Wins, Losses and Concerns for the Local Church in Light of COVID-19 | Jim Tomberlin

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Jim works with Christ Fellowship Church and the Unstuck Group. He helps churches with multisite and is an expert in church mergers

Podcast Transcription


Welcome to the Church Growth podcast, my name’s Jason Hamrock, I am your host. Today on the podcast I have the privilege of having Jim Tomberlin on the show. Jim is quite a guy. He has been in ministry for over four decades. Jim’s known as the multisite expert around the country. He’s been helping churches figure out how to do multisite for a long, long, long time. He’s also an expert and a specialist in church mergers, which is a thing that we’re going to talk about. And he also is the Chief of Staff of Christ Fellowship Church in Miami. He works with the Unstuck Group. There’s not a lot he doesn’t do. So I’m excited for you to hear from Jim.

Well, Jim, hey, great to have you on the podcast.

It’s great to be with you today.

I’m excited for our conversation today. First and foremost, let’s tell the audience a little bit about you and your ministry and what you’re doing these days.

Well, Jason, I’m proud to say that this year begins my fifth decade in local church ministry, and I still love the local church.


But I’ve served several churches over the years from New Mexico, Germany, Colorado, Chicago. And now I’m serving as a Chief of Staff at Christ Fellowship in Miami, which was a client of mine, and three years ago, could you just step into this role for a while? And so here we are, three plus years, I’m still doing it.


But I was an early pioneer in the multisite church movement when I was leading my church in Colorado, which I still am a member of, and attend when I’m in town, Colorado Springs. But that kind of catapulted me into that movement, and I have written a couple few books about multisite and about church mergers over the years, and started a company called Multisite Solutions in 2005 when I left Willow Creek to serve churches around the country. And in doing that, ever since I merged my company with my good friend Tony Morgan and the Unstuck Group, which we’ve been comrades over the years and just have been really pleased and delighted to have merged my company with them, that’s worked out really well. But I continue to consult and serve where I can.

Yeah, well, you have a wealth of knowledge that I’m looking forward to tapping into. So when you talk about multisite church, and that was like the wave of the last but 15 years or so. The idea was let’s go, church planting’s still there, but let’s go ad more campuses to where our people are coming from, and you just turned into that model. And no doubt at our church we did that, churches all over the country doing that. But then last year happened, and it sort of shifted everything. So share a little bit of what’s kept you busy during this pandemic, and what do you think the impacts been on the local church?

Well, Jason, I would say that first of all, my journey with multisite church began more than 15 years ago, back in 1997.

Oh wow, okay.

I have a video that we made where I was casting the vision to my church in Colorado to think about a different way of thinking about church as you approach the twenty first century. And I mentioned the phrase here in 1997, as we approached the twenty first century, it’s time to think differently about church, and one church in two locations. My vision of small, just two locations. But so, you know, it’s we’re in like the fourth decade, you know, almost of this movement. But I would say it had been growing before the last year before COVID, but when COVID hit, every church became a multisite church.

I was just on a webinar with one hundred Russian pastors and they, like we, had to go online. It was only way they could do church during the COVID season this time last year. And I said, you know, they were learning more about multisite. And I said, well, you’ve already you’ve become that now. And so you have a physical campus, and now you’re online as well, and so…But we’ve heard this before, in every endeavor COVID didn’t really change things, it just accelerated what was already changing. And so the good, the bad, and the ugly, pre-COVID, was accelerated during COVID, and so we’re seeing that coming on the other side of this into the new COVID era. A lot of the trends that we were already seeing happening, that the churches that are flourishing are embracing those, what was already happening before.

Yeah. So, I mean, you know, you’re right. I think the churches that we’re doing that, now are just doing it. Even though it’s deeper, it seems like when we talk to churches, they’ve always been online, not all of them, but a lot of them put their sermons out there or their services out there. Not a lot of them had ministry online, but they’re now doing that. Are you seeing some good trends of some of the churches that you’re consulting with, and certainly your church, about how to do ministry online? And what does that look like? Because I think there’s a difference between just put it out of service, and engagement.

