What happens when a congregation trusts God for big change? We speak with author and pastor Dawn Darwin Weaks about the rebirth of Connection Christian Church and how to lead change well.
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What happens when a congregation trusts God for big change? In this episode we speak with author and pastor Dawn Darwin Weaks about the rebirth of Connection Christian Church and how to lead change well.
Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast between thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center, and your host for this talk. Joining me is the Rev. Dr. Dawn Weaks, who is the co-pastor of Connection Christian Church in Odessa, Texas. She is the author of Breakthrough: Trusting God for Big Change in Your Church. Our focus for this podcast is leading change. Welcome, Dawn, to the podcast. I just want to upfront encourage people, if they have not read Breakthrough, they need to pick it up and read it immediately.
Dawn Weaks: Thanks for that. Dr. Powe, it’s so fun to be with you, because you are one of the ones who helped me get the doctor in front of my name. I’m always grateful for your mentorship.
Doug Powe: You’re very kind, but it was well earned I will say, so my role in it was very small. I want to begin and, again, I just want to thank you for an insightful book. But what I really appreciated is that is clear that leading change is a challenge even when people want it. And that’s going to become clear to our listening and watching audience in a second. I want you to just to share a little bit about how you came to what is now Connection and why I gave this comment that leading change is even challenging when people say they want change.
Dawn Weaks: Yes. Our system in the Christian Church Disciples of Christ is, for lack of a better phrase to describe it, kind of a dating system for ministers and congregations. You know, if you’re interested, you put your name in the hat and the congregation then gets those names to talk to. Well, we had not done that. We were happy in our setting in Kansas City where we were co-pastoring a church — my husband and I.
One day this lady just calls up out of the blue and tries to describe to me this church in West Texas. Now 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. Even though we said no at first (“No, we’re not interested. Thank you. We’re doing good ministry here.”), they were persistent. This congregation was persistent in prayer and persistent in 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. And they seemed to have passion about that and purpose about that — that the body of Christ was bigger than what was being seen as what being a Christian meant for the Permian Basin, which is our area.
That intrigues us enough to go and look, and what we found was a congregation that had about 45 people in worship on average and still had resources and passion for some kind of change, but what that would be was just 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 an automatic. We went so far as writing a letter to the congregation before we accepted the call and spelled out that we would be looking 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. And they still voted to call us. Yet it took three years still 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. But just to set the stage for those who are joining us, you all 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: 300. So, I was even low — 300 in worship. Then go to a congregation in Odessa, Texas, that had 45 in worship.
Dawn Weaks: That’s right.
Doug Powe: And you are going to this place because they’re interested in change — at least that’s what they say — and you and Joe believe that you are the right ones who can lead them through this change.
Dawn Weaks: It does sound crazy, right? Totally crazy.
Doug Powe: I just want to … I just want to set this up. Is that the story?
Dawn Weaks: Stuff that only God can do, right? Yes, that’s 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 as well, and that’s what we’ve seen God do here. And we came out with the book just because there are so many other congregations that are in such 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: So, let’s begin there. The congregation — and I don’t want to skip over this too much — but in this case they at least say they wanted to change. I said I don’t want to skip over that too much because 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 let’s move forward. The two of you get to Odessa. You get to the congregation. They say they want to change. Then how did you go about working with them to: 1) help them really understand what that means for change but then 2) lay out priorities for going about change?
Dawn Weaks: The first thing we did of course, obviously, prayer and the things you do to steel yourself for these things. But really the first organizational thing we did was get transparent about the reality. This congregation was spending down their endowment at a tune of about $70 thousand a year just to stay at even pace with the expenses of being in a building that was in a location that did not serve them, so being transparent about that. Most people didn’t know that — didn’t realize that and other realities. We did a cost assessment of what it would cost to repair the building and make it handicapped accessible and all the things you need to do. Put a fresh front door face on the building. All the things you need to do to really be a useful vessel for the Lord’s work, right? And that bill was going to be in the $2 million range.
We just got transparent about the reality. Then, 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 stewards in the situation that we are in?” And the lay folks, the lay leaders, in our congregation were just brilliant. In the book, I try to highlight one at the end of every chapter because to me pastors talking to pastors about change is just kind of fruitless. Leaders need to talk to leaders about change, and we had some leaders that were willing to say, hey, if this is what we’re looking at, spending this kind of money just 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 began to be aware that what we were doing didn’t make any sense.
The next thing we did was start talking about how, instead of trying to get people to come to church especially while we were in this building in an out-of-the-way location, we should be taking church to people. So, we just developed this sense of experimentation and adventure while we were kind of trying to figure out what the Spirit had for us. We were adventuring. 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 just trying to help us all grow into the understanding that the church is not a building because in our gut we knew we were going to have to let our building go. That began to give 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: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the experimentations, because I think experimentation is so critical. It’s something that, whenever I’m doing workshops or sharing with people, I say experimenting is your friend. I think that 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 places in these different areas. What I’m wondering is, did you and Joe, who is the co-pastor, do this yourselves? How did you work with lay to take on some of this? Because I think the other challenge — and you hinted at this — is it’s one thing for the two of you to know something has to 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. A lot of ministers do. Yet, for example, our ashes-to-go, taking elders or other leaders in the church with me, every single one that goes with me. Joe and I never are out there by ourselves offering ashes and prayer. We’ve always got somebody that we’re enjoying the experience with. Those folks will say “that’s the best thing I’ve ever done, praying for a stranger. I didn’t know I could do that.” And they want to go every year.
