What happens when a congregation trusts God for big change? Doug Powe of the Lewis Center staff speaks with author and pastor Dawn Darwin Weaks about the rebirth of Connection Christian Church and how to lead change well.
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Doug Powe: Breakthrough: Trusting God for Big Change in Your Church is an insightful book, and you acknowledge that change is a challenge even when it is wanted. Share a little bit about how you came to what is now Connection Christian Church and why leading change is even challenging when people say they want change.
Dawn Weaks: Our system in the Christian Church Disciples of Christ is kind of a dating system for ministers and congregations. If a pastor is interested in serving a congregation, they put their name in the hat and the congregation then gets those names to interview. Well, my husband and I had not done that. We were happy co-pastoring a church in Kansas City.
One day a lady called up out of the blue and described this West Texas church to me. I had spent some time in West Texas as a kid and still had family in this area, so I was not completely unfamiliar with the area, but it was still farthest from my imagination of where we would wind up. We said, “No, we’re not interested. Thank you. We’re doing good ministry here,” but they were persistent in prayer and conversation. What intrigued us was that they seemed to know they were a part of the body of Christ that was underrepresented in this geographical area. They had passion and purpose as they knew that the body of Christ was bigger than what was demonstrated as what being a Christian meant for the Permian Basin.
That intrigued us enough to go and look, and we found a congregation that averaged about 45 people in worship and still had resources and passion for some kind of change, but what that would be was a huge question mark. Even though people knew change needed to happen, and some were actively cheerleading for it, it was still very tough and slow. It was not automatic. Before we accepted the call, we wrote a letter to the congregation and spelled out that we would look seriously at relocation and that they should not call us. We did not want to uproot our elementary school age children to go there if they weren’t also serious about that level of shift in the life of the church. They still voted to call us. It took three years of work together to get to that point, but we did get to that point by God’s help.
Doug Powe: We’re going to unpack that some, and I appreciate your description of what happened. You left a congregation in Kansas City that had 150–200 in worship.
Dawn Weaks: We were running about 300 in worship at the time.
Doug Powe: So, I was low. You left 300 in worship to go to a congregation in Odessa, Texas, that had 45 in worship?
Dawn Weaks: That’s right.
Doug Powe: You went because they were interested in change and you and Joe believed you were the right ones to lead them through this change.
Dawn Weaks: It does sound totally crazy. Stuff that only God can do, right? I have always wanted to start a new church, and God has always called me to churches that are 100 years or more old. To me, starting a new church is not necessarily about being in a brand-new congregation. It’s about starting again with a rooted congregation and that’s what we’ve seen God do here. We came out with the book because there are so many other congregations in similar situations, with a rich history but unsure of the future. Yet they’ve got all this great rootedness to work with if they can find a breath of fresh wind to go on.
Doug Powe: The congregation in this case said they wanted to change. There are a lot of congregations that don’t want to change and fight everything in the world to say they don’t want to change. But in this case the congregation recognized change needed to happen. So, the two of you get to the congregation in Odessa. They say they want to change. How did you 1) help them understand what that means and then 2) lay out priorities for going about change?
Dawn Weaks: The first thing we did was pray, along with the things you do to steel yourself for the work. The first organizational thing we did was to be transparent about the reality. This congregation was spending down their endowment about $70,000 a year to stay at even pace with the expenses of a building that was in a location that did not serve them, so we were transparent about that. Most people didn’t realize that reality. We did a cost assessment of what it would cost to repair the building and make it handicapped accessible and put a fresh face on the building — all the things you need to do to really be a useful vessel for the Lord’s work. That bill was going to be in the $2 million range.
We were transparent about the reality. So, change wasn’t about “these pastors want us to do something we don’t want to do.” Change was about what are we going to do to be good stewards in this situation.” The lay leaders in our congregation were just brilliant. In the book, I try to highlight one of them at the end of every chapter because to me pastors talking to pastors about change is kind of fruitless. Leaders need to talk to leaders about change, and we had some leaders who were willing to say, hey, if this is what we’re looking at, spending this kind of money to keep 45 people going in worship, knowing we’re declining even from there, that isn’t being a good steward. So, even though they couldn’t see the vision of what was next, they were aware that what we were doing didn’t make any sense.
