Considering that it is time for me to leave NWBC, I thought that I would reflect for a few moments on the past five years and all that has happened. Consider this post to be my memoirs for the past five years, and it is therefore HUGE! 😉
Five Years Ago
Five years ago, Jen and I were just back in Denver from a week long trip candidating at Northwest Baptist Church for the job of pastor. I had preached on December 13, and that afternoon, the church voted unanimously to hire me. When we got home that night from the airport, we had a voicemail from Connie Hockersmith briefly mentioning the unanimous vote and asking for me to call back.
I remember thinking that was a rather interesting turn of events for two reasons. First, according to those I spoke to, the church wasn’t unified on anything and a unanimous vote was really out of character for the church. On that note, it really seemed to be the leading of the Holy Spirit in the voting.
On the other hand, it was ironic because just a couple days before the vote took place, one of the church members asked me what the vote would have to be in order for me to take the job. I remember saying between 80% and 99%. Without really thinking, I said that anything less than 80% would be too low for my leadership to be effective and that I would be cautious if the vote were 100%.
I still remember being surprised at my own statement that I would be concerned if the vote were 100%—in hindsight, I think it was a prompting by the Spirit—and I saw a look of surprise come over the face of the church member who asked the question. He asked what I meant, and I formulated an answer that in any situation as complex as a church, if a pastor receives 100% of the votes, then someone doesn’t fully understand the situation. Perhaps there was some misunderstanding between the pastor and the people. Perhaps there was some coercion going on behind the scenes. Perhaps the people just heard what they wanted to hear. At any rate, in a situation like the change of leadership of a church, it is impossible to fully please everyone, and if 100% approve of a new leader, the chances are good that they aren’t being honest or they aren’t understanding the consequences of their decisions.
I stand by that statement. It was made quickly and off the cuff, but I still think it is accurate. In particular, I tried my hardest to scare the pants off the people of NWBC before I ever came. In my two visits to the church (once to interview and again to candidate before the congregation), I went out of my way to threaten the status quo of the church. My wife likes to remind people that I had asked them what they would do if I suggested putting a bowling alley on the roof of the building and that they said they would be willing to do it if it would help reach the neighborhood.
Well, the call was unanimous, 100%, and after some prayer, Jen and I decided to take it.
The First Year
My first year as pastor was so incredibly packed with new experiences and trials that I still marvel at it.
I remember making a conscious effort to keep my hands out of the operations of the church. I avoided the meetings of the Council of Stewards (the main leadership team at the time) in an attempt to show faith in how those people had been leading. Instead, I had a couple “Vision” meetings with the Stewards and the members of the Pastoral Cabinet (the secondary board of the church). In those early meetings, I shared my vision for a church that would be based on four core values: Worship, Community, Growth, and Ministry. We talked about what discipleship really means and what the church needed to do differently. We also set some plans in motion for a “Grand Reopening” in the Fall. By May, I was regularly attending the Stewards meetings.
My strategy at that point was to treat the church like a church plant, and I began to invest myself in the forming of a core group of people who would be the driving force behind the new life of the church. I called that group, “True North” and we met once a month through the summer to go over the core values of the church one by one.
To coincide with the themes covered at True North, I also prepared a series of messages I called “Under Construction” to deal with the core values more in depth on Sunday mornings.
The first theme we covered was worship, so I planned not only to teach on worship during True North and preach on it during the service, but also to work directly with the worship team to bring the level of our worship services up a notch in quality and effectiveness. I asked the worship leader …
The month of May will be a month focusing on worship as a core value of the church. Because of that, I want to use May as a building month for the worship ministry—helping it to become better and better. Is there any way I can be a help to you specifically for May?
If you don’t mind, I would like to use May as an opportunity for open and constructive criticism of our worship service. Does that seem like a good plan to you?
The first Sunday of May was led by our secondary worship leader, and I sent this email in response:
Michelle, thank you for the worship music this last Sunday. I think your selection of songs was sensitive to the tone of the service and appropriate for the message.
The only points of CONSTRUCTION I would make are these:
At some point during the service, quite a large number of people sat down.
During the singing, the only real up-beat song was “Hear O Israel”
- We have spoken before about wanting to have the freedom for people to stand and sit as they so desire. However, I think the church isn’t ready for that yet. Freedom to stand and sit is predicated upon people feeling free to worship God how they want. I don’t think our congregation has that kind of worship freedom yet.
- Why do people sit down? Since our congregation is not sitting and standing and doing other body movements that demonstrate a bodily freedom in worship, the only reason for them to be sitting is that they are tired either emotionally or physically. In other words, their energy tanks were depleted–they couldn’t make it up the hill. This could be because the only real up-beat song in the mix was, “Hear O Israel.”
- What’s the community effect of some sitting and some standing? In our context, when some sit and others stand, community is broken. Those standing worry about why others are sitting. Those sitting are wondering about those standing. This kind of distraction not only pulls people away from worshipping God, but it also pulls people away from each other. It breaks the unity. Perhaps there is coming a day when such diversity of body postures will not break unity, but I think it is still coming.
