When it comes to being salt and light to the community and the world, the size of the heart is what matters most, not the number of noses in the pews or dollars in the budget.
We want to believe that, don’t we? It can be hard to operate and make decisions as if that were true, though. As news of the economy continues to be sour, leaders may be tempted to hunker down and ride out the storm, resourcing fewer new externally focused ministry endeavors with their time and funds.
This month I visited with a small church in Acworth, Georgia. I was so encouraged by their story to take risks. It reminded me that size—of budget and church—is not what matters in God’s economy. Just as Joshua led the Israelites to bust up the formidable walls of Jericho with trumpets, God still wants our resources and obedient hearts to take on big issues and equip even the most ambitious people.
Four years ago, LeAnn Dakake was a first-time visitor to the 70-person Eagle Pointe Church in Acworth. After only visiting a few weeks, she shared a dream with lead pastor Howard Koepka. “LeAnn had a real heart for orphans and had adopted children from Russia herself. She came to me with a big idea of starting an orphan-hosting program in the United States for Russian children,” Howard shared.
A visitor to the church wants to start a new ministry? Here’s what LeAnn wanted to do: bring children from Russia and Latvia to the states to spend four weeks at Christmas and five weeks in the summer with Christian American families. The church families would help buy the plane tickets and host the children. While many leaders would be tempted to see a lot of red tape, Howard saw green. The first question he asked himself was, “Does this fit within our mission as a church?”
“The obvious answer was yes, we care for orphans because God cares for them,” he says. “So I gave her a green light. I found that she was already connected and networked. God was lining things up in her life, and our job was to support her with resources and communications surrounding this vision.” Giving a green light meant creating a nonprofit organization and finding resources—a big task for a small church. But Howard encourages, “Too many times we make things too difficult. What God plans, God resources. We just have to start looking around, stay in tune, and be willing.”
Today, LeAnn’s and Eagle Pointe’s little ministry is making a big impact. “Four years ago, 13 kids from Russia came to visit the states. In the summer of 2009, we will bring over 120 children,” says Howard. And more countries and orphanages keep calling the church office asking how they can become a part of the hosting program. Now called New Horizons for Children, Inc. (www.newhorizonsforchildren.org), this ministry helps other congregations across the country that want to begin hosting children.
Admittedly, working with orphans is not simple or without challenge, but it is life-changing. Knowing the best way to kick off this ministry was to lead by example, Howard’s own family hosted one of the first orphans. “When 13-year-old Sasha stepped off that plane, we knew we were forever changed. We hosted her for those few weeks and then began the process of adopting her,” he continued.
While adoption is not always the result of this program, many children do connect with their forever family. To increase the chances that adoptions might be made, the New Horizons team carefully selects the children who take part in the hosting program. Each year, LeAnn travels with small mission teams from Eagle Pointe and other churches to Eastern European orphanages during January and September. The teams go into selected orphanages with humanitarian aid. With the orphanage director and caregivers, the team begins the interviewing to make the difficult decisions of which ones will take part in the next hosting program. Typically, the team will talk to each child, take a photo or two, and watch them as they interact with other children, the team members, and their caregivers. They search for children who have a “resilience factor” in their lives that helps them to overcome past obstacles and difficulties. They try to identify children who are less likely to have developed attachment disorders, making the transition to adoption more possible.
Howard shares that many families in their church (now running about 370 in attendance) have adopted Russian children, creating a community of people who support one another. “No matter how well-adjusted the kid seems to be, we encourage families that adopt to get counseling as a family and for the adopted child. Painful issues can surface. We have numerous counselors we work with and have counselors who are Russian,” says Howard.
But the difficulties faced by families pale in comparison to what these orphans would be facing without a family. In the United States, the foster care system usually cares for children until they are 17 or 18 years old. Not so in Russia and other countries, Howard shared. “By age 16, most of the orphans in Russia are pushed out on the street. Of those, 90 percent become drug addicts, prostitutes, or are dead within a couple of years.”
My morning spent talking with Howard Koepka was inspiring and eye-opening. When he set out to launch a church, I’m sure he never imagined any of this as part of the journey. Howard is the kind of adventurous servant leader the kingdom needs more of—leaders who not only lead, but are willing to be led by the visions and passions of others as well. He sees his role as equipping people to fulfill what God has already laid on their hearts.
As people come to you with their big (and sometimes crazy) ideas, what do you see first —the red tape or a green light?