Navigating Church Transition

Sojourn Network Conversations is a series that attempts to peer into the collective experience, wisdom, and personal lives of pastors and leaders who have particular insight in the topic of discussion. Recorded live and unscripted, we hope you'll carve out time to listen in on these important issues.  

John Starke: I'm here with Jamaal Williams and Bert Daniel, and we're here talking "church transitions." As pastors, we've all experienced coming into a church hire where the church previously had experienced unhealth in their practices and decline, whether numerically or spiritually, and we've had to navigate those roads.

So I'd love to here from you guys. There are those in our shoes who've experienced these transitions and have had to run that road and learn some things, fail in certain ways, so maybe we can help other brothers to not make some of the same mistakes we made. So let me start with you, Jamaal. Tell us just where you've come from, your story quickly.

Jamaal Williams

Jamaal Williams

John Starke

John Starke

Bert Daniel

Bert Daniel

Jamaal Williams: Yeah, the previous church I inherited was a church that was 146 years old and when I came in the church was full of loving people, but it was very fragmented. The previous pastor had some moral failings and the church had become very divided on the direction that they needed to go in and really kind of lacked clarity of vision for what God was calling them to and who God was calling them to be as the people of God.

One of the best pieces of advice I got came from my former pastor and he said to me, "Jamaal, feed the sheep and starve the goats." What he meant by that is preach like a crazy man on Sunday, exalt Jesus, proclaim the gospel clearly and call people to cherish God. And when you step off the pulpit, you starve goats. Because there are going to be people within that transition who are going to try to bait you into unholy, ungodly conversations, so give them very little to feed off of. You point them to Jesus and get out of those conversations so you can get ready for next Sunday, where you preach like a man on fire.

John Starke: Bert, what about you? You inherited a church as a pastor that has a history previous to you as well, and you had to transition and do more of a renewal project. Tell us your story.

Bert Daniel: Yeah, so I'm in Augusta Georgia, and the church was founded in 1991. I came in 2002. When I had come, just previous to that, the church had split two or three times. The church was down to about 20 people. At a peak they had been up to about 150, but in a few months they had dwindled all the way down to about 20 people.

They were $150,000 in debt and there was a blank foundation out front where they had tried to build a sanctuary but had split and so that's what they were left with. So there were any number of difficult problems to deal with in coming into the church. The Lord was really gracious. The first five years were very difficult, but the Lord gave us a breakthrough at that point.

For a church to split that many times, two or three times in just several months, there were deep problems relationally in how they dealt with conflict, how they made decisions. There were sin issues to deal, there were theological issues. There were any numbers of things. One of the things that I would encourage guys going into a situation like that, I would encourage them that often times when we approach situations like that, we think, "I'm going to come in here and change this thing. This thing needs to be changed."

That's true. There was a lot that needed to change at Berea, but what I learned in those first five years was that the church needed to change, but I needed to change even more. That's why he put me there. The Lord really changed me in those first five years. The Lord revealed insecurities in my own life, fears, anxieties that I would have never known that were there had I not been put in that situation and challenged in those ways. The Lord grew me a lot through that.

So John, Jamaal and I have had a chance to share our story, but we would love to hear from you. You're in Manhattan and came into a similar situation and have seen the Lord work, so share with us a little bit of your story.

John Starke: My wife and I came to a small church in New York that had experienced a "spiritual depression," is the way I describe it. They had experienced a lot of transitions previous to me and the founding pastor leaving was one more transition for them and they were sad and tired of change. So they had shrunk to probably about the size of your church, maybe 40 or 50.

Anyone coming in to the church would see this as a really difficult community to get into because the history they all have in common that no one else has and so really to break in you would have to have that history. Martin Lloyd Jones' book, Spiritual Depression, was sort of my second Bible. I would go to it and say, "Okay, what's going on? What are they feeling?"

I had to really reorient myself. Much like you were talking about, instead of "Go, go, go! Preach, preach, preach! We're going to plant churches. We're going to transforms lives." I had to stop and shepherd and counsel and it stretched me in areas that I wasn't prepared to be stretched.

Bert Daniel: Yeah. Can you give some examples of areas that you were particularly stretched and challenged?

John Starke: Yeah, when we first came, I came ambitious and excited and saying, "Hey, we're going to plant churches here," and the repeated refrain that I got was, "Yeah, the previous guy talked a lot about that too." Which was a bummer.

Bert Daniel: For sure.

John Starke: What I saw is that they didn't need a church planting plan, they needed to know how to be built up in Christ and be shepherded and to have them over for dinner and care for them and be a good pastor, good shepherd, and to preach faithfully and to not change, and to stay the course and be faithful with them. That's what they really needed. They needed some stability.

For me, I didn't want stability, I wanted change, I wanted them to move. I wanted them to change, and like you were talking about, I needed to change a lot too.

Bert Daniel: Amen.

John Starke: I hope guys who are coming in to our similar situation will be blessed and encouraged and maybe not makes the same mistakes we made.

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