In January, Dr. Ernie Frey preached the first in a series of 10 sermons on Genesis and the story of Abraham, who left his home and family to show his obedience to God.
Frey wasn’t just preaching to the Central Church congregation. He was preaching to himself and his family.
“Like Abraham, God is calling each of us to leave all so that we might be a blessing to all,” Frey told the 3,000-member Collierville congregation he has led since 2004.
“God’s call is radical and requires faith.”
By the time Frey preached the 10th sermon in the series, on the first Sunday in April, everyone in the sanctuary knew exactly what he meant.
That Sunday, as he stood alongside his wife, Anne, and their daughters, Morgan, Meredith and Madison, Frey announced that they were leaving their First World megachurch life and moving to Third World drought-prone Ethiopia.
“As hard as it will be to leave our Central Church family, I cannot ignore God’s strong call on our entire family’s life,” Frey said. Not that he didn’t think about it.
Anne wasn’t keen on the idea of uprooting their happy and healthy school-age daughters. Morgan was in her sophomore year in high school. Meredith, a sixth-grader, simply refused to discuss it. Madison, a second-grader, had lived her whole life in Memphis.
Frey had his own doubts.
He was 47 and had worked all of his adult life to get to this place and this position. He was the spiritual leader of a large, stable and influential congregation that encouraged and supported his evangelistic missions to 17 other countries. His wife and daughters were happy and healthy, thriving. They all enjoyed the comforts and conveniences of home.
“The big things were good,” Frey said, “and then you start to think about the little things, little conveniences of life that you will be giving up. Always having hot water and air conditioning. Crushed ice. I can walk down the hall and get a free Coke.”
Frey kept preaching on Abraham, kept asking the congregation the same questions he was asking himself and his family.
“Has God ever asked you to do something that seems impractical, illogical or impossible?” Frey asked the congregation on the last Sunday in March, the ninth sermon in the series.
“Has God ever asked you to give up something that is very important to you?”
His text that Sunday was from the 22nd chapter of Genesis, one of the most popular and perplexing stories in the Bible. In the story, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. At the last minute, an angel of the Lord intervenes and stops Abraham. It’s a story of faith and trust.
“We can obediently respond to God’s call because we are convinced that God will provide,” Frey preached.
He knows that to be true. Frey had followed God’s radical call before — most recently in 2001 when he left a Pennsylvania pulpit to take a lower-paying teaching job in Memphis and work on his doctorate. About two years later, Central’s longtime pastor, Dr. Jimmy Latimer, retired under a cloud of controversy.
Frey, who was attending Germantown Baptist Church, read about Latimer’s departure in the newspaper. “God told Ernie to come to Central. I’m glad,” said Rev. Terry Burnside, a church staff member for 27 years. “God told him to go to Ethiopia. I’m glad. I’m also sad for us, but I know he is doing what God has called him to do. Ernie’s heart for missions is his legacy.”
Frey’s heart for missions is a family trait. His great-grandfather was a pioneer missionary to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. His sister and brother-in-law have been missionaries to Ethiopia for more than 20 years. Last October, his brother-in-law visited Central Church with an Ethiopian evangelical church leader, who told Frey he was needed in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia, where Frey had taken his family a year before on a mission trip.
Ethiopia, where Frey had taken Morgan on a mission trip two years before.
Ethiopia, mentioned by name in some translations of the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis.
As Frye struggled with his decision, he kept preaching on Genesis and Abraham. His questions turned into answers.
“God will provide for the details of our obedience,” Frey told his congregation, and himself, in March. “Costly obedience always results in greater blessings.”
He knows that to be true. So does his wife, Anne. They had followed God’s call to Africa once before. In 1995, they moved to Kenya to work as missionaries. During the move, Anne’s luggage was lost along with her two-year supply of birth control.
Morgan, their first child, was born 10 months later.
In 1997, Frey, a native Texan, answered a call to lead a new congregation near Philadelphia. That’s where they had their second child, Meredith.
Madison, their third child, was born in Memphis.
The Freys aren’t expecting more children. They are expecting more blessings, especially for their children.
“Life here can be too focused on things and so rushed,” said Anne, who will teach art and music at the same international school her daughters will attend in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. “People in Africa are materially starved but spiritually rich. We want our children to experience that.”
Morgan, who has been profoundly affected by the joy of children she’s met in her three trips to Ethiopia, is thrilled to be going back. Meredith changed her mind after reading an inspirational book about a girl who became an evangelist after suffering a paralyzing accident. Madison recently baked cupcakes to raise money for a water well in Kenya.
Frey, who will train pastors and church leaders in Ethiopia, hopes their family mission will have an even greater impact on pastors and church leaders in America.
“Ninety-seven percent of the West’s Christian resources are used on those who already have been reached,” Frey said. “That doesn’t make much sense. God’s love is bigger than any ZIP code or church.”
Frey will preach his last sermon as Central Church’s senior pastor on July 1. He’s not sure yet what text he’ll use, but he could start with a question he posed back in January, when he started his sermon series on Abraham.
“What is going to get you from where you are to where God wants you to be?”