At first glance, Jacob’s Well, a nondenominational “emerging” church in Kansas City, Mo., would seem to be the most traditional of churches. On the outside, the handsome old red-brick building has been a comforting neighborhood presence ever since Presbyterians built it in 1930.

Inside, the sanctuary features stained-glass windows, the Lord’s Prayer in gold letters above the altar and velvet cushions on creaking pews, all witness to the saints who’ve gone before.

But every Sunday -- at least since 1998, when Jacob’s Well was launched and took over the building -- the place is filled with lively worship and a body of believers that earlier congregations likely never envisioned. The music is contemporary and the dress casual, even scruffy, with more than a few tattoos and piercings scattered among the crowd.

During his sermon, the Rev. Tim Keel -- the senior pastor and a founder of the emerging/emergent church movement -- strolls the aisle, talking in conversational tones as though engaging listeners in a theological dialogue.

But for the past five months, stirring beneath the surface, something else has also been going on. Throughout Jacob’s Well, bones are being formed; a skeleton is taking shape.

This extraordinary church, known for its theological rigor and its creative and dynamic ministries, has been engaging in the most mundane of endeavors. After months of preparation and study, it has launched a major reorganization that establishes clear lines of authority while empowering members to become more involved in the church’s daily life.

As Jacob’s Well has discovered, even the most cutting-edge, creative and vibrant church has to have organization and structure. It’s one thing to start a church. It’s quite another to keep it going. Reflecting the growing maturation of the emerging church movement, Jacob’s Well is navigating the transition between church plant and long-term sustainability.

‘A lump of tissue’

“All churches are both organism and organization,” Keel said. “We’ve always been brilliant at the organism part. We’re filled with life and creativity. But we’ve struggled with organization. And if you’re an organism without a skeleton, you’re just a lump of tissue lying on the ground.”

Questions to consider

Questions to consider:

  • How can you restructure your organization to create opportunity for better initiatives?
  • What are three structural changes that would help your organization be sustainable over time?
  • How is power hidden in your organization, and how might you restructure so that its sharing is a positive form of collaboration and not a necessary evil?
  • Innovative leaders pay attention to cultural change. What are ways external factors influence your organization’s internal design?

The church’s new structure, Keel said, is giving Jacob’s Well the bones that will enable it to move well, now and into the future.

To Keel, it’s part of a natural progression, an evolution that takes place with any new church start -- at least those that have any chance of making it.

Most church plants do not, Keel said. Typically, only one of five new church starts are viable after five years, he said. Of those that survive, most do so because they have had a strong leader, typically the founding pastor, who has been able to create and embody a vision that did not exist before. In those first critical years, that leader is the avenue through which members are drawn to and begin to identify with the church and its vision.

That was certainly the case with Jacob’s Well.

A Kansas City native, Keel decided in the late 1990s that he wanted to start a church in his hometown. Convinced that the Holy Spirit is still alive and active, he was guided by a single question: Where and how would people want to connect to a community that experiences and exudes the love of God?

With degrees in both art and divinity -- a B.F.A. from the University of Kansas and an M.Div. from Denver Seminary -- Keel envisioned a church for the head and the heart, a community with room for both.

Keel admits that his creative flair influenced his desire to think differently about how a church can engage with Christ, and ultimately shaped the blueprint for Jacob’s Well.

Immersed in literature and captivated by stories since his youth, he embraced the congregation’s decision to select an evocative name, drawn from John 4. The place where Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman, “Jacob’s well” is symbolic of the church’s mission to welcome all without bias or condemnation, Keel said.

‘Belong before they believe’

Keel’s vision is reflected in outreach materials that describe Jacob’s Well as “a church where people are allowed to belong before they believe, where people are listened to, not preached at.” The church sees itself as a place where “it is safe to share doubts and questions, struggles, heartache and pain, along with fun and parties and relationships full of meaning, purpose and connectedness.”

It was a vision that others found attractive. Under Keel’s leadership, the church took off. After seven years, more than 1,000 people a week were attending its various services.

But the factors that make a new church take root and grow are the very things that at some point, if not changed, will harm or even destroy both the church and its leader, Keel said. Early on, the congregation necessarily identifies with the leader; later, it needs to develop its own identity.

“We had a big staff, but we struggled to differentiate,” he said. “All the behaviors that made us successful became stumbling blocks as the church sought to mature.”

It’s a familiar scenario for church planters. As the church grows, many members still believe the founding pastor has to be involved in everything. The church and the pastor have difficulty figuring out their own identities apart from one another.

“So what typically happens is that the pastor either burns out or the community tries to differentiate itself and the pastor keeps grabbing authority back,” Keel said. “Most churches never figure out a way to help the pastor and the community move from what was needed when they started to what will be needed to sustain it.”

Keel wasn’t burned out, but by 2009 he felt like it might be time to move on. A year later he did, when he was offered and accepted a fellowship in congregational studies at Laidlaw College in Auckland, New Zealand.

“The overarching sense was that it felt like the Spirit was releasing us,” he said.

Sure, after 11 years as a church planter, he was tired, but he also wanted to explore the possibility of life in the academy. At the same time, he knew that Jacob’s Well needed more and different kinds of leadership to step up. As long as he stayed around, that was unlikely to happen.

