Turnaround Church

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By Jeremy DeWeerdt

In April 2007 I assumed the leadership of a well-established church that was in crisis. Founded in 1929, this church had an amazing past, but like most churches its age, it had a history of growth, hardship, expansion and decline. I have been a part of this church since 1983, first as an attendee, then pastoral staff, and eventually it’s senior leader. Over the period of time I had been there, I watched God do incredible things and yet, in the time just prior to my lead pastor assignment, I watched the church go through one of the most intense struggles of its existence. Rockford First was on the brink of bankruptcy.

As I mentioned before, Rockford First (Formally called First Assembly of God of Rockford, Illinois, prior to my assuming the position of Lead Pastor) had an amazing history. Numerical growth, a sprawling 175,000 square foot campus, a Christian school, six retirement centers, two radio stations, a TV station, multiple church plants, dozens of ministries and a reputation around the nation as a forward thinking, kingdom-shaking church. However, now it had landed on rough times.

Over-expansion, dwindling attendance and a culmination of multiple financial faith-leaps that didn’t quite pan out now put this ministry into a critical state. The former leader had transitioned out and the church board was looking for a new leader.

For years I had been a youth pastor and post-high school ministry leader at Rockford First. For a number of months, both my wife, Jen, and I had been sensing God was going to shake things up. We assumed that meant we were going to move on to another city and assignment. Instead, we found ourselves being called by the church board for a private meeting in which we were asked if we would consider allowing our names to be put forth before the congregation.

We prayed. We sensed God was in this and we put forth our names to the church congregation we both had been raised in. On April 29, 2007, we were elected by a 92% affirmative vote.

Then the work began…

Once I assumed the lead chair, I immediately discovered things were a lot worse than I had imagined. Finances were horrible. Staff tenor was depressing and solo ministries were the norm. The congregation was somewhat oblivious to how bad things really were.

My first task was to work with the board and balance a fiscal budget that was already beyond saving. We were slated to go in the hole $850,000 and there were only three months left in the fiscal year. So at the very first board meeting, the team and I gathered with a list of employees, their salary numbers and the goal of reducing staff until we hit $850,000 of personal cuts.

This meeting was terrible. Words cannot describe the feeling of knowing that decisions on a white board would eventually result in people losing their jobs and income. I came home late that night knowing that Jen and I (and the entire church) were about to go on a journey that was going to get worse before it got better.

Six weeks after becoming Lead Pastor, we laid off 16 high level positions; executive pastor, associate pastor, young adult pastor, managers, and department heads. Some of these people I had served alongside for almost 17 years. When I met with them, there were tears on both sides of the table.

That very evening, I called a special membership meeting and announced the layoffs. A crowd of about 300 people showed up and as I read the names of those being let go, there were gasps, people shouting “no” and shocked faces across the room. I told everyone that I was sorry but these decisions had to be made to save the church. We lost some members that day.

The next two years were full of irony. Financially the church was in such a terrible state that we were barely making payroll. We were cutting here and there as much as we could but still we had a difficult time finding “bottom.” The ship would just not turn. Yet, at the same time the Sunday morning services were growing. Slow, steady growth. So on the outside, everything looked like it was on the up and up, but on the inside, we were barely keeping the doors open.

Then in late 2009, a breakthrough happened. We had to make one more massive financial cut with a series of smaller layoffs and simultaneously sold off our two radio stations. (Did we really know how to take radio into the future with the competition of satellite radio, iTunes and the like? The answer… a big “NO!”) The controversial sale of the radio stations saved the church. This cash influx allowed us to pay down bills, stabilize our economy and get on our feet.

Then it happened! God began to really grow His church. Sunday morning attendance started to expand at a faster rate. By 2012, Outreach Magazine listed Rockford First as the 7th fastest growing church in America, based upon percentage growth. We’ve been on the top 100 list ever since.

More and more people were coming. Churchgoers were bringing their friends, family, co-workers, fellow students and neighbors. Many were getting saved and baptized. Every ministry from kids to senior adults began to thrive.

As I write this, I reflect on all that God has done in the last eight years. Thousands are attending every weekend. There is excitement in the house! God is moving and lives are being changed. We had our “desert” season for those first two to three years, but then God helped us cross the Jordan, as they say.

So, what have I learned from the last eight years? Well, more than I could write in this article. But here are some personal insight to pastors who may be in the same situation as I was—at the helm of a dying church that still has hope.

The Lead Pastor has to set a tone of faith and expectation, even when there is little to celebrate.

