It’s one thing to start a church; it's another to keep it going. As Jacob’s Well has discovered, even the most cutting-edge, creative and vibrant church has to have organization and structure.
August 28, 2012 | At first glance, Jacob’s Well, a nondenominational “emerging” church in Kansas City, Mo., would seem to be the most traditional of churches. On the outside, the handsome old red-brick building has been a comforting neighborhood presence ever since Presbyterians built it in 1930.
Inside, the sanctuary features stained-glass windows, the Lord’s Prayer in gold letters above the altar and velvet cushions on creaking pews, all witness to the saints who’ve gone before.
But every Sunday -- at least since 1998, when Jacob’s Well was launched and took over the building -- the place is filled with lively worship and a body of believers that earlier congregations likely never envisioned. The music is contemporary and the dress casual, even scruffy, with more than a few tattoos and piercings scattered among the crowd.
During his sermon, the Rev. Tim Keel -- the senior pastor and a founder of the emerging/emergent church movement -- strolls the aisle, talking in conversational tones as though engaging listeners in a theological dialogue.
But for the past five months, stirring beneath the surface, something else has also been going on. Throughout Jacob’s Well, bones are being formed; a skeleton is taking shape.
This extraordinary church, known for its theological rigor and its creative and dynamic ministries, has been engaging in the most mundane of endeavors. After months of preparation and study, it has launched a major reorganization that establishes clear lines of authority while empowering members to become more involved in the church’s daily life.
As Jacob’s Well has discovered, even the most cutting-edge, creative and vibrant church has to have organization and structure. It’s one thing to start a church. It’s quite another to keep it going. Reflecting the growing maturation of the emerging church movement, Jacob’s Well is navigating the transition between church plant and long-term sustainability.
‘A lump of tissue’
“All churches are both organism and organization,” Keel said. “We’ve always been brilliant at the organism part. We’re filled with life and creativity. But we’ve struggled with organization. And if you’re an organism without a skeleton, you’re just a lump of tissue lying on the ground.”
Questions to consider:
- How can you restructure your organization to create opportunity for better initiatives?
- What are three structural changes that would help your organization be sustainable over time?
- How is power hidden in your organization, and how might you restructure so that its sharing is a positive form of collaboration and not a necessary evil?
- Innovative leaders pay attention to cultural change. What are ways external factors influence your organization’s internal design?
The church’s new structure, Keel said, is giving Jacob’s Well the bones that will enable it to move well, now and into the future.
To Keel, it’s part of a natural progression, an evolution that takes place with any new church start -- at least those that have any chance of making it.
Most church plants do not, Keel said. Typically, only one of five new church starts are viable after five years, he said. Of those that survive, most do so because they have had a strong leader, typically the founding pastor, who has been able to create and embody a vision that did not exist before. In those first critical years, that leader is the avenue through which members are drawn to and begin to identify with the church and its vision.
That was certainly the case with Jacob’s Well.
A Kansas City native, Keel decided in the late 1990s that he wanted to start a church in his hometown. Convinced that the Holy Spirit is still alive and active, he was guided by a single question: Where and how would people want to connect to a community that experiences and exudes the love of God?
With degrees in both art and divinity -- a B.F.A. from the University of Kansas and an M.Div. from Denver Seminary -- Keel envisioned a church for the head and the heart, a community with room for both.
Keel admits that his creative flair influenced his desire to think differently about how a church can engage with Christ, and ultimately shaped the blueprint for Jacob’s Well.
Immersed in literature and captivated by stories since his youth, he embraced the congregation’s decision to select an evocative name, drawn from John 4. The place where Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman, “Jacob’s well” is symbolic of the church’s mission to welcome all without bias or condemnation, Keel said.
‘Belong before they believe’
Keel’s vision is reflected in outreach materials that describe Jacob’s Well as “a church where people are allowed to belong before they believe, where people are listened to, not preached at.” The church sees itself as a place where “it is safe to share doubts and questions, struggles, heartache and pain, along with fun and parties and relationships full of meaning, purpose and connectedness.”
It was a vision that others found attractive. Under Keel’s leadership, the church took off. After seven years, more than 1,000 people a week were attending its various services.
But the factors that make a new church take root and grow are the very things that at some point, if not changed, will harm or even destroy both the church and its leader, Keel said. Early on, the congregation necessarily identifies with the leader; later, it needs to develop its own identity.
“We had a big staff, but we struggled to differentiate,” he said. “All the behaviors that made us successful became stumbling blocks as the church sought to mature.”
It’s a familiar scenario for church planters. As the church grows, many members still believe the founding pastor has to be involved in everything. The church and the pastor have difficulty figuring out their own identities apart from one another.
“So what typically happens is that the pastor either burns out or the community tries to differentiate itself and the pastor keeps grabbing authority back,” Keel said. “Most churches never figure out a way to help the pastor and the community move from what was needed when they started to what will be needed to sustain it.”
Keel wasn’t burned out, but by 2009 he felt like it might be time to move on. A year later he did, when he was offered and accepted a fellowship in congregational studies at Laidlaw College in Auckland, New Zealand.
“The overarching sense was that it felt like the Spirit was releasing us,” he said.
Sure, after 11 years as a church planter, he was tired, but he also wanted to explore the possibility of life in the academy. At the same time, he knew that Jacob’s Well needed more and different kinds of leadership to step up. As long as he stayed around, that was unlikely to happen.
Keel left on good terms, but he did not plan to come back. Instead, he saw the move to New Zealand as a hiatus in which he and his family could figure out the next stage in their life and ministry.