I’m glad to present this first in a series of interviews. Each will have a leadership or pastoral angle given by a lead pastor or staff pastor for the purpose of teaching and encouraging pastors.
Today, I’ll be interviewing Jimmy Scroggins, Lead Pastor at Family Church in West Palm Beach, Florida. Under Jimmy’s leadership, worship attendance has grown from 1,000 to 3,500. All indications are the church will reach 4,000 in attendance this fall.
Jimmy started with a staid and declining downtown church. He made some bold decisions which you’ll read about below. The multicampus ministry at Family Church is large and each campus has a fascinating story.
I trust this interview with Jimmy Scroggins will provide insight for your own leadership and/or pastoral journey.
Marty Duren: Your worship attendance has grown significantly, some three to four times since you’ve been at Family Church. What were your expectations when you went to Family Church? What was different from what you expected? And then how did you start a process of initiating some strategy changes?
Jimmy Scroggins: Well, when I came to First Baptist West Palm I arrived at a legacy church. It is a downtown urban, columns and steeple, traditional Southern Baptist church. It was started in 1901 and they’ve had some great pastors. You know Jess Moody was a pastor here. Jack Graham was a pastor here. And there were many others before them. So everything that would come to mind when you say the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, that’s what it was.
But when I came here in 2008, they hadn’t had a pastor for five years. They had multiple scandals, been in the newspaper, financial scandals, integrity issues, all kinds of things. So the church was in a tough spot. There were a lot of great people here; the church has a great history and has a great story to tell.
The church had a lot of great days, but in 2008 they were in a tough spot; probably the lowest point in many decades if not ever. There were about 1,000 people in attendance and they were heavily in debt. The facilities had a couple of decades of maintenance that had not been done. The public perception and reputation was damaged. But there were a lot of good people here who really wanted to see lost people come to know Christ and who wanted to restore the strategic importance of this church.
MD: As any pastor would who is to revitalize a struggling church, you had to make some pretty bold decisions. The church had done a Christmas event for many years. You had some property that historical value to the church. How did you navigate around those particular kinds of issues?
JS: There were really four big issues that we worked our way through.
We had a singing Christmas tree event that was done with excellence was very strong and very well attended. In fact when I got here I would say that the momentum and the level of excellence and everything for that event was increasing. They were doing very well with it. The singing Christmas tree was something that a lot of people were very proud of and something a lot of people in the community that were not connected with our church really enjoyed. I would say that was the one thing they were doing that everybody was really proud of at that time.
So ending the singing Christmas tree was probably the most traumatic and the most difficult decision for our church to process. I wasn’t emotionally attached to it, so it wasn’t a difficult decision for me to make. But it was a difficult decision for our church family to process.
MD: And what was your reasoning for thinking that it needed to go?
JS: It was an event that had outgrown the church. In terms of what it cost in terms of human resources, in terms of focus, in terms of facilities, in terms of finances, it just completely outstripped the church’s ability to continue to move it forward. As a result the things that the church needed to be doing year round, i.e., caring for people, evangelism, and discipleship were hampered because all of the resources were tied up in putting on this event.
There was nothing wrong with the event. It was a great event. I think it was really effective. But it was the tail wagging the dog. It was too big for our church to do both that event and year-round have the kind of dynamic ministry that we should have in our community.
MD: That’s a great point. What was your second big challenge?
JS: Well the second thing was we were financially in a very tough spot. We had all kinds of maintenance issues on our facilities, and a large debt. We actually had debt to a church member because we couldn’t get the right kind of loan from a bank. So when you owe millions of dollars to a church member, that’s tough.
MD: Yes, it is.
JS: Also there was a legacy piece of property that our church had owned with some great stories attached to it. It was an outdoor amphitheater called The Chapel by the Lake, developed when Jess Moody was the pastor here in the early 60’s. Some great, great things happened out at that property.
They had great revival services and sunrise services for Easter and community events over the 50 years that they owned it. It really was something that God really used and that the church was really proud of. But by the time I got here in 2008, it was in tremendous disrepair. It was not suitable for modern concerts. There wasn’t the right kind of seating. There wasn’t the right kind of lighting. It didn’t have enough power on the site to power modern sound systems. Making it viable would have required a huge financial investment. But it was an extremely valuable piece of property and so in order to fix up our facilities and pay off our debts, we sold the Chapel by the Lake.
