God works miracles in spite of us. We all know this, but the Dallas/Fort Worth Church is a living example of how God works wonders in a church.
About eight years ago, the Dallas church was a mess. Our membership had dropped by almost half, leaving us with a total membership of a little more than 700. The budget decreased accordingly, leaving the church with huge financial problems. The women were not full-time in the ministry and worked other jobs to make ends meet. The entire staff was made up of middle-aged people who didn’t trust one another. We knew we needed young ministry people for our campus, singles and youth and family ministries, but we didn’t have the people or the money to hire anyone.
Basically we were a burned out, disillusioned and discouraged group with a great-hearted, but frustrated core that had at one time wanted to change the world. I didn’t see how God was going to fix things. As I look back on this time, I’m shocked at my lack of faith when I take inventory of what God has done since then.
Now we have almost 1,200 members, our giving has gone up to over $50 per member and we have hit our Special Missions contribution goal each year for the past nine years. We have more than 20 young people on staff who lead in our campus, singles and youth and family ministries. And, to top it off, our staff actually functions like a happy family that loves one another. We’ve appointed four new elders for a total of six and appointed six new, young evangelists. Things aren’t perfect; it’s like a ranch, something is always broken and needs to be fixed, but leading has never been this fun.
So what has happened other than God working miracles? The discouraged and faithless culture of our church needed to change and that transformation needed to begin with the leaders. I can’t say we had this well thought-out plan and everything ran smoothly, but there are a few things that God used to make a difference.
First of all, we needed to get unified and learn to trust one another. In John 17:20-23 Jesus prayed three times that all the future believers would be one as he and the Father were one. We had to start believing the best of one another and looking for the good instead of focusing on how easy it was to annoy one another. Not only that, but all of us needed to feel like we were a part of something bigger. To bring that about, over the past few years we have averaged at least one outside speaker coming to Dallas every other month. This means we’ve had more than 50 outside speakers come in to teach and encourage the church.
Typically, whoever comes would speak at a congregational worship service, inspire us at a leaders’ meeting, then stay until Monday to teach the staff. This accomplished several things: we got to hear cutting-edge teaching from our heroes in the faith, it connected us to the larger kingdom as a whole, and it provided another set of eyes to help us see our weaknesses and blind spots. It also communicated to the church that we realize we don’t have it all figured out and that we need outside input and ideas.
There are many other resources that have played a role in connecting us to churches and leaders around the world. Some of those include Disciples Today, ICOC HotNews and attendance at leadership meetings. Supporting foreign missions has also created bonds between both domestic and foreign church leaders and the membership of those congregations. Getting to know Russian and Mexican disciples through visits and videos has helped the Dallas congregation be even more supportive of any efforts to help those churches.
Build healthy relationships
About 20 years ago we got fired from the full-time ministry. I found a job in Dallas so we moved there from the Midwest. One thing that bothered me was that I only got calls from people who needed some kind of information from me about my former ministry. At that point, I needed to make a decision. I could either get bitter or I could take responsibility for not building deeper relationships. I realized I was at least half of the problem and I needed to change and learn to build better friendships.
God blessed my repentance and gave me many wonderful, deep friendships over the next few years. When I started leading the church, I needed to take the lessons I’d learned and apply them to the staff. In John 13:35, Jesus said that people would know we are disciples by our love. The Dallas staff needed to feel a deep love from me. I needed to tell them I love them, be available to them for both quality and quantity time and be accessible to them by phone and by being quick to return emails and messages.
I’m surrounded by intelligent, opinionated elders and evangelists and I must appreciate their characters rather than allow myself to be threatened by their strong personalities. A culture of trust begins with me and I have to make it clear that I trust them and value their ideas and insights. When there is conflict, I can’t be afraid of it and must deal with it head-on even though I hate it. I also need to be open enough with those around me that I can be held accountable. They not only need to see me leading, but also just being a good Christian by sharing about my weaknesses, bringing my friends to church and studying the Bible with my neighbors. I have to be secure enough to do things God’s way and not make it about me and trying to maintain a certain image out of insecurity.
I’ve never been this age before, I’ve never led a church this size before and I’ve never lived in 2016 before. I need to constantly be learning. I’ve found to keep my mind fresh I need to read several books a year on ministry, the Bible and leadership.
I’m so grateful to other churches that have opened their doors to us and allowed us to come visit and learn from them. Over the past few years, we have visited San Antonio, Singapore, Los Angeles, Jakarta, Boston and others for the sole purpose of learning from them. I’ve brought back small, helpful nuggets such as having at least 30 minutes of good news at every staff meeting, putting together a church-wide two-week harvest list so we can pray, and making my meetings either inspirational or instructional. I need to keep the business aspects of the meeting as short as possible. Any meeting over two hours starts to get bad. Many things I was trained to do 20 years ago may not be applicable to the people I’m leading today in our current culture. Although biblical principles do not change, everything I do must be carried out with patience and respect.
A few things I’ve seen tend to head off problems. One is to have proactive training. For example, we have specific training for board members and a shepherd-in-training discipleship group for elders and their wives and future elders and wives. Also, input from the members is incredibly valuable. Recently we sent out a survey to our entire congregation to pinpoint areas where we can improve. We are in the process of implementing ideas that arose through that survey.
I remember my days as a young Christian in Chicago. I would get so excited whenever Bring-Your-Neighbor-Day was coming up because that meant I could bring new friends to church. I tried to create that same zeal and pure-hearted commitment in the Dallas church, but for that to happen we needed more young people. The marrieds comprised 75 percent of the membership and we needed to baptize more teens, students and singles so that their numbers could come closer to 50 percent of the church. That hasn’t happened yet because the marrieds keep growing proportionately, but the increase in the numbers of younger people has helped the atmosphere of the church.
To convert more young people, we’ve needed to make hard decisions about our structure and assets. The last thing the church needed was for me to get up and just tell everyone what I wanted us to do. We had many, many meetings about what needed to happen and how to go about it. Some of the difficult decisions included selling our church camp and selling our building so we could hire younger people. The members were emotionally connected to both properties because some of them had been baptized there, married there and had other impactful times at both properties.
These decisions needed to be handled delicately and explained in detail so people would not feel like their dreams were taken away. We had to work together to communicate that we weren’t just getting rid of properties to save money, but these decisions were part of an overall plan to grow the church and redirect some of our resources.
When it comes to church direction, we always need to be running toward something, not just away from something.
The Dallas church needs to be a giving church in terms of both money and people. In the past, some of the larger churches have had a reputation for taking resources from smaller churches. God has blessed Dallas with the means to help and I want our members to feel that and to also feel the responsibility for being so abundantly blessed. Through our relationships throughout the kingdom and the relationships individual members have cultivated, we support Eurasian missions and have opened new fronts in Mexico and Bolivia.
Through the generosity of one family, we have a Campus Ministry Fund to start campus ministries throughout Texas and Oklahoma. The family donates a certain amount that is matched by some of the larger churches in Texas. We now have campus ministries in some of the smaller towns that never would have been able to afford a campus ministry couple.
In closing, I’m not really sure what God has done, but I know he has moved in ways I never could have imagined. I’ve heard it said that sometimes all we need to do is show up. There’s a lot of truth in that. The only thing I know for sure is that we must keep doing our best to glorify God no matter what, and he takes care of the rest.