From Downturn to Turnaround to Steady Growth in a Rural-ish Community with Joseph Berkobien

Thanks for joining us for the unSeminary podcast. We’re happy to be talking with Joseph Berkobien, the Lead Pastor of Frankenmuth Bible Church in Frankenmuth, Michigan.

Transitions in leadership can be challenging times for churches. How do you recover and grow after a season of decline? Tune in as Joseph shares the turnaround story of the church and the intentional steps they took to recover.

  • Times of transition. // Frankenmuth Bible Church began in 1982 when a small group of like-minded Christians had a passion for starting a gospel-centered church. When Joseph first joined the 400-member church in 2012, it was as the Worship Pastor. What he didn’t know at the time was the leadership challenges happening behind the scenes. A transition to the senior leadership led to decline and Joseph found himself both preaching and leading worship.
  • Bring stability to the church. // When Joseph first stepped into the Lead Pastor role, the church had declined to about 200 people. Joseph assured the congregation that he wasn’t going anywhere and they were in this together. Even though as believers we’ve been saved by grace, the church family can be messy and difficult with a lot of pain and hurt. During tumultuous seasons of transition, it’s particularly critical to give a sense of stability to the church body.
  • Build a solid staff. // After declining, Frankenmuth Bible worked hard to position themselves for growth by bringing on a solid staff team. It can be hard to build a staff that works best for your church, particularly when you’re in a rural area. Joseph encourages church leaders to be patient. Don’t be quick to hire, but wait for the right person. Sometimes a nationwide search can be cumbersome because someone outside your part of the country may decide it isn’t the place for them after arriving. Do a lot of networking and consider hiring from within.
  • Build small groups early. // Another intentional step that Frankenmuth Bible took was building the small group ministry when the church was small. Starting with a solid group of 200 people provided a strong core that was committed to the church. The church staff also reached out to people on the fringes to get them plugged into authentic community, knowing it would help them to stick and stay.
  • Reach beyond the doors. // Frankenmuth Bible Church is also passionate about loving their community and fostering unity with other churches in the area. Serving neighboring communities in weekend outreach events helped to dismantle some of the small town rivalry and communicated a genuine love for people. Get people at your church out of the seats and into the streets. Organize fun, outward initiatives. Increasingly, people aren’t as open to being invited to church so we need to go to them and show an interest in the things they love.
  • Be open to change. // Reflecting on his leadership journey as the church has steadily grown to over one thousand people, Joseph acknowledges the challenges and need for a lot of pivoting. If your church is on a similar journey, don’t lose hope. Believe growth is possible and be open to new things. Joseph recommends checking out the invaluable free resource by Tim Keller, “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics”.

You can find out more about Frankenmuth Bible Church at www.frankenmuthbible.com and download Tim Keller’s “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics” PDF here.

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Episode Transcript

Rich Birch — Hey, friends, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. So glad that you have decided to tune in. I’ve been really looking forward to today’s conversation for a while. We are talking with Joseph Berkobien from Frankenmuth Bible Church. It began in 1982 after a group of like-minded Christians started meeting together in a home in Frankenmuth, Michigan to dig deeper into studying scripture. Today Frankenmuth Bible is a growing, gospel-centered church, really gathering of believers that are gathering together for the purpose of magnifying Jesus through passionate corporate worship, solid bible teaching that’s clear, relevant, and practical to everyday living. Joseph is the lead pastor. So glad, and a mutual friend with Dave Miller – shout out to Dave; we love Dave. Joseph, so glad that you’re here today.

Joseph Berkobien — Oh thanks so much, Rich. It’s an honor for me to be part of this podcast. So I appreciate it, buddy.

Rich Birch — Yeah, honored that you would take some time to be here. We’re recording this right before Christmas although through the magic of podcasting it’ll come on after Christmas, which is entirely appropriate because Frankenmuth, Michigan, in my brain, it’s like where Christmas really comes from. Tell us a little bit about the church, tell us about get kind of set the scene give us the context for for Frankenmuth Bible.

Joseph Berkobien — Yeah, sure and well I mean you referenced the fact that we’re Christmastown, right? So Frankenmuth ah is our claim to fame is we have the largest Christmas store in the world, at least I think that that stat is still true.

Rich Birch — It’s amazing.

Joseph Berkobien — And we’re known for fried chicken and stuff like that.

Rich Birch — Love it.

Joseph Berkobien — So um, popular popular tourist stop for people in Michigan but…

Rich Birch — Yes.

Joseph Berkobien — …ah, yeah, our our church really started, like you mentioned 1982, um but actually that a bible study started 1981 and in the beginning of 1982 it started. Um but uniquely we’re in ah, a small town that was founded by German Lutheran settlers. And they founded a church in the eighteen hundreds, and that’s really been a staple in our community. But um, in 1982 there’s a group of people who really didn’t have ah a tribe they belonged to, and they were doing ah doing a bible study and wanted to have ah a church that really dug into the scriptures. And so they started Frankenmuth Bible Church. So it just started in a living room, then they started meeting in ah a school, um, and ah a gym for a little while at a local elementary school. And after a few years they you know, scrounged up enough money to buy some some land and build a building, and and here we are.

