The Growth at Cliffside
This account is based on actual events, but details have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
As the interview drew to a close, the pastoral search committee asked if he had any questions. Full of enthusiasm and a genuine desire to please God, Mason Hale asked what they envisioned for the struggling fellowship. Without hesitation the chairman said, "We want to be the Saddleback of the South."
Mason welcomed that challenge. He and his wife packed up their four kids and moved to the fastest growing county in North Carolina to turn Cliffside Community Church, a congregation of 400, into a thriving mega-church.
It was a young congregation. Although this was his first senior pastorate, he was the oldest person on staff. Cliffside was on the verge of major growth; Mason could just feel it.
Things went well at first. Young families joined the church. In seven years, Cliffside grew from 400 to more than 1,000. They helped start another church: New Life Fellowship. Mason commissioned one of his most faithful elders, Jacob Reed, to pastor this new church. Jacob was intelligent and a natural leader. Mason would miss him at Cliffside, but he knew he was the right man for the job.
But just as God called Jacob away, he brought something new to Mason's doorstep. The leaders of a small, dying church came to Mason for help. They said, "Our church hasn't had a pastor for three years. It's stalling, and soon it will die. We have less than 100 attending, but each person is committed to seeing our church survive. Would you consider a merger?"
Mason thought it was a great idea and took their request to his elders, certain they'd agree to support this church in need. Yet the elders were divided. Frank Montrose pursed his lips and raised an eyebrow. Over the past seven years, he'd often been averse to change.
"I don't like it," Frank said. "Shouldn't we be asking why this church is doing so poorly?"
Danny Spencer responded quickly: "Come on, Frank. Don't be so suspicious. You heard Mason; they're fighting as hard as they can. They just can't catch a break."
Frank wasn't convinced: "If we merge with them, we'll have to take on their debt and their problems. Besides a facility, what do they bring to the table that will benefit us?"
Mason inwardly rolled his eyes. Danny said, "Experience, for one thing. We could use a few older voices at Cliffside." And none of them could be as cantankerous as you are, Frank, thought Mason. "Don't worry," he said. "If their leaders are any indication, they'll be willing to do whatever it takes to get their church out of its rut."
Eventually Frank and all the elders agreed, and it was settled. They adopted the dying church and made it a satellite campus.
Encouraged by two victories in a row—the church plant and the satellite campus—Mason decided to move forward with a third initiative he'd been contemplating for some time. Over the past few years the area's demographics had changed. Their community was now multiethnic, and this was causing a lot of tension in the local school system. Troubled by the ethnic homogeneity of Cliffside, Mason decided, We're going to embrace a multiethnic approach.
He invited a Korean church to share their building. He also hired two Hispanic pastors to launch a Spanish service at Cliffside. They were brothers, Alejandro and Carlos, who had immigrated, legally, from Nicaragua and were trained in the U.S. through a ministerial education program. Mason saw tremendous potential in these two guys.
With the support of the elders, he decided to start the Spanish service in the gymnasium at 9:45, simultaneously with Cliffside's early service, with Alejandro as preacher and Carlos as worship leader. Soon, Cliffside had a growing Hispanic community. Mason loved seeing different ethnicities worshiping God in the same building. This is just the beginning, Mason thought. Suddenly, becoming "The Saddleback of the South" didn't seem quite as unattainable.
Mason knew that every major change came with wrinkles in need of ironing. One afternoon he received a call: "Hi, Martha. How are you today?"
"Maybe you can explain something to me, Pastor." Martha Penrose and her family had been at Cliffside since he first arrived. Her voice was ice-cold: "Why would you get rid of the youth band? It was my son's favorite time of the week. He was finally making friends with good kids."
Mason rubbed his temples. "I'm not sure who told you that, but I can assure you we still have a youth band. We just had to move their practice time because of the Spanish service's worship team needing to practice."
"Too early. At that hour, Chris would rather sleep than go to band practice."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Martha. But we didn't have a choice. That was the only time the Spanish service could meet." It was five kids versus an entire congregation. When Mason had made the decision, it seemed like a no-brainer.
"Chris has been a member here longer than even you. I think it's outrageous to punish him for the sake of these new members."
