Learning Communities

Tall Steeple People

Being the senior pastor of a very large church presents a unique set of challenges. Large congregations have their own dynamics. At any given moment, the man or woman leading that congregation needs to be a coach, a confidant, a manager or a miracle worker. There’s not a lot of time either, since as soon as one problem is resolved, there are three or four others needing immediate attention. 

Dr. Don Pike understands the situation all too well. As the facilitator of the Large Congregation Learning Community, Pike, a former senior pastor at Trinity UMC in Arlington, Richland Hills UMC, and First UMC in Arlington, knows the trials and tribulations of leading a large church.

“From feeling like you’re always short of time to thinking that some problems are just too big to handle, leading a large church is a pretty daunting challenge,” says Pike. “I can’t tell you how much I would have valued having a group like this when I was pastoring large churches. It’s such a valuable asset to have someone to talk with who understands what you’re facing.”

“When I heard the names of the pastors that would make up the community, I told Don Pike that if he could get them together – and keep them together – he would be performing a miracle,” says Dr. Stan Copeland, senior pastor at Lover’s Lane UMC in Dallas, and one of the original members of the Large Congregation Learning Community. “I wanted to be part of that miracle.”

“From the first meeting, it was very apparent that this group was going to be real and honest,” adds Copeland. “I think that convinced all of us who were a bit skeptical at the start. We quickly became a team of colleagues.”

Pike admits that he had some concerns as well when the community first met 12 years ago.

“Looking back, there were two things that worried me when we put together the group,” reflects Pike. “First, I was worried about the egos in the room. Anyone who is the pastor of a large church is going to have strong egos. Second, we purposely put together a group that represented a broad spectrum of theological perspectives. We felt this was important, but I was also a little concerned.”

“Neither issue ever caused a problem. Not once. Not ever. It’s really remarkable. Whenever we’re together, they are, to a person, totally focused on supporting one another. They energize me. And every time I meet with them, I leave feeling more hopeful for the future of the Church.”

It’s not just the number of worshipers that can make running a large church challenging. It’s the wide range of backgrounds represented by a larger community. 

“As a community faith, we serve a relatively large number of ethnic groups,” explains Phillip Rhodes, senior pastor at First Hurst UMC. “At our church, part of the challenge of so many different groups is that they tend to self-segregate. It can begin to feel like we are serving many different churches instead of gathering together as a single congregation.”

Rhodes discussed this challenge with other members of the Large Congregation Learning Community, some of whom were dealing with similar issues. After a rich discussion that included a wide range of suggestions, Rhodes left the meeting committed to a new idea for bringing together his congregation.

“We have many church members originally from Africa” says Rhodes. “While English is the primary language for many of them, we have a large contingent from the Democratic Republic or Congo (DRC) who are native French speakers. We wanted an alternative to breaking up services by language.”

First Hurst UMC worked with Catholic Charities to hire English to French translators who interpret everything in real time to the French-speaking church members, who wear earpieces during the service. Upon hearing the service translated for the very first time, one African man exclaimed, “Now this church truly feels like my church.”

“It’s amazing to see it in action,” says Rhodes. “We’re already planning to add English to Spanish translators next, and maybe even English to Arabic. Thanks to this group of pastors, my church is now experimenting with a solution that serves everyone’s needs while uniting the entire congregation. That’s what I call impact ministry.”