A familiar face brings positive change to a California church

Gene Appel returns to the church where he interned, in his third megachurch assignment in 20 years.

By Kent E. Fillinger

Young preachers often aspire to lead a megachurch at one point in their ministry career. Only a few leaders realize this goal, but even fewer have an opportunity to serve as the lead pastor of multiple megachurches. Gene Appel is one member of this very small fraternity, and has effectively led three growing megachurches during his still young ministry career.

Appel, 51, started as the lead pastor of Central Christian Church in Henderson, NV, a suburb of Las Vegas. During his 18-year ministry at Central, the church grew from an attendance of a few hundred to more than 7,000 then. Today, Central averages more than 15,000 in attendance.

In 2003, Appel accepted a new assignment for Willow Creek Community Church to lead the South Barrington, IL, campus. His strategic leadership and communication gifts were an integral part of Willow Creek’s international presence as a church with more than 20,000 in attendance.

But on October 1, 2008 Appel’s ministry sojourn came full circle when he became the lead pastor of the same church where he worked as a 20-year-old intern: Eastside Christian Church in Fullerton, CA. Eastside Christian is near and dear to Appel’s heart because of the formative role it played in his early ministry development.

Producing change positively
He describes himself as a process-oriented leader and he believes that this strength has afforded him the ability to lead through the dynamics of organizational change in positive ways. Moreover, a complementary strength is Appel’s teaching and communication gifts which he uses to cast vision and to connect with people’s hearts.

Appel prefers a collaborative leadership style and enjoys working with teams of leaders. His dependency on teams has grown over the years and therefore he works hard to select and hire gifted staff members whom he can then empower to serve.

While Appel sees himself as a visionary and as someone who is constantly looking ahead to see what is next on the horizon, he notes a transition in his thinking about vision development. Early in his ministry as a young leader, Appel had the mindset that the leader was supposed to retreat from his congregation to listen to God to receive the vision he was to share with the church. Since then, Appel has adopted a shared vision creation model that involves everyone working together to develop the vision for the church. He says he has a better appreciation for the collaborative planning process now than he used to.

Worship attendance at Eastside has surged from 1,900 to 3,200 since Appel’s arrival two years ago. Early on, he established a long-range planning team at Eastside and he led a core group through a strategic planning process to clarify the vision and mission of the church. He involved his entire staff and leadership team in the strategic planning process and the results were a God-led process and a clear team unity.

Senior leadership team
Eastside’s revamped vision is “to transform their communities and the world through pursuing God, building community and unleashing compassion one neighborhood at a time.” Appel realigned the staff based on the three components of the new vision and he developed a senior leadership team to implement the vision.

Appel and his leadership team spend hours dreaming and strategizing together to develop church-wide projects focused on the three areas of the church’s vision. This leadership team meets once a week and Appel maintains a true open door policy for this team during the week to extend the collaborative spirit and to create an environment of ongoing dialog. He has established an atmosphere where every staff member works together on core ministry projects, sees the interconnectedness between their ministries and each one owns everyone else’s ministry goals. This move has eliminated the previous ministry silos.

Appel admits that early in his career, ministry setbacks and failures were devastating and he took each one too personally. Over time, he learned to ask the question, “What do we need to learn from this?” He strives to foster a culture where others are comfortable with their ministry failures while emphasizing learning and growth.

Budgeting six months at a time
This is one reason why Appel has implemented a six-month ministry planning and budgeting cycle for his staff. The Eastside staff spends time praying, creating ministry plans, executing their plans and learning from their experiences every six months. This planning and budgeting model enables the church to be flexible and responsive to changing needs and priorities throughout the year.

Appel has learned life lessons from each of the megachurches where he has served. At Central Christian Church he witnessed the amazing power of God to change people’s lives, he says. He found it exhilarating to see “book of Acts kind of events” as God’s grace and power transformed lives.

At Willow Creek, it was what God did to grow his heart for the world. As Appel traveled extensively to third world countries, God stirred within him a passion to help the under-resourced, the diseased, the poor and the hungry and instilled a desire to see justice for the marginalized peoples of the world.

And today at Eastside Christian Church, Appel is compelled to bring all of his ministry insights and experiences to bear as they try to reach as many of the 5.8 million people within a 20-mile radius of the church as they can.

Eastside recently purchased relocation property and they hope to move to the new campus by the end of 2012 or sooner to create an environment for continued growth and kingdom impact.

Kent E. Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, IN.


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