April 28, 2023

How One Church Overcame Decline and Got Unstuck – Bonus Episode | The Unstuck Church Podcast

how one church overcame decline and got unstuck bonus episode

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Over the last three weeks, we’ve been walking through the Challenges of the Church Lifecycle:

As our series concludes, I wanted to share the story of a real church that overcame the challenges of decline and got back to sustained health. 


In today’s bonus episode, I’m sitting down with Pastor David Emery to share the story of how Harvard Avenue Christian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma overcame decline, leadership change, and even the pandemic to find a new season of health, growth, and joy in ministry.

If you’re a leader who’s worn out from several years of tough ministry, or leading a church that currently sits on the declining side of the life cycle, I think you’ll find today’s conversation encouraging. 

Unsure where your church sits on the church lifecycle? Take the free Unstuck Church Assessment.

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Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. In today’s bonus episode of The Unstuck Church Podcast, we’re sharing the story of how Harvard Avenue Christian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, overcame decline, leadership change and even the pandemic to find a new season of health, growth and joy in ministry. If you’re a leader who’s worn out from several years of tough ministry or leading a church that currently sits on the declining side of the life cycle, I think you’ll find today’s conversation encouraging. With that, here is Tony’s recent conversation with Pastor David Emery.

Tony (00:41):

Well, David, I am so looking forward to our conversation today, and we’re gonna talk about your journey over the last few years at Harvard Avenue Christian Church. You’re in Tulsa. But what’s fascinating about your story, but I know I’ve heard other pastors kind of a similar experience, was the timing of when you took over your, your lead pastoral at the church. Could you walk us through that journey? I think, I think folks would be interested in how you got started.

David (01:10):

Well, thank you, Tony, for inviting me to be here to speak with you today. And I, I wanna say right at the outset how grateful I am for you and for Unstuck because during the pandemic I listened devotionally to these podcasts because they really helped me keep my mind and get my heart right. I mean, I, I actually listened to ’em, devotionally, couldn’t wait to pick up in the morning cuz I needed to hear something, some hope. And so to be an opportunity to visit with you and tell bit of our story is, is I’m thankful for that. Yeah, so I was in the same church for 17 years. We had a great run, great ministry. We thought we would wrap it up there. I was at the end of my 50s, and I got a call and said, “Hey, would you consider coming to Tulsa?” And it just felt like the right thing to do. My wife and I, we felt like God was calling us, that we had another church in us at this stage in our ministry after, you know, 25, 30 years in. And we were excited about it. We were following a pastor had been pretty successful, had a pretty good year, 10-year run of growth at the church. And so we prayed about it and made this huge leap at this place in our life—left family behind in Kentucky. And we’re driving to Tulsa, and the whole world shut down. And the church at that time, you know, was doing all audio. And so here I am starting a new church, no ability to meet with my staff. And my first Sunday was on the Sunday before Easter, Palm Sunday, and I was alone in a room with zero people in the room, communicating my first time at the congregation, my first message to being in the pandemic.

Tony (02:56):

Wow. Yeah, I don’t think any new lead pastor would envy that situation, David. But, yeah, so March of 2020, you, you landed in Tulsa at the church. What, what was your, other than the fact that no one was in the sanctuary that first Sunday, I mean generally, more generally, what was your assessment of the church when you first arrived? And, you’re familiar with the seven phases of the church life cycle that I wrote about in The Unstuck Church book, but, you know, what was your assessment and what phase of the life cycle would you have guessed the church was at, was in at that time?

David (03:35):

So, specifically my call, my call was here was to begin a new chapter and a new season of visioning for the church. And so they’d gone through a ten-year period. They had a successful pastor who left to go to another call to be closer to family. And so they brought me here with an assessment, and we had some ideas about some things that we needed to focus on when I got here. And I’ve been described, seen as a visionary leader. And so they were looking for me to come to lead them to their next chapter. I think that the congregation had a very strong assessment of themself as being in a healthier position than they were. The church was gonna need to make some significant changes in order for it to continue on this growth path because it really was in the maintenance mode. I would describe it: lack of vision, clarity, truly insider focused, in some ways had run outta space. I mean, financially extremely healthy. But there was a lack of clarity about purpose, vision, values, direction. It had a, more of an attractional model. And the staff, there was some lack of clarity around staffing roles.

Tony (04:51):


David (04:51):

I mean, I had a good strong staff, but we had to make some staffing changes. And so, I knew that when I came in, and I knew that there were gonna be some challenges because people were really happy with where things were. But I knew that in order to go to a new place, we’re gonna have to make some changes in order for the church to continue to grow. And I knew immediately there was gonna be some, some resistance to some of that. So, suddenly, that’s all changed by the pandemic. You can’t even address those things because you’re not even with the people.