Rich Birch — That’s amazing.

Joseph Berkobien — So that’s kind of how it all started.

Rich Birch — Well I yeah, I’m really looking forward to this story because it really is a turnaround story in a context that is, you know, how like how would you describe Frankenmuth, outside of the Christmas stuff? It is kind of rural, you know, environment. Kind of tell us a little bit about that story; give us the context of kind of where you’re at and then let’s talk about this turnaround.

Joseph Berkobien — Sure. Um, you know this is maybe tricky if people aren’t native Michiganders. But if you’re from Michigan…

Rich Birch — Sure.

Joseph Berkobien — …you always hold up your hand to describe where you are in the state of Michigan, right?

Rich Birch — Yes, the glove.

Joseph Berkobien — Yes, that’s right, it’s shaped like a mitten, and so um, uniquely, ah, Frankenmuth happens to be at the point where we we would say it’s kind of the the gateway to the thumb, right? So so the thumb is terminology that’s used in Michigan. And the the further you go toward the thumb, the more remote and rural you get. And so we’re a community, a lot of farmers. Um obviously being in Frankenmuth we have a lot of ah tourism, so we do have a lot of people who w ork in tour tourism industry here. But we’re one of the kind of small towns that’s closer to some larger towns, but toward the thumb you you just get further and further more remote.

Rich Birch — Right.

Joseph Berkobien — So basically um, our our context is we have just a lot of people who, you know, are Midwest hardworking farmers um and small density population. But just great people in a great community.

Rich Birch — Love it.

Joseph Berkobien — A great place to live and raise kids, you know? So yeah.

Rich Birch — Yeah, love that. And you know, I I want to dig into this today. Part of the reason why I want to dig into this story is I think so many times we can focus on, and and that’s been my context the kind of suburban context you know large fast-growing communities, and to see a church like yours that has been growing quickly over these years is is I think inspiring for so many of us that are listening in.

Rich Birch — So kind of take us back um, you know, kind of before the transitions that you’ve been seeing over these last number of years. Give it, kind of set the context a little bit.

Joseph Berkobien — Ah, sure. Yeah, so I I ended up joining the team in 2012, right? So when I came in our church was right around 400 people, which was really um, pretty sizable for our region. Frankenmuth has um, 5000 people in Frankenmuth proper. And I believe the Lutheran church has technically over 5000 members, which is kind of funny. So um, just in terms of just the the community, it’s it’s not a very big community, but we we were running the rate around 400, but it was up a season of transition. I got hired in as the worship pastor um and didn’t know at the time but there was a lot of leadership challenges that were going on.

Joseph Berkobien — And um about nine months in, our senior leadership, there was a transition in our senior leadership. And so um, our our senior pastor transitioned out and we kind of found found ourself in a season where we began to decline pretty rapidly. Um, we had a handful of staff on the team, but staff started having to step out because we didn’t have the finances to support them.

Rich Birch — Oh wow.

Joseph Berkobien — And the church just dwindled from there, right? So um, so for me, it was unique. It was my first rodeo. First time jumping into ministry. I was the worship guy. I was new. Um, and I did like to preach and teach. That was something that I had um an interest in. And so basically a few a few months into that transition I got asked if I would help occasionally fill in and and preach. That ended up being about a three year period of time where um I was planning all the sermon series and preaching…

Rich Birch — Wow.

Joseph Berkobien — …and I was also leading worship. Ah so that’s that’s where…

Rich Birch — The one man show!

Joseph Berkobien — Yeah. And and if you know me, like that’s not me, man. I don’t I don’t want I don’t need the spotlight. So it was super awkward.

Rich Birch — Sure.

Joseph Berkobien — Um Dave Dave Miller that’s actually when I eventually met him was during that period of time. I eventually moved in 2015. I got asked by the elder board if I would consider putting my name in the hat to be the lead pastor. And we prayed about it. At first I kind of felt like I was too young, not quite ready. But um, but after further prayer and reflection, I kind of realized, you know, the last few years God had been preparing me for for taking that next step. And so um, when I met Dave Miller, we were in the process of trying to hire a worship pastor…

Rich Birch — Okay.

Joseph Berkobien — …and I was the senior pastor as the lead pastor, but I was also leading worship at the same time.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Joseph Berkobien — So um, so Dave came in and, you know, I was, you know, like leading worship and then switching out my my in-ears and trying to, you know, adjust my microphone to preach.

Rich Birch — Oh man, that’s amazing.

Joseph Berkobien — And it was it was all kinds of awkward, man. It was terrible. I mean we we even—this is how this is how bad it is, Rich. There was a period of time where um, you know, we were a small church. At that time we were about 200 people, right?

Rich Birch — Right.

Joseph Berkobien — And um, we we had ah as the worship pastor we had a larger church that had poached some of our musicians. You know, that that’s small church problems that stuff happens.