- Logistics. When some sit and others stand, the sitters can’t see the words on the screen. We have to make sure they have all the words memorized, or we have to provide lyrics on song sheets if we want some to sit and some to stand. Additionally, the act of sitting creates a stir that can be a logistical distraction to other people.
I think the individual songs selected were all beautiful songs. Michelle, you are very good at picking sensitive and beautiful songs that work together to create a contemplative mood.
One of two things need to happen. Either, the energy tanks need to be filled more at the beginning with at least one strong, rhythmic song and one transitional song, or the people need to be directed to sit down at some logical point.
Thank you both for your tireless efforts at this very important ministry!
The second Sunday of May was led by our main worship leader, but it was very nearly a musical disaster. I recall the music taking nearly 40 minutes. It was mostly slow stuff that I didn’t know. Worst of all, I actually remember one family getting up and leaving in the middle of it!
I sent two emails…
Connie, I wanted to thank you for showing a sensitivity to the “worship mountain” we talked about some weeks ago. I really could tell that you were striving to balance the energy out so that people could worship.
I have some comments to make, but I need to leave for a meeting in 3 minutes, so I will formulate my comments in an email later today or tomorrow.
I would like to get feedback from you. How do you think things went on Sunday?
Additionally, I just remembered that you both have been leading worship for quite some time without any real break–and enduring a lot of emotional strain. Would either of you appreciate having a sabbatical of some kind. If so, I would be interested in exploring the idea and talking about our options…
Now, this is the second email I sent. I’m quoting the whole thing here just because it was the start of a world of trouble.
Well, it appears I do have some time after all…
Again, Connie, I just want to thank you for the effort you put into this last week’s service. I could tell you were concerned with the emotional plot of the service, and I commend you on that.
I also want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to provide words of construction. I know you have been through the wringer of much criticism over the years, so I imagine you must be feeling somewhat tentative about opening the door for the “new guy” to come in here and offer up even more criticism. Thank you for taking the risk with me.
This last week, every response card said something about the music going on too long. (One card was annonymous, so I threw it in the trash.)
PAT ——, former steward of worship said, “Way too much time devoted to singing; the musicians on stage are into it much more than those in the congregation. Worship has become one-dimensional.”
One response card said this: “THE PEOPLE BEHIND US LEFT!”
Please, do not take this as personal criticism. Some of the cards I have disregarded as from people who regularly attend other churches. Pat’s comment was not intended to be a personal attack, and I don’t know what she really meant by “one-dimensional.” Maybe she meant, “The worship ministers to them, but not to the rest of us.” I don’t know. At any rate, I only mention the cards to say that there was a sense of discomfort this last week.
I think there are a few things that detracted from worship this last Sunday. I don’t think 45 minutes of singing is necesarily too much singing. Maybe it is too much for a Sunday morning, but it is not necessarily so. So what are these people trying to say?
The emotional plot hit a plateau. The energy level of the music rose relatively sharply in the first couple songs, but then it tapered off and was on a plateau for the rest of the time. I say “plateau” because each song seemed to have the same emotional quality as the song before it. I don’t have the list of songs to make references to the particulars, but from song #3 through to More Love, the tempos, dynamics, and rhythms didn’t change.
I think when people complain about the song time going too long, they really mean that the length didn’t seem to have a point to it. They are trying to describe the sense of emotional plateau which says, “Why keep going? I’m already there.”
Some songs made reference to unfamiliar or distracting metaphors. The most confusing of all metaphors is from Psalm 24:7
PS 24:7 Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
PS 24:8 Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.
PS 24:9 Lift up your heads, O you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
PS 24:10 Who is he, this King of glory? The LORD Almighty—he is the King of glory.
I think this is an incredible passage describing the glorious and victorious return of our Lord; however, the first line is just absolutely unintelligible to most everyone. Even commentators don’t know what is supposed to be meant by that metaphor. Why is the psalmist telling gates and doors to be lifted up, and why does he speak of the gates as having heads? It just doesn’t seem to make sense. Simply put, the metaphor doesn’t communicate much. If I did a sermon on this passage and clearly laid out what the metaphor is supposed to mean, then the songs which refer to it might have meaning for our congregation, but they still wouldn’t mean anything to a visitor walking through the doors for the first time. I think if you look at the song selections for the last few months, you will find that this metaphor has appeared at least three times in different songs. You might want to dialogue with me about it some, but for the time being, let’s avoid it.
The accusation of too much singing can be a result of frustration that the song didn’t communicate or connect with the person.
The children were in the service. Ordinarily, this isn’t a problem for us, but this last week, the combination of the previous two factors with the 45 minute time-span meant that the kids were beginning to get restless. Restless kids make for frustrated parents at worst and distracted parents at best.
