Connect Christian Church, where I’ve served as the pastor for over 9 years, has been on a unique journey. And that unique journey has taught us some unique lessons. I’ve been given the privilege to share a few of those unique lessons with you.
THE JOURNEY OF TRANSITION
I always tell people that our church really did it backwards. We left a building that we owned debt-free so we could become a portable church that meets in a hotel ballroom. If you know anything about the church world (and if you’re reading this, you obviously do), you know that this isn’t how it’s normally done. Normally, churches that start in a portable situation have a vision to eventually establish a permanent location. We did the exact opposite, which is why the word “unique” always comes to mind when describing our church.
When I came to our church back in 2006, I quickly observed what needed to change…EVERYTHING. The church was unhealthy, divided, and had plenty of negative history and baggage. So when I arrived, we immediately embarked on the journey of church transition. That journey culminated in a complete relaunch of our church – new name (we were formally known as Amelia Church of Christ), new portable location, new everything.
Now, I can honestly say that Connect is healthier than at any point in my time here. And it’s all because of God’s faithfulness and our willingness to take on the hard work of church transition. And as I look back on that journey, I see some things that we definitely did right and some things that we definitely did wrong. I’d like to share a few of those lessons with you.
NO LONE RANGERS
One thing that we did right was that we formed a rock-solid team. If you rewind a couple of sentences in this article, you’ll see that I said I wanted to share some things that WE did right and some things that WE did wrong. Not me. We.
Simply put, there are no Lone Rangers in church transition. Or at least, there aren’t any Lone Rangers for long. You simply can’t do the hard work of transition by yourself.
I was blessed; first and foremost, with a wife who supported the work we were doing 100%. In fact, Nicki is the only reason I’m still at Connect. When we were in the deepest, hardest part of the transition, I wanted to quit. In fact, I had even started writing my resignation letter in my head. The church was divided. The disgruntled crowd was getting louder and louder. And the attacks were getting very personal. I just didn’t think it was worth it anymore, and that all came out one night when I told my wife that I was done and I was going to resign. She responded, “You know that I’ll support you, but I also want you to know that I don’t agree with you. God isn’t finished with you here yet.”
She was right. And thankfully, I chose to listen to my wife’s wisdom instead of my own emotions.
I was also blessed with a leadership team that had my back, and vice versa. Our staff and elders were unified. We stood together. We fought together. We wouldn’t let people tear us apart, which is exactly what negative people always want to do: divide and conquer. But we simply refused to let it happen.
If I didn’t have such strong support around me, I wouldn’t be where I am today and Connect wouldn’t be where we are today. I reiterate this truth: there are no Lone Rangers in church transition. (Heck, even the Lone Ranger wasn’t truly alone. He had Tonto with him.) If you don’t have a team of leaders who are willing to fight and bleed for the vision…who are unwilling to let negativity or criticism take them off mission…don’t even try to transition a church. You might be the Senior Pastor, but that title doesn’t mean you can change a church singlehandedly. If you fight that battle alone, it will become a battle you can’t win.
So forming a strong team is something we did right. Here’s something we did wrong.
FOCUS ON THE FOUNDATION FIRST
One of the first things we should have done in the transition process was address the foundational issues regarding how decisions were made, how leadership functioned, etc. When I arrived at the church, I just started changing things, when what I really needed to do was focus on the core of how the church was structured.
For example, when I arrived, pretty much everything that happened in the church required a vote. That was in the bylaws. Our team didn’t address the problems with the bylaws until we were well into the transition process. And it became apparent that if the disgruntled people could win enough support, they could vote out all the transition work we had done. And that is precisely what almost happened.
It’s a day that I’ll never forget. We had a couple of leaders that were up for reelection, and I knew that this vote was going to be make-or-break for all the work we had done. In fact, I walked into church that day knowing that if this vote didn’t come through, I would have no choice but to resign. It was that big of a deal.
Thankfully, the church voted in support of our leaders and our transition process…by one vote. You read that correctly. Everything passed by one, single, solitary vote.
Looking back on that day, I like to think that God is the one who cast the deciding vote. But in reality, it demonstrated just how divided the church really was. (When you transition a church, prepare for the church to become more divided before it becomes more unified. That’s just the way it works.) And it showcased how close we came to losing the years of work that had gone into this process.
I hope this experience can be a teaching tool for other pastors and leaders. Don’t put yourself and your church into this kind of precarious position. Focus on the core structure of how your church is organized early on in the transition process, because that will be the foundation that will support all the changes that you need to make the future.
I’ll always be thankful that God pulled us through those days, despite our faulty foundation. But I can also promise you that we’ll never let anything like that happen again. We will make sure the foundation is secure before we build. Always.
By now, if you’re still reading this, I assume you are possibly considering a journey of church transition, or maybe you’re neck-deep in transition right now. If so, I have one more lesson to pass on, but it’s probably not one that you want to hear.
Whenever someone asks about how we transitioned a divided, inward-focused, dying church into a vibrant, outward-focused, living church, I always give what sounds like a very unspiritual answer. Just persevere.
However, this is actually an incredibly spiritual answer. In 1 Corinthians 13:7, Paul reminds us that love “always perseveres.”
If you love lost people enough to make changes so your church can actually reach them, you will have to persevere. Church transition isn’t fast, neat, or tidy. In fact, it’s a long, hard slog.
People who claim to wear the Name of Christ will attack you viciously, and personally. You will shed tears. You will lose sleep. You will be so angry that you can’t see straight. And you will want to quit.
You’ll want to quit when that negative person demands another meeting with you. You’ll want to quit when people leave your church…and not the people who you secretly hoped would leave. You’ll want to quit when you see other churches scoring big wins, while you feel like you’re just spinning your wheels.
When all of that happens, the only thing you can do is persevere. But here’s what I learned. Perseverance will pay off eventually.
THE PAYOFF OF PERSEVERANCE
The people who are poisoning the atmosphere of your church have been there a long time, and they’ve seen pastors come and go. With the average stay of a pastor now being under two years, they figure that you’ll be gone soon enough. But if you persevere, eventually they’ll learn that they can’t wait you out, and they’ll leave. And when they leave, their venom leaves with them. When this happens, your attendance numbers will look bad, but the health of your church will begin to look good. And in transition, health has to be the focus. Not numbers. The numbers will come once you become healthy.
The people who aren’t necessarily negative but just don’t seem to get it also need your perseverance. When we started our transition, I found myself surrounded by good people who just didn’t get it. And who could blame them? They had never heard a compelling vision of what the church could and should be. And the only solution was constant, consistent vision casting. It just takes time. But if you can persevere and keep casting that vision, they’ll eventually have that “ah ha” moment. And when they do, they’ll thank you for sticking around.
So persevere. The payoff will come. In our transition, I hung onto the promise found in Hebrews 10:36. “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.”
After 9 years, we are just beginning to see this realization. We still have a long way to go, but that just means that more perseverance will lead to more payoff. And I believe the exact same thing about your church.
I love the Church. You do, too. And as pastors and church leaders, we want nothing more than to see the Church flourish as the healthy, vibrant Body of Christ that God always wanted it to be. We want to see lost people become found people. We want saved people to serve people. We want the people of God to live in rich, authentic community. We want to make heaven more crowded.
The stakes are high in church transition. The cost is, too. But so are the rewards. So rally your team. Secure your foundation. And just don’t quit.
Judging from my experience, you have no idea what God has in store for you and your church!