Rich Birch — Oh man. Yes, yeah, yeah.

Joseph Berkobien — And so and so we had a few weeks where we didn’t have a drummer, and you know we’re kind of getting to a point we we needed the drummer. I play a little drums. I’m kind of a hack, but I play a little.

Joseph Berkobien — So I totally had a Sunday where it was like Phil Collins, right? Like I was on the kit…

Rich Birch — Oh my goodness.

Joseph Berkobien — …leading worship.

Rich Birch — You were leading from the kit. Oh my goodness.

Joseph Berkobien — Yes.

Rich Birch — That’s great.

Joseph Berkobien — Then I preached. It was the worst Sunday we’ve ever had.

Rich Birch — Okay, oh man.

Joseph Berkobien — And I’m so thankful we didn’t I’m so thankful we didn’t livestream back then, right? So I’m sure there’s a CD of that Sunday somewhere in the church basement that I want to burn. But either way…

Rich Birch — Oh my goodness.

Joseph Berkobien — It was bad, so I’ll just say that.

Rich Birch — Okay, so so let’s fast forward to, so from Phil Collins Sunday—that’s a vivid picture—to today.

Joseph Berkobien — Oh yeah, attach to my brain.

Rich Birch — What’s kind of an average weekend? It’s not just about the numbers. But it does that’s one indicator of kind of what God’s done in the church. But kind of give us the the picture today, and then we’ll fill in the gap between the two.

Joseph Berkobien — Yeah, sure. Well I mean first of all, just want to start by saying, you know, God has been so gracious to our church.

Rich Birch — So good.

Joseph Berkobien — Um, you know, obviously Jesus has been at work in our community, in our church family, and any of the success that we’ve had as a church, you know, I really want to give him all the credit and all the honor…

Rich Birch — That’s good.

Joseph Berkobien — …um and all the praise for that. But we’ve also got a great team. And so, you know, part of that process was along the way we we built a great team and so today we’ve got really a solid team of people who um I work with that are just so helpful and so great in ministry, and they um just are amazing to work with. But today, you know, roughly I would say we’re probably running on average around about 1,150 on a Sunday morning.

Rich Birch — That’s great. That’s great.

Joseph Berkobien — So um, yeah, and and and continuing to grow. We’ve we’ve had um growth in attendance since 2014 every year, you know?

Rich Birch — Wow. Love that.

Joseph Berkobien — So we’re continuing to grow. And um yeah, and we’re ah a church a church that has, you know, we relocated to we grew out of our old facility which I can, you know, share some of that in a little bit.

Rich Birch — Yeah, yeah.

Joseph Berkobien — And we moved to a a location downtown. We retrofitted um ah facility and so now we’re downtown in Frankenmuth.

Rich Birch — Wow.

Joseph Berkobien — And um and yeah…

Rich Birch — So good.

Joseph Berkobien — …excited for excited for this week at Christmas services. So thanks.

Rich Birch — Yeah, that’s amazing. Well, you know, I’m sure, I know there are people listening in that have their Phil Collins Sunday. They have that like, and maybe it was like literally last Sunday, like it was like they’re like, oh my goodness. Okay, I this is really bad. I’m I’m doing whatever their version of that is. I’d love to kind of walk through what was it that God used, as you kind of saw that turnaround. Because that is that’s dramatic. And I love the consistent growth over an extended period of time like that. Having lived in a church that’s grown within fits and starts, as opposed to like consistent growth over the years. Man, I would way rather that kind of consistent growth than like hey, we have a whole bunch of people show up on one Sunday. So let’s talk a little bit about that. What would be some of those early things that changed, that shifted that where you started to see, Okay, we’re getting some traction, we’re heading in the right direction here?

Joseph Berkobien — Ah, yeah, well I mean there’s a number of things. You know, I think one of the big things for me is when I stepped into the lead pastor role, we had just been through a season of transition and it was tumultuous. You know and I think anybody who um, who has been around the church world ah for, you know, longer than a day, you you know the reality is even though it’s the bride of Christ, even though we are sanctified people, even though we’ve been saved by grace, and and and there’s so many blessings about being in ah in a church, the reality is church can be messy and church can be difficult and there’s a lot of pain and a lot of hurt sometimes in the church. And so for me, one of the first things I did when I stepped into that lead pastor role is I just wanted to reassure the church family that I wasn’t planning to go anywhere. You know, I think sometimes just giving a sense of stability and trying to project to a church family that, you know, we’re in it together, and to try to, you know, just encourage that ah that body that had been through so much. Um, that that we have ah ah if you know if God can raise the dead, he can can he can work in our church and in in the life of our church.

Rich Birch — Oh yeah, that’s good.

Joseph Berkobien — And so a big part of that in the very beginning was just kind of just ah, projecting that to the the church body. And then from there, ah a big part of it was just the rebuilding phase, you know. And so there was a number of things that for me that were huge. Obviously bringing on a solid staff team because we had lost a number of staff and and some key key positions that we needed, and so it was filling filling those gaps well.