There was something strange about the rhythm of Jesus, Lover of My Soul. It went, “Jesus, Lover of my soul… (Da-Dum) Jesus…” That Da-Dum in the middle, was not rhythmically correct. It just happened wrong somehow.
Finally, I have sincere misgivings about the song More Love, More Power. I think it is theologically suspect. The Bible is clear that we don’t need more of God; God needs more of us. I personally think the song is emotionally and musically powerful. The words, however, do not communicate what we should communicate.
I commend you for putting so much effort into planning according to emotional plot-flow. I could tell you were working from that frame of mind. Additionally, I appreciated your use of pauses for reflection. That was very effective. You also had us sit down at an appropriate time, and that helped keep people focused.
I think it would be neat if you were to coordinate with Ruth Carlson to finish playing the prelude at about 10:25. If the worship team is on stage and playing at 10:25, it cheats an extra 5 minutes into the service, and it also helps motivate people to be there on time.
For the sake of my sermons, people’s stomachs, and other stuff, let’s make 10:55 the latest ending time for the music time. That gives you a full 30 minutes to play with. If you want to do a special worship set that lasts longer than 25-30 minutes, then let’s talk about it and coordinate it together.
Could you make a XEROX of the song list for me each week so that I have a reference point both before and after the service to think about the music time?
Finally, I really feel a need to know what the church repertoire is. Is there some way I could get my hands on the master music or a copy of each song or something?
Sorry this has been so long. Allow me to say one more thing.
Thank you again for your participation in the meeting on Saturday. However, I must say that I was disappointed to hear you tell me on Sunday that you thought “nothing was accomplished.” I really feel that leaders in a church have to be the optimistic ones. I am asking you to go beyond what feels natural to you and look for the best in Jun. I’m sure we will talk about this more…
In His Service,
The end of the email was referring to a meeting I had mediating some differences between the two worship leaders and another member of the worship ministry.
In retrospect, I am completely aware that my email could have been more effective and less hurtful had I communicated the information in a face to face meeting. Regardless, I sent it as an email and it set off a chain reaction of events that resulted simply in that worship leader leaving our church.
She was the chair of the search committee that brought me to the church, and she was the first to leave.
The rest of the year continued to be a struggle between my attempts to infuse some new life into the church and being challenged by people in the church who were unsatisfied with one thing or another.
By the time the first summer was over, we had two or three small groups going, a worship team that was performing rather well together, a core of people excited about the future of the church, a number of new families, a few brand new Christians, some rededicated Christians, a Grand Reopening Task Force that was putting together the October Grand Reopening Events, and we had transitioned to the Firstfruits model of taking offerings (one offering per month encouraging people to tithe).
However, by September, one member of the Council of Stewards was opposing my ordination, one member of the Pastoral Cabinet had lost his wife to cancer and I was preparing for my first funeral, the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center had shaken us all up, and I was on bad terms with the church’s sound technicians.
The Grand Reopening went off very well, but we didn’t get many people responding to our direct mail postcards. Nevertheless, I started preparing for the new year when I was planning to launch my first basic discipleship class. I wrote the curriculum throughout the summer and fall, and we started taking registrations in December for the ReNEW class!
I was so excited. The class was well attended. My wife had stayed up the whole night before the class with our neighbor putting the curriculum books together while I got some rest for the next day.
The very next day after the class was our annual report meeting, and everything went well. I proposed to the church that we reorganize our “Discipleship” and “Evangelism” programs into one effort simply called “Growth.”
However, at the end of that meeting, the moderator of the church gave the floor to her husband who proceeded to stand in front of the congregation and tell them all that I was a bull in a china shop trying to change the constitution and teaching what was both unconstitutional and unbiblical. He went on for what seemed like 15 minutes. Then the meeting was adjourned and I told him I needed to speak to him in my office.
That started a series of meetings that led to the church hiring a professional counselor to serve as a mediator. In the end, the man and his wife left the church.
That process really hurt on a personal level, but what hurt the most was that the church didn’t operate as a church. I was convinced that we should have followed the biblical principles of forgiving grievances and restoring people from sinful behavior, but that’s not the way the church operated. Instead we brought in a mediator to try to draw some resolution.
I was angry at that, but I simply decided to propose to the Stewards and Cabinet that it was time for us to reconsider our constitution and bylaws in an effort to see that personality conflicts like that would be dealt with in a healthy manner.
The Second Year
Compared to the first year, the second year is almost a blur. However, some key things happened that year (2002).
Throughout the second year, there was a great deal of optimism and excitement among the people in the church. Even in the midst of the relationship mediation process, I got emails like this:
Everyone I talk to is convinced that God is doing and/or preparing to do great things at Northwest, and that the enemy is working overtime to distract us from hearing His voice.
Trying to capitalize on the optimism together with the extreme frustration with how the mediation process went, I proposed to the Stewards early on in the year that we needed to revise our constitution and bylaws to make sure conflicts would be taken care of in a healthy and biblical manner. I met with one of the members of my Pastoral Cabinet a couple times to hash out the details of the proposal in general terms and to come up with a tactic for presenting it to the Stewards.