When we did our worship service in the Italian restaurant, my goodness, we could not have done that without other folks being willing to greet and provide music and just capture the concept of it. When we met in our wilderness time in between our downtown facility and the facility we’re in now, we were in an elementary school cafetorium, and those leaders made that happen. I mean there was no way that Joe or I individually could pull all of that together. One of my favorite memories of that are of the ones that 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, that invitation, that attention to evangelism, did my heart good every Sunday. We did have people who came and joined us because people like to join something new and not try to come into a group that’s already begun, as you know.
But that spirit of experimentation and adventure helped our church so much in the pandemic, too. Oh, my goodness. When it came time to figure out how we were going to keep meeting and — thankfully we’re in a warm climate — we by God’s grace had this concept of meeting in the parking lot, all of our people were like, yeah, let’s try worship in the parking lot, because they’ve already done it in all these strange situations. You know, it was just easier. I think 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 just back to “normal,” whatever that is, after the pandemic. So this year, we’re doing a story slam, and we’re meeting in these 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; it’s not the pastors talking. It’s the voices of leaders and newbies in the pew that are stepping out. And it’s just refreshing to everybody.
Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turnkey tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.
Doug Powe: You know I love the story. So, then you all do these experiments, and, as you said, you all start connecting with people because you’re getting out beyond the walls. Again, I want to mention that there’s 45 in worship because people always think this takes a huge congregation. Your congregation is under 50 in worship. You’re out doing these things and you’re meeting new people and that’s wonderful. But here I want you to 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, and we’re meeting them 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 challenge? I don’t want people to think that this was just an easy transition.
Dawn Weaks: So, even though we were doing ministry and sharing the love of God in Jesus Christ in really tangible ways, those folks didn’t necessarily come on a Sunday morning. I mean very few, right? So, it wasn’t really changing the health of the congregation numerically. We would rarely have a visitor in our downtown location, and that’s something that’s changed remarkably in a location that is simply more accessible to people. So, we had two words that were really incredibly important to us that the spirit felt like the Spirit gave us during this process. One is accessibility. How can we be accessible to our community? And the other word is sustainability. What makes sense? What sustains our energy, our resources, for the long term? So, moving through this process, we worked with our denomination and did an intentional study, you know, where small groups meet and all those things. We’re doing that while we’re expanding our concept of what ministry means and going out beyond the walls.
When it came right down to it, there was a particular board meeting where we needed to make a decision based on the process we’d gone, and we just 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, really. So, the leadership, leaders in the congregation that are not paid, that are mature Christian people, were 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 really start seeing things happen.
Doug Powe: And I just want to remind people joining us that when you came, you wrote the letter up front naming that — “we would probably have to move” — but still it comes down to a meeting where it’s really split. And it really took the voice of a mature person to sort of swing the pendulum where you’re actually able to make the move. Here I’m asking you for insight. I mean, 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, with naming it up front, with 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 just really jumping on board, given that’s what they said they wanted to do up front?
Dawn Weaks: For our context, these answers — change is hard.
Doug Powe: Yeah.
Dawn Weaks: But for our context, I think it’s because our people loved each other and love each other so much that — and I talk about this a little bit in the book — 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, so 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 would not have probably done this. And these are two ministers — 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: I think you’ve highlighted a lot of important things, but one central theme that I think 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. I think that going outside our walls with our leaders gave them a vision that love doesn’t decrease when you share it, right? 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,” stretching their hearts to see that love could include more people who really needed it.
Doug Powe: And do you believe that? Because it is hard for congregations to grow, and I always share that typically the reason congregations don’t grow is because they don’t want to. Right? 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 to understand spreading the love? Or were there other things that helped them to realize that it’s important for us not only to have the love that we have shared for a number of years in this group, but we need to expand that to include others, if we want to grow?
Dawn Weaks: Really key, I think 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 is 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, and 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 be in keeping with its intent and helped them to feel good and proud about what we were doing. And 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 now is we are a host for nonprofits in the community on our campus, and that felt new but 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 to reclaim that in some sense, to see often 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: I know we’re getting short on time, but I want to move to this. 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.
Dawn Weaks: Yes, yes.
Doug Powe: So, how did you get the congregation to buy into a name change and why did you change the name?
Dawn Weaks: Well, 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. And I talked to a leader in our denomination who had helped us some throughout this process. His name is Rick Morrison. 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. But the reasons why, just very briefly, there were nine “First something” churches in our immediate community, not to count the town 20 miles over or the surrounding towns. Just so confusing to an increasingly unchurched population which church we were. And “First” is racist. I’m just going to put it right out there. It meant we were the first white church of our denomination and so that’s not really something to be proud of. You know, it just hadn’t aged well. So, finding a name that was unique and — and I talk about this a little in the book — some of the criteria 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, right. But connection actually 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: That’s great. Well, as we get ready to bring this to a close — sadly because I’ve enjoyed the conversation — 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 and who may not be able to move their congregation to a new place but 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 to 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 and 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 to see. One in particular comes to mind. It’s First Christian Church, Santa Angelo, Texas. 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: Well done. Thank you so much. It has been great talking to you. And again, 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, if you get the book. 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.
Thank you for joining us for Leading Ideas Talks.
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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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