Turning tragedy into triumph
Lance Taylor / Executive Pastor / Long Hollow Baptist Church / Hendersonville, TN
By RaeAnn Slaybaugh
At Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, TN, hope is not a strategy.
Rather, when disaster strikes — as it has, twice — the church has been able to sustain its rapid growth and expansion with preparation and perseverance.
Where the story begins
Founded in 1977, Long Hollow originally met in a school, with a handful of attendees. It wasn’t long before the community surrounding the church plant began to build up, and the church attendance grew with it.
Long Hollow was given the opportunity to buy land from a retired doctor who owned lots of farmland in Sumner County. He had about 150 acres in one tract and offered the church all it wanted. He was going to sell the rest to a developer for a neighborhood, which he did. The church settled on 33 acres, which at the time was more than they thought they would ever need. It was a bold step of faith for a little church.
Though in a remote area at the time (and to some degree still is), the land was strategically located near an intersection of roads that come from four nearby communities. The church was poised for growth.
By the early 1980s, the church had built its first building. A few years later, growth drove the construction of a larger worship center, and attendance topped several hundred. So, all this growth — in spite of the odds — was a testament to the ministry the church was doing.
Yet, the mid-90s brought a potentially devastating challenge. And it wouldn’t be the first Long Hollow would face.
A church divided
In 1996, the church went through what it describes as a “friendly separation,” but it still resulted in a split. Competing philosophies divided members and staff into two groups. They decided to go in different directions.
This split left Long Hollow with less than 200 attendees and no staff. Additionally, Long Hollow was still paying for its worship center.
Enter: Senior Pastor David Landrith, who came onboard in 1996, brought a different kind of vision, and ultimately changed the culture of the church, positioning for growth. One of his most critical (and smart) early decisions was to enlist a student pastor: Lance Taylor.
Landrith and Taylor were roommates in college and attended seminary together. They recognized that the expansion Long Hollow was seeing had a lot to do with its appeal for young families and students, and they developed strategies to really engage those demographics.
Taylor’s fit with the up-and-coming church was obvious from the start, recalls Derek Hazelet, senior vice president at Dallas-based RSI Stewardship and Long Hollow member since 1999. Since that time, Hazelet has been instrumental at Long Hollow in the area of stewardship development.
“They believed Lance would be important in these areas because of the way he does ministry,” Hazelet says. “He’s a process guy and an organizational guy. What he was doing in the student ministry was what [Landrith] wanted done across the board.”
For Taylor, Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren’s purpose-driven church model — even before it culminated in The Purpose-Driven Life — was a major influence. Taylor implemented its key tenets into the student ministry, and they were soon adopted church-wide.
Within a year, Taylor was made executive pastor.
“[Landrith] wanted him to lead that purpose-driven charge,” Hazelet says. “That helped, because it balanced the church’s focus across those purposes.”
It worked: By 1999, Long Hollow was hosting five services on a weekend, which was putting incredible strain on the staff and the church’s infrastructure. From 1999 to 2001, the church saw exponential growth of 25 percent — and sometimes more — year-over-year. This journey of steady growth led to explosive growth.
The need for a new, even larger worship facility became clear. In 2000, Long Hollow launched its first building campaign.
Recognizing — and meeting — ministry needs
Ministering to young families — who continued to drive the growth — remained a guiding priority. Accordingly, staff moved their offices into trailers in order to free up “prime time space” for children’s ministry and a preschool.
A dedicated kids’ center came next.
“That was pivotal, and part of Lance’s leadership,” Hazelet recalls. “They were definitely looking at who was coming and making ministry decisions based on that. It was intuitive; but, they knew if they could meet these young families that were moving in to the area in droves, they could continue to reach people.”
This proved to be the case even when it meant multiple services at odd times, “make-it-work”-style office accommodations for staff, and a lot of other compromises. Traffic congestion to the church necessitated a special bridge and dedicated extra entry / exit onto the campus. Additionally, large buses were enlisted to ferry worshipers to and from the church from a nearby school parking lot.
“It was a little like a three-ring circus,” Hazelet recalls. “It’s still like that, actually.”
Before long, a new, larger worship center was needed. Soon after, the church doubled the size of its children’s space.
To keep up with Long Hollow’s phenomenal growth, an initial in-house building campaign that started in 2000 rolled in to a nine-year effort consisting of three back-to-back, three-year capital campaigns. It was during this season that Long Hollow began working with RSI Stewardship for the first time. As in the beginning, Senior Pastor David Landrith and Executive Pastor Lance Taylor were at the forefront.
By 2009 — and the commencement of the third consecutive three-year capital campaign —fatigue was evident, not only among members but also in Landrith.