It was a difficult, difficult decision. Before our church voted, we had a series of business meetings and family conversations. The vote was very close, something like 231 to 217. So we did sell the property and that really helped us in terms of addressing the finances.
We also chose to change our name. So we went through about a five-year process of changing our name from the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach to Family Church.
MD: We’ll call the name change the fourth big challenge. Was there another?
JS: Yes. We had to divest ourselves of a lot of what I called a lot of auxiliary ministries that had been established over decades. They all were established with a great heart and all of them served a great purpose. But like the Christmas tree, in order to refocus on the main thing—making disciples for Jesus in this community—we had to let some of those things go.
So we changed the funding mechanism we used in supporting some missionaries. We had established a medical clinic. We had a six-day a week restaurant on our property. We had our own pregnancy ministry. We had our own maternity home. A bunch of things like that. We just stopped doing all of those things.
Now some of those continued in other forms. We took our pregnancy ministry and merged it with the county-wide pregnancy ministry, so we are still involved. We did close down the maternity home and didn’t replace that with anything. The medical clinic became its own 501(c)3 organization and still exists today. It’s still in our budget. We still send volunteers there. But we don’t own it and operate it. The clinic has its own board.
We made changes but we didn’t stop doing ministry. We directed our individual members to continue to contribute to missionaries or causes that they were passionate about. But we stopped doing it from our general budget in many cases.
We did not end relationships with all of those people, but it was a big change in terms of how we funded and supported ministries.
MD: Family Church also implemented multi-campus ministry. Was that recently?
JS: Well actually I came from Highview Baptist Church where we had helped to pioneer the multi site movement in the early 2000s.
JS: And so when I came here in 2008 I already knew about multi-site. And actually even before I went to Highview, I was part of a multi-site church in Evansville, Indiana in the mid-90’s.
MD: So this was nothing new for you.
JS: That’s right. Basically the whole time I’ve been in ministry I’ve been involved in multi-site churches. And so when I came here one of the things that they knew that we were going to do was to become multi-site.
MD: How long was it between the time you got there and the time you launched your first campus or campuses?
JS: We launched our first one in 2010, two years after I arrived and we’ve launched several others since. Actually we launched one this past Sunday, so now we have eight campuses.
We have a combination of revitalizations and large campuses we have launched almost like a church plant. We have multi-lingual. There’s no one size fits all to the strategy. But we do at this point through a combination of all of the above have eight campuses that are Family Church in Palm Beach County.
MD: Do you use video, live preaching, or do you use a combination?
JS: At this point we use all live preaching.
MD: Now, in all of these changes and all of this strategic decision-making and all the things that go with it, I’m going to guess because you’re human you’ve made a mistake or two.
JS: (laughs) Yeah.
MD: When leading through change as you have what are a couple of the mistakes that you made that might serve as a warning to other pastors?
JS: I think one of the temptations for leaders is we over-estimate our own strategic brilliance. We over value the new things that we are bringing to the table in an organization that’s new to us and under-estimate the ministry that’s already been going on long before we arrived.
So if you have a church that’s 115 years old, you have to consider things they’ve already done. So you say we’re going to start doing church planting, but they’ll tell you we already planted—in 115 years we’ve planted a lot of churches. Oh, okay. Well then, the new leader says, we’re going to go big into multi-ethnic. Well, the church says, we’ve already been doing that. So this idea that we’re bringing all this new stuff to the table when you come to a legacy church is probably wrong.
MD: That’s a good insight. One more?
JS: I think it kind of fits with the first one: I’m not sure I took the time to have enough appreciation for just the simple godliness of many people who were still in our church. Because the church organizationally had gotten into such a mess it was easy for me to kind of assume that we were starting at zero. But that’s really not true.
There were still a thousand people here. There were a lot of people who are walking with God, having their quiet time, listening to a lot of great sermons. They’d been trained in evangelism.
There is still a core of people in every church—there’s a remnant in every church of people who are ready to go. But if you treat them like you don’t think much of them, they probably won’t engage. So I think I could have engaged some people a lot faster if I’d have had more respect for what they had already been as a church and where they had been with God.
Featured image credit Family Church.