Joseph Berkobien — And then beginning to really build a small group ministry. I think that that was important, you know, even though we were a church of 200, um, we really felt like like there was some momentum that God was already beginning to move within the life of the church. And we knew that as we grew larger that we also needed to find ways to grow grow smaller. And so um, a lot of those things early on were were huge. And honestly, again, man, I I got to just give I mean Jesus was just so good to us. You know what I’m saying?

Rich Birch — Yeah, totally. Absolutely.

Joseph Berkobien — Like like it’s funny after we lost those musicians, I started praying for a drummer and literally ah, there’s a guy that lived next door that started drumming for us. And yeah…

Rich Birch — Oh wow.

Joseph Berkobien — …which was amazing, right? So and it’s like ah…

Rich Birch — Amazing. Yeah, that’s incredible.

Joseph Berkobien — Yeah. And then and then God’s sort of providing more people. I mean so just to to join the worship team.

Rich Birch — Amazing.

Joseph Berkobien — So I mean he was just faithful too. And I think a big part of it was just, you know, just relying on the Lord for for that and leaning into that for that season.

Rich Birch — Totally.

Joseph Berkobien — Um, but that was a big part of it initially.

Rich Birch — Yeah, let’s dig into a couple of those. So how do you, take us back to those conversations when you’re building your staff team. Um, how do you cast the vision for like, hey, you should come join our team at Frankenmuth Bible? Um you know, I think this is a problem we all face. It’s like everywhere across the country, every church leader I’ve talked to that’s trying to hire people, they have some excuse for why they’re the hardest place in America to hire people for. Like they, you know, I’ve had friends in Southern California say that. I’ve had friends in, you know, New York. And I’m sure Frankenmuth is that as well. So how do you have that conversation? What what did that look like as you’re connecting with kind of great team members to bring them onboard?

Joseph Berkobien — Yeah, I mean I want to arm wrestle for that top spot of how hard it is to hire for Frankenmuth, Michigan, honestly. It’s it’s so hard.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Joseph Berkobien — And it can be discouraging and I totally get that.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Joseph Berkobien — You know and you can ask our our mutual friend, Dave Miller, how hard it was…

Rich Birch — Yes.

Joseph Berkobien — …to place somebody…

Rich Birch — He’s got his story.

Joseph Berkobien — …when he worked for Slingshot with us. Oh yeah, we we were tricky. But um, you know, I think what I would say is I’ve learned a few lessons along the way. Um, first of all what I would say is, you know, as much as you can, try to be patient. Um, you know the worst thing you can do is be quick to hire.

Rich Birch — Oh yeah, that’s good. Yep.

Joseph Berkobien — Um, you want to hire the right person. And so so if you can backfill for a season even if a ministry isn’t perfect. But if you’ve got to high-cap capacity volunteer who wants to step up um to to be patient, to hire well. I think that that’s important. Um, another thing, this is just for me at least, especially in a small town rural community Frankenmuth, Michigan, I learned that um sometimes you get involved in a search and you do this nationwide search. Um and and that can be really a cumbersome. And ah the reality is even if we were to hire somebody from further away, they don’t know midwest, they don’t know Frank…

Rich Birch — Yeah, that’s so true.

Joseph Berkobien — And you know they they spend one winter in Michigan and they’re going to be out. You know? So um I moved toward a model where where, today, I I begin just with networking. You know, I I network with people and churches um around this region that um are are doing things at a high capacity. And and and the more I can try to have organic search, um look within the church body, look within the surrounding community, that tends to work better. These days I only hire Midwest just because there’s a culture here and I want to make sure that I preserve that culture. Um, but it’s a hard process, man, and it it just takes time. Um, but but God has just really, you know, provided the right people at the right time. And and we also worked with some some search companies at different points, especially as we got larger and had some more resources. Um, but early on, man, it’s a grind. I’ll just say that – it’s it’s a grind. You just got to work hard and and pray and and be patient.

Rich Birch — Yeah, totally. And then, you know, let’s talk a little bit about the small group ministry piece of that. So that, you know, is critical. It’s um, you know, I put that in the category of it’s like block and tackle. It’s a kind of thing that, hey, we it’s not it’s not sexy. It’s not like it’s not, well I ran a great Facebook ad campaign, but it is so critical. You know churches cannot get over that 200 barrier without differentiating. You know, it was It was intriguing to me that you you answered around this turnaround hey you reassured that your own personal, hey I’m not going anywhere, which I think is a critical piece of this puzzle. But this next step in line was like, hey we’ve got to get people connecting with other folks. We’ve got to find ways for them to get connected. Talk us through some of those initial steps that worked well on um, you know, really moving people into groups and how did that go?

Joseph Berkobien — Yeah, well I mean you know it was a trial and error thing. And again you know being a young pastor, being in ah ah my first experience, you know, that’s one of those things in in hindsight I would have probably went and consulted for some, you know, some help in that area. Um I read some books during that time. You know, I think pastors like to read read books. And so I had an, you know, an initial model that I tried to roll out which was ah um I think on paper was great, right? That you know we want to have such a diverse approach. So there’s the older and the younger, and and and I think that that can be good. so I’m I’m not trying to knock that.