Tony (05:22):


David (05:22):

But here’s the thing, here’s the thing, Tony, I’m, I’m not sure. I think as tragic as the pandemic was, I wouldn’t change anything because, actually, the pandemic allowed us to make changes we would’ve not been able to make if, if we I’d not been in that situation. Took me a long time to get my mind around that because for the first few months I was like, I was really worried, like, “Did we make a huge mistake?” My wife was, you know, grieving. But the pandemic allowed us to just stop doing some things that we had been doing and to refocus our energies and do an honest assessment of us. But definitely the church was in the maintenance mode.

Tony (06:09):

Yeah. So yeah, for those that are listening and are not familiar with the church life cycle, that maintenance phase of the life cycle is, is when you start to notice that there may be some decline happening in the overall ministry. And it’s interesting cuz you highlighted several, several, characteristics that we see in churches that are in the maintenance season of their ministry. But one of the most fascinating things to me through the years has been the fact that you start to see this decline that’s happening in the ministry, and that might show up in a number of different ways. But many times, the church is financially very healthy, and sometimes it’s the healthiest they’ve ever been financially. And that can at times, maybe overshadow some of the initial symptoms of decline that may be existing in the ministry. So it’s interesting that you highlighted among the different characteristics, the strong financial health of the church in that season.

David (07:11):

Yeah. That it, in fact, during the pandemic, the giving during the pandemic, we have more given to the church during the pandemic for the operational ministry of the church ever than ever in the history of the church.

Tony (07:24):


David (07:24):

I mean, it was, it was a phenomenal response. People just stepped up and gave. But what what was happening prior to my coming is that the, the church had this really healthy group of young adults, young families, and that group was beginning to fray. And by the time I got here, those families were already beginning to drift away, but the pandemic just accelerated that.

Tony (07:47):


David (07:48):

And, we lost, you know, I would say several young families that had been a strong, who had been a part of the church for various reasons.

Tony (07:56):


David (07:57):

And I, I think there’s a lot of reasons for the way that we were structured in what we were doing with people and how we were forming people in faith had something to do with that. But the pandemic just accelerated that, and there was some grief over that.

Tony (08:11):

All right. So what did you do then to begin to turn things around at the church?

David (08:16):

The first year of the pandemic it was just about building relationships and building trust and just did whatever I could. I put myself in situations with people. In fact, I called every single family in our church within the first month and spoke to ’em. And, and then it was also just the content I was delivering on Sunday morning, making sure that what I brought on Sunday morning was really reaching the felt needs of the members, of the members of our congregation. It was a difficult season cuz there was so much civil unrest during that time period. And I didn’t have a feel for the congregation to be able to know how to kind of work where the congregation was on that. So I had to work my way through that. So it was about building trust. It was about bringing, bringing some energy and preaching hope into the congregation. And, and then once the pandemic was coming to end, began to form a team of people who would do an honest assessment of where we were. We formed division team with some really some of our best leaders. And it was out of that that we decided that we were gonna go through a specific process. We were gonna work with Unstuck. We were gonna get vision clarity. We were gonna get vision clarity. After we got vision clarity, we were gonna then work on our branding, how it is that we brand ourselves to the community and how we communicate our message to the community. We were gonna do a staffing realignment, which meant some staff leave, adding some new staff, reorganizing the staff. And by the way, in the Unstuck Process, the most helpful thing that we had happen was that thing at the end because was with Sarah, Sarah Bouma, who came along and helped us. Fantastic. And, and now our staff, we are really moving together well in a way we haven’t before and way I haven’t experienced some other staffs. But, we went that. Then we got some, we were working with another group to help us with branding, and then we’ve got some coaching for two long-term staff members. We have two long-term, a children’s pastor and a youth pastor, been here for a long time. And we realized that in this new phase reaching this next generation was gonna require us to get some coaching for them. And so right now, they’re going through a six-month coaching process with a group that’s helping them design their ministry, go along with the vision that we have cast with, after working with the Unstuck Process.

Tony (10:44):

That’s fantastic. You were describing the vision team, David, was I’m assuming primarily lay leaders in your church were part of that.

David (10:51):

Yeah. We had one, one other staff person who is now my executive pastor was on that team. And then we got, we had five other people. It was a group of seven. And these were high-capacity, highly invested leaders, some younger leaders and some older leaders. And we just, we just got in a room, and we probably met for six months, every other week for six months before we ever engaged Unstuck, just trying to get our head around where we were and praying together. And it built a lot of trust.

