An award-winning article written by Scott Hodge
Originally published in the Fall 2005 by Leadership Journal (Christianity Today)
Three and a half years ago, our church began a journey of transition, but the journey was not really mine—it was my father’s. He invited me along for the ride. My dad, Larry Hodge, had been the senior pastor of Aurora First Assembly of God for 24 years. In late 2001 he began to sense the church needed to make some significant changes.
What I didn’t know at the time was that the journey to transform the church was really a reflection of the transforming work God was doing inside my dad. So I really can’t tell you my church’s story without telling you my dad’s—they are the same.
For that reason, throughout this account of our church’s transition, I’ve included entries from my father’s private journal to provide a glimpse inside his soul.
Two years earlier, in 2000, my father had just finished leading the church through a significant building campaign. To observers First Assembly appeared healthy and vibrant, blessed with a new 25,000 square foot building, a prime location with 16 acres, and tremendous opportunity to reach a largely unchurched area.
But there was a problem. Our church had become sick. Despite the new building, morale was down, attendance slipped, finances were rapidly declining, and, worst of all, the surrounding community was not being reached.
I discovered that our church genuinely wanted to reach out, but mostly on the church’s own terms. As senior pastor, my dad was enduring a tremendously frustrating season in his life. The contrast between the external appearance and internal reality of the church wore heavily on him mentally, spiritually, even physically. He began calling me in Oklahoma, where I was serving on the staff of another church, to discuss his sense that the church needed a deeper change.
As Dad faced into the truth, he began devoting himself to books on change and transition. A few months into this journey, he reached a pivotal point. God challenged him with these words, One day, when you stand before me, I’m not going to ask you how comfortable your people were in their faith. My question will be, “What did you do with what I gave you?”
That question motivated Dad to make the biggest change of his pastoral career. He decided to abandon his comfort zone and risk everything to transform First Assembly—he just wasn’t sure what to transform the church into, or how to get there.
I am not sure what I am up to, or what lies ahead for me and this church. I want you God!! I am afraid—but this I know—I can never go back to what I was. I must have you. You must have me. —Larry Hodge’s journal, February 27, 2002
Through much prayer and study, my father realized he couldn’t turn the church around by himself. He had been doing ministry the same way for so long that he simply didn’t know where to begin, what questions to ask, or what changes to make first. He needed help.
The humility to admit his inadequacy for the task was evidence that something was changing inside my dad. As “Senior Pastor” he was used to doing everything himself. His focus had always been a top-down leadership model, and he was at the top. That was now changing. He began talking about team leadership and releasing control.
His first priority became surrounding himself with the right people. He wanted leaders who were in touch with the culture and willing to try new and innovative ways to reach the community. As he began to pray about who should come alongside him to help lead the turnaround, God did something completely unexpected.
Around this time I was transitioning out of my church in Oklahoma. I was contemplating where my next assignment might be when Dad called.
“Scott, why don’t you guys move back home and help me turn this church around?” he said. The invitation shocked me. I had grown up in that church. Dad had been the senior pastor since I was five years old. And frankly, it wasn’t exactly the type of church in which I envisioned myself.
I must admit that I am fearful when it comes to bringing Scott. I so want to do what you want—so help me God. Fear is never a reason to quit—it is only an excuse. The brave admit their fear and proceed anyway. —March 1, 2002
At first I dismissed Dad’s offer, but as I thought and prayed more about the idea, I began to see it differently. Our phone conversations over the previous months convinced me that his view of leadership was indeed changing. His passion to see the church transformed was equally apparent. I also knew he needed help. At my age, and from my service in other churches, I had the ministry perspective and experience he felt the church needed. More important, I was someone Dad could trust.
In March 2002, with no talk of salary, no place to live, and with several more sensible offers on the table, my family and I packed up and moved back to Aurora, Illinois. I committed to take an advisory staff position alongside my father for 12 months. That was more than three years ago.
Those closest to you determine your level of success. O God, I want to be close to you. Thank you for Scott! —March 8, 2002
We began to define our transition strategy by asking some important questions about our community. Who were we called to reach? What kinds of challenges are these people facing in their lives? What is their typical attitude toward God, the Bible, and church? Having spent most of our lives in Aurora, we simply had to think missionally and remind ourselves how most our neighbors who don’t attend church think and live.
With a better understanding of our community, we began asking hard questions about our church. I discovered that our church genuinely wanted to reach out, but mostly on the church’s own terms. Unknowingly, we were sending signals that said: “We want to reach you, but you’d better like our music, dress how we dress, and already believe how we believe.”
Asking these questions helped us confirm the changes we wanted to make. Soon almost every area of our ministry was affected. We made obvious changes in our worship services, switching from traditional to contemporary music. We adopted a teaching style more relevant to our cultural setting. And we used a team approach where my father, myself, and another young staff member shared the load. This brought fresh energy and put a younger face on our church.
We also changed the church’s name. We dropped the denominational focus in order to highlight our connection to the community we hoped to serve and reach. It was a symbolic but powerful shift that made clear to everyone the church had indeed changed.
