By Kay Harms
Photos by Kim Ahern

Sometimes it’s best to stand still long enough to get everyone facing the same direction before moving forward. That’s the theory that led Nate Millican to enroll Foothills Baptist Church in the Auxano Church Unique process in the fall of 2015. As a result, the pastor says the church is moving forward with a clearer mission.

When Millican arrived at Foothills Baptist Church in Ahwatukee in July 2015, people quickly began asking him about his vision for leading the church forward. But Millican hesitated to declare any firm intentions as the newly called pastor of a 25 year-old church transitioning through its first ever senior pastor change.

“Any smart pastor knows you don’t just use a basic template for a specific church,” says Millican. “I didn’t know Arizona, because the West is very different from Florida where I came from.”

Still, when AZSBC church life facilitator Keith Henry explained the Auxano Church Unique process to Millican over lunch that August, the Foothills pastor was a little apprehensive at first.

“Some of these [church growth] programs aren’t very pragmatic or practical in the local church setting,” says Millican. “But I the more Keith described it, the more I thought the process would help me assess our church’s situation, so I even volunteered to host it at Foothills.”

Auxano requires long-term engagement from a church, specifically requiring the pastor and two to three staff members and/or lay people attend six seminars spread out over at least as many months where they learn the unique vision process. That small team then takes the Auxano strategies back to a core group of church leaders who discuss and implement the five building blocks within the context of their church’s unique personality, community and history. According to Millican, the leadership team, consisting of 10 church leaders from various ministries within the church, invested well over 100 hours working through the vision process together.

“We really did our ‘homework assignments,'” says Millican. “And as a result, we have a mission statement, strategy, values — which act as guardrails to the mission statement — and measures — those are five questions that help us with accountability.”

Team member Gary Plooster describes the team meeting atmosphere as “very cordial and interactive, lots of candid discussions and brainstorming, vision casting, white sheets stuck to the walls, white boards — a very, very thorough process.”

The Foothills deacon and discipleship group leader added that there was never dissension in the group; while team members may have occasionally disagreed, Plooster insists they never argued. He also notes that the church-based group was made up of “a good mix of men and women, people from different age groups, ethnicities and life stages.”

Lauren Broderick, currently the church’s interim minister to preschoolers, also participated in the Auxano process. She says she felt challenged personally by feeling the weight of the process.

“I think we all had a strong desire to hear from the Lord and have Him drive the trajectory in casting vision for the entire body,” notes Broderick. “It encouraged all of us to really press into Him because we couldn’t do it on our own, and if we did [try to do it on our own] it would be detrimental.”

After the leadership team had implemented all five stages of the Auxano process and determined the church’s mission statement to the best of their ability, they were tasked with presenting it to the rest of the church. They hoped the church would not just approve of the work they had accomplished, but they would embrace it as their own and allow it to change the trajectory of their church.

But the transition from small group consensus to church body adoption didn’t go off without a hitch.

Millican explains, “We took the mission statement along with our new values, strategy and measures to leader gatherings of 60 to 90 people first. They liked everything except one phrase we had felt pretty strongly about in the mission statement.” But as discussions continued, the original leadership team decided that a unified church was more important than insisting on that one phrase, so they gladly conceded to modify it.

Today Foothills’ mission statement is, “Engage people to put Jesus first for the sake of others.” Millican explains that the thought behind the church’s unique vision is that the community in which they serve is flush with families and individuals with little margin in their lives, and the church wants to help people find balance and focus by putting Christ first.

The leadership group initially “rolled out” the new mission statement and its supporting components through their family meetings, the congregation’s version of a business meeting, as well as in the worship services and printed materials.

“For instance,” offers Plooster, “Nate might say in one of our family meetings, ‘Give me one of our values,’ and people will recite them. We also had handouts and bookmarks with the church’s values and mission statement on it. And I think the pastoral team has polo shirts with the vision statement.”

In fact, while adopting a memorable mission statement was crucial, both Plooster and Broderick mention that the adoption of the church’s four values has affected the most change. One of those values is better together, the idea of valuing relationships over self-interest.

“I hear people talking about prioritizing relationships rather than just getting their way,” says Broderick. “People are noticeably lining up their lives with these values.”

The pastor concedes that most of the changes in the congregation have simply resulted in a different “church culture.” But that transformed culture has affected visible changes.

For instance, for the first time in 20 years, the church did not present its annual “living Christmas tree” program. Millican says the program required a large portion of the church’s budget and calendar from August through December, creating a hectic pace in a season that already puts a strain on most families.

In order to be true to the church’s adopted value of simplicity: clearing the unnecessary to pursue the essential, the church canceled the program.

Likewise, because Foothills values lost people (lost people matter to God and therefore to us), they have incorporated an accountability question into their discipleship groups that encourages members to nurture relationships with the lost.

Says Millican, “One of our adopted measures is, ‘Am I close to someone far from God?’ so we started D [discipleship] groups where we read the Bible and pray together and ask each other when was the last time you had a gospel conversation with someone? That has changed our culture significantly.”

Perhaps some of the changes at Foothills would have occurred without the Auxano vision process simply because a new pastor took the helm. But Millican credits the leadership and the congregation with doing the hard work of setting a new trajectory.

“The vision process is not a magic wand; you have to put in the work,” says the Foothills pastor. “Our team really leaned in hard on this. Once you’ve affirmed the vision, the real work begins with leaking that into the life of your church, which takes time.”

Millican says they’re still doing that.

Kay Harms blogs at KayHarms.com, where she offers biblical encouragement, perspective and hope. She has written three Bible studies for women, including Joseph — Keeping a Soft Heart in a Hard Place. Kay lives in Sierra Vista.

Kim Ahern, a freelance photographer, is a member of Foothills Baptist Church, Ahwatukee.

Get Involved:

–For information about upcoming Auxano Church Unique opportunities, including a Co-Lab set for this fall, contact Keith Henry, AZSBC church life facilitator, at keith@azsbc.org.

–Throughout the process of redefining their church’s mission statement, the leaders at Foothills aimed to protect the unity of their church. They valued listening to each other, considering others’ needs above their own and remembering that the church is God’s, not theirs. What can you do to protect the unity of your church?

–If you would like to know more about Foothills Baptist Church’s Auxano experience, check out the expanded article at portraits.azsbc.org.