The basic idea was that we would suspend the operations of the current constitution and bylaws (that is, remove the Stewards and Cabinet) for the period of one year and vest the leadership of the church in a body to be called “The Leadership Team” that would handle all the day to day decisions of the church as well as embark on a study of Scripture to determine the best ways to structure a church according to biblical principles. The Leadership Team would be selected by me but approved by the congregation.
I called a joint meeting of Stewards and Cabinet members, and I shared with them my plan. Their response was immediate and very negative. I can’t recall a single person who was in favor of the idea, but worst was that I saw and heard a great deal of discomfort and even fear among them. As a result, I backed off a little and said that we could accomplish the same goal as my proposal if we were to simply take a different perspective on how the leadership of the church was to operate.
There was a collective sigh of relief, and it was clear that would be the direction we would take. I wasn’t really concerned because I actually thought doing it that way would be just as effective in the long run.
Little did I know what was coming!
Not too long after I had made that proposal (in April, 2002), I got an email from the chair of the Pastoral Cabinet asking me if I would be willing to personally elaborate on my ideas for how a church should be structured. Knowing that he had already read my Doctrinal Statement and my Philosophy of Ministry, I had no hesitation in replying to him in detail.
His email to me…
I’ve been thinking a lot about your proposal to work without a constitution or by-laws. I know you haven’t made this proposal without a lot of consideration yourself. I’m just wondering if you could do an exercise for me. Usually when someone proposes something as radical as redoing the structure of an existing organization, they have a nascent idea, however foggy, swirling around in the back of their mind. I wonder if you could outline for me what you’re thinking about as a replacement for our current structure. It doesn’t have to be too detailed, but I do reserve the right to come back at you with questions designed to probe whatever concepts you outline for me, okay?
How astute! Yes, I usually propose things with a “nascent” idea in my head of what the end should look like. Thanks for asking.
Okay, are you ready for this?
To be completely honest, I think that the proposed “temporary” scheme will likely be attractive enough to the congregation that they will want to implement a type of it on a permanent basis.
In other words, my ideal scheme for church government (as I see it now, without going through a process) is something like the following:
A church should be governed by a rather small team of men who have not only the spiritual gift of leadership but the call of God on their lives for churchwide leadership. These men will be pastors in their own right whether paid staff members or not with their primary concern being to shepherd a rather small flock, training them for works of service, and discipling them to disciple others.
Nevertheless, in this team there should be one man who serves as the lead pastor who is supported full time by the church and whose responsibilities should be focused on preaching, teaching, study, prayer, and shepherding specifically the team of leaders and together with them a small flock of the congregation as well.
As a whole this team would fulfill the biblical role of pastor/elder/overseer and the lead pastor would also fulfill the biblical role of apostle/pastor. There would be no term limits on such positions of leadership but there would be significant requirements for qualifying for and for staying in such a position.
Alongside this team, there MAY OR MAY NOT be a second group of people who’s primary concern is to meet practical needs within the congregation–meeting those needs will be largely a person to person operation, but as the church grows, some of those needs might be organizational in nature (this group fulfills the biblical role of deacon / deaconess).
In fact, the only reason the deacon ministry developed in the churches of the first century was directly in response to the material needs of the Jerusalem church and the Jerusalem church’s practice of centralized finances. Therefore, there really isn’t a need for deacons, nor is there an injunction for there to be deacons in cases where a church can meet its needs person to person. (ie. If Mary hadn’t given all her money to the church, she would have been able to help her neighbor Dorcas, but since the church had the resources, the church had to establish organizational procedures for helping the needy.)
As I read the New Testament, there is only one kind of leader mandated in churches and that is the apostle/pastor/elder/overseer. The deacon ministry arose as a response to a particular need.
Incidentally, if the LINCs function the way we dream they could, nearly every need could be met by them. However, it is not a perfect world, and having some kind of organized deacon ministry in the church might be a wise thing to do.
Hopefully, you can see that there isn’t much in my scheme that can’t be met with slight modifications to the current scheme of things in our church. My proposal is written the way it is because I want us to move away from the conceptual and philosophical baggage associated with most 50 year old churches (and to which ours is prone as well).
Specifically, I feel that there needs to be an understanding that the spiritual leaders and not the practical leaders are the ones who set the tone for the church. These spiritual leaders are to be directly involved in the ministry of teaching and discipling others. And these spiritual leaders should be men. (On the gender issue, I MIGHT be flexible but such is my understanding of the role of “elder” in Paul’s writings and “pastor” in Peter’s).
Also, I don’t find a lot of support in the Bible for the specific kind of congregational authority given to the members of NWBC. Paul never says to any church that the leaders are supposed to listen to the desires of the people. The only instance of this is in Acts where the Grecian Jews complain that their widows are being overlooked. But the solution was wrought by the decision of the leaders. The only other instance in the Bible of camaraderie in a decision is at the Jerusalem council, but again this is not a congregation coming to a decision. This is the leaders being sent to a caucus to address a major theological concern.
