by Chris Backert
I always look forward to the time when I get to try and summarize all that God has been doing through Ecclesia during the last 12 months and I have the opportunity to talk about where we sense the Spirit’s direction for the year ahead. I’m a little behind on sharing this “news” this year as a great deal of personal transition has taken place in my own life and after a month of living in a new reality, we are starting to get our feet under us again.
When looking back at 2011 and looking ahead at 2012, the two words that capture best what I sense God doing are “stability” and “strengthening”.
2011 was a pivotal year for our network as a whole. When we “officially” began in 2007, there were just a handful of congregations or church planters “officially” involved in the network (5), today we are nearly 30 churches nor new churches in development. Each step along the road was a process of discernment in figuring out how to cultivate a new kind of connectional church family. All along the way, I am quite sure that there were a number of people (maybe even those in Ecclesia ) who wondered if we were going to “make” it. In 2011, I believe we reached a place of growing stability as a network. It’s quite possible that these words come to mind for me because I watched my first daughter learn to walk in 2011. If you’ve ever seen a baby try to navigate this incredible moment, you’ll know exactly what I mean. They grow quite naturally to the point where it’s time to take those first brave steps – and then they take them – but it’s certainly anything but stable. Eventually, after a few weeks or months of practice, they have reached a new phase where they continue to grow, but there is a certain stability to their growth. I believe this was 2011 for our network.
In February, we brought together our growing family for the 4th time. Each time we have come together, I hear an increasing number of remarks from people about the quality of the time, the presence of the Spirit, the life they have received, and the appreciation for their Ecclesia friends, both old and new. We know there is nothing we can do (or have tried to do) to manufacture this vibe or experience, but we are grateful to Jesus that is happening among us.
Our church planters training in May was the largest it has ever been and I believe the most helpful of them all. The inclusion of a Fundraising Training in December was incredibly significant for a number of our newly developing communities. This is not to mention an increasing number of strong regional gatherings that brought together Ecclesia leaders and those like them on a regular basis.
We have also been blessed that God has cultivated a number of the congregations within Ecclesia to the point that some of their leaders are able to give more time to the wider mission of the church. J.R. Briggs has joined the “staff” of Ecclesia, serving 1/day each week as our Northeast Regional Coordinator, as he has transitioned to half-time as Pastor of Renew. Dave Fitch has also joined the staff about 1/day week to serve as a coach and catalyst for Ecclesia in the Mid-West. We also added Jane Linton as an Administrator for Ecclesia to help offset some of the organizational load that I have been carrying. All these folks join our current staff of JR Woodward, Todd Hiestand, and myself.
I’m sure you might be thinking to yourself … “I thought Ecclesia was somewhat challenged financially, how can we add all these “staff”? That is a great question and the reality is that the majority of those who give dedicated weekly time to Ecclesia are not paid by Ecclesia directly. J.R. Briggs and Todd Hiestand both raise outside support for their work, Dave Fitch has been able to increase his time as a result of a particular congregation giving above and beyond the norm to the network, and Jane Linton’s role is funded by a private donor. Even JR Woodward and I have been able to give the time we have to Ecclesia as a result of outside fundraising in addition to the support we receive from the network itself.
In 2011, we officially began to establish greater levels of connection and partnership to the broader church. One of these initiatives that Ecclesia is contributing towards is Fresh Expressions US. Fresh Expressions was originally started as a joint-venture between the Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain about eight years ago. Since then it has spread to 5 different nations and is beginning in the US. Ecclesia is one of the founding partners in this new effort which seeks to develop and cultivate new kinds of Christian community (fresh expressions of church) alongside established congregations and denominations. Though we are the odd-ball among the developing partners (everyone else is a regional or national denominational body), we believe that this is one way that we can contribute to God’s broader mission for the whole church. Many people in Ecclesia are doing the kind of work that Fresh Expressions is catalyzing and this is a natural way for those in our network to be of service. So far, about 5 of our Ecclesia pastors have been involved in some way in training and equipping existing congregations for missional ministry.
