By Jeff Matas
I first met Al Conner as Carla and I were planning to move to Philadelphia. I had just been accepted to the graduate program at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Other than the acceptance letter, Carla and I had no idea how we were going to pull this thing off. Neither of us had ever been to Philadelphia—or lived in a big city. A couple we knew in Anderson had made the same journey from the Midwest to Philly for graduate school. They encouraged us to call Pastor Al Conner from the Highland Park Church of God in Gloucester City, New Jersey (across the Delaware River from Philly). Desperate, we took their advice and made the call. Pastor Al was a godsend. He made arrangements to help us move our stuff. He connected us with an older couple in the church with a spare bedroom to put us up until we could find a place to call home. A few weeks later, he found us an apartment and some old furniture we could use to supplement what little we had. He connected Carla with a recruiter that resulted in a job. He made sure I knew which trains and subways to take from South Jersey into Philly and then to Temple. After that initial call, all of the necessary details began to fall into place.
From our first week there, Al and his wife, Geri, welcomed us into their home. Every Sunday after church we joined their family for lunch and gathered around their table with other guests who were new to the church. These guests were always a bit messy, a bit needy. Carla and I certainly fit that description. We needed a lot of help—we needed friendships, we needed a place to belong, we needed family.
Al Conner was rarely in his office. His “office” was Gloucester City. Everyone in town knew Al (as he liked to be called). He was loved and respected in that hard scrabble, blue-collar town. His church became a reflection of their pastor, taking on his DNA. They too welcomed people into the church and into their living rooms and dinner tables. They bent over backwards to help people, to connect them to others. The Highland Park church was a “sticky” church that seemed to attract and keep people. They accepted people and all their mess and loved them. They were patient with them. The church seemed to overflow with grace and love.
If you were to assess Al as a leader, he wouldn’t fit the typical metrics of what is often considered to be an effective pastor. He wasn’t a riveting communicator—he would be the first to tell you that preaching wasn’t his greatest gift. He didn’t have a charismatic personality that could energize and motivate people to take the next hill or to steer a church through the power of his personality. He wasn’t a strategic leader who implemented programs and plans. He wasn’t urban-savvy. Al was a country boy raised in the mountains of West Virginia now leading a church in South Jersey—a cultural mismatch if there ever was one. South Jersey is heavily Roman Catholic and very tough ground for Evangelical Christianity. It is a region where the Church of God has always struggled to gain a foothold. The most current statistics show only ten Church of God congregations in the entire state, and of those ten, three congregations have a Sunday attendance of: 7, 8, and 1. You read that right, a church of 1 person in attendance. On paper, nothing about Al Conner would fit or work in the context of South Jersey; yet he was one of the most effective pastors I’ve ever seen.
How did he do it? Al Conner loved people. He welcomed them into his life. He interacted with them. He invited them to join his family at dinner. He came alongside them. He walked with them. He helped them. Long before I heard the term “relational discipleship,” I saw it powerfully modeled firsthand. Although Al retired years ago, the impact of his ministry continues through the lives of those who were invited into his family and the church.
Al did ministry like Jesus. When you think of Jesus and his three years of ministry, what jumps off the pages of the gospels are the stories of Jesus being Jesus—how he loved messy, broken people. How he valued those that the world marginalized. We remember those he touched, those he loved, those he didn’t write off. The power of Jesus’ ministry was in his relationships. Relationships endure long after the attendance records are forgotten, and shiny new buildings fall into empty shells of neglect. Of all the traits of an effective leader, I think Al Conner had the best one: he invested his time and energy in relationships with others that needed joy, hope, a home, forgiveness, grace, and patience.
So often as pastors we think we don’t have what it takes to be successful. We lack charisma and influence like those with large media platforms. We don’t excel at organizational strategy and planning. We don’t have the staff or the resources. Too often we forget the most vital, important leadership trait of all. What would happen if we stopped trying to be who we are not and started being the pastors God has called us to be? What would happen if we turned our calendars upside down and started investing in people? What if we made our neighborhoods and our communities our “office”? What if we intentionally invited people into our lives with all their mess? What if we began to lead like Jesus? What if we loved like him, discipled like him? Al Conner led like Jesus. He loved like Jesus. He invested his life in relationships with others. And his ministry has a legacy that is still bearing fruit in the lives of those he touched and beyond.
Practicing relational discipleship can seem daunting, especially when you haven’t done it or seen it modeled. It is missing in many churches. For too long we have relied on the power of our preaching and the strength of our programming to attract the biggest crowd. Often even the leaders that have achieved large numbers and impressive buildings know that something is missing. We are not discipling.
For generations we have lost our focus on intentional relational disciple-making. We have focused on the wrong things. We have poured our time and money into building the church but have neglected to make disciples. Indiana Ministries is partnering with Michigan and Ohio Ministries to establish 120 disciple-making churches. In this tri-state effort, Mission 120, Indiana Ministries has committed to establishing 40 churches in the state that will partner together to be disciple-making churches. This initiative will involve intentionality, commitment, and a plan to get us to the goal. In the coming months, you’ll be hearing more details about Mission 120 and how you can be involved.