Episode #5: Pastor Ron Sylvia, The Springs Church

Pastor Ron Sylvia of The Springs Church in Ocala, Florida has been Purpose Driven even before Purpose Driven was officially launched. It was 1994 when he first started planting churches, and leaning on Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church for advice on how to lead a healthy church. At the time, Pastor Rick’s best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Church had yet to be published.

“We had no idea what to do or where to go,” recalls Pastor Ron. “Nobody was planting churches back in 1994. But I felt like God gave us a calling to start a church.”

With just 21 people, Pastor Ron and his wife opened the doors to The Springs Church, and immediately grabbed hold of Pastor Rick’s book when it was released the following year. Today The Springs has 3,000 members across three campuses, and thanks to the Purpose Driven (PD) movement, Pastor Ron is an expert on helping other leaders plant churches around the world.  

“My heartbeat is church planting,” he says. “I always told God, ‘If you’ll let me live through this church planting experience, I want to give back. I want to pour into others because we didn’t have anybody teaching us what to do in the early years, until I met Rick and found PD.’”

Although he diligently followed the PD model, Pastor Ron says — like most church leaders — he also went through a plateau in his ministry. That’s why he created a yearly strategic planning process called “WIN” (What’s Important Now). This concept focuses on key areas of the greater vision, rather than getting stuck as a church.

In this current season of ministry, Ron says the big “WIN(s)” for The Springs are in two areas: campuses and campaigns.

“Those two things are a huge focus for The Springs right now,” says Pastor Ron. “We’re just going through an expansion at one of our campuses to build a better footprint, and then we’re looking at the next campus to launch.”

While many church leaders often launch a campaign for growth and strength, for Pastor Ron, it’s all about deepening church alignment. It pulls everyone in the same direction, and unites members through small group studies, he says.

As it pertains to campus launches, Pastor Ron focuses on scalability rather than numbers — a lesson he had to learn the hard way. Earlier in his ministry, he went into campus launches with a church-planting mindset, aiming for growth rather than on reaching a new community.

When that first campus leveled off at 200 members, Pastor Ron closed the doors for fear it just wasn’t meant to be. Today, he has regrets about that decision, especially after hearing heartbroken members say they found Christ at that campus.

“That’s one of the big learnings,” says Ron. “Now we’re learning how to grow campuses and extend that reach. That’s the thing about vision. You’re shooting higher, but you’ve got to come back and just say, ‘Hey, we tried that, and this is what we learned.’”

He compares it to aiming for the moon and hitting a street lamp, and realizing that although the goal wasn’t met, there was still something worth celebrating. Clearly, The Springs has recovered well, and has been blessed immensely over the years, especially when it comes to building community.

To help foster relationships, the campus recently did away with Connection Cards and instead built “The Deck,” — an outdoor community space where people can hang out after service. By fighting his way to the fringe, Pastor Ron is able to meet new people, invite them into the family, and help his own members minister to others. As an introvert, Pastor Ron admits this has been a major leadership shift for him.

“The stuff that happens on The Deck right now would never had happened if we had not given people an easy next step to go life-on-life with us. It has opened this floodgate of new people that we never would have met.”

Once new people approach The Deck, they are greeted by the “Concierge Ministry” that connects them to like-minded people at a similar life stage. From introducing them to other parents, to getting them involved in a small group, every step is first taken verbally, and then physically with speedy iPad registration.

This relationally-driven environment is something that Pastor Ron compares to a triage in an emergency room — never quite knowing where the person is in their walk with God, but willing to join them on the emotional rollercoaster. It’s about taking a church of any size, and aiming to warm it up through engagement, next steps, and community.

While it may seem Pastor Ron has sailed through 25 years of ministry, he says he can, at times easily identify with the discouraged pastor. In fact, there were days he wanted to walk away, feeling he had no one to turn to. But what he discovered is that no one understands a pastor like a pastor. That’s why he leans on mentors, and is willing to mentor others. For him, it comes down to two words: learn and return.

“It’s what you’ve learned about where you are,” he explains. “Return it to the Kingdom because there’s somebody behind you in the journey that needs to know what you know today. And there’s somebody ahead of you in the journey that you can learn from. Both of those are critical. That’s the Paul and Timothy. . . To me, there’s nothing more life giving than sitting down with other pastors and sharing life and learning, and asking the questions.”

In times of discouragement, it’s easy to simply shut the door and try to fix a broken ministry.  Instead, what is needed most are relationships, because that is what brings new life. As Pastor Ron explains, no pastor should ever stand alone, which is why he values the Purpose Driven community. It’s about coming together, growing, learning, and reaching back to help those on the same journey.

Taking this vision a step further, Pastor Ron recently created the Barnabas Experience. This platform of encouragement invited 12 pastors to find support in a network of other pastors. Within five hours, 150 pastors had applied to be a part of the Barnabas Experience, demonstrating the need to encourage church leaders on a greater scale.

In his desire to be a Barnabas to other pastors, Pastor Ron adds: “Don’t do this journey alone. Find a place. Get connected. Give your life away to people behind you in the journey.”

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