Tall and lean, with a sheepish grin, Jon Weece looks more like a carefree college kid — and others may even say he sometimes acts like one — than the serious leader that he truly is. But the 34-year-old senior pastor at one of Kentucky’s largest churches doesn’t mind the comparison.
In fact, he seems to have appreciated the fact that it is his youthful disposition and seemingly foolish ideas that help infuse new purpose and energy into the church and bring about real change in many people’s lives.
Weece joined Southland Christian Church in Lexington, KY, in the summer of 2000. He was 26 and had been serving as a missionary to Haiti for four years when then senior pastor Mike Breaux invited him to be a part of the teaching team. Three years later, Breaux accepted a teaching position at Willow Creek Community Church, and Weece, thinking that the next senior minister would likely bring in his own teaching staff, decided it was time to look for a new job. Unknown to Weece, however, the elders of the church already had unanimously voted him as the new senior pastor.
Weece caught the media limelight in 2007 for his unconventional ways of reaching out to hurting people. This is the guy who unabashedly stood at a busy street corner holding up a “Free Hugs” sign. This is the pastor who urged his 8,000-strong congregation to write notes of encouragement to troubled Britney Spears. The same pastor who cancelled the Christmas services so that his church members could bring Christmas to the world outside their church. This is the minister who rallied his congregation to send gifts to the families of those killed in the crash of Comair Flight 5191.
And this is the guy who thinks that throwing firecrackers at unsuspecting staff is fun. Child-like? Perhaps. Still, in the eyes of the people he serves, the young leader is solid as a rock.
Church Executive sat down with Weece to get a closer look at his thoughts and heart.
When you accepted the position of senior pastor at Southland, you were only 29 — that was quite young.
Yes, I was young, and probably naive enough to the point that I took the job.
I believe the elders prayed and heard from God. Still, there’s a risk in hiring someone so young.
Absolutely! The elders knew me as a teacher. They didn’t know me as a leader. It was a risk because of age and lack of experience. But I think they were forward-thinking. I believe our elders looked ahead to the future and were wise in knowing that longevity often leads to effectiveness. If they could get someone while they were young, maybe the payout would come years later. There were some challenges that our church was facing. To step into that, you do feel inadequate. But as I always say to young leaders that I talk to, “What I lack in experience, I have to make up for in preparation.”
What were those challenges and how did you address them?
The church had incurred a debt of $17 million. There were also issues regarding staff and leadership. The first thing God laid on my heart was to focus on the health of the church. And one of the first things we had to do was get honest and say, “Who are we? What are we about?” I would say that we had an identity crisis on our hands. We didn’t really know who we were or what God’s plan was for Southland. So we took 18 months to pray and study the Gospels, and through that process we identified the things that we were good at and the things that we weren’t good at.
We asked all the hard questions. It forced us to look at our missions budget and determine what we specifically wanted to do. I think we’re more focused today than we have ever been. We decided that we’re going to pay down our debt. That impacted ministries, as you can imagine. You never want to have to lay off people, but we made hard decisions when we needed to. But at the end of the day, God seems to be very pleased with what we have done. I feel like we are in a good place of health right now.
What are the challenges of leading a megachurch especially for someone your age?
When you’re young, there is a tendency to chase all the next great ideas that are out there. But you have to be patient. The phrase I use [to describe myself] is “passionately patient.” I’m very passionate about the church and what I believe the church is capable of doing and becoming. Yet at the same time, due to the challenges we have regarding our past and some things that we’re doing right now, I have to be patient.
I think trust is the other big issue. Just being young, I know trust is something that I build and earn. It’s not something that just comes overnight. Being the new guy on the team, everybody wants to know “Can this guy handle this?” That’s why I have surrounded myself with a lot of older men and wise leaders who’ve weathered a lot of storms. I listen to what they say.
What do you think are the gifts and skills that God has equipped you with to do the job that He has given you?
I’m a teacher at heart. What fires me up is when I can creatively communicate the love of God to someone who has not heard of God’s love. I have the gift of mercy, so I ache for people — sometimes maybe to a fault. I am very intentional about being with hurting people. I still go to hospitals. I still do funerals. I hang out with some friends of mine who are homeless.