He wanted to push back, but didn't have the time or energy. "I'll talk to the elders and see if we can find a better time for the youth band."
"I hope so," she snapped, and hung up.
Mason turned his attention to bigger problems. The satellite site was not doing well. Cliffside had put $500,000 into the tiny congregation, but it hadn't grown at all. The visionary leaders Mason had met with didn't represent the attitude of their congregants. The majority were quite happy being a 100-person church with no long-term pastor. They sure didn't support the growth initiatives Mason suggested. It was a disaster.
The satellite felt like a drain on the energy of the main congregation, where the growth was taxing Cliffside's facility, a postage stamp of a plot, a five-acre gymnatorium. They needed to expand to accommodate the growth, but it wasn't possible with the satellite absorbing so much of the budget. Although Mason dreaded it, he had to pull the plug on the satellite. It felt like ripping off an old band-aid—painful, but necessary.
With the satellite building and land sold, Cliffside absorbed the remaining members into their main body. Now it could focus on funding and building a new facility for the growing congregation. He needed a new set of eyes—someone with the business and financial experience to move the church to the next level.
Mason thought of his college friend, Timothy Underwood. Tim was talented, good looking, a sharp business guy. The perfect person to manage the building project. Months earlier Tim had called Mason, mentioning he was open to a career change. "I'm facing some challenges in my family life," he said. "I'm not happy at my job, so my wife's not happy. I always thought I should have been a pastor. If there's ever an opening at your church, I'm sure it would be good for my marriage and family situation."
Mason needed Tim's financial wisdom. And hopefully Tim's marriage would be helped in the process. It was a rescue mission, and Mason loved how redemptive it felt. When Mason asked him to be Cliffside's executive pastor, Tim was ecstatic.
Tim was a great help with the capital campaign. The new executive pastor focused on fundraising while Mason dealt with pastoral matters. Not everyone was excited about the new building—especially, Frank. He made every elder meeting a hassle. Mason was thankful for Tim and Danny and their reassuring presence in those meetings. Yet today Danny was bringing him some troubling news.
"I've been hearing some unsettling things, Mason."
"About the building project?"
"No, about the Spanish speaking service." Danny reached to shut the office door quietly.
"Like what?" Mason asked. The Hispanic congregation had been growing steadily. He wasn't aware of any problems.
"Well, people aren't happy about their cookouts after the service. Sometimes they gather in front of the building, and people arriving for the 11 o'clock service don't like it."
Mason had joined the Hispanic congregation during this time of laughter and community many times. He looked forward to it every week. "Why in the world are people mad about that? They should join them!"
"They say they're loitering. No one wants to push through a crowd just to get in the building. Some are talking about leaving because of it."
"It's just culture-shock. They'll get used to it eventually. The Spanish speaking members are as much a part of our congregation as anyone." Maybe we could do an integrated service every once in a while, Mason thought. He'd have to speak to Alejandro about that.
That reminded him—"Have you worked out the issue with their benefits?" Alejandro and Carlos recently mentioned that their health insurance cards had been denied. Danny was an insurance agent, so he was the elder in charge of these things.
"I wanted to check on the boys' citizenship before renewing their coverage."
"Danny, I promise you they're here legally. We went through all of that when we first hired them. Alejandro's harder on illegal aliens than anyone, because he had to earn his citizenship. He has no tolerance for people who come here illegally."
"I know, I know. Anyways, I've fixed it." Mason decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and leave it alone.
After two long years of fundraising and construction, the facility was finally finished. It was on the interstate and it could give Saddleback a run for its money. It should have been a time of celebration.
As he preached, his voice was broadcast over a state-of-the art sound system, and the lights changed color to match the mood of his message. Yet as he stared into the crowd, he noticed several dour faces. Members of the failed satellite, he realized, now attending the mother church—angry people, blaming him for the destruction of their church. Just give it some time, he told himself. They'll get used to it.
After the service he looked around to congratulate Tim, but he was nowhere to be found. Tim's marital issues were bubbling back to the surface—that rescue mission wasn't working. He pulled long-term member Rick McFarland aside and asked, "What do you think of the new place?"
"It's nice," Rick answered. "Very big."