In other words, my proposal is aimed more at changing our thinking about leadership than it is to change our structure. Does that help?
By the way, I TOTALLY APPRECIATE questions even when they challenge my ideas (especially when they challenge my ideas!). My weakness is to assume that the questioner is ready for a debate when sometimes that’s not the case, but I LOVELOVELOVE being asked hard questions. (easy ones are okay too!)
It turns out that my description of the leadership of the church really struck a chord with that man and his wife particularly because of my description that the leadership team would be a small group of men. This was completely unacceptable to them, and a rather heated debate followed by email, phone, and personal meetings.
To make a long story short, someone called for a meeting of the Pastoral Search Committee members and spouses to take place without me and discuss whether they had misunderstood my position on women in leadership when they were first interviewing me or if I had misrepresented myself to them.
One person who went to that meeting felt so bad about it that she told me it had happened about a month later. Secretive meetings like that are just wrong as far as I’m concerned no matter who it’s about or what the topic is. If they wanted to know my position on the issue, they should have invited me to be there.
I wrote a letter to all the members of the Search Committee explaining that I had heard about the meeting, that it was inappropriate, and that I expected meetings like that to not happen again. I also wrote a second letter to the Stewards and Cabinet members explaining that the whole gender question had become too divisive in our church and that we would need to put it on the back burner for a while so that we could gather ourselves again.
Nevertheless, the Cabinet member and his wife, the ones who stood by me through the first fiasco, were too hurt by the events of this second one and they left the church.
Despite all that “bleh” as some called it, the summer of 2002 was a phenomenally joyful one for me. During that summer, I had the joy of leading three people to Christ purely by God’s divine power.
One girl came to the church one afternoon just looking for a church in the area that might have a choir she could join. I showed her around the church, spoke to her for a little bit and noticed that she seemed really soft-hearted spiritually. Following what I believe was a prompting by the Holy Spirit, I started to talk with her about Jesus and his love for her, and before I knew it she had prayed to receive Christ as her savior and we were talking about her getting baptised.
Not long after that, I checked my phone messages and someone had left a message asking if he could meet with me to talk. I called him back and met with him at Arby’s. While in line at Arby’s he asked me, “Is it too late for someone like me?” I shared the gospel with him, and asked him if he wanted to pray with me to receive Christ, and he said, “Let’s do it now.” So, right there in Arby’s I prayed with him to give his life to Christ.
Not long after that, I got an email message with the subject line: “I think I need your church.” I had a meeting with that fellow over lunch and found that God had been moving so powerfully in his life that he had already become a Christian purely from the testimony of the Holy Spirit through the book of Luke. I was astonished. Before then, I had never met anyone who had become a believer purely on the basis of the Scriptures alone. No one witnessed to him. No one walked him through a tract. But he had given his heart to Jesus nonetheless.
Since then, I’ve had the privilege of baptising each of those people. One is living in California now, one has been wandering spiritually, but the other one is one of the most passionate believers in our church even after 3 years.
It was with renewed fervor that I stood in front of the congregation at the end of that summer stating, “I believe that God is dropping this ripe fruit into our laps because he is giving a taste of a great harvest he has for us. I believe that we simply need to prepare the way and he will open the floodgates and pour out blessing on us.”
The Third Year
My third year started with the joy of being a part of getting a new church plant started. Tim and Lisa Beavis launched Rogers Park Community Church during my third year at NWBC, and our church got on board as financial supporters. Tim also came as a guest speaker for my January series that year, “Profile of a Spiritual Life.”
We also started the year with a new worship leader. She had been serving in the church as a volunteer for a few months, but in January, we officially hired her as our worship leader. It was bittersweet.
She did an excellent job of having a strong stage presence and being directive with the congregation, but I consistently had differences of opinion with her on how she should work with her team, how she should work with me, and how she should speak to the congregation. Despite our differences and some heated discussions, the church was growing and the Sunday service was flourishing. She did some great things for us too. In fact, our best attended service that year was Easter and she had planned the whole service to coincide with my message for the day including a short drama. 144 people came.
At the same time, though there were some people who were frustrated with her leadership, and our relationship didn’t improve, so she resigned that spring and shifted to being our “Steward of Evangelism.” She continued to do good work, but we continued to find it difficult to work together.
Other aspects of the ministry were good, though. One particular joy of mine was the ability to work closely with the man who stepped in to be her successor as the worship leader. Chuck volunteered to take on the position mostly because he sensed that if he took on the leadership of worship some of the tension between she and I would be alleviated. He and I met rather frequently to talk about nearly everything from worship and leadership and our spiritual lives to the Simpsons and Commodore 64 games we had loved. I really saw Chuck develop in many ways. I could tell that leading worship was hard for him mostly because he didn’t think he was doing a good job, but I resonated with his heart in so many ways that it was refreshing and a joy to work with him for the year or so he did the job.