Rich Birch — No, no, no. I get that.

Joseph Berkobien — That’s a very healthy way.

Rich Birch — Yep.

Joseph Berkobien — But but but when you try to actually um, implement that, that became challenging for some people. You know, because it was like um so sometimes people just want to organically, you know, if you’re if you’re ah a mom with a couple kids and like life is hard, you kind of just want to rub shoulders with moms with a couple kids when life is hard, and you can talk together. And so so over time we pivoted and we we just began to have more organic connections that people would naturally have in the life of the church, and we tried to form them in groups. And so initially that was a phase that we took. And and I think that was really powerful because what we saw is especially if there were people that were fringy in the church, we really tried to plug them into a group right away because we knew if the worship was great and the teaching was good, they might come back again. But if they had a substantive relationship that they were plugged into, a tribe, a community, they they were going to stay.

Joseph Berkobien — And so for us it was trying to find those people who were kind of on the fringes and put them into a really vibrant, authentic community where they could get to know people at ah, a really deep level. And um pray together, you know, grow together in their faith, have a meal together that that was just such a powerful way for us to build a strong core.

Rich Birch — Yeah, so good. Well and there’s that there’s that tension there of, you know, we want people to develop relationships. You can develop relationships with those people that you have the the most kind of in common with, and so we we want to balance that with also helping people, you know, expand their social network, and get to know people outside, want to find a good tension between those two that’s ah you know that’s good, really really good.

Rich Birch — What else early on when you’d say there so, you know, you start to align your staff team, you build up your small group ministry, what else ah helped you in those early years to kind of um continue to see people get connected and and see the church grow?

Joseph Berkobien — Yeah. Well I mean I I think there were a number of things, but you know, one of the big, you always talk about this, I know that, you know, you want to get people out of the seats and into the streets. And I think that’s a great ah thing that that churches should really focus on. Because the reality is we’re we’re in an age that’s different than it was um, you know, a decade ago twenty years ago where you know we had ah…

Rich Birch — So true.

Joseph Berkobien — …a culture where people um, you know, wanted to go to church. And sometimes you just had to be like cooler or better than the church down the road. I mean whatever the strategy was.

Rich Birch — Right. Yep.

Joseph Berkobien — And the reality is people aren’t looking for us today, I mean largely.

Rich Birch — That’s true.

Joseph Berkobien — I mean um, ah church people are. Church people are.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Joseph Berkobien — But people in our communities largely, um, they’re not as interested in what in what we’re interested in. And so for us, a lot of times this idea of inviting people to come to church, um I don’t think that that’s the best method ah, in today’s age. I think the reality is we as the church, we really like to huddle together every Sunday and talk about loving people, but we never really break from the huddle and actually go out and do it. And so for us as a church one of the steps that we took early on was we decided that we were going to do a wide like a widespread serving initiative. Which, you know, churches do this all the time and it’s um, it’s ah a great thing. You talk about it I think in your, is it Church Growth Flywheel

Rich Birch — Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, yeah.

I mean it’s a great great way to to reach people. Um, but one of the things we did specifically in a small town that I felt like was really important, you know, small towns have this weird rivalry thing. You know, the sports teams play each other.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Joseph Berkobien — And so if you’re a neighboring town to Frankenmuth, you don’t you don’t really like Frankenmuth. You might come here to shop at Christmas…

Rich Birch — Yes.

Joseph Berkobien — …but you don’t really like Frankenmuth. And um and so because of that we tried to bridge the gap between that that divide. And so what we would do is every year we would pick a different neighboring community um and we would intentionally ah like set up worksites. We’d spend six months, nine months working with the local government, setting up as many worksites as we could. And we would have a Sunday morning, not a Saturday…

Rich Birch — Wow.

Joseph Berkobien — …a Sunday morning where we would gather in a different community. We’d have a brief time of worship and then we would break into our various work groups and serve throughout the community. You know we’re wearing t-shirts and the t-shirts in the back say #welove…you know, fill in the blank whatever whatever the town is. Um and we’re all from Frankenmuth, but yet we’re loving our neighboring towns.

Rich Birch — Love it.

Joseph Berkobien — And we’ve had people over the years say, you know what? Why don’t you do a serve Frankenmuth event? And we’ve done some of those in the past. But we want to project to the community that, you know, Frankenmuth Bible Church, because we love Jesus we want to serve others first. And so for us that was a way for us to grow um and expand outwardly. We we cast a wider net because we’re in a small community. And so um and our goal is not to try to to reach people who are already involved in the church. Our goal is to try to reach unchurched people. And and that’s a big big big thing that happened.

Joseph Berkobien — You know, what happened over I would say it several years, from 2014 to 2017, is it kind of was like a snowball. We just started getting more and more people who were either de-churched or unchurched who started checking checking us out. And for us, we found that when you love others, you know, it’s it’s funny, but sometimes Jesus knows what he’s talking about. When you actually love others…

Rich Birch — It’s a good strategy.

