Jon Weece: Love Is a Verb

“We lacked a clear language and a clear strategy. We had become a strategic hybrid of every big church out there.”

Even so, you didn’t respond right away, but when you finally came to Southland, it felt like home.

I know this isn’t the way it always is, but I hit the center of the stage to preach here at Southland for the first time and there was just a connection with the people. I felt at home. I could tell this was really a good group of people. So at 26 I ended up leaving Haiti and joining the teaching staff. I worked under Mike for two-and-a-half years.

That’s when Mike left Southland for Willow Creek. That must have been an interesting transition for you.

Well, I thought there’s no way they’re going to let me stick around here. Whoever they bring in next would want to bring in his own teaching staff. So I started interviewing at other churches.

I was playing basketball in the driveway in Lexington with some college guys and my phone rang. It was one of the elders, and he said, “Hey, stop by my house on your way home.” So I’m in shorts and a T-shirt and I stopped by his house and all the elders were in the basement waiting for me. They did an interview for three hours—we had a fun conversation and I got to share my heart for ministry. Long story short, they said, “We want to take a risk on the young guy with the hopes that you will stick around here.”

I didn’t know any type of ministry other than longevity. I saw my dad do it. So I dug in. They hired a 29-year-old to be a senior pastor. I started, and the first few weeks were rough …

How so?

My second day on the job I was informed that,, we had a debt load from a building project greater than what the church family was aware of—$17.2 million. Obviously, I gasped. I thought, Wow, I wasn’t prepared to hear that. But the only way I know to lead is with honesty, so I just went to stage with it my second Sunday. “I’m your pastor and we have a real financial challenge here.” I said, “I know this is probably scary and there’s probably anger, because a lot of you sacrificed and we still came out with this much debt, and this could cripple our ministry.” I just promised them, “We’re going to figure out how to do ministry without money.”

We decided as leaders we needed to repent. We needed to own the mistake and then rectify it. We took 20 percent of our annual budget and used it for debt retirement instead of doing another campaign and strapping it onto the backs of people who had already sacrificed.

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And in the process we went through a reorganization that took five years.

I will say this: We lacked a clear language and a clear strategy. We had become a strategic hybrid of every big church out there. We had a little bit of North Point language, a little bit of Willow’s language, a little bit of Saddleback’s language. We had an identity crisis. We were a big church, but we didn’t know directionally where we were headed or how to get there.

So over the course of five years we focused on digging out of debt, submitting to the Gospels and the book of Acts, prayer, fasting and seeking to identify what our niche in the kingdom was—our thumbprint, what we had to offer and what our city needed. I would say, five or seven years later, we started to come out of that fog and that’s when we exploded in growth, we got out of debt and God blessed us financially, we were able to go multisite. Now there’s momentum, headed in a positive direction.

Some people who tinker with time management like to say that we overestimate what we can achieve in one year and underestimate what we can achieve in five.

That’s a great thought. I think I knew and our leaders knew we were not going to get out of this problem quickly. We got into this problem over a period of time; it was going to take a period of time to get out. We thought a lot about the tension between passion and patience. We coined a little phrase, “We are going to be passionately patient. We are going to continue to have a heart for people and be patient in creating a healthy foundation for future ministry.”

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Organizationally, we had grown too fast—and I think we lacked some humility. There’s a lot of attention paid to big churches and it wasn’t healthy for this one. We had to backtrack, dig out, lay a stronger foundation for growth, knowing that we did want to grow—we always want to reach people.

I was young, and I told them that I’m not going anywhere. No matter how hard it gets, I’m here. I love this place. I love the people. I think that settled everybody. And I’m a peacemaker; I didn’t point fingers at anybody, didn’t say, Here’s who to blame.

We had to lay off a lot of people—60 people lost their jobs. And it literally took seven years, and another five years to get the clarified vision of multisite and what those systems look like. It’s not come quickly.

I think by the time I’m done at Southland we’ll be really healthy. My goal is to pass a very healthy baton to the next person.