Tony (11:27):

That’s great. I love that.

David (11:28):

And the great thing was the congregation trusted these leaders. I started out with borrowed trust, and I had to earn my trust. And these leaders helped me, helped me with that. And so when we stood up on Vision Sunday after working with it, it wasn’t just me standing up saying, “God has given me this vision.” It was something that we had done, that we had done together.

Tony (11:51):

Yeah, I love that. And it really speaks to one of the characteristics of healthy leaders. Number one, leaders, they see challenges before normal people see challenges. And, and so you, I mean, it was evident in what you’re describing that when you started at your church, you were aware of some of the challenges that were gonna be in front of you. But to build a coalition of other people that are invested in the ministry of your church, love Jesus, invested in the ministry, want the church to have health and experience great impact in your community and people’s lives-—brilliant leadership move to pull that team together. Let me ask you, though, as you started down this road, what, what’s been the most difficult aspect of leading change? And along those lines, were there any surprises for you as you were leading change in this season?

David (12:44):

Tony, that’s such a great question. I think, let me identify one thing right off that was a, I had to get a level of self-awareness about this. I don’t grieve the way other people grieve about change in an organization. So I move, I’m ready to go. Let’s go. I’m, you know, I’m not grieving where I’ve been. I don’t grieve like that. So I came to a church that was grieving a beloved pastor, who was grieving through the pandemic about what had been lost. And so the congregation was grieving. I don’t grieve, I wasn’t grieving at the same level. And I was ready to move forward, but the church wasn’t really ready to move forward. And so I had to accept that. But at the same time, I had to fight within every inch of my being, in the resistance to, to return to the familiar. I mean, I had to resist return to the familiar. It had been really easy to just return to what was familiar and what was comfortable and then begin to change after that. So we made a very strategic decision was to just fight through that and to make some changes coming right outta the pandemic and to work through the discomfort of that. And I think it proved to be the right thing to do. And here was the big one. The big one was that this church had been had a very long, proud history of a traditional Sunday school program that had been sort of the heart and soul of the church, but they did not have an accurate assessment of where that program was. It was not welcoming to newcomers. We have space for six or seven Sunday school classes, and a traditional Sunday school program does not work and meet the needs of young families anymore. And so our older members were trying to squeeze our younger families into this traditional format. It just wasn’t working. So when we came back from the pandemic, we said, you know, “For Sunday school classes that wanna continue to meet, continue to meet.” And we just, we gave them support, but we just swung really hard into a small group, small group emphasis. And there was some heartache around our church about that. And some, for them letting go of that. And I still feel it from time to time, but I would say to people, and I had to be really careful, “So we can have six or seven classes with about, you know, 70 people in it or a hundred people in it, or we can have 60 life groups with 800 people in it.”

Tony (15:08):


David (15:08):

We’re, we wanna reach our community and to reach our community, our building and our structure is not making that possible. So we began to work it. And I think the reason, the reason that we were able to make this change is because we got some early momentum. Right off the bat, we got 14 life groups going, and then, we began to see some growth in the church, some people joining our church and becoming to the church through these life groups. We had some people join the church, become a part of the church before they ever even came to worship cuz they were already attending life groups. And so we’ve now hired a minister discipleship that oversees all that whole process. And that was a huge change. And we were able to do that because we didn’t discount what was working for the two or three classes, and we just continue to support ’em. But, but the direction we’re now moving is with life groups. And that was, that was, that was a big change for us.

Tony (16:08):

Yeah. And by the way, when you hear that, certainly I agree with that decision and mainly just because we’ve collected the data through the years.

David (16:17):


Tony (16:17):

David, and we can see when churches shift from a Sunday school model to a small group model, that’s when churches start to experience health and growth and particularly with young families, as you mentioned. But let me just assure listeners, too, this is a decision that you and your team made.

David (16:38):


Tony (16:38):

We didn’t at The Unstuck Group force that decision on you in any way. But when churches make a strategic decision like that, we wanna come alongside you and make sure you have the right structure, the right strategies to move forward. And I’m glad that that has resulted now in some really improvement in your mission or strategy to engage people, especially those young families in your community. You alluded to this a moment ago, but let me, let me just ask, could you describe, because you made some staffing changes during this season, as well, could you describe some of the impact of those staffing changes that you made?

David (17:19):

Yeah, it’s really significant. So we worked with, with Unstuck to do a thorough evaluation of our staff. And so everybody reported to me in the previous. . .