The next thing we did was start talking about how we should be taking church to people instead of trying to get people to come to the church building in an out-of-the-way location. So, we developed a sense of experimentation and adventure while we were trying to figure out what the Spirit had for us. We were doing things like Ashes to Go. We were having Bible studies in grocery stores and coffee shops. We were doing a Sunday night worship service once a month in an Italian restaurant. We were trying to help us all grow into the understanding that the church is not a building because we knew we were going to have to let our building go. This gave people some vision that we could have a bright future if we would try to keep up with what the Lord wanted to do in people in our community.
Doug Powe: Experimentation is so critical. It’s something that, whenever I’m doing workshops or sharing with people, I say: experimenting is your friend. For too long in the church world, we have not bought into how helpful experimentation can be. But you all talked about doing the Bible studies in these different places. Did you and Joe, who is the co-pastor, do this yourselves? How did you work with laity to take on some of this? The other challenge you hinted at is that it’s one thing for the two of you to know something must happen. But it’s another thing for you to be able to get other people to buy into “something has to happen” and actually take some ownership to move the process along. As you did these experimentations, were you able to get others to do some of the sharing of the work with you or did it fall basically on your shoulders?
Dawn Weaks: We didn’t do it perfectly. There were times that we probably over-functioned and still over-function as a lot of ministers do. For Ashes to Go, Joe and I were never out there by ourselves offering ashes and prayer. We took elders or other leaders in the church with us, and those folks said “that’s the best thing I’ve ever done, praying for a stranger. I didn’t know I could do that.” They want to go every year.
When we did our worship service in the Italian restaurant, we could not have done that without other folks being willing to greet and provide music and capture the concept of it. When we met in an elementary school cafetorium during our wilderness time in between our downtown facility and the facility we’re in now, those leaders made that happen. There was no way that Joe or I individually could pull all of that together. Some of my favorite memories are of the people who would hang our church sign on the fence of the elementary school playground every week, rain, shine, or wind (which we get a lot of). Seeing them offer that welcome, invitation, and attention to evangelism did my heart good every Sunday. We had people who came and joined us because people like to join something new and not try to come into an existing group.
The spirit of experimentation and adventure helped our church so much in the pandemic, too. When it came time to figure out how we were going to keep meeting, and thankfully we’re in a warm climate, by God’s grace we had this concept of meeting in the parking lot. All our people were like, yeah, let’s try worship in the parking lot, because they’ve already worshiped in all these strange situations. It’s a prayer or a poem by John O’Donohue who says, “learn to find ease in risk.”
Doug Powe: I like it.
Dawn Weaks: And that playful spirit. I mean somebody said to me at the end of last year, “you know what? We haven’t gotten out beyond our walls very much.” And they were right. We were so relieved to be back to “normal,” whatever that is, after the pandemic. So, this year, we’re doing a story slam, and we’re meeting in different places; we have a question, and people share their story of God’s movement in their life around that question. Oh, it’s so much fun. It’s not the talking heads or the pastors talking. It’s the voices of leaders and newbies in the pew that are stepping out. It’s refreshing to everybody.
Doug Powe: I love the story. So, you do these experiments and start connecting with people because you’re getting out beyond the walls. I highlight that there are 45 in worship because people always think this takes a huge congregation, but your congregation is under 50 in worship. You’re out doing these things and meeting new people, but talk about some of the challenges. Even in meeting those new people, there’s still somewhat of a disconnect of “Hey, we’re meeting new people because we’re getting out. We need to really make a huge change and give up our building so we can do something new.” Can you talk about some of the challenges? I don’t want people to think that this was an easy transition.
Dawn Weaks: Even though we were doing ministry and sharing the love of God in Jesus Christ in tangible ways, those folks didn’t necessarily come on a Sunday morning. Very few did, so it wasn’t changing the numerical health of the congregation. We rarely had a visitor in our downtown location, and that’s changed remarkably in a location that is simply more accessible to people. The Spirit gave us two words that were incredibly important during this process: accessibility and sustainability. How can we be accessible to our community? What sustains our energy and our resources for the long term? Moving through this process, we worked with our denomination, did an intentional study with small group meetings and all those things while expanding our concept of what ministry means by going out beyond the walls.