Another collaborative project, though less far along than Fresh Expressions, is the development of something that has come to be called The Missio Alliance. Ecclesia leaders were the catalyst for helping to lift this work off the ground and we see ourselves continuing to play a critical role even as the number of other partners expands. The focus of the alliance will be to serve the broader church in the west by providing a theologlically developed, but practitioner oriented, resourcing for the shaping of the church’s mission in our Post-Christianizing context. Those who have been involved in this process include the likes of Dallas Willard, Scot McKnight, Roger Olson, Scott Daniels from Azusa Pacific University, Tory Baucum from Truro Church in Fairfax, VA, Cherith-Fee Nordling from Northern Seminary, Deb Hirsch, and many others. We are excited to be part of the team and will be throwing our weight (small as it is) behind the official launching of this effort in 2013.
On top of all this, in 2011 we were able to set up a retirement option for staff within Ecclesia Churches, we received our first grant in the amount of $50,000 (special thanks to the v3 church multiplication initiative of the Baptist General Association of Virginia), and our web and media presence (including our Ecclesia Leadership Podcast) has increased thanks to the work of Todd Hiestand and John Chandler.
While all of this work is wonderful and we celebrate it, it is certainly secondary to some of the things that I see happening in the lives of our congregations and leaders. One of the most encouraging aspects of those in our network is the attention to the “work” of God within our own lives. I see this happening across Ecclesia in two primary ways. First, there continues to be a greater hunger and recognition for the interactive life of the Spirit within our own lives. I know of people stepping out in faith in response to what they believe to be the guidance of the Spirit and of a greater number of instances where the kingdom of God has become manifest even to the point of healings and prophetic words through the humble seeking and openness of some of our leaders. Perhaps the thing I love most about this within our family, is that everyone knows there is no room for bragging or spiritual pride in these matters, we are all learning, failing, and stumbling along to grow into the kind of Spirit-empowered lives Jesus seems to intend for us when Paul writes that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is now alive within us. Second, there is an increasing attention to cultivating the life of the heart in addition to the mind or the work of our hands (ministry work). From scripture memorization to personal retreats to fasting or spiritual direction, I am proud to be part of a group of people who knows that “out of the heart come the wellsprings of life” and seek to connect their heart with the heart of God on an increasing basis.
I am also encouraged by the countless stories of people coming to find their life in Christ, whether that is a new life or a renewed life or a maturing life or anywhere in between. We all know that these things don’t seem to be happening the same way, but I am blessed to be connected to so many people who tell me these stories.
As we look ahead to 2012, I believe that we need to give our time to a steady season of strengthening the many things that God has already begun to develop throughout Ecclesia.
Strengthening regions within Ecclesia will continue to be absolutely vital to what we do. In fact, I believe we are nearing the time where we will want to be giving more emphasis regionally or based on affinity (meaning like-congregations though in different contexts) than across the network as a whole. We are blessed that we have more people all the time being brought into places within their church ministry that they can give additional time to being a regional connector to churches within Ecclesia and those interested. We are also working on a number of extremely practical ways to increase the connectivity and collaboration of churches in regions including joint events, regional learning communities, rotational preaching, etc.
As I shared last year, the vital importance of church coaching, especially for new planters continues to rise to the center of Ecclesia life. In 2010 and 2011 we began training a number of coaches (many of whom are using their skills to serve God’s mission even now) and connecting new planters with coaches once they have joined the network. In 2012, we are bringing greater focus and alignment across the board to coaching within Ecclesia and Brian Hopper will be serving in a voluntary role as our Coaching Coordinator. Our goal in this is to provide a level of assurance to those being coached within the network that they are receiving the best we have to offer (especially as they are often paying some portion of the costs) and that we have an additional level of care for those that are walking in the critical role of coaching.
We are also adding a Pastor retreat to the mix of gatherings we are putting together in 2012. The main reason we are doing this is in response to many, many people within the network saying, “it would really be great if we had a pastors retreat that was really a retreat – a time of rest (spiritual & physical) and renewal. So, running alongside the church planters training this May, our first retreat will take place.
Of course, we will, as always, continually seek to strengthen everything else that we are doing as well. It’s simply that these areas have bubbled to the top of the list for this next season.