I have the gift of discernment. I definitely have the ability to listen well. And when hard decisions need to be made, I’m okay with saying, “This is the direction we need to go.” I want to give everybody a hearing, but I know at the end of the day we can’t do what everyone wants us to do. So discernment has been a critical gift for me in this position.
You were Kentucky’s second most intriguing newsmaker of 2007, second to John Henry, the horse.
Only in Kentucky could you lose to a horse.
But you were in the news because of your support to the families who were killed when Comair Flight 5191 crashed Aug. 27, 2006. You also attracted media attention with your free hugs. Then there was your congregation’s support to Britney Spears. Why do you do these things?
I love people, and I want to love them in tangible ways. Some people say we’re a missional church or we’re an externally focused church. You hear all the terminology. But I like to say that we’re a church that is focused on what the church in Acts 2 did. We want to be the kind of people that Jesus would be pleased with. We feel that God has called us to reach out to the poor — the emotionally, relationally, spiritually, financially bankrupt people. When Flight 5191 crashed here in Fayette County, KY, our city lost 50 people. For a town this size, to lose 50 people is traumatic. We saw it as an opportunity for us to love people.
We weren’t looking to build a name for ourselves. We just wanted to be the kind of church that stays after the funeral is over. So our church has embraced the families, sent them meal cards and money, took care of their counseling costs. When the tsunami hit Indonesia, we all said, “God needs us to go and love those people.” The relief organizations have since left, but we are still there to rebuild the city.
The free hugs are probably more me than it is the church. I lost my dad to cancer last year. At my dad’s funeral I experienced firsthand the power of a simple hug. I thought to myself “How many need a simple touch every day?” So I made a sign that said “Free Hugs,” and I went downtown. As humiliating as it can be, I stood on a street corner, and on the first day I probably hugged 800 or 900 people. None of them knew I was a pastor. My only goal was to let people know that there is someone in the city who loves them.
Our church has done lots of things to let people know we’re here and we care. We’ve offered free health care, opening three free medical clinics in the city. We have a ministry to those who work in strip clubs, through which we’ve been able to rescue a lot of women. Every year we throw a huge party for physically and mentally challenged people. We rent limousines. Everybody wears tuxedos and dresses. We have a live band. We create a line of paparazzi and roll down the red carpet. I think if Jesus were anywhere on the planet that night, He would be in that room and teach us a thing or two about Jewish dance. I’m proud of our family here for what they do to love people. It’s not just something we talk about.
Number 1, paying down our debt out of our general budget. That would be the first thing because it got us humbled. Any time a church can learn humility, it’s good because we learn to put our dependence back on Him.
Number 2, rewriting our missions policy and refocusing our missions dollars. We were “nickeling and diming” probably 200 mission organizations and projects around the world. I don’t know that we were effective in any of them. [See page 17 sidebar.]
Number 3, starting our Circles of Influence initiatives here in the city. Those came about because of canceling our Christmas services. It’s a ministry that grew out of that. As I said we’ve opened three free medical clinics. We’re providing care for homeless people. We’re in the prisons in a focused way. We’ve moved all of our sports ministries from on-campus to the inner city. We mentor children [in schools] on a daily basis. We have a feeding program for kids who don’t eat well.
Number 4, turning over our age-level ministries to the students themselves. We challenged our college students to lead our high school ministry. And we challenged our high school students to lead our middle school ministry. If you come to Southland you’re going to see our high school and middle school students running our weekend services. You’re going to see them cleaning the building, landscaping, and serving. You lack quality sometimes, and that’s okay. I think a lot of big churches are fearful of that a little bit. But we haven’t lost anything in the process of allowing a seventh grade boy to run our cameras for the weekend services or be at the sound board.
What do you look for when hiring people to be on your leadership staff?
First, I look for humility. They’ve got to know this is God’s church. Usually in terms of major leadership positions in the church, we hire from within. Second, I look for honesty. I’m not a good leader unless I’m getting feedback from them. So I need honest people around me and not the kind that have a lot of bravado. I look for people who are what I call “utility infielders,” people who are willing to do whatever is needed for the team to win. I look for balance in their life. I want to make sure they have accountability, that they’re trustworthy, and that their No. 1 priority is their relationship with God and their relationship with their spouse and children.
