Where is Classis Pella? It doesn’t exist today. In 2009, the classis that included congregations from southeast Iowa to northern Texas changed its name to the more appropriate Classis Central Plains. At the same time, the classis noted an unwelcome development. Membership in its churches had dropped on average 10%; only 3 churches had grown in the past decade. At that rate, the classis was at risk of becoming the “Little Classis on the Prairie.”
Thus in 2012 Classis Central Plains took a bold step. They contracted with me to spend 20% of my time in 2013 consulting with the congregations on church health and mission/vision. Prior to this decision, the classis had spent the majority of their home missions’ budget on church planting, with mixed results. Since struggling congregations tend to do less outreach than healthy churches, they determined to spend a greater percentage of their resources on proactive work aimed at improving the health of member congregations.
My assignment was not to restructure the classis’ committees or the way the classis works. At first, I thought I would bring together churches around various challenges and work with them in groups, but it turned out to not be that either.
I traveled to Classis Central Plains six times during 2013. During my first trip in January I traveled to each church that would have me and spoke with a small group of their leadership. I found a wide range of ways the churches felt they could be helped. Clearly grouping churches by types of problems would be a forced scenario. Thus, I simply scheduled the remaining five trips, published an open calendar for each trip with times that churches could claim for whatever they wanted that might take them toward greater health.
Some of the churches jumped at the opportunity. Others watched to see what the experience of other churches would be and began to use my help later. Each situation was different. Some wanted their pastor to meet with me. In some churches I met with their vision team and coached them in their work. For some, it expanded to work with the whole council and even the majority of the congregation.
My only agenda was to help the churches get healthier. I was not out to convince the church to be more evangelistic, develop small groups or more of any specific program. I came to listen and try to understand the unique strengths and challenges of the church. I also came with a ”tool box” from my past experiences of pastoring, church planting, and working with a large number of congregations on discipleship and leadership development. As I listened I suggested various approaches that might fit the particular church and then often got involved in actually helping them implement approaches to which the leadership of that church seemed to gravitate.
This type of coaching is more art than science. It is using the experiences God has given me in ministry leadership, especially my experience with various visioning programs, but it is definitely a work of God. He also seems to have given me the intuition and reflection capabilities to do this type of coaching well. Now that several of the churches have made progress, some are going further and asking for help with discipleship systems for adults in the congregations.
I am overjoyed to see the tangible results God has brought about in each of the congregations thus far. Time will tell if this approach will lead to more vibrant work as a classis, but the classis has already formed a new Church Health team. Some of the pastors have also been in an emotional health cohort provided by Pastor Mark Brouwer. A few are involved in other spiritual formation programs. The churches seem to be pleased with the progress they have made thus far--less apathy, a more Christ-like spirit in the congregation, a sense of moving forward and a growing spirit of outreach. There now seems to be only minimal threat of “Little Classis on the Prairie” in the future of this Classis. And the church planting thing? The pastor of a church that has been on the road of revival has been feeling a nudge by the Holy Spirit that someday that church will plant churches in two other cities. May God bring that vision and more to fruition from the growing health of these faithful congregations.