A Conversation with Glen Elliott

Meet Our Contributing Editors: Glen Elliott, minister with Pantano Christian Church in Tucson, Arizona, talks about the fruit of faithfulness in a city with stagnant growth and a culture oriented toward “success.”

Interview by Jennifer Johnson

Your life motto is “Faithfulness, not success.” What do you mean?

Arizona is one of the fastest-growing states, but after the recession, our county experienced almost zero growth. That affected our church. There weren’t any huge problems with me or my staff, but for a couple years our church didn’t grow. Pretty soon, a few elders started asking questions, and critics became more critical.

03_CE_Elliott_JNI became obsessed by this. I began to question myself: Maybe I’m not the right leader. Maybe I’m not strong enough, clever enough, courageous enough. Maybe I’m not. . . . I hounded myself with questions and doubt. It would go away for a little while, I’d walk myself through it, and then it would come back. I got tired of it coming back.

So I spent some time with John Walker at Blessing Ranch. The first day he just listened to me and committed to pray about what he’d heard. Then he came back the next morning and said, “What has God been saying to you through this struggle?” I spent the rest of the day by myself reflecting on that question and it became really clear that I needed to focus on just being faithful to what God has called me to do. God had not called me to success, but he had called me to faithfulness.

Of course, one person who exemplifies that so well is Jeremiah. Jeremiah was called by God—as clear as day. He was given an absolutely clear mission. Yet in his own lifetime, he had no signs of success. Nobody listened, nobody changed. Of course, he has made a huge impact on all of humanity and his prophecies were encouragement for later generations. But as far as he could see, it was just about being faithful.

A few other pastors have made comments suggesting that because my church or the churches I’ve started haven’t been larger, I’m a weak leader. I’ve gotten to a place where I’m OK letting their opinion be their opinion. I’m just trying to be faithful to what God is calling us to be and do in southern Arizona.

 

Why do we do that to each other? At what point does a church become “large enough,” and who gets to decide?

Years ago I took a youth ministry class taught by Dick Alexander, and I remember him asking, “If one person shows up to your youth group, what’s your attitude? Is success having a roomful of kids, or would you be a faithful minister to one kid?” God used that moment as a seed that germinated in my life decades later. I didn’t get it then, but I get it now.

 

Of course, we all have a tendency to look at numbers not only from pride, but also because we think, Gee, I don’t want to do all this work for just one or two people.

Sure. But if we’re really about being faithful to what God has called us to, that means God has a design for our church and our community. For me, dealing with this issue meant acknowledging I was allowing significance to be tied to a numbers game. And in this process I was open to accepting that maybe I wasn’t the right one. If God didn’t want me at Pantano Christian Church, then I needed to hear that. But as I talked to God and a few trusted friends, I never felt released from Pantano, like, Yeah, this is too big for you. So then it came down to, “What has God called me and PCC to accomplish?”

Obviously he calls us to the basics that are true of all churches in all places, but there are also specifics, because every church and every community is different. Focusing on faithfulness to God’s direction led to clarity of vision and purpose. Interestingly, after I returned to our leadership team and said, “This is where we’re headed,” they immediately jumped on board. They were waiting for me to lead. So the results and momentum I’d been looking for earlier began falling into place because we knew we were being faithful to God’s call.

 

The question of whether we’re being faithful to what God wants from us is not a one-time-in-crisis question, either. It needs to be asked often.

Right. And I would tell other leaders that, just because you turn the corner with this doesn’t mean the doubt or the insecurities don’t come back. The beauty of clarity is you learn to say no to some things, and whenever you do, someone won’t be happy. You can easily return to that place of doubt.

 

So even as Tucson has stagnated the last six years or so, you’re using church planting as a path to reaching the city—a place which is one of the poorest and most unchurched in the county.

I believe God has asked our church to be a catalyst to transform southern Arizona. That word catalyst is very significant, because I believe God needs a church in Tucson that’s going to lead the way—not do it all. Our county has a million people in it, and we’re not going to change a million people all by ourselves. But we can be the catalyst for change.

So we’re working with other congregations in an organization called 4Tucson to plant healthy, life-giving churches that want to make a difference in their neighborhoods. We planted two churches, one in January and one in February, both in neighborhoods with great needs, and doors of opportunity just keep opening.

 

I remember talking to you last year and you were looking for a place to launch one of those churches.

Yes, we planned to start one a year ago but couldn’t find a place large enough. The high school we wanted to use wouldn’t even talk to us. It’s been 21 years since any high school in Tucson allowed a church to use its facility.

In the meantime, an administrator at the largest school district in our area found out what we were doing and said, “I need your church to be in that school.” He began mentoring the principal, and the high school eventually voted unanimously for us to come.

Same thing with the one we started in February. We’d been helping this school in a pretty depressed area of Tucson for eight years, painting and landscaping, and all of a sudden God raised up a group that wanted to do a bilingual church there. So the district asked the principal and the principal said no. Then they told her it’s Pantano Christian and she said, “Absolutely. When can they come?” She believes this partnership will be the key to transforming her whole community.

I say all this because I really believe it’s the model God has given us here. The conversation among Christians in Tucson is starting to change. We’re going to see some pretty dramatic things happen, I think, in God’s timing. And several nearby areas are asking us to plant churches in their communities. So that’s really forced me to think much more intentionally about the whole leadership development pipeline.

 

What are you learning in that area?

I’ve been a student of leadership for a while, but the last three years, I’ve been creating a list of absolutely critical character qualities for effective leaders. There are seven, but the most important one is humility.

If humility is there, then servant leadership is possible. If humility is there, all the other components of good leadership can work. In Matthew 11:29 Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” For the Pharisees, it was about pushing and forcing and making things happen. But Jesus’ leadership comes out of a place of gentleness and humility.

At the same time, no one looks at Jesus and sees a wimp. Jesus knew what he was about and who he was. When the disciples urged him not to go to Jerusalem, he said, “I’m going.” Nothing ever deterred him from being faithful to the call of God on his life, but he was incredibly humble.

In all three languages—Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—the word humble means to lower oneself. Humiliation is when somebody else lowers you. Humility is when you lower yourself. So I’m constantly asking, “How do I use my power, my resources, my abilities, my knowledge to serve others?”

It’s not a feeling—it has to be lived out in concrete actions. My office is the same size as everybody else’s here. I keep my salary as close as I can to the salary of other people who have similar responsibilities. Whether people know that or not doesn’t matter. What matters is constantly pushing back opportunities for privilege and constantly asking, “How do I take what I have to make others better?”

 

Like so much we’ve talked about here, this is a lifelong journey of growth, and the leader must do it in front of others—which definitely adds to the humility! We’re being made holy in front of everyone, and that can be hard.

Right—another one of the seven character traits of a good leader is vulnerability. When we model vulnerability, when we model humility, people notice, and we begin to create an environment where honesty and transparency are encouraged. One of the most frequent comments I get on my preaching is, “You know what? You’re just like one of us.”

When I was really doubting my leadership a few years ago, I remember someone said, “Glen’s a lover, not a leader.” That stung a bit at first. Then I thought, Hmm, seems like Jesus called love the greatest commandment. So I think I’m in a good place.

 

Jennifer Johnson, herself one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, is a writer living in Levittown, Pennsylvania.

Glen Elliott began serving with Pantano Christian in 1998 as the missions pastor. He became lead pastor with the church in January 2007.

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