This September marks my five year anniversary at Grace Church. God’s Spirit continues to blow on our work. This January we launched our fifth weekend service, the Saddleback model, Celebrate Recovery. With this addition, we are running over 1400 on weekends, plus another 300+ at New Community on Wednesday night. Remember that my first Sunday here we had 380 people!
In these days, I have been reflecting on “Lessons I have Learned from a Turn Around Church.” I wanted to share them with you. Maybe they are useful:
1. Do an honest assessment. What is our “present reality?” Pastors are often “soft” on clearly, honestly and without blame stating the truth. We had $29.16 in our checking account, owed 1.2 million dollars, had $20,000 worth of unpaid bills and had paid 25% of apportionment’s my first day in September of 1996. I called the leaders and told them the truth. I also told them that we were on a five year decline from 575 to less than 450 in two traditional worship services. Many were shocked. Many were in denial. The present reality hurt, but it did give us a reference point.
2. Picture a “preferred future.” My first preaching series was a series I titled “The Exciting Church.” I spoke for nine weeks on the biblical picture of the church: the exciting church where people love, give, gather, witness, serve, pray, grow, and worship. My bias was and continues to be that most churches have a very poor self-image. They need to see the glorious picture of the bride of Christ. Since then I have given a ten week series called “Built to Last” on our ten core values.
3. Practice the genius of the “and” instead of the tyranny of the “or.” There is an art to transitioning a church. Minimizing the past while maximizing the future means walking a tight rope. I let (and quietly encouraged) UMM and UMW die. This is the past. We started small groups for men and women. This is the future. We quit doing fellowship dinners to raise building fund money. This is the past. We began to teaching tithing and offer Crown Ministry courses on biblical stewardship. This is the future. We quite doing children’s Sunday School (Did he say quit?). This is the past. We started doing children’s worship ALA Promiseland from Willow Creek. This is the future. The hard part is timing and trusting God to let it happen. My take is most pastors are far too impatient with transition. Only in my fourth year did we change by subtraction. Until then, it was all change by addition.
4. Trust your gut! There is nothing like Spirit-led intuition. Dick Wills taught me to be a spiritual leader. When I stay Jesus focused, God does lead my decisions. Starting two contemporary services, adding video technology to the worship space, rebuilding our main platform area and tons of other decisions met little resistance because God was in it.
5. Discern your job from the beginning. I told our leaders from my first day that I had four priorities. First, stay well. This takes time. Speed of the leader. Speed of the team. I need God. I need a healthy family life. I need rest. I need to work out. I need community. I have done pretty well in this one. Second, preach the best messages I can. This takes time. I spend Tuesday and Thursdays from 7:00 am to noon at my home working on my messages. Third, grow the staff team at Grace Church. This takes time. I spend time every week individually, in smaller groups and with the entire staff. Our team has grown from 3 full time and 4 part time to 10 full time and 15 part time in five years. The relationships have gotten more intimate and more complicated over the years. Fourth, grow lay leadership. This takes time too. Lunches, meetings and informal time are all in this mix. The pay off is huge. Seeing lay leadership emerge is one of the greatest joys of being a lead pastor. I’m a dream releaser addict (ALA Corderio). These four priorities have not changed and take up 70-80% of my time. This means I seldom visit hospitals unless it’s a leader, but we have Stephen Ministers and other laity in hospitals and nursing homes regularly. More care is happening than ever before!
6. Determine what hills you are willing to die on. This one was huge. Early in ministry, I wanted to die on every hill. No more! I pick my fights carefully. For an anal retentive like myself this is counterintuitive. I have to fight unhealthy urges to get my hands in everybody’s business. I’m still growing on this one.
Jorge Acevedo, Pastor
Grace Church, Cape Coral, Florida