One of the greatest challenges in the business world is the exit of the founder of a corporation. Consider the words of Professor Noam Wasserman of the Harvard Business School: “My research focuses on founder frustrations in entrepreneurial firms, with a particular emphasis on the core issues of organization building that cause problems for founders’ abilities to achieve their goals. I’ve been especially interested in the pattern of succession in many entrepreneurial firms—specifically, that many founders are replaced by ‘professional’ CEOs early in the life of the venture. My data shows that the percentage of founder-CEOs who ‘go the distance’ is extremely low, especially in high-potential ventures. People like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison, who are able to lead their companies for quite a while, get all the attention because they are rare, not because they are typical.”
Why begin with a quote from a premier business school? There are clear similarities between entrepreneurial people who found churches and founders of successful companies. Founder-CEO’s have frustrations over succession issues, just as do founding pastors. It is extraordinarily difficult for founders to step aside and let another assume the mantle of leadership.
A related story is told by the Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Zaslow. In a December 2005 article, the journalist documents the recent death of “superman,” Christopher Reeves, and a non-profit’s problem of how to “replace superman:”
In the summer of 2004, shortly after Kathy Lewis was named president of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, she asked a staffer to draw up a “crisis plan.” How would the organization respond if Mr. Reeve were to die?
The staffer argued that she was uncomfortable creating such a plan, especially since Mr. Reeve was in relatively good health. “She protested and protested,” Ms. Lewis recalls. “But if you’re not prepared for horrible things, it can get more horrible when those things happen.”
The crisis plan finally landed on Ms. Lewis’s desk on Friday, October 8, 2004. Two days later, unexpectedly, Mr. Reeve died.
The foundation had relied on the charismatic actor/activist to attract media attention and cajole donors, to inspire researchers and give hope to paralysis patients. Some people simply assumed that the foundation folded after Mr. Reeve died. But it continues, with executives masterminding an overhaul, even as its chairperson, Mr. Reeve’s widow Dana, fights lung cancer.
Many groups face similar struggles when their guiding lights pass on.
Corporations and non-profit organizations deal with succession planning, but does the church? Ron Keener, the managing editor of Church Executive magazine writes:
Walt Kallestad, Senior Pastor of the 12,000-member Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Arizona, suffered a massive heart attack in 2002, requiring six-way bypass surgery. Yet, while the topic of developing a succession plan has come up in the past three years, the church has no plan in place for handling Kallestad’s eventual leaving—whether to retirement, ill health or taking another post.
Willow Creek Community Church is in active conversation with its elders about succession planning but as yet has not put up a process for the day when Bill Hybels is no longer at the South Barrington, Illinois-based megachurch.
Gene Getz was 68 years old. He wasn’t planning on dying but was ready to pass the torch of ministry at Fellowship Bible Church North, in Dallas. After founding his third church, at least three church-related ministries, written over sixty books, developed a radio ministry, taught in a Bible College and a Seminary, Gene Getz realized that it was his time to “retire.” He wasn’t ready to sail into the sunset, but he sensed that God wanted him to transition the position of Senior Pastor to someone else.
Founders and followers typically disdain the word “replace,” because no one can replace the person who brought the organization/organism into existence. Founders typically never want to retire. For many church members, no one can “replace” their beloved pastor. Yet, while one can use sugar-coated and euphemistic words about the process, the core idea is the replacement of leadership.
Transition is easier said than done. The qualities that typify founders—strong, energetic, entrepreneurial, captivating and creative—make it equally difficult to step aside. Could Getz succeed in transition where so many other Senior Pastors had failed? Could Gene live in retirement? What about his future relationship with the church he founded and served for so many years?
Jeff Jones was slated as the next Senior Pastor, with a seven-year window of transition from Getz to Jones. But, things drastically changed three and a half years into the transition …
Dr. Gene A. Getz
Few Christian leaders have had as enormously successful and entrepreneurial ministry as Dr. Gene A. Getz, who prefers to be called “Gene.” To understand this founding pastor, one must gain perspective on Gene’s background.
The educational background of Gene Getz is rich and extensive. For his undergraduate work, he received a diploma from the Moody Bible Institute (Chicago, Illinois) in 1952 and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Rocky Mountain College (Billings, Montana) in 1954. For his graduate work, he was awarded a Master of Arts degree from Wheaton College (Wheaton, Illinois) in 1958, a Doctor of Philosophy degree from New York University (New York, New York) in 1968, graduate study at Northern Illinois Univeristy (DeKalb, Illinois) and received an honorary doctorate from the Institut Theologique de Nimes (Uchard, France) in 1999.
The professional experience of Dr. Getz is as varied as his education. He had radio ministry experience with the Montana Gospel Crusade from 1952-54, and was a Youth Director with the Church of the Air (Billings, Montana) during the same time period. In 1954 he was an Assistant Pastor with Cass Community Church (Hinsdale, Illinois) and from 1955-57 he was the Director of Christian Education and music at Lisle Bible Church (Lisle, Illinois). From 1955-1968 he served at the Moody Bible Institute as an Instructor in Christian Education and became the Director of the Evening School in 1962. Beginning in 1964, and for the next nine years, he was a Visiting Professor at the Word of Life Summer Institute of Camping (Schroon Lake, New York).