Give me a real heart for the lost, and help me to lead this church. O Lord, help me to create the environment that allows growth to happen in this church. —April 25, 2002
Yesterday, the name change to Orchard Valley Community Church became official. Our new name reflects where we are located, who we are, and what we are all about. We are a community of faith reaching a community that needs You. —July 29, 2002
The external and programmatic changes were the easy part. But the lesson we learned was that change is not the same as transition. Change is what happens on the surface of the organization. Transition is what happens internally in people’s minds and hearts; and it’s what helps them cope with and accept change.
William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (Perseus, 2003), writes: “Change is what you need to bring about if you want your organization to continue to be successful. The transition management is the psychological process the people and the organization will need to manage in order to make that change stick.”
Although a lot of the externals at our church quickly changed, internally things were transitioning at a much slower rate. The difficult part was not changing the organization, it was trying to change people’s values. We realized we could make a lot of changes, but if we didn’t transform people’s minds we would never be able to accomplish the mission we believed God had for us.
It was obvious the congregation needed to experience the same internal transformation that was occurring in my dad. We cast vision for the church’s new direction, and we talked about the importance of being outwardly focused and intentionally open to our community. But despite our best efforts, we found internal transition in many of our people lacking.
Last night Scott read to me an e-mail from a volunteer saying he wished to resign from his ministry position because he does not agree with the new structure that we’ve asked for. It was just another sign of the subtle opposition I am receiving from longtime members about The Orchard – Our Story page 3 the changes taking place. God, I need some really big wins to take place real soon. Please help. —July 19, 2002
Yesterday, Bill called to let us know that he and his family were leaving the church. How many more, Lord, will I lose? —July 24, 2002
These were the hardest months for all of us, watching longtime members—people we had loved for years—leave the church. Financially the church was in the worst shape in Dad’s 24 years. We went many weeks without any paychecks. Had we known how difficult the transition was going to be, I’m not sure we would have undertaken it.
Lord, I feel I will drown in a sea of RED INK. But, I know my feelings are not reliable. When I think of you—when I look to you—I can walk on water. Give me the courage to face this thing and look it in the eyes. —April 24, 2002
I feel like I want to give up, crawl in a hole and let the world pass by till all my problems go away. What am I to do? —April 30, 2002
Is there hope for me? Will this church go under? This is the hardest struggle of my life! —May 26, 2002
These were scary months. It felt like every Sunday would be our last, and the failure monster was stalking us everywhere we went. Yet, there was something more real to us than the fear of failure: the mission of reaching our community with the relevant message of God’s love.
It was evident that God had given us resilience that drove us to stay strong and push forward even when failure seemed just inches away. Undoubtedly, this is the supernatural dimension of doing God’s work.
I sense a work deep in my heart being done—I feel your love!! It is a good feeling. —July 13, 2002
It may not look like it or feel like it, but this church is not just going to survive, it is going to THRIVE. It may not look or feel like it, but this church has all its needs met and more. We have more than enough through Him. —November 13, 2002
About two years into the transition, something changed. It was like the clouds lifted and we were on the other side of the storm. We were finally seeing the growth we had asked God for, our finances were slowly stabilizing, and we were beginning to recognize signs that our church was on its way to health and vitality. It wasn’t obvious to everyone, but we knew something was different.
We noticed unchurched people regularly walking into the church each Sunday. E-mails and letters arrived declaring the good things that God was doing in people’s lives. The transformation that had occurred within my father was finally being reflected in his church.
I do not know how to describe what has happened to me. I only know that deep within me, I mean really deep, it seems that something, connected to an understanding of God’s love, has changed me.
I have been captured by His love. It is something that I must admit, I never knew existed like I am now experiencing.
I am consumed with a passion to tell people about what I have experienced for the sole purpose of helping them to know that they can have it too … I have a glimpse of what the institutional church has allowed to happen. It has presented a picture of God and Christ that is inconsistent with who they are. As a product of that church, I desire to liberate those who are caught up in that; to save others from it. —November 23, 2003
On Sunday morning, October 9, 2004, I shared a simple but sweet moment with my dad. While one of the members of our teaching team was giving the morning’s message, I pulled my dad into a room at the back of the auditorium and said to him, “Do you see what’s happening here? Can you believe it? Look at all these people! We are reaching our community!”
Together from the back, we looked over the congregation that had doubled in size since the transition began. It was filled with people who were encountering Christ for the first time in their lives.
I was grateful, despite all the struggles, that Dad had invited me to share this journey with him. I was grateful to witness the transformation of his relationship with God, and then help him bring that same transformation to the church. I was grateful for the quiet moment of celebration we shared in the back of the auditorium that October morning.
Three days later my dad died of a sudden heart attack.
Amid the shock and grief, I found comfort from the hundreds of people who shared how Larry Hodge had touched their lives. I also knew that my dad left this world at the happiest time in his ministry, and at the end of a personal transition that filled him with more joy and passion than I had ever seen in him before.
A few months after my dad’s death, I accepted Orchard Valley Community Church’s invitation to become their next lead pastor. I am still amazed at how God works. My father’s journey is over, but at the same time, it isn’t. His desire to see the church reach out with the love of Christ goes on, and I have the privilege of continuing his legacy in the community he so dearly loved.
God is helping Orchard go forward. Lives are being changed positively for God. I am so glad to be a part of it. —Larry Hodge’s journal, final entry, September 8, 2004
Listen to a recent talk on The Orchard Community’s story given by Scott Hodge.