“We’re no longer flying blind. [W]ith the right pieces in place, we will be able to handle the unexpected and keep moving forward.”As Taylor remembers, Landrith didn’t like to preach about money, and asking for large pledges was taxing. He observes: “In a lot of ways, we were going back to the same people every time. We would joke amongst ourselves that, ‘For the third time, we’re asking you to give a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ gift.”
Timing was also a challenge toward the end of this long season of campaigns because it fell in the midst of the Great Recession.
Church leaders knew they were in danger of not meeting the pledge goal, yet they still carried a large amount of debt and lacked much-needed student ministry spaces. Meanwhile, new campuses were being launched.
All of this, of course, needed to be funded. The combination of trying to keep up with rapid growth, the Great Recession, and diminishing returns forced church leaders to seek different funding solutions.
Then, everything changed
What came next was a big departure — something the church had never tried before: The “Crazy Love Campaign,” an 18-month, five-offering campaign initiative. Each day had its own financial goal, for a total of $3.5 million. Additionally, offerings were put to work right away for a multitude of ministry initiatives.
Crazy Love wasn’t a pledge-based effort; rather, members were having yard sales, emptying piggy banks, and kids were collecting money.
“Whatever came in for each offering, on that day, was put right to work on different ministry initiatives,” Taylor explains. “A certain percentage was for the student building, another percentage went towards building an orphanage in Haiti, another percentage went to the crisis pregnancy center we support, and so on. So, it was very ministry-minded, but it also helped us put away cash for a new student building. We knew we couldn’t not do all this ministry — but we couldn’t not build the building either.”
As Taylor explains, Crazy Love was well suited to the church’s long-term ministry goals. “We’re looking ahead at someday having 15 or 20 campuses and constant expansion all over the Nashville area and Tennessee — in addition to doing ministry work around the world,” he explains. “So, it was (and is) like a 20-year march.”
When all was said and done, goal fulfillment for Crazy Love came in at an astounding 97 percent. More important, it ignited a new enthusiasm in the life of the church — and laid the foundation for an entirely new approach to funding the vision.
The importance of “business intelligence”
Fueled by the success of Crazy Love — and with local and global ministry opportunities emerging in droves — Taylor, Hazelet and consultant Ben Stroup, who is now with the organization RSI Stewardship is a part of, began to really focus on intelligent fundraising strategies, and intentional allocation of funds. In doing so, they found that the source of the church’s impressive growth wasn’t as clear as it had once been.
“Long Hollow began to validate and challenge some assumptions about itself,” Hazelet explains. Chief among them: that its amazing continued growth was still being driven by young families.
“That’s what it felt like, intuitively,” Hazelet recalls. “But when the church started to get 5,000 or 6,000 attendees on a weekend, it was hard to tell exactly who we were. There was some demographic work that needed to be done.”
Challenging such assumptions — and, in some cases, validating them — set the stage for what would ultimately lead to an entirely new approach to funding ministry. Taylor and Hazelet began with a deep-dive into segmentation. Their goal was to understand what was happening at the church in terms of giving and growth.
“For a long time, the only metrics [Long Hollow used] were what most churches look at, as far as giving is concerned: average giving per unit and giving per week,” Hazelet says. “So, trying to understand what to do with the budget, and how to move forward [with our allocations], required us to get more information than just these normal metrics.”
In doing so, the church was able to validate that it was still a young church reaching our families. However, it also discovered its core members were getting older, and Long Hollow wasn’t seeing as much movement in certain categories as it had assumed.
The church began using analytics, modeling and direct communication — including regular, one-on-one relational work with members and ongoing analysis to monitor progress.
It also implemented a systematic approach to engagement, including consistent engagement of financial leaders; looking at givers by segments; and approaching them uniquely through targeted communication strategies.
To make it all work — much like a “giving engine” — systems had to be put in place so that staff would, for example, know when to contact a member, or when to send out a letter, or when and how to acknowledge first-time gifts.
“The cool thing is, all of this can be systematized and automated so that the work of the ministers is ministry; not just high-touch, right-touch.” Hazelet points out. “That’s where ministry needs to be, even in the ministry of giving.”
“Our deep-dive into segmentation — and the resulting strategies — proved critical as the church moved to out of capital campaign mode,” he adds. With this new, comprehensive ministry plan approach, all giving goes into one budget, or ministry plan, for the year.
“The church doesn’t have to do special initiatives where people are giving to two different things — to the general budget and to a campaign,” Hazelet explains. “The budget becomes the campaign, including special projects.”
Naturally, the budget approval process at Long Hollow looks very different, too. Gone are the pie charts and spreadsheets, circulated and voted upon. In their place is a comprehensive, compelling picture of the next 12 months — and the ministry the church aims to achieve in that timeframe.