Tony (17:33):

And by the way, David, that that is not unusual when we go onsite working with a church. And it’s, it’s churches of all different sizes, pretty common for us to see every staff person, no matter what their role is still directly connected to the lead pastor. And in the, in the smallest churches that that can still work. But after the church grows to, you know, any size really, it really becomes a burden on the pastor to appropriately lead and care for all of those people. And the challenging part is it pulls the pastor away from the key responsibilities that they need to be engaging primarily around spiritual leadership for the church and, and leading key staff and lay leaders and moving, moving the mission and the vision of the church forward. It pulls the senior pastor out of those key responsibilities. So I, I’m glad that you elected to make some changes to your structure to reduce your span of care. And that, what we’ve seen is that means the staff team gets better leadership and better care and the senior pastors get to focus more on what only they can do in the ministry of the church.

David (18:47):

Yeah. In my previous calling, this staffing piece was the most difficult part for me. And it got tangled up in a way toward the end of my ministry there. I wasn’t sure how to untangle it and knew I needed some help. And so I knew immediately that we began to get coaching that I was gonna need help here because I did not know. I wanted to make the best decisions possible. And so, when we got the coaching with Unstuck, it was extremely helpful because we were able to evaluate where our staff was, what our team health was. And the result of that was we went from being, we had, you know, some frustration on our staff regarding responsibilities and roles and who does what, to clarity of roles. And we moved just a highly capable young leader in our church, young passion, our church, who is loved and respected by the church in an executive pastor position who is well suited for that sort of managerial position to carry a lot of the things that I’m not able to carry. He carries strengths that I don’t have. And so we have just been flourishing as a result of the, the both of us in this arrangement. And we’re able to be very intentional about what we were looking for in our next staff hire. And, so we had some people retire. We had somebody move away that got married, and they were wonderful people. And now there’s a sense of harmony and a lot of laughter. We’re enjoying ourselves cause we’re getting some wins. And it’s, it’s been huge, huge for us.

Tony (20:25):

Yeah. It just makes it a lot more, a lot more enjoyable when you’re engaging ministry, when you’re on mission with people that you know are capable. They’re very gifted.

David (20:36):

Yep. Yep.

Tony (20:36):

But they’re also very committed to the same mission that you’re on—that makes, that makes doing ministry a whole lot more fun and more enjoyable. That’s for sure. David, let me just ask, you know, we work with a lot of nondenominational churches, more younger churches, but we also work with a lot of mainline churches. And what we see in most mainline churches in this season is they’re experiencing decline. So I’m just curious; what do you think is happening at Harvard Avenue Christian that you are not experiencing that same decline, rather you’re experiencing health and growth in this season?

David (21:19):

I, I think it, you know, I can’t say what’s happening in other churches. I can only describe my own experience, but I, I think it’s because we have arrived at a, through this whole process we’ve been through, we’ve been willing to make the changes that we needed to make in, in order to grow. And my experience has been in mainline churches that sometimes our structure really suffocates the movement of the Spirit. And so the Spirit ends up having to serve the structure of the church rather than the, the than the other way around. I’ve always believed that the Holy Spirit, that the structure of the church should to submit to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. And so I think that what happens is we have these structures where all the energy goes into serving boards and committees. And as I’ve always heard from your podcast and the work that you guys do from a recent series is that, when you, that one of the signs of declining churches, multiple committees structure, complicated complexity, and all this energy is put into that. And so, I think that this church has made some health, some good decisions about slimming things down before I got here. We’re about to go through a whole new organizational revision in, in light of our experience here. But as I talked to pastors, other pastors and other mainline churches, there’s a structural problem in that we end up serving the structure. I, I think that we have this wonderful, expansive open theology, and it’s kind of like we’re put in a structural coffin that keeps us from, from living. And it’s really easy to get frustrated, and you know, you got 30, 40 people on a board, you got 30, 40 deacons. It’s unclear what the roles are, as opposed to slimming it all down and highlighting three or four areas of ministry where people can be involved in focusing on discipleship. So I think that one of the reasons why our church is growing and doing well is because we, you know, we are trying to aim at gospel clarity. Meaning what do we mean when we say, when we talk about the good news of Jesus Christ. What is it that we hope for people so that people have the sense that it’s not what we want from them, but what we want for them. And, and all through the pandemic, we just kept focusing on the felt needs of the congregation. You know, what is the good news for you, you, for your family? And, and it just has began to get some momentum. And, and the momentum has, you know, we had last year, Tony, the best year of growth in the history of the church.

Tony (24:05):


David (24:06):

It was a phenomenal year. We’re now pretty much back where we were before the pandemic and, and sometimes then some. But, I think it does have a lot to do with some intentional decisions we made and how we focused our energy on, on discipleship. We, we have, we have focused on what we call our discipleship pathway. We’ve identified eight core practices that we want to preach, teach that lead to spiritual growth as opposed to just the, the church being an organization that consumes people’s time and energy. We want, we want, we think that Jesus makes people’s lives better, not just busier.

