Growing-church pastors share strategies with clergy peers

Church growth guru the Rev. Michael Slaughter of Ginghamsburg Church was the headliner at the 2014 EPA Annual Conference. But there was also some homegrown clergy talent there dispensing empirical church-growth wisdom at a lunchtime gathering.

A panel of three pastors of growing EPA churches shared their learnings, including successes, strategies and  challenges, with about 25 pastors, including a few just appointed to their first charges.

The attendees then asked questions and even shared insights and encouragement with each other.

The Rev. Dave Lewis of New Hanover UMC, the Rev. Elena Ortiz of New Birth UMC in Lebanon, and the Rev. Blake Deibler of Wesley UMC in Quarryville together offered a rare opportunity for their peers to hear three exemplary clergy leaders at one time, in one place. They spoke candidly about what works and what doesn’t in their settings.

Lewis, a Vietnam War veteran and graduate of Temple University and Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC, gathered a handful of members to plant the New Hanover church in 1987. Their average worship attendance has since grown to 815. He believes his primary job as a pastor is to maintain the health of the congregation so that worship, discipleship, ministry, mission and fellowship can thrive.

“When I arrived at New Birth Church (Nuevo Naciamento) worship was good, but I felt something was missing,” recalled Elena Ortiz in her remarks. “So I started devoting myself to improve the way we praised God.”

The small congregation began to worship with various instruments and rhythms that resonate with diverse Latino cultures, she explained. They also formed dance, drama and pantomime groups. Two dancers performed at the Latino Ministries display during Annual Conference.

“We began to incorporate the arts in worship,” said Ortiz, “and we also taught hospitality and discipleship to the newly converted, to all who accepted Jesus Christ as Savior.”

The church attendance grew from about 60 to 380. “Every year we receive new people as members,” said the soft-spoken pastor. “This year we will receive 40 new members. To God be the glory.”

Blake Deibler taught public school for 34 years after graduating from Millersville University. In 1992, while still teaching, he attended licensing school and became a licensed local pastor. Appointed to Wesley UMC in Quarryville, he has served there for 21 years. When he started in 1993, the church had 35 members. Today there are 550 members, not including the children.

“Develop your brand. Find your niche; do something no one else is doing,” Deibler advised the group. He recommends five basic components for church growth:

  • Present Jesus Christ
  • Preach the Bible
  • Offer passionate leadership
  • Provide for growth and
  • Empower God’s people

The Rev. Gordon Hendrickson, EPA Conference Congregational Development Coordinator who organized the dialogue, took the rare opportunity a huge step further when he announced a new Growing Church Covenant Groups initiative to start in the fall.

“The idea is to allow pastors who have these gifts to grow churches to invite other pastors into a covenant relationship so they can help them grow their churches,” explained Hendrickson.  “This will happen not from the top down but from the bottom up. Instead of superintendents or Congregational Development staff asking pastors to join a group, it will be the pastors themselves who must be motivated to contact one of the selected “growing church” leaders to join a group.”

The leaders will provide their full bios to ensure a good match based on personal and professional affinity, not districts or other boundaries, said Hendrickson. Each group will define what is expected in its covenant agreement, and group leaders will hold members accountable.

The Rev. Anita Powell, Central District Superintendent who also shared her journey as a new church start pastor during the dialogue, encouraged the development of the growing church covenant groups.

Three additional growing church pastors have also agreed to participate in the “beta model” of this pilot project: the Rev. John Longmire of Hempfield UMC; the Rev. Jim Brashear of Bethany UMC in Wescosville; and the Rev. Jeff Raffauf of West Lawn UMC.

By John Coleman, EPA Conference Communications Director

Featured photo: During an Annual Conference  lunchtime dialogue in May, the Rev. Dave Lewis of New Hanover UMC (center) shares church-growth insights, along with the Rev. Elena Ortiz (left) of New Birth UMC Lebanon and the Rev. Blake Deibler (right) of Wesley UMC, Quarryville, as the Rev. Gordon Hendrickson, EPA Conference Congregational Development Coordinator, listensJohn Coleman photo