What do you do to develop your leadership skills?
I memorize a lot of Scripture. The more of God’s word I put in my mind, the wiser I think I’ll be. The second thing is I pray for wisdom constantly throughout the day. God knows I need it. I have specific pockets of time throughout each day that are just geared towards me going before God and saying, “God, here’s where my heart is, search me.” I surround myself with older leaders and business leaders, and I learn from them. I spend as much time with my kids as humanly possible. My kids teach me more about Jesus than anyone else.
I make sure that I continue to maintain a global perspective. It’s easy in suburban Lexington to get caught up in the rat race and forget what’s at stake. I think as a leader, in terms of development, I’ve got to be around the people Jesus would spend time with. And I like to read.
So what do you believe Southland is called to do, and how do you hope to bring your church there?
We’re called to serve the poor because that’s what Jesus would do. And by “poor” we mean financially, emotionally, spiritually and relationally bankrupt people. The church tends to isolate those people. They don’t need that. They need to be integrated.
You’ve been at Southland for almost five years, but have you already thought of a succession plan?
Yes, we’re already planning for succession. As I said, we hire from within a lot of times. Sometimes we look outside, but I know that the future of Southland is already here. That’s our middle school and high school students, and one of the reasons we need them serving is so we can see who is ready to lead. They already know what we’re about. I think our future senior minister is here already.
Right now I’m looking for a teaching pastor that’s older than me to come alongside of me and share weekend services. I need someone who brings that life experience and that gray hair. I need someone who can stay with me in a partnership for the next 10 to 15 years as I continue to grow and develop as a leader. That’s the plan. Then when the time is right, when I’m in my mid-40s, I’m going to reach back and grab the next young person who is going to follow me.
What do you plan to do when you finish your season as a pastor?
Hang out in the hospitals. Be a missionary somewhere. Bring a group of young guys and train them. I will probably want to do lots of funerals, because I believe they’re evangelistic. They give a chance to minister to people when they’re probably most open. I’m not going to retire, if that’s what you’re asking.
Southland’s missions strategies
Missions Director Mark Perraut has been going to Southland Christian Church for the past 48 years. “I was born and raised in Southland,” he jokes. Perraut’s parents still come to Southland, and his wife and children are active members. Perraut himself still lives near the same area where he grew up, saying he’s one of those people who likes to stay close to home. “As my Dad would say, ‘the nut didn’t fall too far from the tree,’” he says with a laugh.
But when it comes to sharing God’s love to unreached people, Perraut doesn’t mind travelling to far places — places like Indonesia, Bolivia and Mozambique. It was his passion to reach out to people in the hard places that made him decide to leave a thriving professional career to become a full-time missions director at Southland.
By working with development organizations such as Food for the Hungry and other like-minded churches and agencies, Perraut says Southland is able to provide support to many missions workers around the world. “We want to come alongside communities and never just give a handout, but give them a hand up,” he says. Citing Food for the Hungry’s sustainable and holistic approach toward community development, Perraut says, “We don’t just give people fish, but we teach them how to fish. There will be a time when we move on and they’ve got to be able to carry the work among themselves.”
For Southland’s local and global missions program to be effective, Perraut says they’ve learned to focus on a few strategies:
1. Stay focused — do a few things well. “We decided to be more focused with our missions program. So we visited our partners and disengaged with quite a few of them so that we could do a few things well. It doesn’t mean the relationship is gone. We check in on them from time to time, and if they have a need, we’ll consider those needs and see if we can help. But we just really have to focus and not get spread too thin.”
2. Support projects that align with missions priorities, which are: “(a) church planting, (b) teach and train, and (c) take care of the poor, widows and orphans. Again, it’s all about focus.”
3. Work together with organizations that have the contacts and the experience. “The exciting thing is it takes everybody to bring about transformation. It just makes it more joyful, and we can do so much more while we’re still focused on the same thing.”
4. Be an Acts 2 church. “Several years ago, Jon Weece started to talk about the health of our church. We took a look at the book of Acts and developed our Acts 2:42 initiatives, which are about community. It’s all about involving those in the community to help themselves and others.” — RG-S