I was recently re-reading Les McKeown’s book Predictable Success: Getting Your Organization on the Growth Track and Keeping it There. He talks about the life stages of a startup organization. The initial stage is called “Early Struggle” and it is about the challenges that an organization faces in getting off the ground.
I think that first two years was a time of early struggle for us in ECO. After the initial Fellowship gathering in 2011, we had to write our polity, theology, do the things necessary for incorporation, and provide the services that a denomination provides... before we even existed. Then, ECO officially launched in January of 2012 and had to prove that we were a legitimate denomination that was more than a “flash in the pan”. It took five months before our very first congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma, Washington joined ECO. By the next national gathering in January of 2013 we only had 20 congregations. It was definitely a rich and fulfilling time, but there were certainly struggles as well.
The second stage McKeown writes about is named “Fun”. This is an appropriate name because everyone is having fun at this particular stage and it takes relatively little to keep people happy. I think of the next two years in ECO as the “fun” years. Churches were rapidly joining, people were getting ordained, and new churches were beginning to be planted. It wasn’t always clean and easy, but it was fun!
The next stage, according to McKeown, is “White Water”. The white water stage is still a period of growth. There is still plenty of fun (just like white water rafting is fun!), but there is also some turbulence. It is the time when the organization grows to the point where the process and system that has been in place needs to be transformed in order to meet the demands of the new reality. I think there are two factors that are currently pushing us into white water.
First, organizationally, we have grown in complexity. In the period of time where we have doubled our number of churches and overall number of covenant partners, we have more than tripled our number of presbyteries. Additionally, most presbyteries are in the second or third generation of leadership, which leaves behind some institutional memory. Also, the flexibility afforded in our polity can make for a sometimes messy process, i.e., the temptation to want to back-fill polity with “one-size” fits all rules. Managing in the midst of these situations can be turbulent!
One way in which we are navigating these white waters is by calling Nate Dreesmann as the Executive Director of Ecclesiastical Support. Nate is working very hard to streamline training processes for various presbytery ministry teams and their leaders. This will be a huge asset to our presbyteries that are primarily run by volunteers. In creating these resources and individually assisting local leaders, he is maintaining the culture and ethos of ECO while helping to ease the work of presbytery leaders.
The second issue that leads to a time of white water is simply the challenges that churches face while doing ministry in the 21st century. As often as we say to the contrary, there is still the hope among congregations that simply joining ECO will revitalize their churches. While I wish we had that ability to snap our fingers and bring about revitalization, we realistically know that only the Holy Spirit can breathe new life into people and congregations. In order to let the Spirit do the work, we need to be willing to pursue the vision and purpose that God has for our lives and congregations to flourish, rather than orchestrating our own agendas.
It is truly an exciting time within our ECO churches! I am thrilled for the opportunities that we have to help churches navigate white waters. Some of the ways we are navigating white water together include having Paul Borden (one of our national gathering keynote speakers) lead an inaugural church transformation cohort. He has led similar cohorts in many other denominations with amazing success. In addition, we are initiating the Becoming a Flourishing Church video series that will help churches refocus their vision upon joining ECO. We will also be promoting an incredibly useful tool called JobScan, and have licensed and trained individuals who can assist churches in their search for pastors and staff. Finally, we will be reworking the Elder Leadership Institute (ELI) curriculum to make it more ECO-specific in order to help congregations live out the values and culture that we espouse in ECO.
I think of many exciting times in the scriptures where the Lord led people through uncertain times of white water. In particular, I think of the call to Abram and Sarai to leave their homeland and go to the place that God would show them. They were walking into unchartered territories, but they knew the Lord was with them. We know that God will always be with us as well as we seek His will for the congregations with which He has entrusted ECO.
It is such a privilege to serve alongside of each of you as we navigate the fun times, the struggles and the white water! I am confident that as we head into a new year with new adventures, that God will continue to be faithful to us individually and corporately as disciples, leaders and churches across the country. Please prayerfully take advantage of the resources that are available… you never know what God may do among you in 2017!