Totally, definitely, the church online has become the main campus of a church. And before COVID, there was a lot of debate, can you really be a church online? Is that really valid? There’s a lot of debate about video teaching. Nobody is making those arguments anymore, those protests against the concept. So I think in those regards, but even for churches that we’re doing online, it was more seen as the secondary campus, or kind of for those who can’t make it to church. It was all about how do we get people to the physical campus, and then, oh, yeah, by the way, you can visit online as well. And so we started with how do we get our physical experience into a digital space? And I think the shift is beginning to happen now for the leading churches, is how do we get our digital space, how do we go from digital to physical? Good example, Wal-Mart and Amazon, two competitors. If you go to Wal-Mart today, you’ll see that Amazon started out digital and just in the last few years have begun to have a few physical locations to sell their products that you just come in and pick them up, you know, like you order them online and just pick them up. But but if you go to Wal-Mart today, you’ll see bins that Amazon has rented out from Wal-Mart. So now they’re taking what happened digital and delivering physical. Versus Wal-Mart and Target and all those started out physical, then they try to figure out how to get to sell online, but even that’s just to bring people into the stores. So we’re seeing all those kinds of trends with the churches as well, that we truly are beginning to realize the online is the front door of the church, it’s where the new people are. And if you’re only focusing on getting your people back to pre-COVID, that’s a losing game. You’ve got to reach new people, and the new people primarily are going to be reached online.

And so you made a comment to about more personal versus platform based, what do you mean by that?

Well, I think one of the great things that happened last year was pastors, our staff, our campus pastors, and we have seven locations here in Miami and 13 globally, they were all over the old fashioned phone calling, we called through our database several times during all that time. We had more personal ministry, I believe, in those months than we’ve had in a long, long time, in the local church ministry, especially large churches. Because it was so much before about the platform, and coming and hearing the pastors preach or whatever, and it could be very impersonal. We would get them into small groups and all that, and we worked hard of that, and we’ve got 80 percent of our people in small groups even before COVID. But it was more pastoral care, I think, going on during these days, I think that was a good thing. Every church I talked to, they were doing the same thing, they were calling to every member in their database, every person they’ve ever had any contact with, called them several times.

I agree with you, I think mainly they’re doing it because they know they can’t afford to lose people and lose income, right, from people giving and tithing, but the silver lining in all that is actually connected with people. How are you doing? What can we pray for? What’s a need of yours? And to me, I go, thank you, God, you kind of made that happen and spun that.

I think one of the great breakthroughs, or one of the ah ha’s that the church has had, is that before COVID we used to think buildings generate income, you got to meet or your offerings will go down. We quickly learned in two weeks, every church in America figured out, you know, online giving is not a bad thing. Look, there were people actually resisting that. I can remember when people would say, you know, it robs people of the act of worship, putting in an offering plate. You didn’t hear any those kind of arguments last year. But we realized we don’t have to meet, buildings don’t reach people, I have always said, ministry reaches people, people reach people, and buildings don’t reach people, ministry does. And if you are ministering to people, serving people, they will support that that ministry financially, whether you meet physically or not, and this last year proved that.

Your building is an awareness, but you got to have that personal relationship and connecting with people.

And I think, yeah, hey, every local church meets in a place. And so it’s not that we…You know, there’s a place for a facility for gathering, but we’ve had a way over emphasis on buildings, and the bigger the building, the greater the success. But we realizing through this time, and again, this was already happening before COVID, small is the new big, big campuses are not sustainable long term. And we’re seeing this even now in the return, the smaller churches, and their smaller campuses, are having a better return and a better experience when they come back then the larger campuses, larger churches, and facilities.

Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s been, I see the same thing throughout the churches we get to serve. The smaller churches, is income has stayed up, you know, engagement has really been there because they are a smaller community. So you also mention a little bit about it’s been proactive in terms of church mergers. In this season, how is that playing out, and what can we learn about church mergers?

Well, as you know, back in 2011, Warren Byrd and I co-authored a book called Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work, and that was really a trend that we were seeing. He was at Leadership Network at the time, I was consulting churches and seen a lot of mergers happen. I was involved in merger, one of my first experience with the merger was when I was at Willow Creek with one of our campuses. And back then, Warren said, Jim, are you seeing a lot of mergers in your consulting? I said, yeah, we are, I am. And he said, so are we at leadership network, God is doing something, we ought to write a book about it, that was nine years ago.