Our financial situation as a church was flourishing as well. In fact, my first two fiscal years as pastor saw the best financial status the church had ever experienced. By the end of my first fiscal year, we were experiencing a surplus of something like $20,000, and by the end of my second year, even with a much more aggressive budget, we still had a surplus in the thousands of dollars. Nevertheless, we decided to take a major risk in our third year, and despite my misgivings, I endorsed a budget that was over $20,000 greater than our income from the previous year. We never met that budget, and I could tell that it weighed down the morale of the leaders throughout the year.
The Fourth Year
The church continued to grow, and I continued to be pretty motivated in most areas, but the financial burden we placed ourselves under was a source of stress for me. The constant talk about how we weren’t meeting our budget (even though income was way over actual expenses) was a downer.
Nevertheless, we were able to put together a few ministry programs at the beginning of that year that really boosted our attendance. We joined a program with Moody Bible Institute called Chicago’s Largest Bible Study to go through a series of lessons called Ten Keys to Unlocking the Bible. Under the administration of our Steward of Evangelism, we launched 10 small groups.
She also continued to play a significant role in our worship ministry and our second best attended service that year was one in which I had no involvement at all. She brainstormed, planned, led, and found a guest speaker for our first “International Celebration Sunday.” 148 people came to that service!
At the same time, I was planning on having our church participate in a campaign initiated by Saddleback Church in California called 40 Days of Purpose which was campaign to get people to think through the 5 main purposes for our existence on the Earth. Since the Steward of Evangelism was so busy with her other projects (including having just given birth to a new baby), and since there were still some concerns in my mind regarding how well she would work with me and with others, I asked the Steward of Discipleship to help me recruit a campaign director, and he volunteered to do it.
I had no idea at the time that my decision to let him lead the 40 Days campaign would cause a problem with the Evangelism coordinator, but it did. She was quite hurt that I would bypass her and give the job to the other guy. That started a six month battle with her. Suffice it to say that she was unhappy she wasn’t given the opportunity to lead the campaign, wasn’t interested in working in a subordinate role, and began to speak negatively about the program to others in the church.
Despite all this, the campaign launched with a bang and went really well. It wasn’t as smoothly run as the Ten Keys study, and I had to do a lot more work myself, but the whole program was a great success. We had 160 people on Easter (someone else counted 170!). The campaign launched the next week with 107, but the next three weeks were 130, 132, and 115! I think we had 7 small groups going for the program as well. It was pretty exciting.
However, the negative vibe continued to increase, and when I went on my vacation that summer, attendance dropped to 65. It popped up to nearly 100 when I came back, but at the end of the summer, the Leadership Team finally asked the Evangelism Steward and her husband to step out of leadership. They did so by completely leaving the church, and attendance dropped into the mid 70s.
That experience was completely worse for me than any of the previous ones. I personally faced a huge amount of emotional stress non-stop for at least six months, but what bothered me the most was how it was affecting the church. Attendance and giving both plummetted in comparison to our spring highs, and they never recovered. The Leadership Team was burned out and frazzled. My wife was at her wits end especially because she had spent most of the year up to that point acting as the coordinator for our failing Children’s ministry–a task which burned her out. I felt like I was in the middle of it all, and I began to withdraw into a mild depression.
That fall, someone recommended to the Vision Team (we changed the name to coincide with the ReTool Kit recommendations and also to reflect that we added some people to the team who weren’t members and couldn’t be called “leaders”) that we take a survey of some key people who had left the church to find out why they had left. With some modifications, the plan was adopted, and Eric Johnson (Director of Mobilization for the Midwest District) and Zack Turner (Pastor of Faith Baptist in Gray’s Lake and our “ReTool” coach) both agreed to administer the surveys.
The end result of that survey is here:
- Northwest Baptist Church
- December 8, 2004
- Prepared by Zack Turner (Mobilization Coach)
At the request of the Vision Team from NWBC Eric Johnson (MBC Director of Church Mobilization) and Zack Turner (Mobilization Coach) conducted brief interviews with 18 present and former members or attendees of the church. Twelve of the interviews took place on Friday, November 19 and Saturday, November 20, 2004 at the church. Six of the interviews were conducted over the phone on Wednesday December 1, and Thursday, December 2. The interviewees were conducted by the Vision Team.
Eric and Zack met with Pastor Jeff Mikels on Monday, December 6 for approximately 2 hours to listen to Jeff’s perspective on some of the major issues confronting the church.
The following summary is written by Zack Turner, but it is based on what we both heard during the interviews. In most cases the observations that we made were not based on isolated comments but on themes that repeatedly came up from a range of people. The recommendations at the end of the report come from both Zack and Eric.
We were impressed by the depth of passion for the Lord reflected in all of those we interviewed. It was evident that there is huge potential for the future impact of this church on the surrounding community. This potential is related to a number of positive factors like the geographical location, the facilities, the strength of personal relationships, and the dedication of the church’s members.