Tony (24:49):

Yeah. There you go. I love that encouragement. And speaking of encouragement, there are a lot of pastors listening into our conversation, David, and I know a number of them still very discouraged by the season that the church is in, very challenging for lead pastors in this season on many fronts. But what encouragement would you give to other pastors who may be facing a similar situation that you experienced back in March of 2020?

David (25:21):

I think the thing that I would say is you’re not alone. I think the hardest part of decline is there is some shame and embarrassment attached to that. Most every pastor I know, they wanna reach people. They want their congregations to be stronger. And it is just not easy work. It was not easy work before the pandemic, and the pandemic and what’s happening now in our culture and with congregations, it’s got, it’s become even more difficult. And I would just encourage them to reach outside of themselves and even outside their own denominational structures to find some coaching and some help. And not just personal coaching but leadership coaching. I think that, that in the mainline churches, there, there is a lack of leadership coaching. We get great theological education but just very little coaching in how to lead change, how to cast vision, how to move a congregation forward, and that, that’s a real struggle. I also wanna say this; I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s like, you’re gonna suffer in ministry. You can suffer for, for just doing what you’ve always done and, and lack of vision and suffer because you’re just trying to go along and get along. Or you can suffer for a vision. And if you’re gonna suffer one way or the other, you might as well suffer for something that’s gonna be meaningful and lasting. And, I’ll say this to anybody that’s like, you know, I’m, I’m 61 years old. I got the energy of like a 30-year-old, I think, and I’m, I, I have absolutely had, and you know, I’ve had a lot of great years of ministry. But this last year of ministry has been one of the most joyful seasons of my life.

Tony (27:11):

I love that.

David (27:11):

Don’t be afraid to make a change. Don’t be afraid to step out in someplace new. Don’t be afraid to say, Hey, maybe this is not the right place for me. Maybe God’s calling me to someplace that wants to go somewhere. If you get to a place in your, if your church doesn’t wanna go somewhere, there’s a lot of people who are just waiting for a leader to show up. And, and so I, I I think that, you know, I’ve been reading through John where it talks about being connected to the vine. We can do nothing without him. And, all through the pandemic, I kept telling myself, just trust; God brought you here for a reason. Just lean on him and trust. And I’d exercise and try to stay physically fit, spiritually fit and just do the best I can. And if it’s not enough, it’s not enough. You know, there’s a great thing about being 61. I’m not, I don’t have to, you know, in ministry, hey, if somebody doesn’t, if it doesn’t work, it’s okay. You know, I’m just gonna do the best I can and trust God’s gonna come along with it. But you gotta have people come along with you, people within your church who are on your team and people like Unstuck or some group that’s gonna come alongside you and help you. Because at some point, if you’ve been in a church a long time, you can’t see what you can’t see; you don’t know what you don’t know. And I don’t know what was easier, Tony, would be more difficult. Would it be more difficult having gone through the pandemic, serving the same church for 10 years or going to a new church? I’m convinced it’d be more difficult if you’ve been in the same church for 10 years and going through the pandemic than starting someplace new. Because the, those of us moved to someplace new, if you can get your mind around the opportunity, all God, all good, all things work for the good of those who love God are called according to his purpose, there’s an opportunity there.

Tony (29:05):

Yeah. And for those pastors that have been in long-term positions of leadership, pastoring their congregations and then faced the crisis with COVID and other things that we’ve experienced in our culture, the great thing is we’re, our faith is offers a fresh start every day. And so you can begin the same journey that David and the team at Harvard Avenue Christian Church engaged, just choose today. Today is going to be the start of that journey.

David (29:39):


Tony (29:40):

To continue, continue to move forward and to really lean into what is God calling us to do going forward to accomplish the mission that he’s given us. So, David, thank you so much for joining us for today’s conversation. It’s been an encouragement to me, and I have to think this will bring hope and encouragement to the pastors that are listening as well.

David (30:00):

Hey, Tony, thank you. And thank you for all that you do for us. And again, like I said, the podcast during the pandemic was a, a life giver for me and for our church. And we are grateful for our experience with Unstuck.

Sean (30:15):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s bonus episode of The Unstuck Church Podcast. At The Unstuck Group, it’s our goal to help pastors like you and like David grow healthy churches by guiding you to align vision, strategy, team and action. In everything that we do, our priority is to help churches help people meet and follow Jesus. If there’s any way we can serve you in your church, reach out to us today at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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