Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What happened?

In case you didn't know, the church I moved to Tucson, AZ in 2011 to serve as Senior Pastor, Dove Mountain Church, closed its doors in October of last year.

I get asked about 3–4 times a week, "What happened?"—so I thought it would be worthwhile to offer a few words about that here on my blog. At least my 10s of readers will know, and won't have to ask!

Though I wasn't part of DMC until 2011, I have done my best to piece together a working history of how we came to the end that we did. It's hard to say for sure, and I know that what I will say below is just one "take" on the whole thing. If you ask others involved in the church (especially if they were in the leadership), they may give an entirely different answer. And, frankly, their answer may be just as legitimate as mine.

[One request and caveat, however: be very careful of the opinions of those who were only peripherally connected. Even people that speak very confidently as if they are "in the know" can be, and have been, very mistaken in their accounts of what happened.]

Dove Mountain Church (DMC) launched as a church plant out of a mother-church congregation, Catalina Foothills Church (CFC) in 2007. They launched with a large number of great people (around 175) including some strong leaders, with a healthy amount of money, and with a generous gift of a 15-acre piece of land (in an area called Dove Mountain—thus the name). They had a good man as their pastor, and a lot of ambition as a "core group" (I use that term somewhat loosely, as 175 people is larger than most of the churches in the PCA).

That group was zealous about the idea of a new church, and enthusiastic in employing that zeal to good work. They got busy right away, and "particularized" as a church (instead of a church plant) quickly—in about seven months. Yet, though they were one group, it now seems clear that they were not united behind what they were setting out to do. No one had articulated, in a way that was understood and "bought into" by the whole congregation, several key aspects of vision:
  • Where they were going
  • Why they were going there
  • What they were going to do when they got there

They lacked vision; instead, they were comprised of segments with very different visions.

One segment of the group wanted to replicate the work and ministries of CFC in the new location, which was about 30 minutes to the northwest of the mother church—essentially, their ambition was to build "CFC North" and take the mother church's effective ministries to a new part of town.

Another segment had been well-served by the ministry of the church planting pastor while he was an associate pastor at CFC. Their hope was to see his style and emphases in ministry writ large, and to realize the fulfillment of the dream of a church community that he had articulated—which was, in a number of ways, quite different from that of CFC.

Yet another segment had never quite fit in at CFC, and saw this as an opportunity to build a church that was similar in some ways to CFC, but different in some key ways.

There were probably other segments, too, but these were the main three as far as I could tell. This lack of unity in purpose and vision became a clear problem as time went on.

Initially, there were great efforts made to make plans for building on the 15 acres of land. Soon, however, it became clear that these plans would not be fulfilled as quickly as many had hoped, if ever (the founding pastor told me that, after a very short while, he became convinced that they would never end up on that land); consequently, most of the first segment left over the following months.

A couple of years later, the founding pastor burned out and left. This was, understandably, a blow to the whole congregation—but especially to that segment who had essentially followed him. Many of them left immediately, and others followed over the next 18 months or so.

That left a group of about 80–90 people, most of whom were initially part of the last segment.

When I interviewed, the clear impression I got was that the leadership, at least, had recognized the need for a clear and compelling vision that would drive the congregation forward. I was asked repeatedly what my vision would be, and my answer was, "I won't know until I get there—but I will make it a priority to ascertain what vision would best serve the congregation and articulate that as soon as possible."

(This was my first and probably largest mistake. One take-away here is that, if the church itself doesn't have a clear, well-stated and widely-understood vision, then the pastor should not accept a call if they aren't ready and willing to accept his vision for them.)

As I met with members of the congregation, I inquired as to their sense of the identity of the church. Most could not give a clear answer, but the central idea that I got was, "we are not CFC." The core identity, such as it was, focused on how they were different from the mother church.

The trouble was, even here there were variations. Some loved aspects of CFC's ministry that others saw as insignificant or even worthy of abandoning. Others wanted a church that was different altogether.

When there is no single, unified vision in a church, it's not that there is no vision at all. Instead, in this case, there were many visions. And each member was holding out to see if their vision would prevail. As I worked with the leadership and began to hone a vision, it was clear to many others that their vision would NOT, indeed, prevail—and they left too.

Our numbers continued to decrease; one deacon, who had a knack for numbers, showed me a spreadsheet where he had tracked giving and attendance from the very beginning. It demonstrated a pattern of constant decline from the very early months, and that pattern held all the way to the last days.

We tried a number of approaches to stem the tide and turn things around, but were unable to do so. Last summer, we held a number of meetings with the congregation in which we discussed options for how we might continue forward. Ultimately, we voted to ask the presbytery to take us back to "mission church" status (essentially, to become a re-plant or a new church plant again). At that point, about half of our remaining people left.

Presbytery was cautious about it, and rightly so. After some further discussion, we came to the point where we didn't believe it would be fruitful to press on, and decided to close up for good in October.

Which brings us to now. That's my account of "what happened" as best as I can tell it.


  1. This highlights one of the troubling aspects of American Protestantism: if we don't get what we like, we go somewhere else. I'm as guilty of it as anyone.

  2. Just now reading this, Ed...didn't realize all you and your family have been through and am eager to see/hear you in real life about what you're doing right now.

    1. DeAnn, I’m looking forward to it, too.