MONTGOMERY – First Baptist Church of Montgomery was struggling. One of the oldest churches in Texas, what had been more than 500 in Sunday morning worship had dwindled to fewer than 80, and finances were dismal at best.
Some talked disbanding. Roger Yancey, associational missionary for the Tryon-Evergreen Baptist Association (TEBA), which consists of 140 congregations, suggested an alternative.
He called it a “reset.” Others called it “radical.”
But at least 90 percent of the congregation in May 2015 said yes to giving up the church’s autonomy for three years, and allowing a nine-person leadership team from the churches in the association to oversee all church matters.
“We went along with it because that’s what they told us we needed,” said Barbara Russell, a member for 54 years.
The options offered to First Montgomery were to stay as it was, to become part of a multi-site church or to enter the “Reset” process.
Russell and her husband hadn’t left when, after the 1960s and ‘70s, the church began to dwindle, she said, when people began to be unwilling to do “things” – ministry – together, and when pastors started not living up to her expectations, failing to visit, to help, to lead the church to work together.
“To me, it was very hard to stay, but this is my church,” Russell continued. “Then the weird music came in and they stopped playing hymns and people started leaving. We were told we could leave if we didn’t like the music. But I’m hardheaded, and we stuck it out.”
Issues as noted in Yancey’s reports included a student minister starting a church nearby, drawing young families away; a pastor’s forced termination; and an underlying, unrelenting conflict among the remaining members.
“A partnership of churches sought to assist [First Montgomery] in 2007/2008 but there was resistance to the suggested direction for the church and the profile of a future senior pastor,” Yancey wrote. “Too much energy was diverted to unneeded conflict and other distractions.”
A bivocational pastor was called but because of the underlying conflicts was able to do little more than love on the members. When he retired in April 2015, the demoralized First Montgomery turned to the association.
Leaders from six strong and healthy churches in the association came together to direct the struggling church. They also sent more than 30 members to support the effort which represented an essential $60,000 of resources to the effort.
“During the 3-year period the Partner Churches in all aspects of its ministry model will RESET the church,” Yancey wrote in a preliminary report, acknowledging the process was challenging. “Everything will be open to revision and refocus under the direction of the partner churches in consultation with the [associational missionary.]
“It is believed that this process will result in the future health of the church family, ensure there will be an opportunity to minister effectively, and provide an effective witness in the community it serves,” the area missionary continued. “This community is experiencing tremendous growth and the church property and facility is of high value with strong daily traffic count.”
In an overwhelmingly positive vote, Yancey reported, the church committed in May 2015 to the Reset Process as led by the TEBA.
“The willingness of the church to participate in the Health process is a significant indicator of its commitment to move forward together,” Yancey wrote in a follow-up report.
Some of the most critical changes the church made during the three years of the Reset Process included directed prayer, rebuilding trust in each other and in God, maintaining a positive attitude in the midst of a sea change, and calling a pastor.
“The church today is thriving and growing in its effectiveness in impacting its community,” Yancey wrote in the association’s October 2018 newsletter. “Growth has resulted in needing to plan to move to multiple worship services and Sunday Schools and on September 30th the autonomy was returned to the church.
“The story of First Montgomery would fill this newsletter, but the summary is simple,” Yancey wrote. “They trusted God and great things happened.”
Chris Gober came in December 2015 to pastor First Montgomery. It was his first pastorate. He and his family had moved to Montgomery from The Woodlands, north of Houston, in March, knowing nothing of First Montgomery or its struggles.
Gober was a computer engineer running his own business and serving in Children’s Ministry at The Woodlands First Baptist Church when he went on a mission trip to El Salvador. On the third day of that trip, he sensed God calling him to be a pastor.
“After two years of wrestling with this new calling, I surrendered to the ministry in early 2015,” Gober said.
He talked with Yancey about his call, and Yancey sent him one Sunday in early September to preach at First Montgomery. Gober was drawn to the church, but the Leadership Team was looking for a pastor with experience in turning churches around. Weeks later, the final two candidates removed themselves from consideration the same day Gober called again, asking about the church.
With no other candidates remaining, the Leadership Team decided to interview Gober, and called him a couple weeks later for his first pastorate.
The first thing Gober did as pastor in December 2015 was, “Pray! And pray and pray and pray,” Gober said. “My very first prayer, I prayed God would bring leaders to this church to help me turn it around. I knew it would take a whole group of people. …
“We began looking at every ministry of the church and restarting everything,” Gober continued. “We began to evaluate everything the church was doing, [asking] what do we start or prune to get the church moving again?”
First Montgomery’s saying the first year was, “God is on the move!”
Entire rooms no longer used for classes had turned into storage. Most everything went into dumpsters. As people came to help, additional Sunday school classes were started in part to give the new members ways to serve. “They all came with a heart to serve,” Gober said.
The church’s reputation in the community needed to be restored, and to do so, the church started a week-long emphasis: Cross Montgomery. “We go out and visit every business on Hwy. 105, pray for the business and any other prayer requests they have, and give them a dozen homemade cookies,” Gober said. This summer, that totaled 450 dozen cookies. Church members would also buy meals, groceries and gas for Montgomery residents, help with home repair jobs and do yard maintenance for those who were unable.
“It’s been slow steady growth,” Gober said. “We’re running about 275 a week, have nine Sunday morning Bible study classes, and have growing children’s and youth ministries. It’s been amazing to see God resuscitate our church.”
Sept. 30 was First Montgomery’s Jubilee Sunday, the day the association gave back to the church its autonomy.
“The Reset is both drastic and innovative,” Gober told the TEXAN. “It was a bold step, bold and selfless, because it’s human nature to seize control and not human nature to give up control. But when we are willing to step aside, God steps in. He brought our church back to life, and He gets all the glory.”