By Jennifer Harris
Word&Way News Writer
Seven months ago, Olive Branch Baptist Church, Sedalia, was dying. A period of conflict, loss of the pastor and church split led to dwindling numbers. But the 12 remaining congregants refused to give up on their church.
In March, the church voted to suspend their constitution and bylaws and release administrative control to a group of stewards, made up of denominational leaders, pastors and lay leaders from around the state.
“In reality, this is almost a new church start — the model is that of planting a new church in an available building,” steward Pete Hill said.
The stewards — Hill, Marlin Brown, Jeff Langford, Jarrell and Shirley Peach, Harold Phillips, Bart Tichenor and Jim West — named Tommy Goode as bi-vocationalpastor in July.
“Never in my history at Olive Branch have I seen this much accomplished in such a short period of time,” said Don Wilson, who leads worship at Olive Branch and serves as liaison to the stewards on matters related to the physical structure and facilities of the church.
“I am certain the Lord has answered our prayers by delivering Tommy and Elaine to the rescue.”
Wilson, along with his wife, Sandy, join Goode to make up the church’s leadership team. While the stewards are responsible for administrative decisions, the church is responsible for functional matters.
Goode said the model of stewards is unique in Baptist life — as Baptists have a strong tradition of autonomoy of the local church — but not unheard of. The most successful church turnaround model is that of another church taking over.
“A church is so depleted that it needed another to come in and help it,” he said. “Most internal interventions fail.”
In order to gain trust in the congregation, the stewards attend services periodically and find ways to interact with church members. Then, “we meet regularly and determine what we believe needs to be done for the well-being of the church,” Hill said. “The stewards have basically decided everything from hiring a pastor and setting the salary to determining advertising and promotion.”
Once a month the stewards meet with members and report actions, Goode said.
And, according to Goode, the intervention is working. “It seems like a slow process, but we’ve double since May — we are holding and growing,” he said.
He is using Natural Church Development and new church start strategies and methodologies to help grow the church.
The work at Olive Branch has been similiar to new church start work he has done in the past. “It is as though we are just starting,” he said. “The model works and it doesn’t, because there are people with a history, memories and traditions.”
He is helping the church create new traditions that are relevant to where the church wants to be.
Goode say people are attracted to Olive Branch for two reasons. They see an opportunity to serve and minister, and they also encounter a different kind of church. “Olive Branch seeks to be worship-centered,” he said.
The service is contemporary, with a praise and worship team leading music. Goode uses presentation technology to incorporate videos, and the message is participatory and life-oriented.
“Style matters,” Goode said. “Style is the package. The package is culture. We desire a younger generation. It matters if we are culturally relevant.”
Wilson attributes much of the church’s newfound success to Goode’s leadership. “Tommy and Elaine are both definitely ‘hands on’ leaders and lead by example,” he said.
“In short, they are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and jump into the thick of it, thereby accomplishing everyone’s support. My only regret is that Tommy isn’t running for President of the United States — if he were, he would have all our votes!”
“I believe God is blessing the situation, and that in the future, Olive Branch will be a thriving congregation again, though it may look a little different from the past,” Hill said.
The stewards will be in place for two to three years. “They help us make good decisions — and we have critical decisions to make along the way,” Goode said. After a bad experience, those closest to the situation may not be capable at looking at it objectively; the stewards are able to provide that objective lens, he said.
“They can help us move beyond a conflict history. It’s necessary not just for the condition, but to interrupt a pattern of behavior that led to conflict and decline.”
The church is taking an active role in refocusing on the purpose of church.
“I think for people in the routine of church, the routine can keep them from their focus on relationship with Christ,” Goode said. “We do and practice things to remind us of that purpose.”
“We are praying the mind of Christ for us,” Goode said. “Knowing and doing the mind of Christ — all else will work out if, as a church, we focus on this.”
Pictured above: (top) Sedalia teens participate in Olive Branch Baptist Church's Sunday@7 teen ministries worship event. The event draws youth from area churches that enjoy a teen-focused worship experience, according to pastor Tommy Goode; (bottom) enjoying a meal at the Olive Branch Reunion are (left to right) Elaine Goode, steward Jarrell Peach, Lois West, steward Jim West and steward Shirley Peach.