Last fall, our publisher called us and said, hey, your book has been a steady selling book, but it’s in hardback, could we have permission to make it into a paperback? And we said on one condition, if you would allow us to update it, and do another survey of churches across the country, which we did last fall. And then so through COVID, we were writing the book. And so we finished the manuscript, I should say, we finished the manuscript one month before COVID hit. And then when we came, we said to the publisher, could we have that book back, the manuscript back, because we want to address how COVID is impacting us, and we did that.

But again, we were already seeing a trend, nine years ago, 30 percent of multisite campuses had come by way of a merger. In our last survey last fall, it’s up, it’s over 40 percent now. So multisite churches have clearly been the beneficiary, and the catalyst, of this new kind of merger, and that’s what we said 10 years ago. But what we’re also seeing now, there’s a whole lot more applications, church planters, 20 percent of all church plants acquired their facility through a merger of an existing church joining them. So the church planting movement is benefiting from mergers. Pastoral succession, churches are seeing, you know, maybe the pastor across town might be a better candidate than a pastor from across the country who doesn’t know our city and all that. So we’re seeing all of that. Denominations are now beginning to realize it’s not a bad thing to have two struggling churches join together with a strong church, that becomes a revitalization or rebirthing strategy. So we’re seeing a real positive mindset about mergers now, more than we did 10 years ago, but it’s only increasing. And what we’re also seeing is that before COVID, it was increasing because so many of the churches in America are stuck or struggling, and they could’ve carried on for a while and before COVID, but COVID accelerated many of those.

Jason, we talk about three kinds of churches across the country, there’s over three hundred twenty thousand Protestant churches. At the Unstuck Group, we have a survey online, it’s a free assessment online that you can go, we’ve had over twenty five thousand churches take that assessment. And they fall into three categories, strong churches, stuck churches, struggling churches, those are my categories. About 15 percent of the churches in America are in the category of strong, 60 percent are stuck, and another 25 percent are either on life support or life preservation. Those are very vulnerable churches right now, and many of them, I get a call almost weekly now of churches that are having the merger conversation. Just last week, two churches that I’m involved with right now who have a merge knocking on their door. And so, this one is increasingly becoming a tool in the church toolbox now.

And it seems to be a good thing because God is in control this, and guided the right way, it can be a win win.

Well, in our survey we did, a recent survey, we asked the question, would you do a merger again, know what you went through? 82 percent said yes. Yes. And the new kind of mergers isn’t a lose lose, or a win lose, it’s a win win. And where a church that’s in decline, it’s struggling, it has a chance to have a second chapter, a new life, a rebirth, or who’s just stuck and they get a revitalization. Meanwhile, strong growing churches, this is a way for them to advance their mission, reach more people, solve some space problems. So when those two parties see the win, win, it’s a good outcome.

Yeah, it is, it’s a good legacy for those charter members, or those people that have been around for a long time, to see the next wave come in. And, you know, it’s all about pointing people to Jesus so.

Your church, Sun Valley, had a very great merger experience outcome several years ago that I was able to work with them on, and it just has catapulted them. So how many locations do you have now? Five, six?

Yes, and they’re South Gilbert is opening soon.

It was a good example, it was a mega church of the 70s or 80s. that was really one of the leading churches in Phoenix area years ago.

And it had a merger, yeah.

They declined, and joined with Sun Valley, and now it’s a flourishing campus again.

Yep. Yep, exactly.

We’re seeing that multiply more across the country, and even more so now because of COVID.

Yeah, I bet. Well, so what are, so let’s turn the corner, What are the things that are kind of concerning to you from this past year, that you’re seeing and going this isn’t good?

Well, I think we’re all saddened, again, all these things were happening before COVID, but the increasing politicizing of the congregations, of church people. The inability for church, local church leaders to really embrace that we have moved into a post-Christian culture, that culture no longer is supporting artificial church attendance, as it has for 200 plus years. And that’s been a hard pill to swallow for a lot of church leaders, and that’s why 80 percent of the churches in America are stuck, or struggling, or in declining. They’re still stuck in a culture that doesn’t exist anymore, and so I think these are some of the concerns. I think that we have had an over addiction to church buildings, which I think COVID is beginning to break that addiction, recognizing that building don’t reach people. There are tool, they’re not the goal, they’re just a means to an end.

