Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Ten-Year Hiccup

Fellow Pastors,

I once heard Bill Hybles say that most churches will experience a “hiccup” about every ten years or so. That is, something difficult happens about once a decade that becomes a defining moment in the church’s history. It might be a crisis over direction, the moral failure of a staff member, a power struggle, or simply a transitional period as the church moves from one phase to the next. How the senior pastor and leadership team leads the church during this time is crucial. If led right, the outcome for the church will almost always be positive and beneficial.

Let me tell you about our ten-year hiccup.

When PCC first began we were very happy. Full of hope, dreams, and great enthusiasm, we launched our church in faith. Over time we gathered a loving congregation. Everyone knew everyone else. We had incredible fellowship. In many ways it was the ideal church. We were a tight-knit community of believers who ate meals together, visited in one another’s homes, and enjoyed corporate worship together.

Over the years we began to grow, just as we had always envisioned. New people were joining our family and assimilating in very nicely. This was easy enough. But as our church continued to grow even more, it became apparent that our old ways of operating would not work any longer. At one time in our church’s history everyone could get together and have meaningful discussions about the church’s direction. Spare-time thinkers and part-time participants were enough to make it happen.

But once we started approaching five hundred in attendance and moved into permanent facilities, it became impossible to operate that way. Our systems became overtaxed. More was happening than we could keep up with. Issues needed immediate attention. Legal matters needed to be addressed. Key people, who we had relied upon to get things done, could no longer devote the amount of time to church business that was now being required – and our church began to suffer for it. Church officers were missing scheduled meetings on a regular basis. Meetings were constantly being postponed and rescheduled until all parties could “get some spare time.” Decisions that should have taken only a few minutes to make were stretching out for days at a time, sometimes even weeks! In short, the work of the church was NOT getting done. On top of that, mission-drift was setting in. Groups operated independently of our church. Ministry leaders and staff were pulling their departments in their own direction, draining limited church resources. Ministry teams had their own agenda and operated accordingly. These "independent operators" no longer supported the mission of PCC, rather their own. We had become a federation of sub-ministries with each one doing its own little song-and-dance. Turfism was setting in. We were wobbling out-of-balance.

Something had to be done, and quickly. Otherwise, we were headed for a major train wreck. And quite frankly, not everyone was spiritually gifted to be steering the ship at this level. Our happy little church of potluck dinners had grown to a whole new level. We had reached the place where everyone no longer knew everyone else, nor could everyone know all that was going on. The church’s business had become very complex and needed immediate, full-time attention with improved systems.

At this stage every person in our church family (including me) had one of two choices: (1) adapt and rise to meet the new challenges, or, (2) resist.

Some people did not adjust well to the challenges. Our new reality was too much for them. Yet we could not stop the growth of our church (and emphasis upon the Great Commission) just because a few people were not adjusting. Besides, we had already spelled it out from day-one (in seminar 101) what our mission was, our vision, our strategy, how our church was structured, and how it was to be led. And now it was actually happening. These events should have come as no surprise to anyone.

Those people who found these new realities difficult to cope with expected us to go back to what we used to be. One man even suggested we “go back to the days of Freedom Hall.” A couple of others even attempted a coup d’état (overthrow). I discovered that the “small church mentality” was still alive and well at PCC. It was the “big fish in a small pond” syndrome. We had reached critical mass and it crunch time for us.

What did we do? We pressed forward meeting the challenge before us. The pond got bigger. I held fast to our statements, strategy, and structure. We corrected the misison drift and got this ship back on course. We improved our internal systems, implemented new policies, and expanded our church’s structure. We included new people in the process, adjusted the organizational flow-chart, assigned new job descriptions, and established additional tiers of leadership.

We lost a few people over this. A couple of them went out loudly; even sinfully. On the other hand, supportive, godly people in our church family covered me with their prayers. Reliable church members stepped up and filled the gaps. Loyal staff members and other key leaders “stayed the course.” We even witnessed new leaders emerge who had been hidden in our ranks all along. All of these people proved to be real champions to me.

The end result? Our ministry today is more fruitful than it was in the past. God is truly “building the house.” Our church has continued to grow. Nearly every Sunday we see people commit their lives to Christ. We have baptized over 100 people in last twelve months, (here on-campus, as well as at off-campus sites). Lives are being changed in very dramatic ways. Small groups flourish. Teenagers are on-fire for God. Worship is authentic. Unity and harmony exist. New discipleship classes have been launched being staffed with new teachers. Our departments are staffed with happy volunteers. Giving is strong as our people give sacrificially – even in today’s bad economy!

We are still a very happy church. Why? Because our long-range vision is finally becoming a reality. What we have dreamed about for so many years is finally happening! And we now have the right people in place to help make it happen. They have expressed full “buy in” to what we are doing. And for the record, these people are (1) charter and long-term members who adapted, and, (2) new members. They have the “can do” attitude necessary to get ‘er done.

We still have incredible fellowship in our church family too. Strong friendships have been forged on the anvil of adversity. There are multiple congregations within our congregation, making for a tight-knit community of believers who still eat together, visit one another’s homes, and who share life together. In many ways things are still the same as it was at the beginning – only larger, and better.

Myself, I serve with a great deal of gladness. I am happy and fulfilled. I have made a lot of new (and close) friends. I am thankful to be just a small part of what God is doing in PCC. I don’t deserve this, but I am enjoying the ride.

Now, none of this could have been accomplished if we had “gone back.” If we had caved-in our church would be only a shell of what we are today. PCC was led well during a time of transition, and we are the better for it!

That’s what happened. It was a “normal event” in the life cycle of any growing church.

The best part of all?
  • Most of the people in our congregation never knew any of this happened
  • And all the new people who are now coming to PCC could care less about it

It was only a hiccup.

So take heart and lead well.