Keel left on good terms, but he did not plan to come back. Instead, he saw the move to New Zealand as a hiatus in which he and his family could figure out the next stage in their life and ministry.

The organization goes flat

After Keel left, the church conducted an extensive search for a successor but never found anyone to fill the position. Eventually, they moved to a team-leadership model, a non-hierarchical, flat-organizational system in which leadership was shared by all the staff.

Last year, the church approached Keel about coming back, and to both his and the church’s surprise, he found himself wanting to return -- not as lead pastor, as before, but as primary teaching pastor.

When he came back in July 2011, he found that the congregation had matured. Attendance had held steady, a rare occurrence after a founding pastor departs. He was gratified to find what he calls elements of “the church’s DNA” intact: worship, creativity, learning, hospitality and justice.

But as the church had already begun to realize, the flat organizational structure was not working. Though well-intended, it created problems. With everyone in charge, nobody was in charge. It was not always clear who had authority to make decisions, often leaving staff frustrated and confused.

Jessi Marcus, then the discipleship director, said she was part of a five-member team that met for two years about how to train and form small group leaders. They were never able to make a decision, she said, because it wasn’t clear who was in charge.

“It was unclear who was accountable and responsible for different ministry areas, which then trickled down, impacting day-to-day tasks,” she said. “With the flat structure, you might have to consult several people just to make what should be a simple decision.”

‘Power is real’

But power abhors a vacuum, and one way or another it was being exercised, Keel said.

“Power is real,” he said. “Authority matters and always exists. When it is not named explicitly and not well-used, hidden power grows. Somebody needs to be responsible.”

Soon after Keel’s return, the church’s elders asked him to partner with Mike Crawford, the pastor of worship and arts, and Isaac Anderson, one of the church’s teaching pastors, to propose a reorganization. All three embraced the planning process, eager to explore how to best steward the body to fulfill the church’s calling.

Working together, they challenged each other to think differently about church structure, while remaining grounded in the Scriptures and establishing clear leadership lines.

The congregation at Jacob’s Well is known for being artistically, politically and intellectually gifted and engaged. The three were determined to ensure that the new structure would make use of those gifts, empowering members to become even more involved in the church’s daily life and growing outreach.

What they came up with is a structure that clarifies the various pastors’ authority and responsibilities while also opening up new avenues for lay involvement and leadership.

Under the new structure, ministry at Jacob’s Well falls into five broad spheres, or areas -- Kairos, Chronos, Koinonia, Kerygma and Youth -- with each headed by its own pastor.

Like the building’s appearance, the five areas -- Greek names aside -- are not novel, at least not at first glance, Keel said. They translate roughly to the areas of worship, administration, education and fellowship, outreach and youth ministry -- a not uncommon way to organize a church.

Naming the powers

What the new system does do is make very clear what the church’s priorities are in ministry and who is responsible and accountable for each.

“It empowers these pastors by explicitly naming these areas and saying that these are areas in the life of the church and that each has to have administrative support,” Keel said. “This increases the intentionality with which we are trying to steward what we were doing.”

Yet the Greek names are no gimmick. They reflect what Keel calls the church’s “creative impulse” and his love of narrative. Each area “invites a story,” he said. The names spark curiosity that, in turn, creates opportunities to explain how Christ is the center of the church.

“When someone asks, ‘What’s Kerygma?’ you explain that it means ‘proclamation,’” he said. “It creates an opportunity to say that the gospel is not just about nurturing our life together -- Koinonia -- but also expanding that to others.”

With the reorganization, Keel is now senior pastor in addition to primary teaching pastor. In his new role, Keel isn’t directly responsible for any of the five areas but leads the pastoral team, with each of the five pastors responsible for leading the church in their respective areas.

“I supervise the pastors, but it is their job to run the church,” Keel said.

From its inception, Jacob’s Well has been governed by a board of lay elders, with the church’s main pastor being a voting member of that group. Under the new structure, all the pastoral leadership team are members of the board of elders, though only Keel, as senior pastor, has a vote on the board.

Woven throughout the new structure are more opportunities for lay involvement, with the creation of new lay deacons and positions heading various ministries, such as small group gatherings and classes led by staff and community members. The goal, Keel said, is to identify, develop and release more people into ministry.

Already making a difference

The new structure is not set in stone, and Keel expects that adjustments will be made as the church lives out the new arrangement. But after only five months, the new system already seems to be making a difference.

“We’re early in the process, but we are seeing benefits, including better communication, lower institutional anxiety about change, and people more empowered to serve and lead,” Keel said.

Oddly, by naming and making explicit where power and authority is held and exercised, the new structure has also fostered collaboration, said Marcus, who was recently ordained as the Koinonia pastor.

“The irony is that now there is actually more collaboration than in the flat model,” she said. “Now everyone understands who they need to be collaborating with.”

But what may be most significant about Jacob’s Well’s reorganization is simply the fact that it was done -- that it marks a new stage in the church’s development, a move from church plant to sustainability.

Like Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, “God is a God not of disorder but peace,” Keel said. As Genesis suggests, disorder or chaos is essential in all acts of creation. From it, God creates order.

“Chaos isn’t the enemy, but it’s not the endpoint either,” he said.

Susan Marquardt Blystone contributed to the reporting and writing of this article.