Platte Valley Presbytery, comprised of the state of Nebraska and Pottawattamie County, Iowa, is one of the smallest in the PCA. Only three of the PCA’s 81 presbyteries have fewer churches and missions than Platte Valley’s nine; only seven report fewer church members. Fully 20 churches in the PCA have a higher average Sunday morning attendance than this entire presbytery.
So why feature it in an article?
Because Platte Valley has been implementing a vision larger than its apparent resources. Since its founding in 2007 with seven congregations, it has planted three churches and has another on the way. What are some of the dynamics that have given this small presbytery mission-effectiveness beyond their means?
To answer that question, Reasoning Together spoke with three of Platte Valley’s teaching elders:
Stu Kerns has been senior pastor of Zion Church in Lincoln (and its predecessor, Covenant) since 1993, and served on its staff for 6 years before that.
Todd Bowen came to Nebraska in 1993 as an Associate Pastor at Covenant/Zion, and in 1997 moved to Grand Island to serve as organizing pastor of Grace Covenant Church. He is also the presbytery clerk.
Michael Gordon is a “newcomer” to Platte Valley, having moved from Savannah last year to serve as lead pastor at one of the newer congregations in the presbytery, Redeemer Church.
What would you say has been the key to your presbytery being able to accomplish what you have?
Bowen: When we started Platte Valley, we wanted a very relational presbytery. We wanted to emphasize regular prayer and sharing among the teaching elders, to support and encourage one another, to build trust for our presbytery work. Almost immediately we began working toward an annual retreat that had significant time set apart for just building relationships.
Kerns: We’d start the retreat by playing golf at the local club. We’d eat meals together at the local eateries. The retreat center was very isolated – no TVs or other distractions, so you could focus on your time with the Lord or chat with other people.
Bowen: At presbytery meetings we schedule fellowship times. We don’t just try to “blow through” lunch and get to the business. Meals provide an important time to relate and connect. If there’s a Husker game on, or March Madness, we might even build in a time during our meeting where we take a break to spend some time enjoying that together. Another thing we try to do is caravan – we ride together to meetings and fellowship on the way. Even traveling you can get next to guys and catch up.
Kerns: Another thing we did when we started the presbytery was to look at what other presbyteries were doing that seemed to be working relationally. As I asked around about this, Philadelphia Presbytery was mentioned a lot. I contacted the folks in Philadelphia and got a copy of their bylaws. I’d say that we adopted 90 percent of their bylaws. Even the language they used communicates relational thinking – for example, instead of using the word “committees,” they talked about “teams” – which suggests working together instead of doing business. They talked about fostering relationships and encouraging one another as being a mission of presbytery. That began to set the tone.
Bowen: They also had a well-expressed, strong, gospel-centered, missional vision that we could immediately buy into – it expressed our hearts as well.
Kerns: The presbytery Platte Valley was formed from was extremely large geographically and I found it impossible to develop good, healthy relationships over the vast distances when we would see each other only three times a year. Part of the original reason for forming Platte Valley was to reduce the presbytery size so that we weren’t so far from each other geographically. I would never trade a presbytery our size for a presbytery with a large number of churches, and I think a lot of presbyteries that are 30 or 40 churches ought to consider breaking down because you can’t know that many people. It’s relationships and knowing one another that becomes the fertile soil for more effective ministry. I think close relationships and working together effectively go side by side. If you only see people in business settings, you’re less likely to trust them because you don’t know them, and presbytery can become all about protecting turf instead of working together. There are things you can do when you’re smaller that you can’t do when you’re larger.
Doesn’t being so small create some challenges for ministry, especially church planting?
Kerns: The biggest challenge is finances, and that’s why the vision has always included that the smaller presbytery would be part of a church planting network. The Great Plains Church Planting Network has developed to the point that we can start giving what, for our region, will be some sizable 3-year grants of $50,000 or $75,000 without depleting our war chest. We’re reaching a position where, as we cooperate, we can make up for lack of financial resources. But so far, all the new churches in this presbytery have been either independent works or daughter churches, so even apart from the network, we have continued to plant. Amazingly, lack of resources hasn’t stopped us.
Bowen: Besides the challenge of our lack of financial resources, having fewer churches is significant, because usually the initiative for church planting comes from existing churches. When you have fewer churches, you’ll have more of a challenge planting churches as well.
What are some ways you have addressed these challenges?
Bowen: One of our churches has used a multi-site model to plant a daughter church. They have centralized offices and oversight so that planting the different congregation didn’t require new offices and support staff. They’ve been able to share the existing leadership and session – they even share their youth group.
Gordon: We’re trying the same kind of thing with the three congregations in Lincoln. One of the things that allowed Redeemer to particularize a few years ago is that we share some support staff with Zion, which has also helped us to glean from each other’s practices. All of our weekly bulletins are produced at Zion. All three Lincoln churches share the same financial administrator, who helps do books for all three churches. It is particularly helpful for a new church with new leaders, to have someone lead them in thinking through the logisitics of something like “How do you handle the books?” We’ve talked some about what it would like to have more shared office resources, which would then free up funds for church planting. We’ve even had talks about how we can share our facilities. Grace has outgrown their building – they have three services – and they’ve been looking for new space for a while. At Redeemer, we’re starting to grow to the point that we’re contemplating having a second service and there have been some preliminary discussions – because we meet on Sunday evenings and Grace meets Sunday mornings – about having the two churches meet in one building and “plant back” into the properties we presently own. I don’t know if that idea will go anywhere, but it’s reflective of the fact that people are open to those kinds of conversations – “How do we maximize the minimal resources we have?”