Joseph Berkobien — …yeah, and and and on your social media, you don’t just promote how great of a church you are…

Rich Birch — Right.

Joseph Berkobien — …but you actually celebrate other people’s victories.

Rich Birch — Yeah. It’s so true.

Joseph Berkobien — That’s attractive. That’s attractive to a world that’s skeptical about the church and skeptical about Christ. And so um, yeah, just things like that. Or you know, we we would buy banners ah for first like local sports teams, and when they were in a playoffs, we would put the banner on our church.

Rich Birch — Oh that’s cool.

Joseph Berkobien — And like you know I remember I spent a hundred bucks on a banner and back then, you know, back in the day it was like a hundred bucks kind of a lot of money.

Rich Birch — Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Joseph Berkobien — And and someone was like and I don’t know, you know, that’s a lot of money on that banner, but the funny thing is we put it out on the church and we were in the front page of the local newspaper. Because like the community was so impressed that we were celebrating…

Rich Birch — Oh that’s cool.

Joseph Berkobien — …someone’s you know a sports team. And so um ah, you know, for me that’s one of the big things is if you’re trying to reach the community around you, you got to start to love the things that people love. You know, people love kids, so we started a Christ-centered basketball league for kids kindergarten through second grade. And this basketball league, you know, they learned the fundamentals of basketball, but then at halftime they’d they’d recite memory verses and the kids would get points in the scoreboard, you know, for reciting memory verses.

Rich Birch — Yeah, so cool.

Joseph Berkobien — So just fun outward initiatives to to begin to say, hey we don’t just want to talk about loving people. We actually want to do it.

Rich Birch — Yeah, I love that. And you graciously, you know, mentioned some of the research that we’ve done and with this magnetic community service. This idea of um, getting our people out of the seats into the streets, actually serving our community. People want to be a part of a church that makes a difference. And even, you know, from ah the kind of mechanics side of church growth, they want to tell others that they’re a part of a church that makes a difference. And so they’ll share that those stories they’ll share the story of like, hey, our church went and did this thing; that is so fun. We had such a fun weekend doing whatever. We did instead of doing church on Sunday morning, we went to this town next door and we did this thing um, which ultimately drives growth. And each one of those little engagements, man, added up over time makes a huge difference.

Rich Birch — Now kind of pivoting in a different direction, you mentioned a couple times off the top the kind of Lutheran piece of the puzzle in ah, Frankenmuth. And I know in some communities, in some small towns, the kind of denominational thing is like a big deal. Um,is that is there, you know, is that like a a piece of the puzzle? How has that impacted um, you know, your work at the church?

Joseph Berkobien — Yeah, well I mean first of all I mean I would just say, I mean so that this was the the the community was founded by German Lutherans. And I mean and and I love Lutherans, right?

Rich Birch — Yes, yes.

Joseph Berkobien — And I mean one of the big things that’s that’s good, we’re we’re all on the same team, right?

Rich Birch — Yes.

Joseph Berkobien — I mean we to um I think one of the things I would say that that tends to be common in small towns, and um and in, you know, rural communities where people grew up going to a certain um church. It’s funny but in in Christendom, you know, sometimes we we make, you know, the church down the road competition. And and the reality is ah, we have a common enemy, right? It’s it’s not the church down the road.

Rich Birch — It’s so true.

Joseph Berkobien — And so for us um, you know, we we really want to be part of the church with a capital “C”. And so a big part of our heart was not to like, you know, try to convert Lutherans.

Rich Birch — No.

Joseph Berkobien — They’re they’re believers, right?

Rich Birch — Yes.

Joseph Berkobien — We we weren’t trying to trying to to steal anybody from any any churches, or that that wasn’t our goal at all. We we felt like there was space for us, being a nondenominational church, to just really begin to to impact the community around us and those who weren’t plugged into a church. And so that was kind of our strategy. But, you know, one of the things for us um I think there was some some skepticism. You know, we were a non-denominational church. Um, we we didn’t we we do believer’s baptism which is a little bit, you know, weird for some people.

Rich Birch — Little different, yes, little different for our Lutheran friends. Yes.

Joseph Berkobien — And yeah. And so there’s there’s a there’s a little while there where I think people might have thought we were some sort of weird cult or something. And so I think a big part of it was just um, trying to just engage in the community, trying to to rub shoulders with people in other churches. I’m great friend, like I’m a really close friends with all the pastors in town. They’re all amazing. And and, you know, for us, um, we really wanted to start to celebrate that. You know, the reality is um, some of that tribalism can can be um I think a turnoff for the world around us.

Rich Birch — So true.

Joseph Berkobien — And and you look at, you know, man Jesus and and John 17. Right at the at the end of that upper room discourse. he has this this intimate high priestly prayer with the Father, and what does he say? And he prays that that we would be one as he is one.

Rich Birch — So true. Yep.