There was very little to celebrate for those first few years. In fact, I would stand up on Sundays and proclaim that Rockford First was a world-changing church and then battle for the life of the church Monday through Saturday. It was difficult. Sometimes I felt I was lying to the congregation. However, we would have the smallest “win” and celebrate it like it was the biggest miracle. We had to or we, as a leadership team, would ourselves be overwhelmed with discouragement.

At the end of the day, remember: Jesus didn’t die for policy manuals and procedures. He died for human beings.

Have no time for negativity.

All one could find at First Rockford in the early years of my leadership was negativity. People were hurt because of the layoffs. People were frustrated because I was changing the methodology of Sunday mornings to connect with those outside the church. I could go into the plethora of emails and letters I received that criticized the decisions I had made or the direction I had pointed the church in. At the end of the day, I decided to have no time for negativity.

I would tell my poor secretary (who, many times, received the brunt of the negativity through phone calls and people barging into the office, demanding to see me) to throw away or delete every negative message I received. I didn’t need to fill my spirit with that. When negativity would surface in a meeting, I did my best to redirect the conversation. We had to keep full of faith!

Unity is paramount.

There’s a powerful truth found in Psalms 133:1,3: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore (ESV).”

A divine theme can be derived from these verses: When people lay down their personal preferences and choose to be unified around the right things, “THERE” God “commands” His blessing. Conversely, if there isn’t unity, God cannot command His blessing.

I took these verses very seriously while manning the helm of Rockford First–so much so that I promptly encouraged those who could not jump on board with the vision to find a church where they could, because I knew that blessing could not come without unity. Sometimes we are afraid to release people to another church. But often, releasing people releases the blessing of God.

Remind everyone that no perfect people are allowed.

I started to say this on Sunday mornings because it had a message to the believer and the seeker. To the believer, it reminded us that we are gathering together in Jesus’ name but also inviting others outside of faith to join us and (hopefully) become curious. In my opinion, the primary reason the church exists is for followers of Christ to gather in His name. However, a second priority is to invite those outside of faith to join in.

To really make those seeking a priority, you need to think through EVERY moment of your service. It DOES NOT mean you water down or sanitize the message of the Gospel, but more than anything you prioritize it. So we decided to make this an overarching theme in our Sunday services. We gather as people of faith and we encourage them to bring their seeking friends and family. Rockford First became not only a safe place but also an exciting place to bring your friend or family member who didn’t know Jesus. We talk about real life stuff.

I often say, if you cannot take some portion of my message and apply it to your life on Monday morning, I’ve wasted your time. We try really hard to eliminate Christianese (that set of words that only makes sense in Church-world) from our vocabulary. We strive to make the complex things of life as simple as possible. Jesus was the master of this. Though his stories and teachings where very deep, He communicated them in such a way that both the learned and unlearned, the insiders and outsiders, the young and old could understand.

Change happens slower than you think.

One of my greatest frustrations over the last eight years was that things changed too slowly! (Or at least I thought so.) I had some misconceptions that the sweeping changes I was leveraging would bring immediate positive results, but unfortunately I discovered my expectations where unrealistic.

Not only were there years of established culture that was entrenched in Rockford First, but also an overarching feeling that the best days of the church were behind us. Jen, a handful of others and myself would huddle together often in my office and encourage each other that the tone of faith we were spreading in the hallways would someday become the overwhelming chorus of our church. However, that tone of faith seemed to take forever to become firmly rooted and established in our everyday church culture.

Seeds grow first in the dark ground before there is ever a sign of life above ground. The choices you make, trusting that God is able to turn the situation around, ARE making a big difference. However, you don’t see that difference right away. The Spirit of God is working in the background, but many times we don’t see His hand at work until quite some time later.

Today, by God’s grace, Rockford First is a thriving, alive, exciting, Spirit-filled and growing church. The congregation is all in. The staff is full of great faith. Momentum has shifted and now there is overall belief that God has our best days ahead of us.

Rockford First is truly a divine miracle–a church with an honored past but an infinitely bright future!

Jeremy DeWeerdt serves as the Lead Pastor of Rockford First, a church that is focused on three simple priorities: Loving God, Loving People, and Loving Life! Jeremy, along with his wife, Jen, accepted the Lead Pastor position in April of 2007, after having been on staff at Rockford First for more than 16 years in the role of Student Ministries Pastor and Director/Founder of the post-high school ministry, Rockford Master‘s Commission. To learn more about Jeremy, visit: www.rockfordfirst.com