I know many leaders within Ecclesia who are happy to put 2016 in the rear view mirror. While any year in church leadership is full of a mixture of highs and lows, successes and failures, and moments of God’s Action or (seeming) inaction, 2016 seemed to tip toward the challenging for many in Ecclesia.
I can’t think of another year since Ecclesia began where more congregations were …
- Faced with financial challenges
- Grappling with how to maintain scriptural fidelity to Orthodoxy while the climate around us becomes increasingly secular
- Experienced significant transitions in leadership within the congregations
- Dealt with significant conflicts that shake up the entire congregation, or at best, put a strain among staff.
- And of course, this is not to mention the peculiar season we face in the United States in the church’s relationship to the political process.
Yes, 2016 was a year of obstacles for just about every church in Ecclesia (and from my vantage point, those outside Ecclesia too).
Here is what we must remember though- in these moments where we face challenges – we are not alone! We know this to be true right? Jesus told us he would be with us always, until the end of the age (Matthew 28). He also told us that he would not leave us as orphans, but send another comforter (John 14). We are not alone. Yet, why do so many church leaders feel alone?
I would suggest that often we feel alone because we face our challenges alone. We can be isolated as congregations, and therefore are more isolated from help when the attacks of the enemy or the effects of sin break forth in our midst. I dare say that churches that only look to themselves locally (fellow pastors, boards, elders, congregants, etc) always fare worse than those that look beyond their local context for help and support. Always.
Jesus left us with the reality of his presence through the impartation of the Holy Spirit in perpetuity. The Holy Spirit takes it’s primary residence in relationship to the people of God, and this is not simply a “local church” reality. It’s clear in the New Testament that there is a “local church” and a “universal church” but there is also a “regional church.” Whether this was the church in a region or a wider city (i.e. letter to Colossians), or most often referenced to the trans-local band of apostles and evangelists and prophets and teachers that worked among and throughout the early church, it’s clear that there was a concrete and personal community that was intended to exist in fellowship beyond a local congregation, even outside its own city. There is a fairly good basis to say that the strength of the New Testament church was at least partially in relation to a local congregation having a proactive relationship to this “middle” space between the local and universal. I think that today, even occasionally among Ecclesia churches, we have a tendency to forget the vital role the “trans-local church” carries.. It is the “network” level of church that keeps the local congregation from becoming myopic or insulated within its own locality. It’s the “network” level that helps make the universal church concrete and un-ethereal.
This past year, living out of this middle space of “church” among Ecclesia we have helped one another in all these challenges we have faced. Churches have received council and wisdom from others in Ecclesia on navigating thorny issues related to sexual faithfulness. They have helped each other through unplanned transitions in senior leadership. There have been personal and relational challenges among staff that we have helped intervene among, and we have brainstormed together in order to generate ways of increasing resources in a financially lean time.
In addition to walking through challenges with one another, we have also collaborated on kingdom opportunities. Overall, Ecclesia experienced nearly 30% growth in the number of new congregations in 2016. We welcomed 4 new congregations into Ecclesia in addition to being involved in helping 8 new congregations launch into existence. We collaborated on our first ever Pentecost Offering, where nearly $50,000 new dollars were generated for church planting and pioneering mission. This, of course, is not to mention all the new ideas that have been shared with one another, the encouragement toward greater life in Christ, the sharing of resources (sermons, small group materials, communications ideas, advent planning, etc) with one another that have saved us time, and the many times Ecclesia staff or other leaders have visited congregations within the network to encourage and equip them. Whenever we reflect on things like this, we have to remember that what we mean by “Ecclesia” is both the relationships between churches and leaders and between churches and our Ecclesia staff who help make it all connect together. There is no Ecclesia without both of these realities. All of the kingdom good that is generated together is dependent on both of them.
Occasionally someone will ask me what they “get” by joining Ecclesia. This is a perfectly understandable question, but within Ecclesia we have a more robust answer than simply a list of benefits. While many concrete benefits exist, the greatest benefit of Ecclesia are the people. We have an amazing collection of leaders, with more joining all the time. As a Covenanted Community we are available to one another. We also have our staff, who love and support our congregations (and those in the process of becoming part) with sacrificial love and time. They help serve at the “nerve system” to be sure our network stays connected. Not long ago, Mandy Smith, new Ecclesia Board Member and Lead Pastor at University Christian Church, made this comment about them,
“I don’t know how I would have got through the past year or two without the support of Chris, Bob and J.R. At significant turning points, I have reached out to them and they’ve made themselves available, offering both their own insight and connecting me with others in the network. These incredibly gifted and servant-hearted leaders love the churches and want to serve them. They never make us feel like it’s a transaction. Between the three of them, they get all this work done in only 4.5 days a week. I was amazed when I recognized how much is done with so little time!”
Our staff are helping carve out a path for new congregations to be started, for existing congregations to be strengthened, and for leaders to be supported. If you lean in, I’m certain your life will feel the difference both from them and all the leaders of churches within Ecclesia.
As we look at 2017 as a network I want to encourage you to reach out to someone in Ecclesia with a phone call, drop a text, or send an email. Better yet, investigate being part of a Leader’s Circle with others in Ecclesia. Beyond that, encourage your fellow staff and congregational leaders to do the same. Let’s also keep in mind that there are some exciting new ministry opportunities on the horizon.
- Several new church planters in the pipeline of Ecclesia
- Nearly a dozen churches are investigating partnership.
- Participation in coaching within the network rose 3x last year. And we’ve made room for more.
- Our 2nd Annual Pentecost Offering will be coming up later this Spring. Join in to support church planting and pioneering mission!
- Regional Gatherings are being planned now for later in the year – stay tuned!
- We will have an amazing opportunity with NT Wright at Missio Alliance/Awakenings.
- And don’t forget – there are some opportunities for us to come to you. Drop us a line to learn more.
At our annual board meeting two weeks ago we discussed our belief that Ecclesia is on the cusp of a major season of growth as we have responded faithfully and diligently to the work before us the last few years. While so much fruit is growing, it is a time of financial leanness. To help resource the ongoing nurturing of the fruit, will you consider increasing your annual commitment? Would you join with us supporting the work this year, both as congregations and as leaders? You can even do so right now by following this link.
Let’s also commit to pray with one another, that we would simply be obedient in following the action of the Holy Spirit. If we can do these two things, I can’t wait to see what happens!
-National Director Chris Backert