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Grow Your Ministry - Growth Strategies The Multisite Ministry
By: Lyle E. Schaller

Back in the winter of 1978, First Church, located on the near east side of the downtown business section of a Midwestern city with nearly 35,000 residents, decided to sponsor a new mission on the far west side where scores of new single family homes were being constructed. At the time, First Church was averaging about 350 at Sunday morning worship. The paid staff included a 47-year-old senior pastor and a 34-year-old associate minister. The task force recommending this venture had agreed to pay the full compensation for the first year of the associate minister, who would become the mission developer, two-thirds for the second year, and one-third for the third year. By that time, it was assumed the new mission could and should be completely self-supporting.

In addition, a family in First Church who owned a 120-acre farm in that west side area agreed to donate a seven-acre parcel at the intersection of a county road and a state highway as the site for the future home of this congregation.

The associate minister, Ralph Watkins, had joined the staff of First Church nine years earlier following his graduation from seminary. He recommended that his 22-year-old nephew, David Barton, who was planning to enroll in seminary in September, be added as a part-time staff member. The 12-month academic year at that theological school, located 47 miles from the site of the new mission, was divided into four quarters. This arrangement called for Dave to commute to seminary five days a week in the fall and spring quarters, while serving this new mission on the weekends and working full-time in the summer and winter quarters. This schedule called for David Barton to graduate at the end of the fall quarter in 1982. Members and friends of the Barton family agreed to contribute a combined total of $45,000 over 4 1/2 years toward Dave's compensation.

A late and happy surprise came in May 1978, a month after a special congregational meeting at First Church voted 287-to-9 in a secret ballot to approve and implement this challenge to sponsor a new mission. One reason for this strong show of support was the 20-minute presentation by the Reverend Ralph Watkins: "We have two issues before us. The important one is to decide whether the ministry plan at First Church can and should include the sponsoring of a new mission. The last time this happened was in 1922 when this congregation sent a dozen families and some money out to be the nucleus of what became the Madison Avenue Church on the near west side. That congregation now averages about 115 at worship, down from 160 20 years ago. That new mission was organized to be a neighborhood congregation. Today it resembles an ex-neighborhood church as most of the current members no longer live in that neighborhood.
The plan before you tonight calls for the organization of what we pray will become a large regional church that within 10 years will be averaging at least 450 at worship. Our primary goal is to reach and serve the unchurched families moving into those new homes. We also plan to reach, attract, serve, assimilate, nurture, and challenge the people now living within five or six miles of our future site who have no active church relationship."

At this point, Ralph's presentation was interrupted by a man who asked, "A lot of our current members live on the west side. Are we being asked tonight to start a new church that will be a competitor to First Church and undermine our future? We own fewer than 40 off-street parking spaces here. On your future site, you could have a least 100, maybe even 200. Please forgive me if I'm wrong, but I came tonight to oppose undermining the future of First Church."

"It's a free country, and you have a right to your opinion," affirmed Ralph Watkins, "but I believe the first issue tonight is to affirm the evangelistic role of First Church, not to minimize competition. The second issue is a means-to-an-end subject. That is to approve the financing and staffing of this new mission. As you know, the public school system has purchased the land for a new high school two blocks south of our site. That is the No. 1 reason we are asking to add Dave Barton to our staff. We will begin this new ministry officially on July 1, and Dave will be our youth minister from day one."

A month later, the 53- year-old Virginia Cook, who had served as the volunteer superintendent of the Sunday School at First Church from 1970 to mid-1976, made an appointment to see the Reverend Ralph Watkins. She said, "As you know, my husband, Walter, was killed in an accident two years ago last week. The good news is with the insurance settlement, I am very comfortable financially. I would like to join you and your nephew as a volunteer in planting this new mission."

Ralph accepted her offer. When that word got out, that happy surprise was enlarged, as three other people who had been inspired and challenged by Ralph's presentation at the congregational meeting volunteered to be members of the team. One was a retired banker who offered to spend 15 to 20 hours a week overseeing the finances. The other two were a childless couple, both in their mid-40s, who declared, "We're ready to give you 10 to 15 hours a week calling on potential future constituents."

Nine Lessons
Three decades later, a visitor asked the Reverend Ralph Watkins, now the 64-year-old senior minister of Hope Church, "Last Tuesday, I heard the story of how First Church took the initiative to plant this mission that became Hope Church back in 1978. I also saw a copy of your last annual report that states your weekend worship attendance averaged slightly over 700 last year here at this site, plus another 350 at your second site, and nearly 900 at your third site, while First Church averaged close to 340. The reason I asked for this appointment with you is I would like to hear your reflections on what the past three decades have brought since that new mission was planted back in 1978."

"That's an interesting and timely question," Watkins said. "My wife and I plan to retire in 2012, and I've been building a file of our reflections for a book I plan to write on what we did right and on the mistakes we made. At this moment, I can summarize my reflections in nine points."

