A Church Planter Learns to Lead
Church leadership is more difficult than you might think and involves much more than preaching and consensus building as A.B. Scott will quickly tell you from his experience.
"Most churches don't know who they are and they lack direction," said Scott, pastor of Ponte Vedra Presbyterian Church in the beach resort town of Ponte Vedra, Florida. "This is where the RTS Doctor of Ministry classes helped a lot. Leadership and church growth courses taught me how to cast vision and study direction - that is incredibly important and is not taught in most seminaries.
Scott has led the metropolitan Jacksonville church at Ponte Vedra from a start of less than 100 people in 1989, its first year, to a congregation of almost 1,000 today And though he acknowledges that the best of leadership won't always stimulate church growth, Scott said his schooling has had an impact on his situation at Ponte Vedra. One of the most helpful classes was on church growth, in which he was required to produce a church five-year plan. "I have been updating it every year and applying it here. It gave me a template for how to think through certain areas where you need to exhibit some leadership."
"Most churches are not proactive; they just react," he said. "Most ministers are the same way. Essentially you try to play the hand you are dealt, but I have found that the more that I plan, the more I lead and the more I articulate vision and direction, the more people in church say 'Yeah, this is what we've got to do.'"
Part of the church's vision includes a million-dollar building program. The seven-year-old church moved into its first permanent building in March, 1995, and has outgrown it. They plan to build a multi-phase, 60,000-square-foot project on a new twenty-eight-acre site nearby.
Scott said he knows that the church's growth has come about only because of God's extraordinary grace. A cornerstone of the church's vision statement is Psalm 127:1, "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain."
"God has used me in ministry wherever I have been," he said referring to his twenty-year career, which began in his home town. "Every place I have been I have started a new ministry."
The son of an ophthalmologist, Scott was raised in Memphis as a covenant child, yet did not become a Christian until high school. "I was active in the church and its youth group. I went because I had friends there and it was a fun place to be. The church was conservative but not necessarily evangelistic. During my senior year in high school I began attending Young Life. The leader of the club, Joe Scruggs, befriended me, and I liked him so much I started going every week to hear what he had to say. He was the first Christian I could identify with. Joe shared his testimony one night and explained how he had asked Christ into his life. I thought, 'I've never done that.' So I went home and quietly, in my own room, prayed to receive Christ."
Scott and his friend, Craig Strickland, also a pastor, started a Bible study with other high school students in the spring semester of his senior year, eventually attracting almost forty students. The next year, as a freshman at Memphis State, he began working for Young Life as a volunteer leader. "My first year as a camp counselor I had to disciple a number of guys. I was overwhelmed by the fact that they responded. It had an impact on me because I could see that God was using me to influence them."
As a college junior he led a Young Life club with about 150 kids coming weekly - it was exhilarating. He loved it so much that, following graduation, he continued with Young Life in Memphis. After leading a staff of sixteen in the Memphis suburb of Germantown for two years, he was asked to become an area director and develop his own committee, raise funds, and set policy. "Those years were very fulfilling. I saw a large number of kids come to Christ during that time and a number of them are now in the ministry. God did a great work." But, he recalls, "I began to think more about the long term. If I was called to ministry I needed to get the tools."
Late in his five-year stint in Germantown, Scott met his soon-to-be-wife Dabney, a volunteer leader. In January 1982, the wedded Scotts moved to Chicago so A.B. could attend Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Married life in seminary brought financial challenges as well. "I couldnt get a job in a church because they wouldn't pay anything. So I started a Young Life club in Evanston, a north Chicago suburb, and that turned out to be an incredible experience. There were 3,800 kids in the high school. They spoke thirty different languages. The high school was actually much more challenging than a church would have been. We built up to thirty or forty kids a week, and we saw many of them come to Christ. I am especially pleased that the ministry continued to thrive after I left."
In the spring of 1984 the Scotts were called to Second Presbyterian in Memphis where A.B. was ordained and served four years as pastor to students and singles. He relished starting Bible studies on Memphis campuses, beginning with Rhodes College. "It exploded!" recalled A.B. "It was another phenomenon. I thought I would just gather a crowd and invite kids to lunch. I had no idea how we were going to pay for it if it really took off." It did, from fifty the first week to more than 200 weekly soon thereafter. At the time, no church was actively en gaged in a ministry on that campus, and elders at Second Presbyterian were ecstatic. An endowment fund was quickly established and the interest offered $10,000 a year for expenses such as food and activities. Scott also began a ministry at a local medical school. At least one graduate - who had also been a Germantown Young Life participant - went into medical missions for the Southern Baptist Church.
His experiences in establishing youth ministries served as an ideal training ground for church planting. Scott says, "You have to deal realistically with issues and problems or else participants will not take you seriously."
In May 1988, Scott mentioned to a colleague his curiosity about church planting,but confessed he didn't know how to do it, and counted it among the last Christian vocations he'd pursue. Then Paul Taylor, a church planting director in Atlanta, invited him to an assessment meeting. Scott agreed, reluctantly but changed his mind about church planting during the assessment meeting. "My heart warmed to hear somebody talk with real vision and passion about starting churches and reaching people for Christ. I knew right then I wanted to start a church."
After being approved to plant a church, the Scotts selected the growing Tampa/St. Petersburg area as an ideal spot. The couple spent several months studying the area but it did not work out as anticipated. Then in October 1988, after researching the demographic and cultural situation in Ponte Vedra, "we just felt there was a sense that this is where we ought to be. So we moved here, not knowing a soul."
After more research and groundwork, the Ponte Vedra Presbyterian Church went from an idea to almost 1,000 per week in attendance. How did it happen?
The church at first met in the local Marriott hotel. Following its February 1989, opening, attendance dropped to about eighty weekly during the summer before beginning a steady rise in the fall. "We decided to hire staff to beef up our programs. To lead worship, I hired someone I had known from Young Life. We started growing again and repeated the process with other staff. Every time we got ahead financially we would hire additional staff, and soon that person would pay for himself. Now we have 800 to 1,000 people a week, and in about a year we've already outgrown our first church building."
To add vibrancy to the Ponte Vedra arts scene and a Christian attraction for greater Jacksonville, the church plans to host concerts and drama events at a local amphitheater. A few years ago the church established a live walk-through nativity theater at Christmas time, and the attraction has grown from an attendance of 300 the first year to 5,300 last year and was named one of the top ten Christmas events by the Jacksonville Times-Union newspaper A local television station even did its weathercast from the manger scene. They interviewed the guy who did Joseph and he gave his testimony."
Phenomenal and incredible opportunities seem to follow A.B. Scott wherever he travels. But he is quick to remind everyone that only those ministries blessed by God will flourish. "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain."
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 1