In January 2004, Dr. Charles Swindoll, Senior Pastor of Stonebriar Community Church, announced his decision to David Chavanne, the church’s Senior Executive Pastor. The internationally known radio preacher, who likes to be called “Chuck,” had decided that Stonebriar would add a third worship service at 8:00 on Sunday morning.
The decision culminated a two-year period of Stonebriar being at capacity and the church wondering if Chuck would add a third service. From the moment that Chavanne heard the decision, he knew that he had an enormous amount of work.
- As Executive Pastor, how could he prepare the staff and congregation?
- How could people be persuaded to come at 8:00 in the morning?
- What decisions needed to be made and what steps needed to be taken so that this third service would be successful and go smoothly for the entire church?
Six years prior, the church had an extremely successful start-up. Now Chavanne wondered how Stonebriar Community Church could grow to the next level.
History of an “Instant Megachurch”
News reports assert that the seeds of Stonebriar Community Church germinated in 1994. The Dallas Morning News reports that “When the Rev. Charles Swindoll became president of Dallas Theological Seminary four years ago, he vowed he wasn’t giving up on leading a church.” Later in the same article, “Seminary spokesman Michael Edwards said Dr. Swindoll ‘has talked all along about wanting a pulpit, ever since he came here. Everyone knew he was going to be in a pulpit. I don’t think they knew he would start a church. He’s a pastor at heart.’” The first thought of a church plant was not in Dallas:
In 1994, when Mr. Swindoll was named Dallas Theological Seminary’s president, he was pastor of First Evangelical Church in Fullerton, Calif., where Sunday attendance often topped 6,000. When he took the Dallas job, he announced plans to start a new church in Nashville, Tennessee, and move his radio program there. He said he liked Nashville better than Dallas, which he considered too metropolitan, and thought he could commute between the two jobs. But he never found people in Nashville who were willing to start a new church.
When the Nashville idea didn’t work, he looked at existing churches in Dallas: ‘Then he talked seriously with two Dallas churches—Scofield Memorial Church in Lake Highlands and Fellowship Bible Church in Far North Dallas. Neither provided the right fit.’
Three years later in November 1997, plans were made for a new church in the Dallas area:
Plans for the church began coming together in November, when Dallas businessman Richard Weyand approached Dr. Swindoll and his wife, Cynthia, about starting a church in Frisco. Mr. Weyand and his wife, Kay Lynn, moved to Frisco seven years ago but continued their membership at Northwest Bible Church in Dallas, where they’ve been members since 1972.
Perhaps unknown to Swindoll, Northwest Bible Church had plans dating back to 1991 to begin a new church in the Frisco area. However, those plans never left the drawing board. Northwest had a leadership crisis in the late 1990’s. As members of Northwest left and went to Stonebriar, some members of Stonebriar referred to Stonebriar as “Northwest North.” Other members of Northwest went to Watermark Community Church and other churches in the Dallas area.
In July 1998, Swindoll was ready to make a public announcement about the beginning of a new church:
On Thursday he made good on his promise, announcing that he is organizing a new interdenominational congregation on a 60-acre cornfield in Frisco. He said he will continue his roles as seminary president and as the broadcaster of ‘Insight for Living,’ a radio program aired worldwide 1,600 times daily. The new congregation, to be called Stonebriar Community Church, will begin meeting by early fall.
When a leader of such stature in the Christian community plants a church, one expects it to start big and then grow:
This will not be just any new church. Organizers expect it to grow quickly to megachurch status because Dr. Swindoll, 63, is a world-renowned preacher and author with a huge following willing to drive for miles to hear him. And the church will be situated in a wealthy, rapidly growing suburban frontier. ‘With the kind of growth we’re seeing out in the Frisco area, I can envision a remarkable beginning as folks from all over, searching for this kind of church, can find what they have been hungering for,’ Dr. Swindoll, who likes to be called Chuck, said in a prepared statement.