Kerns: I think that’s why for me it all goes back to relational ministry. You cooperate with people you trust, and you trust people you know. But none of it gets started if you don’t know one another. If you have a sense that, for this guy, it’s not first and foremost about his numbers and budget but it’s about the kingdom, you’re willing to entertain what might appear to be some crazy, nutty ideas. I’ve said for 20 years “We could plant a church right across the street and it wouldn’t make any difference if it would help us reach the community.” Each church has its own DNA and its own way of doing things and the more churches we plant, the more people we’re going to reach. But all of that stops if you don’t have some degree of healthy relationships where you believe that the guy who’s proposing that is contending for the kingdom and not just for his congregation. You’ll never get to that point if you don’t know each other.
Bowen: Let me give an example of the trust we’re talking about. Recently, a couple of our churches in Omaha were working together for a church plant in Council Bluffs. Typically, church planting in this area of the country is long, slow and hard, which can really take a toll on a church or churches, especially if there are other things going on. It’s been a difficult journey for these two churches. One of them in particular had been hit by a lot of struggles recently. This past fall these two churches decided to turn the effort over to the church planting team of the presbytery. Those churches felt comfortable saying, “Hey, let’s let the presbytery take the lead in planting this church that involves our people and our resources.” The work is moving forward; they’re getting ready to call a church planter.
Gordon: And God providentially does things you don’t plan. Redeemer was planted with insurance money when Zion’s building burned down. That was not Zion’s strategy, but it was the Lord’s!
What about the future? What kind of goals do you have?
Kerns: That’s something we need to work on as a presbytery. We’ve been trying to develop the network. I think we’re in the next stage there, but this is something we still need to do. Obviously, in our presbytery, Omaha is the largest city. At this point we have two churches up there. We ought to have 15 to 18 churches there. We need to figure out how we’re going to do that, and what that would look like. I have a personal goal of having six churches in Lincoln. I think this is probably the next phase we need to think about: What could the future look like? Omaha’s large enough that at some point in the future if we had seven or eight churches there, we could have an Omaha Presbytery, with Platte Valley being Lincoln and the rest of the state. Obviously we have a long way to go.
Bowen: When I think of our goals, I think, “Keep growing, keep planting churches, but keep staying small.” Don’t let size and numbers interfere with the relationships and the ministry, and be open to multiplying presbyteries. We have an informal goal of two to three presbyteries within the state, trying to reach the different regions of the state. Presbyteries should be built around your region and your relationships – where the people are rather than where the boundaries happen to be.
What are some of the main lessons other presbyteries can learn from Platte Valley’s experience?
Bowen: Cultivating our relationships and supporting one another not only during but outside the meetings helps us work together.
Kerns: I would add fairly long pastoral tenures to that. Historically, our pastors have been places 10 or more years – they show interest in sinking roots. A lot of really good fruit happens from that, both in the local congregation and in the presbytery. Of course that could make it harder for the new guy because you might feel like you’re walking in on the middle of a story and you’re trying to catch up with inside jokes. But I think this also has played a large role in the relational health of the presbytery.
Bowen: You can’t have this kind of passion and this kind of vision without the leadership. With Stu’s vision for kingdom expansion and relational ministry, and people like Eric Olson who has a passion for church planting and continually urges us to be involved and be forward moving and kingdom-minded, and people like Mike Hsu and Ben Loos at Grace Chapel who were involved in church planting, we’ve had some exceptional leaders who have helped us to move forward.
Gordon: Being in Platte Valley has been encouraging and refreshing. I’m not disparaging any of my previous presbyteries, but I think the emphasis of getting to know one another outside of the context of just doing business has been significant and helpful. One of the real blessings of being an RUF campus minister as I was before I came here is the camaraderie you find at staff training being in shared ministry together. I feel like that’s been cultivated in our presbytery with our retreats and outside of meeting gatherings, learning guy’s stories. Other presbyteries can learn from that. Also, because of the smaller size, the ongoing work load here feels a little less than in some other presbyteries.
Kerns: I would add that in Lincoln, I inherited a gospel confidence from those who came before me, and that’s crucial. It’s certainly not our gifting or our vision that’s going to accomplish things, but it’s that Jesus wants more churches here. I think that becomes infectious. It’s very easy to become fearful and think, “We’ve got limited resources what can we do?” But look at the church plant we have in Fremont, for instance. What did we do to make that happen? God did it – it was completely a God-thing. So we need to be prayerful, and open minded and willing to think in creative terms and avoid a territorial spirit – a lot of things. But at the end of the day it comes down to a great confidence that this is what Jesus wants to do here. If that’s true, it will happen.