By Carl Stagner
It’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. Pastor Lila Clay is acutely aware of the fact that leading a declining church into a new season of growth is no easy task. She pastors NorthPointe Church of God in Nacogdoches, Texas, a small-but-growing congregation on the cusp of turnaround. Though the congregation has grown from eight to an average of forty on Sunday mornings, they’re not taking a timeout to look back at their exciting journey. There’s too much kingdom work yet to do, and there’s simply too much at stake. Still, NorthPointe is one church whose struggles have met their match against a commitment to prayer, patience, and purpose.
Among leaders wanting to see church growth, prayer is often exchanged for marketing, event planning, networking, recruitment, and door-to-door logistics. Each of these tactics may be necessary, but not unless prayer is the foundation. “I can tell when we are getting to busy and letting our prayer time slide,” Pastor Lila Clay explains. “We have more things go wrong or, invariably, something expensive breaks. But God has been faithful there, too.”
Lila tells of the failure of the air conditioning system at NorthPointe. The mountain of repair bills barred their path forward, but an anonymous donor contributed a check for $10,000. Yes, God was all over it. But Lila knows he responds most often when the church is focused on prayer.
“Prayer is crucial to any ministry,” she explains. “When I was young, I was told not to neglect it. Unfortunately, I didn’t always listen to that advice. I went to all the church growth conferences, tried many of the church programs, but the bottom line is that I never helped grow a church where intentional and regular prayer wasn’t happening.”
While the church might not be praying actively for more patience, patience has certainly been key to their increasing health. Turning a church around is generally a slow process. Systems and paradigms in place for sometimes decades are upended and require delicate, strategic attention. NorthPointe is blessed to have a pastor with experience in church turnaround. “This is my third turnaround church, and studies show that it takes three to five years to really turn a church around,” Lila explains. “I have found this to be true in my own experience.”
The last congregation she served grew from eight to eighty, but a variety of changes had to take place first. That’s where purpose comes into play. “The main factor for turning around the churches I have been at is to figure out what God’s purpose was for the church,” Lila reflects. “Henry Blackaby suggests that we figure out what God is doing—or wants done—and follow him. My last church was in a deep state of decline when I got there, until I figured out that God’s purpose for that church was originally missions. NorthPointe is finding its way in partnerships with community missions. It seems like the more we work with other agencies and ministries within the community, the more we grow.”
The challenges, including lack of finances, resources, and personnel, have been many. But three years into a new season of life at NorthPointe, the congregation is on the right trajectory. Pastor Lila is cautiously optimistic. “We aren’t out of the woods yet,” she explains. I don’t consider us a successful turnaround church just yet. But God simply isn’t done with this church and has a plan for it.”
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