Almost without exception, people shared appreciation for the preaching and teaching abilities of Jeff Mikels. Many also pointed to Jeff’s youthful energy and enthusiasm as something that was a value and needed by the church. We are convinced that Jeff has many of the gifts and abilities that make for an effective pastor.
Issues Related to Jeff
Barriers to Communication
- Doesn’t listen to others
- Inconsistent when communicating with different individuals or groups
- Makes decisions and plans events without communicating with leaders
- People don’t have the courage or the energy to stand up to Jeff
Ineffective Leadership Style
- Too competitive
- Will not admit to being wrong
- Needs to win and be right all the time
- Not good at achieving win/win situations
- Manipulates people to gain power and control
- Wants to revise constitution to give the pastor more authority
- People are run over, and tired
- Limited time and energy is not being used strategically for primary functions
- Has good ideas, but too many of them to implement effectively
- Has trouble working with a team
- Leaders feel unappreciated
- Responds too aggressively to conflict
- Needs a tender heart
- Uses guilt to motivate others
- Uses people, instead of empowering people, to accomplish the mission
- Needs accountability to the Pastoral Cabinet or some other form of leadership board within the church
Women in Leadership
- Concerns that Jeff was not honest with the search committee with regard to his convictions on this issue
- Some women feel that they are not heard and that their ideas do not have value
- Some women feel that they have been pushed out of any significant leadership and ministry responsibility
Issues for the Congregation & Leaders
- Lack of unity and clarity on vision and philosophy of ministry (Some feel that the church has placed too much emphasis on reaching seekers and not enough on helping believers to keep growing.)
- Diminishing attendance
- Unable to retain visitors
- Diminishing financial support
- Diminishing number of people who are willing to serve in ministry (Key leadership positions are vacant.)
- Current organizational structure of the church is too complex for a smaller church
- Significant amount of triangulating — preventing healthy conflict resolution
- Some leaders are good at doing things themselves, but ineffective in building teams and empowering others to participate in ministry
- Not enough evangelistic impact on immediate neighborhood
- Urgent need for ministry to youth
- Need more balance between male and female leadership in the church (There is the perception that women are being “pushed” out of leadership and men are not accepting significant responsibility.)
- Reassess whether or not there is a healthy match between Jeff’s pastoral leadership and the needs of NWBC at this time. As we mentioned earlier in this report, we believe that both Jeff, and the church have tremendous potential. We are committed to being supportive in any way possible regardless of which way this issue is decided.
- Establish a weekly coaching relationship for Jeff with an older pastor from outside NWBC. This coaching should focus on the whole range of issues identified in this summary. This relationship should also network with other resources that may be available.
- Adopt a set of bylaws with a single board structure and a minimum of elected officers. The bylaws should spell out the specific areas of authority for the congregation, the leadership board and the pastor(s). (MBC can provide a working template.) These bylaws should address the issue of whether or not women are eligible to serve on the primary leadership board of the church.
- Form a new leadership board, in compliance with the bylaws of the church. This board should then oversee executive functions of the church and provide accountability for Jeff.
- Develop and implement a leadership development process for men and women. This plan should be based on a combination of instruction, experience, teamwork and mentoring.
- Suspend the “Mobilization” process until these recommendations have been considered and implemented where appropriate.
I was rather deflated at the results of the survey, but I had actually expected to hear almost everything that came out. There were two things I didn’t expect, though.
- Zack and Eric presented the results uncritically. That is, they didn’t filter the opinions of the survey responses nor did they evaluate them. Therefore, under the “Issues for Jeff” section, they simply copied down people’s complaints about me. As impartial survey takers, that is what they should have done, but I was actually hoping for them to do some analysis to state an opinion on which of those issues they felt were valid.
- Once the results came in, I asked the members of the Vision Team to please take the time to contact me on a personal basis to tell me if they agreed or disagreed with the assessments described in the survey. In response to that request, only two people contacted me. They basically said that they thought it was mostly untrue, and affirmed me in my leadership, but out of 13 Vision Team members, only 2 said anything to me about the survey.
The severe lack of a vote of confidence actually strengthened my resolve, and I determined to write up a complete vision statement for the future of the church and present it to the Vision Team as a kind of ultimatum saying, “This is the direction I plan to lead this church if you wish to keep me as your pastor.” I gave it to them to consider.
I also asked Gary Rohrmayer, Director of Church Planting for the Midwest District of the Baptist General Conference what it would take for me to go to the church planter’s Assessment Center. Confused about my leadership abilities, I determined to go to the Assessment Center and let them evaluate me just so I could get a better handle on how I was supposed to lead a church.
Before Jen and I left to go to the Assessment Center, we met one more time with the Vision Team, and I told them that I was committed to stay at NWBC if they would have me, but that I was planning to lead according to what the Assessment Center told me was my leadership style. That night, they planned to have a meeting without me present where they would discuss my vision statement, the results of the survey, and most importantly whether they were interested in following my leadership into the future.
