Can a church on life support be revitalized? This pastor shares the story of starting the process.
We love to share stories of churches getting unstuck—reversing decline and experiencing revitalization. We recently reached out to Gayle Montgomery, the Lead Pastor of River Hills Community Church, and asked her to share some of her church’s story from this last year.
How was your church feeling stuck when you first reached out to us?
I heard Tony on a Carey Nieuwhof podcast and almost ran off the road listening. I thought, “This guy’s been walking around my church taking notes!” We were so stuck and didn’t even know it.
I knew that we had some issues, that we had difficulty moving anything forward because we got so bogged down in policy and procedure. I knew that our staff felt impotent. I knew that we were internally focused and had become a consumer-driven church, “What’s in for me?”
But I had no idea we were really a dying church on Life Support!
How is your church doing today?
We feel the excitement as new people are becoming engaged in the life of the church. The staff feels more empowered to cast vision and work out of their giftedness. Far less time is spent in meetings and more people are released for ministry.
We’ve lost quite a few people that just can’t get onboard with an outwardly facing mission which is sad—and many of our folks are grieving the losses. Consequently, our finances have taken a hit, which is expected. New people don’t yet have the spiritual understanding of stewardship, and the younger families we are reaching simply don’t have the expendable income empty nesters or more established families do.
But we are confident that God is pleased and will supply all our needs. We’ve had a couple of totally unexpected and significant financial gifts recently that have given us great encouragement that God is at work—blessing our obedience.
What were some of the high points of leading change over the last year?
Seeing staff members flex their creative wings and feel empowered to LEAD rather than simply implement all the ideas lay committees came up with.
Seeing the leadership of the church live out of their giftedness and serve with joy to develop a comprehensive strategic plan to cast an outwardly facing mission and vision, enhance weekend services, create an amazing guest experience, and completely restructure the governance of the church to empower the staff to equip and release lay persons for hands-on ministry.
Seeing some of the long-time members of the church “get it”—developing a true desire to reach every generation with the love and hope of Jesus Christ—not just the people who looked like them and played golf with them at the Country Club.
For me personally, finally hiring an Executive Minister to handle the daily administrative operations of the church and free me to focus on the main things—prayer and study, teaching and preaching, pouring into leaders.
What has been harder than you thought it would be?
Saying goodbye to long time members who felt things changed so much that they no longer had “a church home” and eventually left. And equally—or maybe even more painful—are those who are still unhappy but have stayed while remaining resistant and negative.
My own personal grief. It’s hard to lose people. It’s hard to be the brunt of gossip, receive nasty letters, feel shunned at social events or even avoided at some church events. It hard not to take it personally. People naturally hold the Lead Pastor responsible for all the things they don’t like, even when it’s clear the leadership team agrees.
It’s hard to see key leaders grow weary. The pace is relentless—we needed a complete overhaul and it took enormous effort and time. The guidance and systems Unstuck provided have been invaluable, but it’s been intense.
How has working with our team encouraged and supported you specifically, as the lead pastor?
Honestly, I couldn’t have, wouldn’t have, done it without you! Amy Anderson is amazing, and her guidance, wisdom, knowledge and experience has given us what we needed to believe we could do it if we just implemented the system and followed through on the plan.
Amy has the ability to cut through the fog. Her outside perspective pulls me off the dancefloor and onto the balcony where I can see more clearly. She’s a truth-teller and speaks with such encouragement. She sees my strengths and calls them forth, reminding me to stay focused on the primary elements of my calling—cast vision, study and pray, preach and teach, identify leaders to equip the saints.
I deeply appreciated the staffing and structure review that helped our staff understand how we each lead and how we can more effectively work together as we “Lead from Our Strengths.”
What’s on the horizon for your church?
We have just had your team back for a yearly review and refresh. It was fantastic and helped us renew our mission and vision. We established some new Action Initiatives and are currently building teams and plan to launch in October.
We are also completing a few things from previous Action Initiatives. One of the biggest is that we’ve undertaken a Name Change Project. The name of our church is a stumbling block to our mission. River Hills Community Church was born 46 years ago out of the hearts of some people who lived in an exclusive and affluent gated community called “River Hills Plantation.”
The first worship service was held “behind the gates” at the River Hills Country Club. We constantly hear that people think we are the “country club church” and some literally think the church is exclusive to those who live in the gated neighborhood. As you can imagine, this is a HUGE and controversial project. Our first effort last year failed. But we took what we learned at that time and are pressing on.
I believe that we are close to the tipping point where we will slide back over the hump from Preservation to Maintenance and then again to a period of sustained growth! TO GOD BE THE GLORY!