Things changed as Gene and his wife, Elaine, moved to Dallas, Texas. His first twenty years in ministry were mainly in teaching the principles of the Bible. From 1968-73 he was an Associate Professor of Christian Education at Dallas Theological Seminary and also taught in the Pastoral Ministries Department. In 1974 he lowered his workload at Dallas Seminary, becoming an Adjunct Professor. Challenged by his students and several interested families in Dallas, he launched the first Fellowship Bible Church, not planning to leave the Seminary as a full-time professor. However, the church grew rapidly and, in 1973, he responded to the gentle nudging of the elders and became the church’s full-time Senior Pastor.
In 1981, the editors of Leadership Journal documented a discussion which contains some interesting information regarding the first Fellowship Bible Church in Richardson, Texas:
Gene Getz and Larry Richards are good friends who have sparked ideas off each other for more than a decade. Both men have taught in Christian colleges. When Gene was at Dallas Seminary in the early seventies, he used in his courses Larry’s book, A New Face for the Church, a process that resulted in his own book, Sharpening the Focus of the Church.
But about eight years ago, the paths of these two men diverged. Gene’s students kept challenging him to put his stimulating ideas into action. The small group he began blossomed into a home church, which has expanded into four congregations and eight branch churches. Through all that expansion, and now in his role as director of the Dallas Center for Church Renewal, Gene’s ideas about how to run a church have modified as he has wrestled with the problems of growth.
Larry left his teaching position in the Wheaton Graduate School, and for the same eight years worked with churches of all types throughout the nation. He is the coordinator of the activities of the Dynamic Church Ministries team, and coauthor of A Theology of Church Leadership (reviewed in Leadership, Volume 11 Number 1). In this book he states that authoritarian and managerial attitudes are not appropriate to leaders of the church.
Knowing Gene and Larry have come to a place of disagreement about certain points in Larry’s book, we asked the men to dialogue with each other. Editors Terry Muck and Paul Robbins, with publisher Harold Myra, met with Gene and Larry at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. There were plenty of sharp disagreements between Gene and Larry, but seldom have we seen two people disagree so sharply yet still maintain an atmosphere of trusting camaraderie.
One of the common factors in founding pastors is that they are strong leaders. This is seen in the introduction to the dialogue between Getz and Richards. It is a rare statement that there were “sharp disagreements” and “trusting camaraderie.” Getz presents one of his core values in the discussion:
But wherever you have function, you have form. The church is both an organism and an organization; you can’t have one without the other. You’ve said the church is different from a modern business, and I agree with that. But you don’t stop there. You go on to make the church so unique that you eliminate any possibility of it functioning well. There are principles in the New Testament that can be applied to church structure. I believe the reason we don’t have the structure itself in the New Testament is that structure and form are cultural. If we tried to copy New Testament church structure, we would lock ourselves into the cultural forms of the first century. Therefore, God has given us functions so we can develop forms that will be relevant to any given culture at any time.
One cannot be with Gene without sooner, rather than later, hearing about the difference between form and function. This is a core value to his concept of the local church. Gene continues in the discussion to describe an issue in the new church:
When we first started our ministry in Dallas, we had seven or eight elders who met regularly. As a small group, we made decisions by consensus; it was a beautiful experience. (By the way, management specialists tells us if the group gets beyond seven or eight, you’re going to have problems with this style.) As the group became larger (we now have nearly forty elders), we still achieved consensus. But later we found out certain people disagreed but were afraid to express their views and possibly bog everything down. They went along because they didn’t want to break up the consensus. Finally, some of them spoke up and disagreed—and they had valid disagreements. But then we didn’t have consensus, so we had no way to make decisions and move ahead. Then it dawned on some of us that we really were operating with a sloppy voting system. We were saying to the group, “Does anybody disagree?” We were taking a negative vote rather than both a negative and a positive vote. What we needed to do was give people the right to say “I agree” or “I disagree,” take a vote, and then agree to disagree on certain significant issues.
This issue of Elder decision-making is significant as it illustrates that Getz had moved out of the seminary classroom and into the laboratory of real life. Although his book about the church came first, he was challenged to “prove it” in real life:
Dr. Gene A. Getz became involved in church planting and renewal at a very practical level while teaching at Dallas Theological Seminary. After exploring the subject for several years with his students, he wrote Sharpening the Focus of the Church. Prodded on by several families in Dallas who became interested in starting a new church, Gene launched Fellowship Bible Church in November of 1972. Committed to biblical absolutes, the church was also built on the concept of “freedom in form.” Growth was immediate.