Beyond these particular aspects of our network, I believe there are a few other intangible areas that we need to be strengthening together. First, I think we should always be mindful of a continual posture of learning and humility. Aside from the obvious Christ-like reasons to grow towards this, I think it is also vital to the future of God’s mission in North America. The reality of all our ministry right now is that we are in a transitioning AND experimental time. What is incredibly important is that we are genuinely honest about what we are learning, what is working, what is not working, what right decisions we made, what wrong decisions we made and the like. For instance, there are many people in Ecclesia experimenting with different patterns of meeting, or giving more emphasis to missional communities, or gathering on a Sunday evening, or … you name it. Everybody is experimenting in some way and the best thing for all of us is to share EXACTLY what is happening (not happening) as a result of our work. I think by now we would all be past the point of thinking that anything that anyone is advocating, even if it is based on a great story, is anything even remotely close to “the ticket”. This doesn’t mean that we need to be “results” oriented in the way that would most normally sound. However, it does mean that we are in a season where God is doing a new thing and part of the kingdom dynamic is that we are part of figuring out what that is and what the shape of church and mission is within our context. As Bob & Mary Hopkins once shared with me (for those of you who were at the National Gathering in 2010 you may remember them remarking on something like this) … “The mission of God in the US has never known these waters before … for this is the first time that we are tasked with evangelizing and discipling a previously evangelized, discipled, and church inoculated culture. The last time anything like this has happened was when the Celtic movement re-converted Britain after their initial evangelization in the 200’s.” Clearly, we need to be in a learning mode.
Lastly, and this one is much shorter, I think we all need to be aware, especially if we are in a leadership role of any kind in our congregations, the impact of pastoral transition on a congregation. Several congregations within Ecclesia have faced challenging times this year as a result of pastoral transition. It is inevitable that God will call people on to different roles within his kingdom project, but I think as pastors (and particularly if your church is young – and by that I mean EVERY church within Ecclesia – even if they are 20 years old!) we underestimate the toll of quick transitions on our congregations. Even when done extremely well and with some planned transitioning, it is still one of the greatest (if not the greatest human threat) to our communities. There is a great deal more that could be said about this, but this is not the time or place. Except to say, if you are thinking of making a transition, talk to someone (and yes – please even me) first.
Finally, I would like to make some announcements about transitions on the board of directors for 2012. From the inception of Ecclesia, the board has been mainly in-tact (JR Woodward, Brian Hopper, Bruce Hopler, Jim Pace, Keith Matthews, Tim Levert, and myself) and we made a common agreement among us that we would commit to serving on the board during the “start-up” phase of Ecclesia. The slight exceptions to this are that J.R. Briggs was added one year after Ecclesia started and Dave Fitch shortly after that. Last year, both Keith Matthews and Tim Levert transitioned off the board as they took on different responsibilities in their life and ministry. We did not immediately add anyone, sensing that the time was coming for more substantial changes now that Ecclesia was in a place of greater stability. At our last board meeting in October, we made the decision to separate the current board into a board of directors (direction/governance) and an equipping team (work/ministry). We are certainly aware that in many ways this is an artificial distinction as both will be working together, but with our growth we needed to create the space for people to focus. A number of other transitions took place in late 2011 and early 2012 and after several months of prayer and discernment together, some of our board members are stepping off the board and we have added new members as well. Jim Pace, David Fitch, Brian Hopper, and Bruce Hopler will complete their service to the board mid-way through 2012. Jim, Dave, and Brian will all remain on the equipping team as they focus on specific aspects of life in Ecclesia that they are called to and we need. Bruce has moved on to another congregation outside Ecclesia and though he hopes to return to an Ecclesia church someday, he is in a different season. I would like to thank all of these folks personally for the hours and weeks of dedication and voluntary service they have given to our network, some of them as early as 2007.
However, we are delighted to add some new faces to our Ecclesia Board of Directors as well who will begin serving in mid-2012. Cyd Holsclaw, one of the members of the Pastoral team at Life on the Vine has accepted our invitation to join the board. Bob Hyatt from the Evergreen Community in Portland has also joined our board of directors. Our expectation is that in time, God will lead us to add one or two more board members for this next season of Ecclesia’s life.
It is with great joy that I share this summary of what God has been doing and what we hope to see him continue to do in 2012. In closing, let me just say very plainly that it is a great joy to be on the journey of ministry with all of you. My confidence that Jesus is at work, expanding His kingdom, has grown throughout this past year, as I’ve been able to catch a glimpse of the work he is doing through each of you and your congregations. Furthermore, I am grateful to be part of a larger community that ultimately remembers what all of the “work” we do is about – lifting up Jesus and making His name known. So, may His kingdom expand and may he continue to form all of us into the disciples he desires for His mission.