By Paul Boatman
Phil Scott is in his sixth year as senior minister with First Christian Church in Dodge City, Kansas. This is his fifth ministry focused on leading a declining church into “turnaround” principles and practices.
“Turnaround church,” “comeback church”—help us understand these terms.
As I use “turnaround church,” I’m using a concept deeply rooted in Scripture. It relates to leaving past patterns that were ineffective and choosing new patterns for living out our faith by returning to God. That describes repentance, but not all of the issues that led a church into decline are obvious sin patterns. “Comeback church” has more of a business or athletic tone to it. “Comeback” is popular, but I like the biblical roots of “turnaround.”
Can you give us a quick summary of your history with this special ministry focus?
Marion Christian Church in Iowa was our first such experience. When June and I went there it was a church plant that was about to fail. The church had split, the elders had resigned, and the minister had been let go. We stayed 11 years, and attendance grew from 35 to 300. About halfway through that ministry, I decided to go back to seminary because I felt I was running dry. I wondered how I could continue to lead a church out of decline mode without depleting myself.
That question eventually led you into a doctorate program as well. Where did you go next in ministry?
We went to a great, historic church in Canton, Ohio. In an 18-year period their attendance had declined from 1,800 to 750. In two-and-a-half years [there], they were back up to 1,300, but then I crashed. I needed to get out of the ministry to get my own life together. I worked as a contractor for three years.
I’d like to come back to that later. What was your next ministry step?
We were praying about reentering the pastorate when we got a call from my home church in Waterloo, Iowa. My dad had a 16-year ministry there many years ago. We moved into the parsonage I grew up in. The church rebounded nicely. In five-and-a-half years, attendance went from 75 to nearly 300. We were happy, but we received a challenging call to Kingsport, Tennessee. This was an older, downtown church that seemed to be the right place to apply the perspectives I was formulating in my DMin at Bethel University. It turned into a heart-breaking ministry, not because of antagonism or harsh people, but after two years the leadership concluded the church was not willing to do what was necessary to turn around, or at least not at the pace I thought possible. That was when Dodge City appeared on our horizon.
Did that throw you off stride?
I was deeply disappointed, but no church is likely to grow against its will. I became clearer on the turnaround process.
Leaders who are mainly peacemakers or peace lovers will never make the changes needed for disrupting a decline.
A growing church cannot allow the staff to do “stovepiping” that says, “This is what I was hired to do!” Job descriptions have to be rewritten according to the church’s needs and personal giftedness.
We have to look at our buildings through the eyes of the outsider. A building that seems functional to us may look “tired” to the outsider.
We have to keep asking about our discipleship. We have to do more than just say, “Keep coming to church.” The church has to see that unless new Christians are really becoming disciples, the back-door losses will prevent growth.
It sounds like you are developing distinctive ideas on effective churchmanship.
Lyle Schaller and Thom Rainer are both clear in measuring spiritual growth in the church through numbers—numbers in church services, offering numbers, numbers of new programs, numbers of people in each program. Numbers are a tool for measuring the spiritual development of the church, a way of saying, “This is what we used to do, but here is what we plan to do.”
At Dodge City, we want to measure everything: How many new members are inviting guests? How many kids went on mission trips? How many new kids?
Give us some of the big-picture measures you use at Dodge.
When I went there we had worship services at 8:30 and 10:45. The 9:45 Sunday school had less than one-third of the combined worship attendance. There was not one child in the early service, but the 10:45 service was overflowing, and we had difficulty staffing for greeters and concurrent nursery and children’s services.
So we began asking, How can we do things better? Now we have a rather traditional service at 8:30, a thoroughly contemporary service at 9:45, and a blended service at 11. We expanded Sunday school to both 9:45 and 11. The service reaching the most new and young people is at 9:45, but the early service has gained momentum, especially for people from other denominational backgrounds. Each format is helping to win people to Christ.
Our attendance has grown from about 450 to 600. A Spanish church that was included in the early count is now on its own, running about 75 to 80. Our Wednesday night program draws 200 to 250. And we have a Sunday evening worship that draws about 100—yes, Sunday evening. We keep evaluating it, but it is serving a need.
Is your facility up to the growth?
We are adding a $3 million addition with a multipurpose room and food court. That will allow some worship service relocation and general updating. We are building for the church we expect to become. We are the only large church to stay in downtown Dodge, just off Front Street on Boot Hill. We expect to keep growing from this base. The turnaround should continue.
Would you be open to talk about your personal turnaround?
I needed a turnaround as much as any church I’ve served. I spent three years out of the ministry, sitting in the pew, field-testing everything I had believed and preached. I had been a workaholic. Nobody tells a drunk to keep drinking, but workaholism is affirmed. I was absorbed in what I could do. My soul was conflicted and I was not listening to the people who were trying to speak to me. I was at the point of throwing away my family and my health. I was broken.
My wife showed strength that I never knew she had. My apparent self-confidence had kept her in the background, but she stepped up, saying, “We are going to get through this.” We only reentered ministry when we could both enter with clear commitment to put our whole selves in submission to Christ. It took three years for both of us to be ready to enter ministry in a healthy way. We believe we are at the place where God wants us to be, and more effective today than ever before.
Paul Boatman serves as chaplain at Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.