A slightly different perspective is provided by Fellowship Bible Church North:
Dr. Gene A. Getz, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, was faced with disturbing questions from his students. These students, observing the anti-institutional attitudes that permeated American culture at that time, were even questioning the viability of the local church. Gene was challenged to begin a fresh study of the New Testament church with his students. From this study, Gene gained tremendous insight. As a result of his changing views, he wrote a book called Sharpening the Focus of the Church, which outlined the principles of church renewal.
The first church plant was Fellowship Bible Church Richardson. It was to have a distinct emphasis, different from other churches in the Dallas area:
In 1972, the first Fellowship church was launched, with a vision to provide the following three vital experiences that Christians need to grow spiritually: Bible teaching, Fellowship and Outreach. The church leaders were guided by the desire to allow freedom in determining the form and structure of these experiences without changing the biblical concepts. The church grew quickly and within four years had planted four new churches.
The second church that Gene founded was Fellowship Bible Church Dallas, five years after his first church plant:
In the summer of 1977, Dr. Gene Getz, who had been pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in the Richardson area, teamed up with one of his elders, real estate developer Don Kerr, to begin another Fellowship Bible Church in the North Dallas/Park Cities area. Their dream was to bring a church with a contemporary and relational emphasis to this part of Dallas. They met as a Bible class in Don Kerr’s home, than held their first official church service on Sunday evening, October 9, using the rented facilities of another church. The new church was named Park Cities Bible Fellowship and later Fellowship Bible Church of Park Cities. It is now called Fellowship Bible Church of Dallas.
Getz would found the church, but soon move on:
After an exhaustive and fruitless search for property, the church sought God’s help. Through a series of near miracles, the church purchased land and begin construction on a modest facility on Boedeker south of the North Park Center shopping mall. Dr. Getz returned to the original Fellowship Church and Al Barnett became pastor until July 1980.
Carrying significant debt, the church found itself without either a Senior Pastor or a music leader. At the time, one of the elders heard that Bill Counts was moving from California to Dallas to start a lay seminary for Probe Ministries. The church again sought God’s help and asked Dr. Counts to become part-time pastor of the 120-person congregation. In September of 1980 he agreed, and Fellowship had a new pastor.
Fellowship Bible Church Dallas, having changed from its original name of Fellowship Bible Church of Park Cities, continued to grow over the next 25 years:
In early 2005, Bill Counts retired as Senior Pastor and—after another exhaustive search—was replaced by Gary Brandenburg, who brings a dynamic new vision for the future of Fellowship Dallas Church of Dallas.
After a quarter of a century, and with over 2,500 people calling Fellowship Dallas their church home today, the leadership works to preserve the church’s commitment to God’s grace and continues its contemporary style. We hope that you will join us as we seek to become—as our vision statement says—“a grace-centered community so captivated by the love of Jesus Christ that it transforms us, our city and our world.”
The third church that Gene would personally found and pastor was Fellowship Bible Church North, again five years since his last church plant: “In 1982, Gene led another church plant, this time in Plano—Fellowship Bible Church North. After a short time, rapid growth necessitated relocation from a warehouse to a church building.”
Twelve “Fellowship Churches” have been started in the Dallas metroplex and numerous churches throughout the United States can trace their roots back to what has happened in Dallas. “The last 20+ years have been the greatest experiences in my personal ministry,” Gene states. “I often say I spent nearly 20 years preparing men to be pastors (13 years at Moody Bible Institute and seven years at Dallas Theological Seminary) and now I’m really learning how.” Getz inaugurated the Fellowship Bible Church movement, which in 2005 numbered over 340 churches.
Renewal Radio was launched by Gene in 1989. The format “consists of dynamic interviews, discussions and biblical reflections.” Just as Gene had been successful in founding three churches, so Renewal Radio grew:
Renewal is a 15-minute daily radio program heard throughout the United States, Belize, Puerto Rico, Micronesia, Guam, the Caribbean and 124 countries around the world from Afghanistan to Yugoslavia. We are a listener-supported faith ministry seeking to meet the needs of our listening audience through biblical-based innovative programming, helpful literature and free publications.
Renewal is the essence of dynamic Christianity and the basis on which Christians, both in a corporate or “body” sense and as individual believers, can determine the will of God. Paul made this clear when he wrote to the Romans in chapter 12. The mission of Renewal is based on Romans 12:1,2: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.”
This mission can allow us to do programming as broad as the purpose of the New Testament but as narrow as we desire in order to focus on particular biblical themes and current needs to carry the message of Renewal to people everywhere so they can become the people God intended them to be.
The Center for Church Based Training was started by Gene in 1999. The goal of the Center is to develop “all believers to maturity and many to leadership in the local church, under the authority of local church leadership, through an apprenticeship on-the-job approach, with other churches, for Christ’s mission of multiplying churches worldwide to God’s glory.” With every church plant, Gene has stressed “the value of developing people for ministry through a mentoring, in-ministry and life-on-life approach.” This emphasis on mentoring led him to begin an intensive internship program as a means of intentionally developing emerging church leaders:
This process was formalized in 1990 when Bruce Miller was brought on