From the beginning, Swindoll had a clear purpose and direction for the church:
In his statement, Dr. Swindoll described the church as a place ‘where Christ will be exalted and God’s people will be nurtured—people of all ages, colors, cultures and backgrounds.’ He plans to bring to the church a mixture of ‘great music, meaningful worship, in-depth relationships, evangelistic zeal and, certainly, a strong Bible-teaching ministry.’
In the Dallas tradition of megachurches, it seemed another one was about to begin.
As hoped and expected, Stonebriar Community Church began with sizeable numbers and then rapidly grew. News reports commonly used the word double to describe the rapid growth: “‘They had 200 people show up the first night,’ says Swindoll’s aide, Emily Edwards. ‘That went to 400 the next week and doubled again the third week.’” Christianity Today documents the rapid growth: “The congregation first met when 300 people gathered October 14 at Stonebriar Country Club in Frisco. Less than a month later, they moved to Trinity Christian Academy in Addison for three Wednesdays.” Though there is a discrepancy between these two news accounts, the overwhelming fact is that Stonebriar rapidly grew.
By late 1998, the church began meeting on Sundays: “In December, 750 people turned out each week for its first Sunday services.” In an April 26, 1999 report in Christianity Today, the church was reported as needing a second service: “This month, the non-denominational Stonebriar Community Church will add a second service. Construction is beginning on a 2,500-seat auditorium, a mere stopgap until a 6,000-seat sanctuary can be built.” Also by April, Stonebriar had grown to the Hartford Institute’s measurable level of megachurch, two thousand people. The growth of the first five months can be represented in a chart:
One of Stonebriar’s pastors gives an interesting aside: “The church has advertised only once, and the attendance jumped from 1,100 to 2,000, according to associate pastor Mark Dane, who is married to one of Swindoll’s daughters, Colleen. No more advertising is expected until the church moves into larger quarters.”
There has been discussion in the national press about Stonebriar. The Dallas Morning News examined the growth of the church and the role of Swindoll as a radio preacher:
‘He’s got a winsome spirit about him, somewhat like Billy Graham,’ said Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois. ‘He’s able to present his own experiences and spiritual pilgrimages, and people identify with him.’
Dr. Eskridge said that although most Americans are familiar with television evangelists such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, in-the-know evangelicals pay more attention to radio preachers such as Mr. Swindoll, who is president of Dallas Theological Seminary.
‘He becomes sort of a daily friend,’ Dr. Eskridge said.
Dr. Eskridge makes an important assertion as it relates to the beginning of Stonebriar. Many of the initial attendees felt that they had a relationship, albeit through radio, with Swindoll. The article continues with a case in point:
Which is the reason Dan Durick immediately joined when he heard that Mr. Swindoll was starting Stonebriar.
‘I’ve listened to him on the radio for years,’ said Mr. Durick, a Lewisville caterer who is donating a weekly breakfast buffet for the burgeoning congregation.
So far, he said, he has donated 500 pounds of coffee, 100 gallons of juice, 40 dozen bagels and 40 dozen muffins. This month he expects to double the amount of food he loads up at 4:00 a.m. each Sunday to bring to worship.
As Mr. Durick chatted, droves of people filled the gymnasium at Collin County Community College’s Preston Ridge Campus, where the new church meets. Congregants sat on 750 white patio chairs—so new that the room smelled of plastic.
Stonebriar initially attracted those who knew of Swindoll through either his radio preaching, books, or presidency of Dallas Seminary. As seen with Dan Durick, some of these early attenders had a high commitment to the fledgling church.
From the beginning, Stonebriar had critics who addressed both the planting of the church and its future transition:
‘Mr. Swindoll may need a free spirit to keep the church successful,’ according to Carol Childress, director of information for Leadership Network, an evangelical Christian think tank in Dallas. ‘You have to have glue to hold people together,’ Ms. Childress said. ‘As wonderful a preacher as Chuck Swindoll is, he can’t be that glue. Because at some point he won’t be there.’ She said Stonebriar will need to pay attention to important trends. One is the increasing use of the senses in worship not just listening to a sermon, but also seeing artwork, touching fabric and brick, even smelling incense. Another trend is the waning of superstar preachers as people’s main reason for choosing a church, she said. But none of that is insurmountable for one essential reason, she said: ‘Chuck Swindoll is such a fantastic communicator.’