When it came right down to it, there was a particular board meeting where we needed to decide, and we had no direction from the congregation. Some people said, “Let’s stay here and try harder.” Some people said, “I’m tired of trying. I don’t think we’re getting anywhere really. Let’s move on.” But it was split. The mature Christian leaders in the congregation that are not paid were those who moved this forward with God’s help. One of our leaders spoke up and said, “You know what? We’re appointed to lead, and leading doesn’t mean testing the wind. Leading means: what is God telling us that needs to happen?” Out of that, we put the building on the market, and that was the forward momentum we needed to start seeing things happen.
Doug Powe: I want to remind people that when you came, you wrote the letter up front naming that “we would probably have to move.” But it came down to a meeting where it was really split. It took the voice of a mature person to swing the pendulum where you’re able to make the move. Given that you named up front what you believed needed to happen and that’s part of the reason that you went there, why do you believe it still came down to this one meeting? With all the success you had getting out, naming it up front, the congregation knowing things needed to change, why do you think it still came down to really needing someone to swing that pendulum instead of people jumping on board?
Dawn Weaks: Change is hard. But for our context, I think it’s because our people loved each other and love each other so much that it’s the tyranny of the minority. We didn’t want to make anyone else uncomfortable. We didn’t want to make any of our elderly people give up the church that brought them comfort. I really think it was about love, which helped me be less resentful or frustrated because I could see that the intent was not to be difficult. The intent was to try to love people who loved this church. For them it was not just a building. It was a place, a meeting with God, where they had buried loved ones, where they had had weddings and all those things. To take a step back and say they are intending to love … it was extremely important to care for folks through the process.
I love the testimony from Sarah Grove, who was our children’s Sunday school teacher for 54 years. Her testimony is in the book, and she tells it like it is. She says, “Move? They wanted me to move? I’ve never heard of a church having to move! Then they wanted to change the name! And I don’t understand why we couldn’t use the red chalice, which is our denomination’s logo. Why did they want to do all this?” But then she says, “I decided to trust God and trust the people who loved me.”
So, it was the spiritual maturity that moved us through all that. If it were not for courageous lay leaders, we probably would not have done this. My husband and I have a lot of experience, have all the degrees and the calling and all of that. This is why a lot of my passion is that leaders need to talk to leaders to give each other the umph that they need, because it’s not just the “expert” pastor that’s able to make this happen.
Doug Powe: You’ve highlighted a lot of important things, but one central theme that we often overlook is where you started — by talking about how they really love their church. Oftentimes, we equate that with the building, and that’s true. Congregations fall in love with their building. But it’s also the memories and things that are attached to the building, and it is not simply the building itself. Being able to have individuals work through that — even though we might be moving, the love doesn’t stay here, the love comes with us — I imagine is what helped to swing the pendulum in the right direction for where you wanted to go.
Dawn Weaks: That and developing an equal love for those who had yet to find God’s love through a church. Going outside our walls with our leaders gave them a vision that love doesn’t decrease when you share it. It multiplies. Coming face to face with people who said, “I haven’t been to church in 20 years,” or “My parents never brought me to church. I’ve never been,” stretches their hearts to see that love could include more people who really needed it.
Doug Powe: It is hard for congregations to grow and typically the reason congregations don’t grow is because they don’t want to. They enjoy and are comfortable with one another, and subconsciously or consciously they want to keep that group together. Do you think it was the experiments that helped them understand spreading the love? Or were there other things that helped them realize that it’s important for us not only to have the love that we have shared for several years in this group, but we need to expand that to include others, if we want to grow?
Dawn Weaks: Really key for our folks was that our church was 110 years old, and we worked a lot with the history, the DNA, the origins of the church. Why did we first begin? We were in a pioneer area. What has this church brought to the community over time? Our history was a rich resource to help people feel like we’re not doing something different. We are doing what was in the original intent of our founders. They intended for this church to be a huge blessing to this community. Are we a huge blessing right now? No, in transparent reality we’re not. But we used to be. How do we reimagine that for what’s coming?
