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Helping churches be all they can be

Helping churches be all they can be

Editor's note: This is the fourth is a series of profile stories about new department leaders in the Florida Conference.

LAKELAND -- When Janet Earls saw the job posting for her current role as the Florida Conference’s congregational vitality specialist, she recognized it as the perfect fit for someone with her corporate and church coaching experience.

“It seemed like everything that I had been doing previously was training me for this position,” she said. “It was very humbling.”

At the same time, it was a bit scary because it was a role that never had been open to laity before, Earls said. That caused her to wonder: “Can I do this?”

Her confidence was buoyed by the fact that Bishop Ken Carter had welcomed both clergy and laity to apply.

“I thought he was sending a message,” Earls said. “And the message was ‘I just want the right person.’ ”

Janet Earls headshot
Janet Earls

Earls’ position resulted from a Strategic Leadership Team decision to merge the ministries of Congregational Excellence and New Church Development into the Office of Congregational Vitality. She took on her new role June 1.

She said her primary duties involve developing eight to 10 teaching churches in the conference and working with the district superintendents, who are missional strategists.

Her position reflects the bishop’s desire for the conference to work collaboratively with churches instead of using a top-down approach, Earls said. She expects to work closely with the Cabinet, as well as laity and clergy from across the state.

The quest to create teaching churches that specialize in particular areas takes aim at formalizing and expanding a system that already exists. The teaching churches are intended to serve as a resource for other churches with specific needs.
“The healthy churches, we want to learn from,” Earls said. “But we want to keep them also on a constant edge of change as well. We can’t stay comfortable.”

Earls holds coach certification through Spiritual Leadership Inc. of Lexington, Ky., and most recently spent six years working with churches as owner of Celebrate Results! in Port Orange. Before that, she spent several years coaching and training business clients in the insurance and health fields. She holds a bachelor’s degree in community health from the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

Going forward, Earls also expects to be involved in conference plans to create satellite churches, sometimes by converting smaller churches that are not sustainable into campuses that are part of larger, healthier churches.

She acknowledged that the approach may draw mixed reactions, but she believes any concerns can be reduced through thoughtful transitions.

“We can maintain the respect for the traditions and for what is already there -- that is healthy and productive -- and introduce new programs and ministries that serve the community in that area,” Earls said.

Sometimes that means a simple shift in perspective.

“I was in a church before that had a lot of dissension between a traditional service and a contemporary service, and it was ‘us’ and ‘them,’” Earls recalled.  “People were saying, ‘We’re really two churches. We’re really two churches.’ ”

Actually, it was one church with two worship styles, she said.

Janet Earls leads a workshop at Annual Conference 2013
Janet Earls, Florida Conference church vitality specialist, leads a workshop at Annual Conference 2013. Photo by Katie McNichol.

Earls has worked with several churches in crisis that stemmed from communications issues. She said initial reports of the crisis typically focus on  symptoms without identifying the root cause.

A church’s financial crisis, for instance, may stem from a decline in worship attendance or financial giving, an aging membership or lack of people or energy to carry out the ministry, Earls said. Sometimes the crisis is related to leadership or staffing issues.

“They’re calling with a symptom. You have to evaluate and dig deeper,” she said.

It’s essential to identify problems while solutions remain possible, she added.

Working with individual churches has given her skills that translate well to the bigger picture, Earls said.

“I feel like I have been in the trenches. I have been feet on the ground, side-by-side working with people in pain, people who are hurting because their church is not sustainable or are just having big, huge issues that are overwhelming,” she said.

“I feel like the experience of working with churches that are in pain prepared me to fully understand the depth of what we’re dealing with on a large scale.”

Rev. Dr. Bill Barnes, lead pastor of St. Luke’s UMC, Orlando, and Rev. Dr. Charley Reeb, senior pastor of Pasadena Community Church, St. Petersburg, said Earls has a knack for helping people work together and communicate well.

They said Earls’ insights, practical suggestions and organizational know-how have proved immensely effective.

“She really understands churches and church people,” Barnes said.

Said Reeb: “She has one foot in the savvy, corporate world and one foot in the ministry world.”

Earls and her husband, Lee, recently moved to Lakeland. They have two grown children, Ryan and Jenna.

-- B.C. Manion is a freelance writer based in Tampa.