This line of thinking assumes that the church will be started and built around Chuck Swindoll. To counter this, one may consider that Swindoll was a successful pastor of a church in Fullerton, California, which continued beyond Swindoll’s departure in 1994.
Another line of criticism centered on starting another large church, with the assumption that the attendees would come from small churches. Several Letters to the Editor were received and published in Christianity Today in 1999:
Regarding the April 26 news article ‘Church Growth: Swindoll Starts Instant Megachurch’
If he missed preaching, why didn’t Chuck volunteer 25 or 30 weekends a year to go out to the places where some of his seminary graduates are struggling to build churches? ~Douglas Connelly, Flint, Michigan.
Is Chuck Swindoll’s ‘instant megachurch’ an indication of the condition that American Christianity has fallen to at the end of the twentieth century? Nowhere in the article is there any indication of any evangelism taking place through the preaching of Dr. Swindoll at his new church, which there surely would be if he had indeed made 2,000 new converts. Now that would really be news! ~Jon Eric Pipes, Keswick, Ontario, Canada
I hope I’m wrong, but I find it hard to believe that Stonebriar Community found 2,000 unchurched or pagan boomers and Gen-Xers just waiting for someone to invite them to church. ~William Pile, Los Angeles, California
There is a great deal of speculation in these letters. Perhaps some future researcher can substantially determine whether the new members came from existing megachurches, existing small to medium-sized churches, no church home or no church background. Whatever the source of the new members, by the time of these letters in June 1999, two thousand people called Stonebriar their church home. Yet, the church continued to grow.
By January, 2001, Stonebriar had completed its first building: “And next Sunday, the 3-year-old congregation of Stonebriar Community Church will worship for the first time in a building of its own when it opens the doors of a new 115,000-square-foot facility on a 60-acre site in Frisco. Pick practically any city in Collin County where the homebuilders are busy, and you’ll find a religious-building boom going on, too.”
Stonebriar continued rapid growth beyond two thousand worshippers. In January 2003, David Welsh, Stonebriar’s Director of Administrative Services, discussed the growth issues in an exclusive interview in Church Executive Magazine:
We’re at 3,200 in attendance, and that’s also a part of the challenge. In some ways we model some of the IT companies that just blew up in size ten years ago and grew so fast, and quite frankly, we’ve made the same kinds of mistakes. But you evolve and you get an opportunity like the one we have now. We have two worship services, and we have a worship center that seats 1,500 people. At least we’ve got a chance right now to catch up and do some of the kinds of programs our members are requesting. For example, we had our first fall festival this year. Here we are doing something like this for the first time, and our challenge is that we’re not like a lot of other churches—we didn’t start off with 50 kids; we started off with 1,000 kids.
In building a facility for an instant megachurch, there were significant challenges that Stonebriar faced. Welsh commented in the same article:
We held a two-day elder and senior staff retreat where each ministry planned out the next five years. We realized that planning is the very first step. We also had to differentiate between the needs and the wants. What are the needs of the congregation? What are the demographics in the community? What’s the target market? How do all those things fit into the goals for ministry?
I have learned that building a facility is a huge commitment not to be taken lightly. The key is to have a vision of what you want. I think a lot of people go into construction projects not having an absolutely clear vision of what they want, and they expect the architect to come up with that vision. I think if you do that without communicating it clearly, you’re going to have some misunderstandings and some issues.
I did not employ a professional cost estimator on a previous project. I thought I was doing the right thing by bringing in a general contractor on the front end of the project. He was too conservative in his estimates, causing the church to build too small a room for a growing worship service. I regret that to this day!
In the same article, Greg Welsh attributes a great deal of mentoring and encouragement to David Chavanne, Stonebriar’s Executive Pastor.
