SAN DIEGO -- In a region where the weather is always beautiful and there is no shortage of ways to enjoy it, church attendance and Christian commitment often rank low on the list of priorities, says Don Conley, a church planter strategist in San Diego. The answer, he believes, is in new churches where people can find a fresh start in Christ, close to home, in an environment free of whatever baggage of tradition that might have kept them from church in the past.
"From the influence of my parents I developed a compassion for people," Conley said. "When I see a community that doesn't have a church, or the existing church is starting to decline, I want to find out why and see if we can help them get re-interested or start a church on our own."
Conley and his wife, Barbra, were among the missionaries featured during the March 2-9 Week of Prayer for North American Missions in Southern Baptist churches.
The San Diego pastor has had a desire to reach churches since he first entered the ministry in 1975. He began his current pastorate at Encanto Baptist Church in 1981.
"I wanted to grow this church to 300," he said of Encanto, which never reached that point; but since 1993 the congregation has launched eight new churches.
Conley's success prompted the North American Mission Board and the California Southern Baptist Convention to appoint him to spearhead all African American church planting efforts throughout the area beginning in 1999.
"I'd like to see a lot of churches started out of this church, and use this as a model for how it can be done," Conley said. "What I'm attempting to do is show that you can still have a full church program going and still start other churches -- without missing a beat."
Conley's passion for church planting comes in part because of his own experience in finding Christ. A Navy veteran working in the aerospace industry, Conley and his wife were invited to a home Bible study by a coworker in 1974. They had been raised in a church culture but had not found much use for it as adults. The opportunity to fellowship with friends in a home Bible study -- the linchpin of many church planting efforts today -- prompted them to reconsider the claims of Christ.
"They were nice people," he said. "The thing that kept me coming back was how loving and caring they were. And I resisted it for a while, but eventually I accepted Christ as my Savior."
Conley eventually surrendered to the call to preach, serving bivocationally while working as an engineer with Hughes Aircraft for most of his career. Beginning in 1993 -- after he had been Encanto's pastor for 12 years -- the church launched the first of its church planting efforts.
Conley said the skills he picked up through years in the corporate world translated well to the complex task of leading a church to multiply.
"It worked perfectly in several areas," he said. "One is I worked in a management style based on a matrix organization, where you're not territorial so much as working with everybody in every group. That has sensitized me in working with different groups," he said.
Also, he said, his analytical skills have been critical in finding places for new church plants and other decisions, while his engineer's mindset has helped him work through problems and find solutions where others might give up and quit.
The concept of intentionally starting new churches -- with the inherent effect on membership numbers -- is problematic for many churches, Conley said, particularly in the African American tradition. But he believes that's necessary to reach a diverse and growing city.
"For some reason or another, churches just tend to do business as usual and think that people are just going to come because they have a nice-looking facility," he said. "But you've got to go where they are. And that's one of the burdens I've always had."
His own background has shown him that people often don't go to church because churches have not made an effort to meet their perceived needs.
"I began talking to people and found out they would go to a church that seemed like it would care for them, Conley said. "And I had a desire to reach people."
Encanto's key strategy was to develop a church planting team that would provide leadership to a new church for a period of time before turning the work over to new membership.
"Then, from new converts we build a core group. They're the people that are going to remain in that work, and what we do is try to equip them," Conley said. "And once we get the people up and going we bring that team back and eventually send them out to start another church."
The equipping strategy also has applied to pastoral leadership. A key part of African American church tradition is that pastors are raised up from within the congregation, often serving many years as unpaid associate pastors. Conley believes in giving them plenty of opportunities to lead, both in church ministries and in the new congregations.
"Sometimes pastors shelter their ministers instead of letting them grow the way the Word tells us it should be done," said Phil Armstead, one of his associate pastors. "He [Conley] has given us great opportunities to not only preach but to go out and lead."
The church also is the home of the San Diego School of Theology, a part of NAMB's Contextual Leadership Development ministry that provides training for pastors -- many of whom wind up leading new churches.
In his leadership role, Conley also works with church planters of other ethnic groups. He helps assess whether individuals are cut out for the challenges of starting a new church and otherwise serves as a church-planting resource.
"The exciting part about a church plant is the initial stage, where the Holy Spirit is really working and you're able to go out and interact with people for the first time," Conley said. "I like to do the cold-call thing, where you encounter a person, and they will take the time to listen to you and give you a chance to share with them the gospel. That's exciting to me."
He told of one young man at their first church plant in San Ysidro, a young Hispanic man who had come across the border from Tijuana and didn't speak much English.
"You see the power of the Holy Spirit in allowing us to communicate -- even though we couldn't speak Spanish very well -- that the Lord Jesus Christ came into this world to save his soul," Conley said. "In a few weeks he came to know Christ, and it was their very first baptism."
By James Dotson