1. Back in 1978, I began to realize that every congregation needs a customized ministry plan as the leaders initiate new ideas and seek to build support for the new tomorrow. Too often, tradition, memories from the past, and means-to-an-end concerns become the reference points in making decisions. That customized ministry plan needs to be reviewed and perhaps amended every year or two.

2. In retrospect, it is now clear that the 1970s marked the end of an era for congregations like First Church to sponsor new missions. The 1980s replaced that expression of evangelism with the multisite option. If I had known in 1978 what I know today, I would have urged First Church to choose the multisite option. A major fringe benefit could have been to keep evangelism and missions at the heart of their ministry plan.

3. Back in the 1970s, we designed our ministry plan to focus on individuals. That explains why I believed my 22-year-old nephew should be our first youth minister. I wanted a recent ex-teenager to work with teenagers. In the 1980s, we began to realize that wasn't working, and our focus shifted to ministries with families that included very young children, families with children, families that included teenagers, and a dozen other family constellations, plus that rapidly growing number of one-person households. My wife and I are grateful we were the parents of teenagers back in the 1980s when that was a far easier assignment than it is today! Dave Barton's equivalent on our staff today is a widowed and remarried woman in her 40s who is the mother of two children who are now teenagers and the stepmother of a third teenager.

4. Originally, I was asked to be the mission developer of a new congregation. That was a dumb idea that is now obsolete. For each of our two new sites, we sent out a team of three full-time and four part-time staffers. I lucked out on that in July 1978; I was the leader of a six-person team, but that was luck, not my wisdom.

5. Six years after we planted this new mission, we became a two-site congregation. A 30-year-old congregation affiliated with our denomination became engaged in a bitter and highly divisive internal quarrel over staffing. Five of the leaders, two from one side and three from the other side, came and asked me to mediate their quarrel. After three sessions, these five leaders suggested they accept the resignations of all of their paid staff and volunteer policy-makers, transfer title of their five acres to us, and become our second site. We accepted.

That is how we became a multisite ministry. Five acres of land did place a relatively low ceiling on their future. In 1989, when we saw the need to add a third site in another community, we purchased 12 acres at an excellent location 14 miles west of our first location. Today, one of my regrets is I wish each of our three sites was at least 15 to 20 acres in size.

6. Perhaps the most recent learning is the so-called 800 barrier is real. Both here and at our first off-campus ministry, we operated on the principle that the road that could take us to 700 average worship attendance also could be the road to 1,200. Now we realize that means designing a new road before averaging 750 at worship. The dominant thread in that revised ministry plan is to act like a congregation averaging at least 1,200 at worship. That became our strategy at our third site.

We operate as one congregation with three sites, but with three different ministry plans. Here we follow a customized ministry plan appropriate for a congregation designed to average about 600 to 750 at worship. At the five-acre site, the design is for a worshiping community averaging 300 to 400 at worship. At our third site, our ministry plan is designed to offer more choices to a more diverse collection of people averaging 1,200 to 1,400 at worship. We customize the plan to fit that location and size. That helps us to choose the appropriate location and site for each new ministry we believe we are called to offer.

One example of this is we offer a worship service every weekend in Mandarin here, one in Spanish at our five-acre site, and two in Korean at our 12-acre site. Each fits the customized ministry strategy for that location.

7. Back in the 1970s, we continued to assume that a seminary degree prepared a person to serve as a parish pastor. Three decades later, we have come to affirm the importance of mentoring. We brought Dave Barton on our staff to serve as our youth minister. When we agreed he was too young and inexperienced for that assignment, he became our first associate minister. The big fringe benefit of his 14 years on our staff was we mentored him on the merits of the multisite option. That was something a seminary could not be expected to do. After leaving us, he became the founding pastor of a new mission that is now a seven-site ministry with a total average worship attendance of nearly 3,000. Mentoring became the new frontier for preparing people for the multisite option.

8. Back in 1969, I joined the staff at First Church fresh out of seminary as a generalist. My basic assignments included two areas of ministry. One was what the senior minister did not have the time to do. The second was to do what he did not want to do. Today, with one exception, our paid staff consists of specialists, both lay and clergy. My specialty is to be the team leader of a collection of teams. The exception is the minister who joined the staff in 1986 as the campus pastor at our second site. In 1997, he filled the sudden vacancy to become the campus pastor at our third site. Three years ago, he was reassigned to become my associate and the heir apparent when I depart.

9. Finally, we have replaced the old teacher-led adult Sunday school classes with a growing variety of face-to-face groups with each built on one major point of commonality and small peer-led learning communities. On the typical weekend, the vast majority of our people join in the corporate worship of God in the same room at the same hour as the previous week. That worship experience, that room, and the weekly gathering of their face-to-face small group are the major points of continuity for most of our people.

Has the time arrived for your congregation to become a partner in a multisite ministry?

Lyle E. Schaller is a retired parish pastor and parish consultant.

Copyright 2009 by Lyle E. Schaller

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