Yeah, that over addiction to church buildings, that’s a new phrase for me. And something that really just, it’s like cuts you deep a little bit because, you know, what are we trying to do here? Is it all about the building or is it really, truly about relationship? You know, and so, that one hits home for me and I’m like, huh, I need to chew on that one for a little bit.

The week before COVID hit, I was in a church in Colorado. they’d asked me to come talk to them about Multisite. They had been in a school for seven years and grown to 500 people, they had bought a piece of land and built a building for six million dollars right off the freeway between Denver and Colorado Springs, beautiful facility. And it was fourteen thousand square feet, on two levels. Three hundred and fifty seats was all there seating was. And they had grown in three years from five hundred, to two thousand people, with five services on Sunday. And when I was in their building, they were always apologizing for how small the building was, and I said, no, this is the new normal, this is the picture of the future, you’re proving you don’t have to be a mega campus to be a megachurch, and this is the way of the future. But why did you only build 350 seats? And they said that’s how the county would allow us to do. And so they recognize, hey, we’ve maximized this place now, and we’d like to do this again somewhere else, another location, so that’s what we were working on when COVID hit. But that to me, was a good example of small’s the new big, with multiple services, and with a multisite mindset, you don’t need big buildings.

Yeah, exactly, in an online mindset too, right, to engage people and and move them into that. Yeah, that’s interesting, huh? Well, so the what are you what are you advising pastors and church leaders as we look into, we’re in 2021, and we’re kind of, Lord willing, coming out of the COVID era, it’s not going to go back to pre-COVID days. So, you know, what are you sharing?

Well, Jason, one of the things I’ve always been saying, and it’s what you guys do…I always say to churches that are thinking about multisite in my consulting, the more clarity you have about who you are as a church and how you do church, the more effective you will be as a multisite church. So get real clarity on your mission, your vision, your discipleship pathway. What do you invite people to, how are you inviting them to follow Jesus? What’s the pathway you’re inviting them to follow? What are your values? What’s your strategy, whether it’s multisite, or church planting, or whatever? What’s your philosophy of ministry? Get clarity, if you don’t have clarity on that, then that’s the first place to start.

And then once you do get clarity on your mission vision strategy, then just execute against that and stay focused on that. You know, as you know today, it’s more about engaging people than just attendance, attendance is one measurement of engagement. But it’s how many people do we have in small groups? How many people are serving inside and outside the church in the community? Where are people giving? You know, what is the next steps that you’re inviting them to take that you can measure? These are all the ways of tracking engagement, how many online, how many are on site, are all parts of that.

Yeah, I often, I mean, we’re kind of in the lane of the digital space. And I say this every single time I talk to a church, I’m like, content is king, not the king, we know who He is. But content is king, and you are creating content, but the way you’re distributing that content online is not very good. You’ve got to learn how Google works, and use those to your advantage, because there are people out there that that want that content, that need that content, but they don’t even know you produce it. And you said something where if content is is king, then connection is queen. Because you’re absolutely right, you can use content to reach and start engagement, or even start that discipleship, but if you don’t have a strategy for engagement, forget it.

We like to say content is king, but there’s a lot of good content out there, and better than most of us can produce ourselves, although we should work on doing that well. But nobody can out local the local church, so where we have the chance to, we have the home field advantage, the local church does. And connecting people to one another, and to each other, and building community with those people is really the difference maker for local churches. That’s what’s going to bring people back to your church, it’s what’s going to bring them into your church, your local church. And it’s not just the content well delivered, though we wanted to do that as best we can as well, but it’s more than just that.

It is, yeah, and I totally agree with you, because, you know, we try to educate and say that you’ve got to capitalize on your content because people around your community can know who you are. And as you’ve said this, I believe as well, the local churches are the hope of the world. And so it’s not about absorbing content from a church that’s three states to the left, although that’s not a bad thing, I think driving people to a local community where they can see people, and connect with people one on one, and lean on them. That’s, and to me, I think that’s attractive to anybody, people that are far from God, or they’ve been your Christian their whole life.