"What do you think of those plush seats? I know you're a man who appreciates comfort!"
Rick looked down at his feet and said, "This may sound silly, but I kind of miss the folding chairs."
"Those old things? They were cold and hard and took hours to set up."
"I know. I like the new seats; I really do. But those folding chairs were special to me. I was saved sitting in one of them." Rick drifted off to join his family. Mason stuck his hands in his pockets and shook his head. Time. They just need more time.
At the next elders meeting, tensions were high. The church still owed the bank a substantial amount of money and giving had not risen as much as they'd hoped after moving into the new facility.
"We're in a bad way, Mason," Tim said with a hint of desperation. "We need to do something, and we need to do it now."
Frank crossed his arms. "I knew this would happen."
Danny shot back, "Thanks for that contribution, Frank, but right now we need solutions."
Tim continued, "I think I have an idea—one that will save us quite a bit of money. We need to end the Spanish-speaking service."
Mason couldn't believe what he'd just heard. "Tim," he said, "we can't just wave off a third of our congregation. They're one of the reasons we built this new facility in the first place."
"Think of how much money we'd save," Tim said. "The pastors' pay checks, the cost of running the service. It's not like their congregation covers their own costs. Heck, we might even get back some of the tithers who left because of them."
Mason saw Tim and Danny exchange a glance. "Tim has a point," Danny said. Mason's mouth dropped open. Danny was usually his biggest supporter. "I'm not sure those pastors are worth what we're paying them. Mason, the boy doesn't know music." He was referring to Carlos, the worship leader. Danny's wife sometimes served on the worship team and complained frequently about the music he selected.
"Why do you always call him that—'the boy'? He has a name, you know." Mason's anger was rising quickly.
Tim jumped back in, "Stop making this personal. You're a pastor; you don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. I get that. But this is a strategic question, and certainly the right financial move."
"Listen to what you're saying. We can't pick and choose who to serve based on the size of their wallets. Our church should aim to look like the one in Revelation 7:9, a great multitude of every ethnicity."
Tim reached across the table and picked up a Bible. "I may not know what this says. I just know what makes fiscal sense."
The meeting deteriorated until it ended with Tim throwing up his hands and storming out. The other elders looked around uncomfortably, not sure what to say.
The next day Tim handed in his resignation. He said he needed time to focus on his marriage.
Over the next weeks, Mason sensed things slowly returning to normal. Tim's departure had been hard, but the financial crisis eased somewhat. And we did it without getting rid of the Hispanic service, Mason told himself.
One night as he drove his daughter home from dance practice, Mason glanced out the window at Danny's office. The bad economy had been rough on Danny's insurance business. Mason was happy to see that his office parking lot was full. Oh good, he's got some clients.
When he got home, he told his wife about the cars. She looked at him for a few seconds, and said, "I think they're having a secret meeting." Mason laughed, "What are you talking about? Honey, that would never happen." She said, "I'm telling you, those elders are having a secret meeting." Mason was incredulous, but he drove back to Danny's office. His eyes flicked from one car to the next—each belonging to a member of his elder team.
He dialed Danny's number. At first there was no answer. He texted a message: "Brother, this is Mason. I know you guys are having a meeting. What's going on?" Then he called again. Finally, Danny answered the phone, stammering. "Why don't you come over," he said.
Mason walked in on their meeting and looked around the room. No one met his gaze. He said, "What in the world is going on?"
Frank answered, "A lot of people have been leaving the church. They feel like it's not meeting their needs anymore."
Mason answered, "What are you talking about? The church has been growing. I think you mean a lot of your friends have left." He turned to Danny. "Is this about Tim? Is this about the Spanish speaking service?"
"It's everything," Danny said. "We think people have lost confidence in you as a leader. They just aren't comfortable with all of these changes."
Mason glared at him. "When I first got here, you said you wanted me to make Cliffside the Saddleback of the South."
"True," Danny said. "But not by changing the DNA of our entire congregation."
Mason was astonished. He didn't know how to respond. Finally, he swallowed and said, "I know the church has had some problems, but I stand by our decisions. I've never done anything without your unanimous support."