By 2003 the church had grown to have a General Fund of almost 6 million dollars, with an additional six hundred thousand in Building Fund donations that fiscal year. The growth of Stonebriar can be charted from its first meetings in October 1998 to January 2003:
The church has remained at thirty-two hundred worshippers in the two worship services. The church of explosive growth desperately needed staff pastors. By January 1999, the church had two staff members: “Two of the Swindolls’ four grown children have followed them here. Colleen Dane, who is coordinating the children’s ministry, moved with her husband, the Rev. Mark Dane, one of the associate pastors, and their three small children. And Chuck Swindoll, Jr. will serve as the sound engineer. He brought his wife, Jeni, and their two small children.” Within two months, the church would add an Executive Pastor. In the Dallas style of megachurches, Stonebriar was born an instant megachurch and had an Executive Pastor to oversee it.
At the current time, the issue of church governance for Stonebriar Community Church is difficult to document. The four-year-old church has a Charter Constitution and is still working on an official constitution. Currently, new Elders are appointed by the existing Elder Board. The church does not hold congregational meetings to discuss or vote on issues. The Senior Pastor is appointed by the Elder Board and the Senior Pastor appoints, or delegates responsibility to appoint, all other staff. The future polity of the church is unknown but is assumed to follow the current format. The church has a conservative evangelical doctrinal statement.
While the governance issues may trouble those who prefer a more congregational style of government, Stonebriar endeavors to communicate well with its members. The church spends a considerable amount of time and money on many communication pieces including a website, a ten-page monthly newsletter, ministry updates and informational flyers. The church posts financial information in the monthly newsletter and on the church’s website. The church leadership has been forthcoming with discussing difficult issues. This is exemplified by David Welsh in his interview with Church Executive magazine. The openness in discussing challenging issues for Stonebriar is spearheaded by Swindoll. To over thirty pastors, Swindoll and his pastors presented an honest assessment of Stonebriar and gave candid answers to questions in a Dallas Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry course.
Another vehicle to convey church governance and chain of command authority is through job descriptions. The job profile for the Executive Pastor of Stonebriar Community Church provides insight on these areas:
To assist the Senior Pastor as the Executive Pastor of Stonebriar Community Church. His primary responsibility will be the supervision of the senior staff and oversight of the ministries of the Church so that the Senior Pastor can continue his main responsibility of ‘teaching and preaching of God’s Word.’
The Senior Executive Pastor’s task will be to assist, not replace, the Senior Pastor in these areas. The desired end would be to increase the Senior Pastor’s actual time with the senior staff for the purpose of relationship, vision and ministry, yet decrease his actual time and involvement in the preparation and continuity of these responsibilities.
This purpose of the Executive Pastor of Stonebriar fits in within the thesis of this dissertation, to implement the vision of the Senior Pastor. That task is specifically addressed in the phrases “to assist, not replace the Senior Pastor” and “his primary responsibility will be the supervision of the senior staff.” The purpose of the Executive Pastor at Stonebriar is to allow the Senior Pastor to focus on teaching and preaching. The Executive Pastor is to be the second-in-command, clearly defining the chain of command authority. He is the lone staff member who reports to the Senior Pastor, with all other senior staff reporting to him.
The job description from Stonebriar also addresses the issue of the Executive Pastor implementing the policy of the governing board. It says that the Executive Pastor shall “implement the direction and plans that originate in the Board of Elders,” and “oversee long-range strategic plans for the ministry.” The Elders of Stonebriar recognized that it is not in the best interests of the church for Chuck Swindoll to implement the policy and plans of the Elders. An organizational chart of Stonebriar can be constructed:
The role of the Finance Committee and Chief Financial Officer is discussed below in the Executive Pastor Interview. As the Executive Pastor also serves on the Elder Board, the Executive Pastor reviews the work of the Finance Committee.
The history section of the Case-Study Interview Questions for Stonebriar Community Church shows an instant megachurch founded by a Seminary President and internationally recognized radi