I think before COVID, we were seeing about 1.7 people were attending, regular church goers attend 1.7 times a month, basically twice a month. Back when I started, many decades ago, when people committed to the local church in the last century, they were there every week, you know, unless they are traveling, or sick, or whatever. And we didn’t have to really, you know, stress that you should be there, it just was, it was in our minds to do that.

That’s what you do.

And then today, we know about twice a month. Now, I think we may even see less, maybe once a month as we get back to normal from those same people. But, I do think, before people came to church because they felt like, well, I need to go, I should go, I need to go occasionally, or periodically, as often as I can, out of more, I need to do that out of obligation. But now I think they recognize, because of COVID and the isolation that we experienced, I need it not just for the content, not just for the sermons, not just to worship corporately, I need that human touch with people that I share faith with. And so I think it’ll be a more emotional commitment, even whether it may not translate into increased attendance. But I do think there’s going to be a stronger emotional bond to a local church, and the value of that in these times to have a faith community that you are associated with and connected to.

It’s interesting. Yeah, because I was, last year just trying to trying to help churches understand, hey, I think this can be a good thing, right. Because if it was 1.7 times a month, do you want to go back to that? Or do you want to maybe go to where they come once a month, but they’re actually going to watch online a second or third time. So maybe you’re getting two or three weekends instead of 1.07, isn’t that better even if they’re online half of it, and in person the other half. You know, to me, it’s like that’s a good thing, you know, you’re getting more engagement now. Well, so you’ve, in several decades, four decades now, you’ve invested into the local church. What keeps you motivated to keep doing this?

Well, as you mentioned earlier, I do believe the local church is the hope of the world. And I think especially in this time, Jason, we needed a reset as the church in America, and I think this last season has been that big reset. But really, this is the church’s finest hour is in times of crisis, this is when the compassion, and the hope, and the message of Jesus, can shine the brightest. Sometimes we get a little haughty, you know, we confuse American culture with the church culture and think that’s the same. And we realize, you know, I love my country. I have a son and a son-in-law both of the military, special forces and a fighter pilot. And so I love our country, I grew up in the military, I serve military communities as a pastor over the years. But you know what, we are citizens of heaven first, and we’re really called to be an ambassador to the greatest nation in the world, the United States of America. But that’s where our citizenship is, and we’re to be His ambassadors, and bring His message to our nation that we live in. And so I just think these are the greatest opportunities for us, and the churches that really are seeing the opportunity to seize, are going to be the ones who will lead us in the next decade.

Yeah, well said.

Like I said, the other thing, I just had never recovered fully from my own personal redemption and forgiveness in Christ. And I’ve just, being a pastor for nearly five decades now, or starting my fifth decade, I’ve never gotten over seeing the transformation that occurs in people’s lives when they really give their life to Christ, when they come to faith. I just haven’t gotten over that yet so, and I don’t want to. So I do know we have the most powerful message, and it is worth giving our life to, and so I am very humbled and honored that God has allowed me to serve this long.

Well, it’s really neat to see how He’s used you for His purposes in effecting, you know, not only pastoring, but affecting so many churches around the country that benefited from what you’ve learned and you’ve passed on, you know, so that’s pretty cool. So where do you get your inspiration from? Like, who are people that you kind of tune into, that you’re reading about these days so you can absorb it and pass it on?

I think, of course you asked me this question earlier, so I had the time to think about it. But I think there’s three people that have been the most influential on me these days, one is my good friend and co-author Warren Byrd, who I’ve known for 20 plus years. We actually went to the same church at different times as college kids in Atlanta, and we were at First Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Charles Stanley was my pastor. And I was about five years older than Warren, and he was running around with this young guy called Andy Stanley.

Who’s that.

But years later, we made the connection. But Warren is probably, he knows more about the church than any other person on the planet. He is a professional statistician with a PhD in statistics, and has a photographic memory of the facts in his head, he can spout them out. He’s co-authored thirty five books on the church, you know, on all aspects of the church. And so I just have a great love and respect for Warren, and I drink deeply from his knowledge.

