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Gene Appel: Leading Through Change

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Don’t miss part 1 of the interview with Gene Appel, in which the pastor of Eastside Christian Church describes his calling to full-time ministry and his journey from being an intern to pastoring a megachurch.

Tell us about your new chapter at Eastside.

Eastside has been around since 1962—55 years. As every church does that is that old, it has gone through different cycles, different eras. When I came, I was inheriting a pastoral role from leaders who had led the church with deep prayer and integrity. But the church had declined in attendance—from a high of 2,900 back down to 1,900. The congregation was aging. But thanks to my predecessor, the church had been positioned well for a new chapter. There was no debt, no scandal. There was money in the bank and unity among the people. It was a prayerful church. It was ready for a new day. There weren’t messes to clean up. What an incredible gift a predecessor can leave for their successor and their church.

In my early days, I tried to get to know the church and staff really well. That first fall, we treated Christmas as a chance to reach out to the community. We focused together on doing a great Christmas outreach event to be a catalyst for new evangelistic fruit. We painted and put down new carpet—did a facelift on all our public areas. We started a strategic-planning process and brought the staff together.

By the time Christmas hit, we ended up having the largest event in Eastside’s history: 6,200 people attended our Christmas services. We did eight services and had to turn people away at five of them. That was a catalytic turning point for the church. We saw an immediate effect—a burst of energy and attendance. A lot of people came to faith as a result of a follow-up series to our Christmas event. We ended up doing a call in a service for spontaneous baptisms. We had 115 baptisms that weekend—more than twice the number of baptisms the church had the entire year before.

That was a catalytic experience. There were new people, new energy and brand-new Christians joining the church. The whole congregation recognized this as the beginning of a new day. My first weekend there I had asked people to pray for God to send a fresh wind. By that February, I said, “We asked for a fresh wind, but God brought a hurricane.” And it was true.

Between October 2008 and February 2009, we had grown from 1,900 to 3,200 people. We paused an existing building project—recognizing that what had been planned would be inadequate now—and our leadership team asked the congregation to pray a two-word prayer with us: Now what?

It was clear to me that the answer to that question included clarity and focus of mission. When I’d first joined the church, it was very program-heavy after 46 years of ministry. So we formed a strategic-planning team. All our staff and board began reading and talking together and decided to go toward a simpler model of ministry.

In a staff meeting one day, I said: “There’s a big sign in our church-office lobby that you all seem to like: ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’ I’m the new guy here,” I said, “so what is the main thing?” I had a flip chart, and people began sharing different thoughts. By the time I was done I had filled five pages.

Everyone was laughing—it was so obvious that we weren’t clear what the main thing was. “I don’t care how long it takes,” I said, “but I want us all to get on the same page.”

There were 32 separate ministries, and none of them worked together. “Again, I’m the new guy here,” I said. “Tell me all the different ministries we have to help folks grow spiritually.” I started filling up that flip chart again. There weren’t five. Not 10, 20 or even 25. There were 32 different ministries to encourage spiritual growth. How do you promote that? How do you finance that? How do people understand that? So I gave everyone around the table a blank piece of paper. “If all these ministries disappeared tomorrow, except four, which would you keep?”

What was the response?

It was amazing. To a person, everyone in that room wrote down the same three ministries—plus their own. [Laughs] That was so revealing. In the back of our minds, we all had clarity for what represented our “main thing.”

After about six months, our strategic-planning team summed up the work we’d been doing in three big values for our church: pursue God, build community and unleash compassion. Then we defined how we would express those values. So we got specific for our congregation, focusing all our energy on what was vital to identity and mission. We realigned our staff and volunteers. Everybody’s job description changed; some changed dramatically. Then we did a sermon series articulating our simplified, focused vision to the entire church.

It sounds like a freeing experience.

It was! We wanted to give people margin to love their neighbors. We had been such a program-heavy church that people had little margin in their lives to build deep relationships with their neighbors or engage people far from God in an authentic way.

As we announced all this to the church, I said to the congregation, “You probably think that you have a loony new pastor here at Eastside now. That may be true, but I’m not the only one.” And I had all our staff, elders and strategic-planning team join me on the stage. “All these people here are just as loony as I am,” I said.

Because we had taken over six months to strategically plan the new direction, it was a participatory, collaborative vision that we were able to put before the church. Not Gene’s, Eastside’s. Not mine, ours. “I had my assistant do the math this week,” I said. “Represented on this stage are 688 years of connection in this church. These people love this church. They sacrifice for it. They would never do anything to hurt this church. As best as we can understand, this is the direction that God is leading us. We’re asking you to lock arms and hearts with us as we move forward on this.” It was a powerful moment. Everyone in the church knew someone on that stage.

