d do one thing differently: “I would get my wife’s input on more stuff.” Poppen points to Naomi’s wit and wisdom as qualities he particularly appreciates. One way she has shown her support is by simply being present, sitting in the front row through multiple services each weekend for so many years.
Poppen says that it’s been rewarding to see LBC grow, mature and become increasingly involved in outreach over his long tenure. “I’ve been a blessed man,” he says, “and I’m not done yet.”
He and Naomi plan to take some time to rest, refuel and possibly relocate. Then he will pursue teaching and interim pastoral opportunities, staying true to his gifting as a teacher of the Word. He’ll still be that steady shepherd, taking seriously the command to feed the sheep.