Tony Morgan, as I mentioned, is my boss now as part of the Unstuck Group that I joined, and merged my company Multisite Solutions, two years ago with him. But we had, for years, we were complementing each other, and I would refer people to him that needed to get healthy, and he’d refer healthy churches that wanted to multisite to me. So finally he said, why don’t we just join together, because we’re in that kind of space and so we did that two years ago. But I have always loved following Tony because he says what I’m thinking, but he says it better. He’s a practical, down to earth practitioner, no nonsense guy, who is crazy smart. And he knows what makes churches healthy, and knows how to help them get healthy, so I’m just thrilled to be a part of the team there, and being a part of Tony’s world.

And I think, you know, a few years ago this guy Carey Nieuwhof came on the scene. And the guy is just incredibly prolific, first of all, I don’t know how he puts out so much content, and it’s always good. Very few people can be deliver such a high level consistently, and I just find that I’ve had a chance to be interviewed by him a couple of times now with some of the things I’ve been doing. and he is an incredible interviewer, very insightful as well. I think all across the country, when I talk to churches, they’ll ask me, well, what is Carey say about this? Or what’s the latest thing from Carey, you know? And so he has that, God is really gifted him and is using him in a tremendous way to help churches think better, do leadership better, be more effective as a church. So those are my three kind of sources that I like to drink from these days.

Yeah, pretty good sources. So, if you’re not connected to those those three men, do so. Because I also, well I listen more to Carey, and of course Tony and not as much with Warren, but thanks for that because that’s inspirational for us to be able to…

I wish Carey wouldn’t put out so much, because I always think I don’t have to watch this, or hear this, or read this, and then I start reading and I think, I’ve got to read this now, I’ve got to listen to this. It never disappoints.

Never. So if people have questions on multi-site, how to get Unstuck, or just have general, I just want to pick your brain, what’s the best way to get a hold of you?

Well, you can go to website, or just email me

Okay, yeah. And you know, to me, just kind of being a guy on the sidelines watching you and your mastery over over the years, and being a part of a Central Christian Church back in the day, and where you stepped in and help us figure out how to do church on two campuses. Which was like, how do you do that, you know? It was very refreshing, so I appreciate your ministry, and thanks for your time and your insight to this. There’s a couple of key phrases that are sticking in my mind that I think we can take away from, and understand that we are in a different era, and those that you either adapt or you die, and you know, let’s adapt.

Well, Jason, I appreciate the ministry that your organization is helping so many churches get their message out. And I love the fact that you have missional in your name, Missional Marketing. Because that’s really, missional to me is just living like a missionary to a foreign culture, and we are in a secular culture that we need to learn to live like missionaries. And speak the language of Babylon, I like to say, and so that we can make more disciples, and so I appreciate the work that you and your company does to help churches do that better.

Thank you, I appreciate that. All right, Jim, you take care and God bless and stay safe.

Thank you so much.

Well, Jim, a huge thank you. Obviously, as we learned, if your church is struggling, if you guys are stuck, you don’t really know what to do, you’re thinking about a merger or that’s entering your mind, you feel like God’s leading you that way, or maybe you’re just, you’re kind of hanging by a thread? Reach out to Jim, connect with Jim, and he can help you. And as we learned, you have to adapt or die, you know, it’s just you don’t want to risk that. And so making some changes these days because you are online, and seeing yourself as a multi-campus church because you have a physical location and an opportunity for an online ministry, really gives you great advantages to reach more people in your community to connect with your local church. And so, Jim, we appreciate your insight and your wisdom. It just goes back to knowing that content is so important, and being able to add content to your website daily. I mean, you are creating content, so just having a strategy around how you can use that content to reach more people so that, as Jim said, develop relationships. It’s not necessarily about the content, as it is the connection.

But you want to use that content to reach people online in Google, especially as they’re looking for help with a felt need, you can be that source that they find and tap into, and then have a strategy to lead them into a relationship. And regardless, I think if you’re far from God or you’ve been a follower your whole life, people need connection, they need community, and you have that, so tap into that.

But I tell you, Jim’s a great guy, and if you send him an email, he’ll respond. He’s a busy guy, so give him some time, but I highly recommend you do that. Until next time, stay safe and God bless.

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