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Washington pastor develops strategy for leading troubled churches

Jim and Tammy Shiner

SPOKANE, Wash. (BP) – Pastor Jim Shiner has a heart for orphans – the church kind.

He feels for churches that seem forgotten, abandoned, in need of intensive care. Churches withering from neglect, abuse, strife.

“I have a heart for the orphan Christian, the person who’s been hurt,” Shiner said. “My ministry has been to come into a broken situation and get it healthy again.”

For Shiner, that work comes from a deeply personal place.

“I believe in the local church because my life was changed through the local church,” the pastor continued. “The work God has done has been through the local church.”

He credits two churches for his personal understanding of what defines a healthy church.

Muldoon Road Baptist Church in Anchorage, Alaska, welcomed a lonely airman into its family when he was stationed for three years at Elmendorf Air Force Base. Shiner soaked up knowledge and spiritual maturity even as he acquired church leadership skills. Before his next duty station, he was ordained into the Gospel ministry.

The other church was Pines Baptist Church in Spokane Valley, where he served his second three-year military hitch at Fairchild Air Force Base in eastern Washington. Here again the pastor took a personal interest in him, the people were welcoming and supportive, and he was able to hone his spiritual skills.

“When we got to Spokane after Alaska, back when we were members, the church had about 600 people,” Shiner said. He continued to grow in his faith, knowledge and experience, and was ready when God called him to start Faith Community Church in Ocean Shores on Washington’s west side.

It was 1994. Shiner was getting out of the Air Force to go into ministry. His sister Terry was part of a group that left a mainline Christian church in Ocean Shores to start one based on the Bible being the Word of God.

She suggested Shiner as pastor; they flew him from Spokane to preach and the next week the Olympic Baptist Association’s director of missions, Weldon Stevens, explained Southern Baptists to the group.

“The third week they flew my wife Tammy and me in again,” Shiner recalled. “After church the small group of about 15 to 20 people said, ‘We want to be Southern Baptists and we want you to be our pastor.’”

Five years later, Shiner left a healthy Faith Community Church in Ocean Shores to answer God’s call to First Baptist Church in Monroe, Wash. It was a church in distress. So was the Ocean Shores church, when he returned there 10 years later. And so was Pines Baptist – which in 2000 had changed its name to Valleypoint Church – when he went there in 2015.

“The Lord has always called us to build churches,” Shiner said, including his wife Tammy and family in his statement. “In each of the three churches God called us to, we followed a split situation. We’ve seen the restoration of trust and the people becoming a healthy body, getting back on mission.

“Each one had to learn again that we [churches] are here to reach the lost and help people follow Christ. It took three to five years for each of the churches to heal from the past and become a healthy body again.”

Shiner reflected on how Valleypoint Church has changed over the nine years of his latest ministry. About 200 people now attend Sunday morning services.

“When we came back here 21 years after we went to plant the church in Ocean Shores, there were 40 people left, out of 600. They had gone through so much pain and difficulties. Then [Pastor] Craig Smart came in for four years and helped them heal.

“They were ready by the time I showed up to move forward from healing to outreach: evangelism and discipleship,” Shiner said. “We have some people here who kept the church alive. If there are heroes here it’s the Hensleys, Calhouns, Ellises. Becky Ellis has served for 40 years in our preschool.”

Shiner talked further about churches in distress.

“Ministry is difficult on multiple levels, so I don’t think there is only one reason why churches struggle,” Shiner said. “Sometimes it might be because of a lack of vision, or poor leadership. Sometimes it is things beyond our control, such as changes that happen in the community or world, like COVID in 2020.

“Sometimes you go through a season where you lose people,” he added. “Maybe they move away to another town, and you lose a strong group of core ministers. And there’s a lot of pastors who’ve been hurt by churches too.”

Chuck Lawless, author and professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written about nine warning signs of church division.

“No division happens overnight,” Lawless writes. “Every one has some kind of previous problem that no one addressed.”

His list included unresolved but hidden anger over a past church issue, turf wars, private grumbling meetings, less emphasis on prayer and more.

What’s a pastor to do when ministry gets challenging?

“When I have led churches through difficult seasons, I had to keep my faith and calling strong,” Shiner said. “Faith that God would always come through eventually, and my sense of calling at the forefront.

“I think you keep trusting God one day at a time and in time – God willing – you are through the difficult season. That has been my experience. And God is faithful. He uses challenging times to His good if we are trying to be conformed to Jesus.”

The congregation needs to pray for, encourage and support their pastor at all times, Shiner said. “Keep giving. Keep serving. Keep being the body of Christ. All of us are called to surrender our lives to him daily – to lay aside sin – to serve and give. We all need to keep being disciples of Jesus on mission even when times are tough.”

Sometimes people in the church cause dissension, Shiner acknowledged. Sometimes it’s purely an attack by Satan. What are a pastor and congregation to do then?

“Keep believing that greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world,” Shiner said. “Keep praying. Keep seeking wisdom from the Lord.”

He listed the steps he takes when he enters into a distressed church situation:

  • Attempt to generate trust
  • Build relationships with the people
  • Hear their stories and minister to them
  • Don’t try to make major changes at first if possible
  • Build an accountability team
  • Find men in the church who meet qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, and in time build a team of lay and vocational pastors
  • When you are led to make changes, talk with the people, listen to their concerns and help them understand why the change needed to happen
  • Bring major decisions before the body for affirmation

“As best as possible, don’t do this alone,” Shiner said. “We need each other in the body of Christ. Proverbs 11:14 says ‘in multitude of counselors there is victory.’”

Absolutely essential for anyone in ministry is a supportive, Christ-centered wife, Shiner said.

“Tammy and I guard our family time – as much as you can in ministry – and always have because having a good marriage is a prerequisite for being a pastor! We communicate very well about everything and never have any issues that drag over from yesterday into today.

“At the end the day it comes down to your walk with Christ,” Shiner said. “It’s praying and asking for God’s help. It’s not what we can do with our talent but who we are in relationship to God and others that matters.”

This article first appeared in the Northwest Baptist Witness.