What did you learn from that realignment?

That it’s really not how many people embrace a change that determines whether it succeeds or fails, but who embraces the change. You need the key influencers. And when that’s genuine, it becomes a catalyzing, defining moment for us. That was June 2009, bringing the energy of the fall and winter into sharp focus. That fall, we implemented our new vision. Like all change, we hit speed bumps, and unhappy people, and all those things you’d expect. But because we had taken the time to go through the collaborative process of creating the vision in community, and because we were unified, our leadership was able to hang together through the transition period of the next year.

Within three to six months, we were already seeing the fruit of the simplified new vision. This wasn’t a shotgun approach to ministry. It was focused. Within a few months we went from a little over 600 people involved in those 32 ministries to over 1,100 people involved in small groups. The first serve day we had—just three months into the new direction—we had over 1,900 people show up. We loved it. We were all working together. When you simplify and clarify your focus, you can bring the entire power of the church to bear on each thing you do.

Soon after, we relocated to a building that better suited our needs, with the expectation of going multisite in the near future. Though the economy was in a terrible place, God orchestrated events in a way that got us into a former Boeing property that could meet our needs. We relocated to Anaheim in November 2012. Since then, we’ve launched two additional sites and are on the verge of launching our fourth.

Why is the church growing?

Growth starts in the heart of a church’s leaders. We really want to reach lost people. We want to love people who are far from God—that main thing that God put in my heart when I was 14 still drives me. Because of that passion, we have been strategic to develop clear vision for what God’s calling us to be—and, just as important, what he’s not calling us to be.

We don’t have a lot of navel-gazing conversations these days. We have clarity. God has called us to transform homes, the community and the world as we pursue God, build community and unleash compassion.

We took the time, together and in community as leaders, to discover who we were. All the way along, we realized that we were not just making a “start doing” list, but a “stop doing” list.

Leading through change is a four-stage process. You need to prepare the soil, plant the seed (the actual making of the change), cultivate and then harvest. But most church leaders skip steps one and three because of their eagerness for results. They want to go straight from plant to harvest. But all the hard work, all the determining factors for whether you win or lose, are in steps one and three—the boring, quiet, slow ones. Preparing soil and cultivating are not that glitzy. But they are the secret.

That sounds like the farmer in you talking.

Exactly. But it’s what’s required. I lead through this lens: If it’s not part of our focus, then we don’t do it. The things that get human or financial resources in our church are the things we’ve declared are important.

Practically, how do you steer that?

We create ministry plans twice a year. We think in six-month increments, and this keeps other things from creeping in. I take our executive team away twice a year on a 2½-day retreat. We evaluate where we’ve been in the past six months and look forward to the next. We set goals and meet with our campus pastors and key department leaders. We create a collaborative framework to plan the next six months.

When we come back, I present that framework to our entire staff. We then give them a month to create specific ministry plans around that plan in each of their areas. We bring the skeleton; they put flesh on the bones. We then take a day to do ministry-plan presentations to our entire ministry team, where each department and team presents what their next six months will look like. That all goes on a master calendar.

The discipline of that recurring exercise sounds cumbersome. It’s really not. You are so free in that six-month period to know exactly what you are and are not going to do. This ensures we are organized, communicating, pulling together and advancing the same clear goals with the same energy.

One of the things about Eastside is that we have built a very collaborative culture. I work with world-class people on our executive team. It is not a situation where Gene walks in and tells everyone what to do. Early on, people expected that of me, and even wanted it a bit—the “just tell us what to do” feeling. “No,” I’d say. “We’re going to discover this together.” It took them a few months to realize that they truly had a voice in this, but the collaboration has been incredible.

Talk about this past year. Thirty-eight percent growth is remarkable for a community.

It has been a significant year. We’ve seen about 800 baptisms, and all of our campuses are growing. We have great people serving here, with a clear vision. We are really trying to reach lost people.

The growth this year is the fruit of many other years all coming together. We’re thankful when that harvest happens. Humble, thankful to God.

Honestly, every day when I get to my office, I say, “God, thank you that I get to be a part of this.” After all these years of ministry, I’ve never lost the wonder of it.

I feel like I am just getting started. And I think Eastside is just getting started too.

Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large for Outreach magazine, and author of The Listening Day: Meditations on the Way (Zeal Books). He lives in Oregon. For more: PaulJPastor.com