Frank coughed into his hand. Well, nearly unanimous, Mason thought. They talked for a while. It wasn't an ugly conversation. But Mason felt betrayed. Danny handed him a copy of a document they'd put together. It was titled, "A Statement of Fact." Danny said, "This outlines the problems we have with your leadership. We like you, Mason, but we don't like what's been going on. We want you to bring this before the Lord, and we'll be waiting for your response."
Mason knew what that meant. Danny might as well have said, "We'll be waiting for your resignation."
That night in bed, Mason stared at his bedroom ceiling. Sleep wasn't an option—there were too many questions warring in his head. He lay on his back, staring sleeplessly, hoping the morning would illuminate what had just happened.
But when the sun rose, nothing was clearer. So he decided to call Howard.
Howard Forsyth was the senior pastor Mason had served under at his previous church. Since Mason left for Cliffside, the two had become quite close. He could always count on Howard for sound pastoral advice.
After a few rings, Howard answered, "Hi, Mason. What can I do for you?" His tone was warm, but a bit groggy.
"Howard, my elders want me to resign. I feel blindsided, and I don't know what to do." He recounted the events of the preceding night: the cars, the meeting, the Statement of Fact.
Howard let Mason's story sink in. Finally, he said, "I'm so sorry. I thought things were going well at Cliffside."
"They are. We've had some problems, but the church is finally growing again." He told Howard about Tim's outburst and departure. "I assumed things would get back on track when Tim left, but I guess more people were upset than I realized."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Why do you think the congregation is so unhappy?"
"When I was first hired, they said they wanted growth. But now that they're growing, they can't handle the change. It's like the satellite we took on a few years ago: unwilling to sacrifice what they're used to for the sake of continued growth."
"But it sounds like you've had the support of your elders up until now. What changed?"
"As long as things were going well, they were 100 percent behind me. But now that things are strained, they're abandoning me."
"It sounds like you've put the congregation through a lot of change in a very short period of time. Good change, to be sure. But did you give them time to adjust before moving on to the next major initiative?"
"Change always hurts. Sometimes a congregation has to bite the bullet and trust that their pastor knows best." Mason stopped. The sentence had just slipped out.
"I don't think you mean that," Howard said. "Tell me honestly—each time you initiated change, did you take the necessary care to bring them along with you?"
After a short pause Mason said, "I probably could have done more. I could have handled the switch to multiethnic more delicately. And they needed time to grieve the old building. This is a seeker church. We don't have 70-year-old saints who can set the tone for the rest of the congregation."
"So you were reliant on your leaders to help guide things."
"Right. But I never pushed anything without support of the elders."
"Mason, I've known you for a long time. In the right environment, you could persuade anyone to support you. I've seen you do it! But there's a difference between getting someone to vote "yes" in a meeting and evoking true loyalty to your vision.
Howard was right. Frank had been a squeaky wheel—annoying, but right more often than not. Mason had relied on Danny and the others to push things through, no matter Frank's reservations. But when push came to shove, they weren't as convinced as they appeared.
Finally, Howard asked the hardest question: "Will you resign?"
"What else am I supposed to do? These folks are some of my closest friends. I married their children. I buried their parents. My kids see them as uncles. Now they think I should leave. I'm not sure I even want to be at this church anymore."
"I know you're close to these elders, and their lack of confidence must hurt terribly. But think about your congregation. Ask yourself what's best for them. Pray. Then make your decision."
After he hung up, Mason re-read the Statement of Fact. Then he read it again, five more times. He got on his knees and said, "God, are you talking to me?" His heart ached. He just wanted to leave this mess and start over. But he knew that, if he resigned, the Hispanic venue would die. The "least of these" would be hurt the most.
So the next week, Mason called the elders together. As they sat around the conference table, he remained standing. He said, "My response is this: I'm staying."
He passed around a strategic plan he'd put together to get the church moving forward again. It described how they would ease off the gas on some projects and drop others completely. Each item in his plan focused first on the congregation. He said, "My friends, I want your help—I need it. This congregation can't handle any more change, just like you folks said the other night. That includes a new senior pastor. If you support me, I think we can re-focus our priorities and get Cliffside back on track."