“This was revolutionary at our church,” Taylor says. “The point wasn’t the funding; the point is the ministry we want to do – and it requires funding. It gives people a picture they can give toward rather than just saying, ‘These are our giving goals for the year’ without the context of, What is this for? What am I giving to? It has framed the conversation in a much healthier way.”
Hazelet agrees, and adds: “What the ministry plan does is say, ‘We’re leading with what we’re going to do. We need you to help partner with us to do this. We’re going to be in this thing together. And along the way, we’re going to tell you what happened.’”
In effect, the church no longer has the luxury of building to a campaign crescendo and having a major launch, driving pledges, and then paying that out over three years. “It has become an ongoing thing,” Hazelet points out. “You’d better know what’s happening in each [demographic] pocket, and you’d better have a plan.”
The eye of the hurricane
Sadly, even the best-laid plans couldn’t predict how pivotal their new ministry funding approach and its components would be … or how suddenly. In the spring of 2013, Landrith — Long Hollow’s beloved long-time senior pastor — was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 49.
Aside from the emotional anguish for the church family, the devastating news also came at a critical time in the church’s growth trajectory: the beginning of a five-year, $100-million ministry plan.
The premise of this aggressive campaign was to combine and stack five years’ worth of annual budgets. Intended to culminate in 2017 — the church’s 40th anniversary and Landrith’s 20th anniversary as pastor — the timing had been carefully orchestrated.
Though Landrith was in relatively good health when the campaign began in February 2013, he passed away just 20 months later. In that time, the $100-million strategy was suspended and a more stable ministry plan — while still applying the new approach — designed to weather the storm took its place, with Executive Pastor Lance Taylor providing leadership.
“It was like we’d been flying a big jet for a while and had a good feel for where we were going — but suddenly, we were flying into a hurricane and all we had to rely on was our instruments,” Hazelet recalls. “Fortunately, they all were working. The engine was running.”
The communications that needed to happen with the right people, at the right stage, at the right time, were happening. This consistency kept the church from spinning out of control.
Perhaps more important, it let the church family — including interim pastor Kevin Ezell, President of the North American Mission Board for the SBC — who Hazelet calls a “rock star” — to focus on spiritual regrouping instead of financial sustainment as they navigated the journey with Landrith and ultimately grieved his loss.
Though Long Hollow did witness a financial plateau in that time, giving never fell below a manageable level for the church. It not only endured during this time of crisis, but sustained all its ministries — and even started to see phenomenal growth once again.
Preparation and perseverance
In the past two decades, Long Hollow Baptist Church has proven it can navigate the unexpected with stability and confidence. Instead of being sidelined by the tragedy of Landrith’s untimely death, the church — under Executive Pastor Lance Taylor’s determined and steady leadership — was able to call upon a lifeline that sustained it through the difficult days and transition to come.
Now, just one year after the tragedy, a new senior pastor — Robby Gallaty — has been able to step in and hit the ground running. The church has engaged RSI Stewardship’s services again to take the next step in developing the right framework and putting the right automation and systems into place to further enhance what’s working at Long Hollow.
In church life, a new pastor (and certainly the absence of a beloved pastor) can be an incredibly unstable time; not so for Long Hollow. As of press time, Gallaty has served at the church for just 90 days, and the church has just approved its largest-ever budget: $16.1 million.
By all accounts, Long Hollow’s ability to focus on the new senior pastor’s transition — without a huge added burden of meeting the budget — has been a monumental blessing. The focus was able to stay on prayer and ministry.
“God’s hand was all over this,” Hazelet says.
Taylor agrees. “This [ministry funding approach] is more fulfilling; it feels like a more natural, healthier approach,” he says. “The staff’s ministries are funded, and people have these great opportunities to be generous and to see their generosity in action and in life change. It’s been such a good thing for us.”
In the coming months and years, Taylor and the rest of the leadership team at Long Hollow will focus on sustaining what’s been started — and make it better. This will be especially critical as campuses are added and budgets grow exponentially.
Fortunately, all the pieces are in place.
“With God’s help, we’ve been able to endure some pretty challenging days,” Taylor notes. “But, we know He’s not finished with us and we’re not done here.
“We’re no longer flying blind. We know from experience that with the right pieces in place, we will be able to handle the unexpected and keep moving forward.”
QUICK FACTS: LONG HOLLOW BAPTIST CHURCH
Lead pastor: Robby Gallaty
Number of locations: 5
Number of staff: 80 full-time; expected to grow to 100 within the next several months
Combined weekly attendance: 6,800
2016 budget: $16.1 million