Joseph Berkobien — And um I mean I mean I just I just feel like that prayer, like we want to be the church that Jesus prayed for. And um, you know, Paul and Ephesians 4 he says, one faith, one Lord, one baptism. You know, I I think that idea of of um being really tribal in that, we wanted to break some of those barriers down a little bit. I understand that there are reasons why why denominations form, and and churches might separate for certain things. But largely my my my heart is that, you know, that the one who unites this is greater than most of the stuff that divides us. And so um…

Rich Birch — So true.

Joseph Berkobien — We really tried to posture ourselves where we were working with other churches. So we did a few initiatives where we actually served with other churches. Or we did events where we would gather together and do things fellowship of other churches um in our in our community. In fact, every Sunday we pray for a different church in our region um, just because we want to demonstrate…

Rich Birch — Oh Wow, that’s cool.

Joseph Berkobien — Yeah, well and I think that that actually has been one of the things that that people find refreshing…

Rich Birch — Right.

Joseph Berkobien — …about about our church.

Rich Birch — That’s cool.

Joseph Berkobien — So so yeah, so so that’s been some of the strategy.

Rich Birch — Do you reach out to those churches and say like, hey we’re gonna be praying for you this weekend, anything we can be praying for, or how’s that work? Are you just people you know, or how’s that work?

Joseph Berkobien — Uh, both. I what I would say is if we already know certain things are going on, we’ll be praying for that. But there are times we just kind of cold call a pastor and say, hey, what’s going on in your church. What can we pray for? I just talked to a pastor on Saturday, and they have a church that’s really struggling and we’re going to see if in a couple weeks we can invite them in to come on the platform and we can pray over their leadership. You know, just for us that’s just a really important um important way to really demonstrate again, yeah, that we have a heart that we’re we’re all part of the church with a capital “C”.

Rich Birch — So pivoting in a kind of slightly different direction, talk about your own journey of leading through, you know, all those different phases. Like you’ve grown, you know, from ah, you’ve seen the church from a couple hundred people to over a thousand. Only five percent of churches make it over 1000. And you’re in a community of 5000, so I don’t know that I know anyone that can say that they lead in church that has 20% of the attendance of their of their their community. Like that that’s an in those are all interesting phases to go through and, you know, I believe God’s got more for you in the future. How what’s it been like for you as a leader to transition to lead through all those various phases?

Joseph Berkobien — Yeah I mean it’s been it’s been hard.

Rich Birch — Yep.

Joseph Berkobien — I would say there’s a lot um, there’s a lot of pivoting that needs it to to take place. Um, this is just ah, maybe ah, a word of um encouragement for any pastor of a small church out there who’s listening. I mean the reality is um, you know, for you, first of all, um, there’s always hope, right? We believe in the Gospel. We believe that God does the impossible. And so one of the things is I just, you know, trusted that God was going to provide for a church. And in all, honesty too, Rich, this is helpful to explain, we we were positioned for growth. I don’t want to overstate, you know, the miraculous. We we were debt free. And we had about 200 people who said, you know what? Ride or die we’re with you, buddy.

Rich Birch — Let’s do it. Yeah, yeah. Totally.

Joseph Berkobien — Because we’ve been through so much.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Joseph Berkobien — They were they were on they were on board. And so um and sometimes, you know, I would even say sometimes you can leverage a crisis. Because the reality is when when our church was dwindled in half, a lot of the people who were unwilling to change ended up transitioning out. And so what we were left with was a really strong core. We had no debt and so we started from there to really cast vision for the future. So but but through that process, to go back to your question, um for me, um, outside of the Bible, the number one resource that I’ve used to to learn how to how to how to transition, is Tim Keller’s church, leadership and size dynamics document.

Rich Birch — Yeah, yeah, yeah, fantastic.

Joseph Berkobien — That is just gold…

Rich Birch — Yep.

Joseph Berkobien — …gold for any leader out there who’s trying to learn how to transition from 200 to 400, and 400 to 800. I mean that is just a great resource. And it’s free online.

Rich Birch — Yeah, we’ll link to it. We’ll put a ah so I would say that’s probably the most forwarded pdf that I’ve that I’ve sent to church leaders. Because…

Joseph Berkobien — It’s amazing.

Rich Birch — …most of the churches I’ve worked with are that I and um almost all the churches I do coaching with are around a thousand or or more. And I’ll end up talking with churches who are who churches are smaller than that. And I’m like listen I can give you some thoughts, but really what you need to do is listen to Tim Keller. And like you know his, it’s so clear and the thing I love about what in that document is he doesn’t ascribe a value judgment to varying so church sizes. It’s just like, hey, this is what your church needs at these various phases. This is how you know to lead. It’s it’s classic. So yeah, we’ll we’ll link to that in the show notes for sure because it is a great ah great document. How did that kind of thinking impact your leadership? Maybe maybe a ah thing or two that has changed over over the years as you’ve led in different you know, different sizes?

Joseph Berkobien — Yeah, I think early on you know I I had to know every person’s name.

Rich Birch — Right? no.