He looked around the room. The elders flipped through his plan, shifting in their seats. Frank furrowed his brow. Danny sighed. "I'm sorry. I just can't get behind you," he said. "It's too late." He rose to his feet, and walked out the door, dropping his copy of the plan in the trash. Three other elders followed him out, one by one.
Mason's head slumped and he closed his eyes. It took everything within him to stay standing. In his head he prayed, I thought this is what you wanted me to do, God. I can't lead without the support of the elders. It's over.
Then Frank broke the silence: "Mason, I don't agree with everything you've done in the last few years. But this plan is solid. And I trust you." Mason opened his eyes to see the five remaining elders nodding in agreement. He managed a smile and said, "Thank you for your support." But as he looked at the few remaining faces, he thought, How long before you walk out that door, too?
The four elders that left did not leave quietly. It was ugly. It was painful. Mason's credibility dropped even lower than it already had. Members left the church in droves. His kids were hurt. His wife was vilified. He felt like his church had divorced him. When the dust settled, attendance bottomed out at 400.
But those that stayed gave Mason the strength to persevere. While the elders that left actively recruited families away, those that stayed fought as hard as Mason to hold the church together. As gruesome as things got, he chose not to speak negatively about those who left. For the congregation's sake, he tried to show them love, to bless them as they departed.
With the drastic decline in membership, Cliffside was crippled financially. Eventually, the bank called the loan on the new building, but there was no way to pay it back. Mason knew what had to be done.
He set up a meeting with Jacob Reed, the pastor of New Life Fellowship, the church Cliffside had planted a few years ago. When Mason walked into New Life's building, he couldn't help but smile.
The atrium was filled with posters and pamphlets advertising new and exciting initiatives: a service opportunity here, a women's Bible study there. But he was surprised by how much this church reminded him of Cliffside's old building. He walked the length of the atrium and peeked into the doors of the sanctuary. Volunteers were setting up folding chairs for Sunday's service.
He thought back to a meeting he'd had years ago with a group of leaders trying to save a church that didn't want saving. Mason grimaced. That's not us, he thought. That's not me. He made his way to Jacob's office. As soon as he walked in, the pastor rose and embraced him in a bear hug. He knew what was happening at Cliffside, and expressed his condolences. Offering a chair to Mason, he sat down behind his desk and said, "What can I do for you, my friend?"
"The last few months have been hard," Mason said. "We're thinking of giving our building back to the bank. Cliffside's congregation has been through more than you can imagine, and I think it's time to offer them some stability. We're looking to merge with another church."
Jacob cocked his head to the side. "With who?"
"That's actually why I'm here. Cliffside planted New Life; we come from the same DNA. You're family, and our members trust you. We even have the same color scheme. So what do you think; would you be open to a merger?"
The two pastors talked for a while. There were many things to consider, but Jacob seemed receptive. "Mason, I'll have to run this by the elders, but I have a feeling they'll be very interested in merging. I know I am."
Mason relaxed in his chair. "That's good to hear," he said.
Jacob gave Mason a mischievous grin. "I guess we'll have to arm wrestle every Sunday to see who's preaching!"
"Actually, I had something else in mind." Mason closed his eyes and folded his hands in his lap. This felt right. "If we end up merging, I'm going to step down as pastor."
"But, Mason! You've endured so much with Cliffside."
"Exactly. We've been through war together. Unless I step down, they'll never see you as their pastor. They'll always feel like the remnants of Cliffside, never fully integrated into New Life. They deserve a fresh start."
Jacob considered what Mason had said and gave a single nod. This is for the best, Mason thought. With tears in his eyes, he thanked Jacob, promised to call him soon with more details, and walked back to his car.
Would this new congregation grow to become "The Saddleback of the South"? Mason wasn't sure. But he knew Jacob and New Life would welcome Cliffside with open arms. His people would be cared for. As he walked outside, the sun felt warm on his face, and he breathed a sigh of relief.
Epilogue: Mason is now pastor of a healthy congregation in another state. He believes his experience with Cliffside helped prepare him for his current ministry. New Life Fellowship continues to thrive. Cliffside's building was sold to another church. The Hispanic service continues now as an independent congregation.
Rusty Hayes is pastor of First Free Church of Rockford, Illinois.
Kyle Rohane is completing an editorial residency at Leadership Journal.