EDITOR’S NOTE: Five years ago, Amy and Russ Dean invited me to come alongside their church for a season of strategic visioning. I recently asked them to reflect on the ensuing years and what they have learned in the process. -Bill Wilson
by Russ Dean
In the summer of 2009, after a rich sabbatical, Amy and I returned to Park Road having received all the benefit for which sabbaticals are designed, and then some. Invigorated for a new chapter of ministry, we returned with a suggestion that our Diaconate talk with us about an issue of significance to our congregation.
Like many churches planted in the fertile 1950s, Park Road grew rapidly. The old Ashcraft Farm was transformed as acres were plowed under and neighborhood streets and rows of houses grew in their place. Three permanent buildings were constructed for the church on the corner. A decade later, a bustling neighborhood church was ready to build, again, and a 1,000 seat sanctuary was dedicated in December 1964. The large, accordion doors that closed off the transepts on either side of the main pews were opened, and a proud congregation celebrated a future whose ecclesiastical limit was the sky.
But that day would prove one of the few times those transepts were needed for seating. The church that had grown quickly into its adolescence wrestled through the turbulent 60s, grew weary in the 70s, transitioned in the 80s, and acquiesced in the 90s. It regrouped in 2000 – just in time for the cultural onslaught of what has been called the Church’s “horrible decade.”
One of the results of those good-but-eventful decades was that we were left with a solid, active congregation whose identity was forged in theological engagement and enthusiasm for a social gospel – but whose physical size no longer matched the grandeur of a stately cathedral ceiling. The worship space, which had once been an incentive to, and an indication of growth, had become just the opposite. The empty pews, which seemed to represent an old, dying congregation to visitors and guests, had become an impediment to growth – emotionally and numerically.
This was clearly an issue with which we needed expert help – and the consultation we received was as insightful as it was necessary. The issue wasn’t “redecorating the living room.” There were questions of identity and mission and values wrapped up in our people’s frustrations, and anxiety about the future of our church and The Church. Thus, we engaged a nearly year-long visioning process with Bill Wilson.
Early on, we identified another long-term problem, this one regarding our “year-end roundup” of Annual Ministry Plan contributions. Our church had a nearly 50-year history of waiting until the last week of December, sometimes until the last day of the year, to bring in the necessary funding to meet that year’s obligations. Additionally, increased staffing over the previous decade, and the lingering impact of the 2008 economic crisis, had taken a greater toll than we had realized.
It seemed that with every step we tried to take forward, we needed to take a least one step backward. Before we could deal with a sanctuary renovation we needed to clarify our direction for the future, our goals for growth; before we could engage a necessary capital campaign we needed to modify our annual budgeting process; before we could engage a new visioning process we needed to come full circle on the last one, now seven years old, and complete a “staffing alignment” for that vision (which proved to be the most difficult conversation we have had in 25 years of ministry). But each “backward” step was necessary, and on this side of those conversations we realize we are a better church for them. We are stronger financially, less anxious emotionally, more focused spiritually, better staffed, and more confident. The fact is that we may only have survived because we took the longer look and did the harder work.
The learning curve was steep, and we could not have engaged these difficult conversations without an outside coach. Thanks, Bill Wilson, for that guidance. We would not be healthier without guidance built on long, pastoral experience, deep, Christian conviction, and wise, studied leadership which understood current trends in both Church and society.
The lessons were many:
1. So often, the presenting issue is not the real concern – surface concerns usually hide deeper, interpersonal or existential anxieties.
2. Money follows mission, and Church people are generous – but they have to be led.
3. Personnel issues are always the hardest – always the hardest.
4. The long road is difficult, but it is the right road, because it is the only road to healthy churches and lasting relationships, and its benefits can be gleaned all along the way, not just at the end of the road.
If you want to change the furniture, you may want to check the Farmer’s Almanac, make sure your Estate affairs are in order, and consult with the Center for Healthy Churches. You’ll be glad you did.
Russ and Amy Dean are the co-pastors of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte NC