That motivated a lot of folks who cared about the history of the church and wanted to keep with its intent. It helped them to feel good and proud about what we were doing. It helped that our church had started a lot of nonprofits in the community and been a huge part of serving. A part of our new location is that we host nonprofits in the community on our campus. That felt new but was really a recapitulation of the old, of the original identity of our congregation coming forward into the future.
Doug Powe: You’ve hit on what I think is one of the key elements that is often overlooked by a congregation. It’s going back and helping people understand the original missional impetus for why the congregation was started and helping people reclaim that in some sense, to see that their relatives really did have a heart for the community, and that makes all the difference in the world.
Dawn Weaks: It really does.
Doug Powe: Not only did you move the church, but you changed the name.
Dawn Weaks: I didn’t change the name. The congregation changed the name.
Doug Powe: Yeah, I hear you, I hear you. Okay, I’ll go with you. The congregation changed the name. So, how did you get the congregation to buy into a name change and why did you change the name?
Dawn Weaks: By the time we got to the name change, we had already found our new location, we’d sold our building, and I was ready to be done with asking anybody to do anything uncomfortable ever again. I talked to Rick Morrison, a leader in our denomination who had helped us some throughout this process. I said, “Rick, do we have to make them think about changing the name?” And he said, “If you don’t, everything you’ve done up to this point will not be as effective as it would have been.” Oh, gosh!
So, we went through quite a process to discern a name. There were nine “First something” churches in our immediate community, not to count the town 20 miles over or the surrounding towns. This was so confusing to an increasingly unchurched population. “First” is racist. I’m just going to put it right out there. It meant we were the first white church of our denomination, so that’s not really something to be proud of. It just hadn’t aged well. So, finding a name that was unique, that communicated to outsiders but that still expressed our heart. It was a process, but that turned out to be the easiest vote. People were like, oh, yeah, whatever. We’ve done all this. We might as well.
And again, it’s connected with our history. Our name is Connection Christian Church, Disciples of Christ. And Connection — how fortuitous was it? We didn’t know the pandemic was coming and people would be hungry for connection. But connection has roots in our denomination’s history with Martin Stone, one of our founders, who had a journal called The Christian Connection. So, it just worked for lots of reasons, and it has been a gift as a new fresh start to have a new way to introduce ourselves to the community.
Doug Powe: If you were going to share with other pastors who pastor congregations under 50, many who have very similar struggles to the struggle that you all faced coming to the church, who may not be able to move their congregation to a new place, but they still need to do something. What would be the one or two things you would suggest to those pastors?
Dawn Weaks: That’s a great point. Not every church needs to move or can move or has the resources. Transparent reality is very important, and then trust in the effectiveness of the gospel. We don’t have to make the gospel effective. The gospel is effective to change people’s lives, but we can stand in its way. If we’re clear about our reality and what is standing in the way of people getting the gospel, what resources we’re bleeding out instead of putting into good purpose, we can restructure things. We can experiment. We can reintroduce the church to the community with the gospel as our primary motor, trusting that it will be effective.
I can see and have talked with other churches that have read our book and even been to our church. First Christian Church, Santa Angelo, Texas, comes to mind. They have partnered with another congregation, Grace Presbyterian Church, in that community, and they have created a backyard in their facility for outdoor concerts and for connection with the community. And they are thriving. So, it’s not just about a relocation. It can be simply readjustment to what the gospel requires of us in this age.
Doug Powe: Thank you so much. It has been great talking to you. The book is Breakthrough: Trusting God for Big Change in Your Church, and I guarantee that if you pick it up it, it really will inspire you. Thank you for this conversation and the work that you’re doing and for taking a risk. There are not many individuals — and I may put myself in that number — that would leave a 300-member-in-worship church to go to a 45-member-in-worship church. So, thank you for your faithfulness to the gospel.
Dawn Weaks: It’s worth it. Thank you for having me.
Breakthrough: Trusting God for Big Change in Your Church (Chalice Press, 2022) by Dawn Darwin Weaks is available at Chalice Press, Cokesbury, and Amazon.
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- Making Your Ministry Present in Its Physical Space by Travis Norvell