The New Call
They met that night, but I didn’t hear the results of that meeting until the next weekend. In the meantime, Jen and I had an absolutely wonderful experience at the Assessment center. In fact, “absolutely wonderful” doesn’t even begin to describe the joy I felt being up there with her. It was one of the best experiences of my life for the friends we made, but mostly for the crystal clear affirmation Jen and I were both given.
On Wednesday morning at 4:30 Jen and I couldn’t sleep, so we got up to pray about God’s will for our lives, and both of us had a clear sense that God was calling us to move on from NWBC into church planting. I didn’t want to hear that, and I was really bothered with feelings of failure over my time at NWBC. On top of that, we got the highest recommendation given to any couple for church planting. Carlton Harris, a man I have respected for a number of years now and someone who successfully turned around a struggling church, gave Jen and me the report on our assessment. “You need to plant a church,” he said. He even told us that if he had been in our shoes, he never would have taken the call to NWBC, but that God had something in it for us. It was an incredibly affirming moment.
When we got back that weekend, we found out that the Vision Team meeting had been filled with ambiguity and that the final consensus was that “there is an unhealthy fit between Jeff’s leadership and this church, but we are willing to stretch out of our comfort zone if he makes some changes.” The ambiguity of that response and the lack of any kind of affirmation made it even more clear to me that God was leading us elsewhere.
The next week, I told the Vision Team that Jen and I were going to pursue church planting. We talked about the process, and it was agreed that I would stay on as pastor of NWBC while I raised funds for the new church and while they looked for my replacement.
The Fifth Year
During this past year, we were able to adopt a new constitution that eliminated our Stewards and Pastoral Cabinet in favor of a single board called the “Leadership Team” composed of a small group (no more than 7) of people whose primary purpose is to oversee the everyday decisions of the church and to prayerfully determine the future direction of the church. The irony of such a turn of events is humorous to me because it is largely exactly what I had proposed back in my second year.
However, during this past year, our attendance and giving have continued to struggle. We currently hover between 60 and 70 in attendance, and we are barely paying our utilities and salaries each month. On top of all of that, I spent most of the spring and summer feeling great anger and frustration over a sense of my failure at NWBC.
I had such great hopes for this church. I wanted this to be a long term ministry. I wanted to be able to be here for 20-30 years and see this church become a major expression of the body of Christ on the northside of Chicago through effective ministry programs and intentional evangelism. At the very least, I wanted to be one of the pastors who had the story of “enduring hardship” and “pressing on” and “sticking with it” through the tough times until the breakthrough happens and the church is unleashed in power. I felt like a failure, like a quitter, like I was running away from something that could be great if I just held on a little longer.
However, I also felt like this wasn’t my ministry anymore, but that God was preparing it and using me to prepare it for someone else. I was a sad mixture of anger and depression, and it wasn’t fun for me or anyone else who was close enough to know it.
Nevertheless, God led Jen and me to notice great potential for our family and for a new church on the south side of Lafayette, Indiana, and despite my trepidations and my mood swings we have been making our plans to move there.
We told the church in March about our plans and expected to be leaving Chicago before the end of the summer. However, our fundraising didn’t go as quickly as we hoped, and the newly formed Leadership Team had difficulty finding time to meet at the beginning of the summer, so we eventually set the date of our move to be after the Christmas holiday.
I was also convinced that there was something spiritual in the fabric of the church that needed some healing and revival, so I embarked on a series of messages, working through Nehemiah chapter 1, to directly deal with some of the spiritual sickness and to call people to repentance and renewed life with Christ. I gave a disclaimer each week that my message was particularly for the people who called the church their home. Sadly, the only people who stopped coming were some long-term members!
It was a good series for me because I challenged the congregation to up their devotional lives a notch, called them to 30 minutes a day, 3 hours a week, and 1 day a month for fasting, prayer, and Bible Study, but that meant I had to do it too. I really think God helped to renew my soul a little bit as a result, and I started feeling much better about things.
In the meantime, the Leadership Team was able to get on track with meetings, and together with Bernie Tanis have picked a man to come and act as an “Intentional Interim” pastor for us. Basically, he is going to be a live-in consultant who will split the preaching up with a friend of his who is a well-recognized professor at Moody. I think it is going to be a great thing for the church, and I’m half sad that I won’t be around to see how it all develops.
So now, it’s less than two weeks until Jen and I load up the U-HAUL and make the trip to Lafayette. I’m excited, she’s excited, the kids seem to be excited, and NWBC seems to be excited for its future as well. It seems like a good thing. At the beginning of this year, I prayed that God would help the transition to go smoothly, and I think he has done that. He has let me hemmorrhage a little and heal over this past year, and though I have a wounded confidence going into church planting, I have faith in God that this is his thing and not mine. That’s the way it should be anyway.
He gets the glory.