Joseph Berkobien — Um I had to shake every person’s hand. You know, I had to know ah, you know, when babies were born, we would bring them, you know, ah people would stand up or whatever you you want to celebrate that. You you embrace that small church culture, which is great. And I think that you want to when people if people are in that context that’s a very rewarding time to lead, by the way. And some people the grass is always greener.

Rich Birch — Yeah, it’s so true.

Joseph Berkobien — You know people look at ministry and where they want to get and, man, I will I’ll just tell you um in the phase we’re now, and I love it…

Rich Birch — Yes.

Joseph Berkobien — …and I love I’ve loved every phase of of leadership, um, there was a there was a phase ah boy maybe maybe 600 for me was my sweet spot because like I knew most people…

Rich Birch — Right.

Joseph Berkobien — …and the systems we didn’t have to have systems dialed in as well. You know what I’m saying? And it was just like I could come up with an idea on a Wednesday and we could do it on a Sunday.

Rich Birch — Right.

Joseph Berkobien — So I mean that was that was ah a great season. But the reality is for me I had to learn how to move from being a doer ah to to somebody who was an equipper. I had to move from being involved in all the ministry to beginning to kind of decentralize some of that, and to raise up other leaders, and get other teams to do things. And and now the reality is, you know, I I don’t know a large percentage of the people who come in.

Rich Birch — Right. Yeah.

Joseph Berkobien — Um and and my role in many ways I still try to, you know, connect at the door and and talk it and shake as many hands as I can and talk to people, but it’s it’s really quick hits, you know. I don’t I don’t know the reality of what’s going on in most people’s lives. And so that transition of of my role has had to change dramatically, you know. And so um and and Tim Keller, yeah it’s gold.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Joseph Berkobien — And I I love I loved all yeah to say in that and that document, so just strongly encourage anybody who hasn’t read that to read that.

Rich Birch — Yeah, it’s a simple document. It’s an easy read. You can read it in, you know, not long – half an hour or even less.

Joseph Berkobien — Sure. Absolutely.

Rich Birch — And but it’s super straightforward. And, shocker, Tim Keller, he’s he’s a clear thinker, you know. Amazing.

Joseph Berkobien — Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Rich Birch — So yeah, that’s great.

Rich Birch — Well this has been just so fantastic. I really appreciate you, you know, just walking through. There’s just so much we could talk about, but what else would you say just as we wrap up today’s conversation, Joseph?

Joseph Berkobien — Yeah, I mean I think one of the the big things I would say um maybe that I just haven’t hit that’s really important is just the importance, as a a leader um as a pastor, is obviously you want a shepherd well. You want to love people, you want to focus on um, you know, really being serious about the the ministry of the word and bringing that, for anybody who’s a senior pastor or a lead pastor out there. But I think a big thing too is just casting a compelling vision for the future. I think that it’s so important that we cast vision. You know, when we when there’s ah a void um in the vision-casting in the church, someone will rise up and cast it for us.

Rich Birch — It’s so true.

Joseph Berkobien — And um, and and that often happens in a smaller church. And so I think just being ah cognizant of that that that we want to make sure that we’re painting a picture of a future that we want to invite other people to be a part of something bigger than themselves. And we we serve a big God and so throughout that process, you know, um we we went to a relocation ah, we outgrew our our old facility as we were through that growth process. And you know we had max that we had probably more cars parked in the lawn than we did in the parking lot. And we were we had closets that we converted the classroom…

Rich Birch — Wow. Yeah, yeah.

Joseph Berkobien — …so we outgrew that facility. But when we were getting ready to do a campaign, we we didn’t have a “what”. You know, we we knew we were trying to buy um or or build a new location but we didn’t have a a what because there wasn’t a whole lot available. And so we we ran a campaign ah purely based on “why”.

Rich Birch — Wow.

Joseph Berkobien — You know, we we felt like we were at a point um, where if you know, if we invited new people to come to church but there’s nowhere for them to sit, and there’s nowhere for them to park, Um, and and you know the the class is too full for their kids, then they’re not they don’t feel welcome. And we weren’t content to do that. So we we ran a campaign and raised money raised funds for that. But again it’s because we were casting a compelling vision for the future that we wanted to be a church that actually could reach people for the gospel.

Rich Birch — Wow.

Joseph Berkobien — So for us that’s just been a big part of that journey, you know, is just casting a clear vision for people.

Rich Birch — So good. Well, Joseph, I really appreciate you being here today. This has been a great conversation. Um, where do we want to send people online if we want them track with you, or with the church.

Joseph Berkobien — Yeah, you can just go to frankenmuthbible.com that’s frankenmuthbible.com and yeah all our resources that are there. And and and yeah and if you’re in the area and you don’t have a church you want to join us ah for for services, you know, we’ve got services on Sunday morning at 8:30, 10 and 11:30 so people can join us too. So.

Rich Birch — Nice. Thanks so much. Really appreciate that. Thanks for being here today.

Joseph Berkobien — Thank you, Rich. Appreciate it, buddy.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.