By Pete Scazzero (November, 2010)
New Life Fellowship Church began in September 1987 in a small wooden church in Corona, New York on National Street. Beginning with a small team of eight to ten dedicated individuals, we set out to establish a high-quality church in Queens, New York City with a number of core commitments – passion for Jesus, quality community life built on small groups, a focus on grace, the bridging of racial, cultural, economic and gender barriers, taking the gospel to the streets, and engagement of the poor and marginalized.
Queens has over 2.3 million people with sixty-five percent of her population born outside the United States. Our neighborhood of Corona/Elmhurst has over 123 nations represented. The average entering freshman class in high school has a fifty percent dropout rate. Forty percent of our community is without health insurance. In 1987 this unique phenomenon was already evident and I sensed God’s calling to plant a strong local church in this location. Our vision was to have a local focus with an eye to global missions.
The church grew rapidly, adding one hundred people in each of her first three years. In 1990, sixty people from the English congregation began a Spanish speaking service in the afternoons. This congregation also grew quickly and within a couple of years we were averaging 250 people in Spanish. By 1994 New Life was one church in two languages and I was preaching at three services. In addition, we fed over a hundred homeless men and women each week at the church and opened up a learning academy for job development.
Rapid growth continued, and we outgrew our Corona building. As a result, the English congregation moved in September, 1993 to the Elks Lodge in Elmhurst about a mile away. We began planting churches and launched a ten person, full- time internship at New Life.
Rapid growth however, masked the cracks and gaps in our spiritual foundation. While we did form our first official elder board in early 1994 (moving from an Advisory Council model), this could not prevent a church split in the Spanish congregation in early1994. (You can read about this in the opening chapters of The Emotionally Healthy Church: Updated and Expanded, Zondervan, 2010). Two hundred people moved down the street to launch a new Spanish church and New Life entered her “dark night of the soul.”
From 1994-1996, I began a slow descent into an inner journey to confront my own monsters. We continued to rebuild both congregations, but I was struggling internally as God was uprooting my foundation, and slowly depositing seeds of what we now call “emotionally healthy spirituality.” This marked the beginning of a season of change and uncertainty, as New Life shifted from an emphasis on external, outward growth to an inward journey with Christ. I began seeing a Christian counselor and looking at some of the missing components of my discipleship. Meanwhile, we slowly rebuilt the Spanish congregation back to 150 people while the English continued her steady pace of growth.
This season culminated in January of 1996 when Geri quit New Life, sending us to a week away with two Christian counselors where God met us in an extraordinary way. This climaxed my two-year journey of emotional health. We finally saw it: Emotional health and spiritual maturity are inseparable. It is not possible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature. That revelation changed us, and slowly, all of New Life.
After a brief sabbatical, we returned in 1996 to slowly begin working this out practically – on all levels of the church. We began to focus on marriages as part of our discipleship, integrate emotionally healthy skills, and begin confronting the places at New Life where we had placed gifts over character. This was a large, momentous shift. As a result, God began to shift the culture and pace of New Life.
We embraced our limits on multiple levels. Julio Rodriquez, a seven-year old Christian at the time, took leadership of the Spanish congregation while I focused exclusively on the English congregation with her 65 plus nations. The Spanish church, Iglesia Nueva Vida, also outgrew the 200 seat Corona space and moved to Woodside. It now numbers well over 1000 people and has planted over 25 churches in Latin America. We remain in a wonderful relationship with Iglesia Nueva Vida as a sister congregation.
Over the next seven years, New Life continued to pioneer emotionally healthy discipleship. This culminated in 2003 with the publication of, The Emotionally Healthy Church (Zondervan, 2003). At that point New Life entered a new phase of serving and blessing pastors across North America.
This injection of emotional health into New Life as a culture slowly led to a study of monasticism and the contemplative tradition. Emotional health was powerfully changing people at New Life, but people remained too busy. I wrestled, for years, with how to help people slow down to cultivate their personal relationship with Christ and not live off other people’s spirituality.
This culminated in a four-month monastic sabbatical in early 2004, traveling both in the United States and in Europe to learn from a variety of communities. The profound season of silence and solitude transformed Geri and I to such an extent we wondered if God was calling us out to live in an ecumenical monastic community for married couples with children. It soon became evident, however, that God was calling us to remain at New Life where we began introducing the treasures of the contemplative tradition. Like the introduction of emotional health, this was both a major, yet very powerful shift for our community. We slowed down our lives to be still before the Lord, practice Daily Offices and Sabbath-keeping, and begin exploring the development of our own personal “rule of life.”
I like to say that we finally stopped waiting on the Lord for a growing church and started to simply wait on the Lord for Him alone
Based on our life together as a local church, I finally wrote this down I a book entitled: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (Nelson, 2006). The thesis of the book, and our church, is simple: emotional health and contemplative spirituality, when interwoven together, offer nothing short of a spiritual revolution, transforming the hidden places deep beneath the surface of our lives.
While God has been doing a profound work internally in New Life Fellowship over those first twelve years, He ensured our future stability when The Elks organization placed their 60,000 square foot landmark building on the market in 1998. For the next five years, New Life engaged in a lengthy, difficult process of negotiating, and finally purchasing, the facility in December 2003 for $6.5 million. Wisely, the congregation saved over $3.7 million for the down payment at closing. This led to a marked expansion of the entire ministry on every level.
For almost twenty years I, along with our board, experienced only limited effectiveness in integrating emotional health and contemplative spiritual practices into the leading of the church. I sometimes avoided meetings I knew would be hard. I skimmed on “truth” when it was uncomfortable. I avoided discussions about people’s performance when it was poor. I preferred to not ask difficult questions or speak up when something was clearly wrong.
Finally, a number of events converged to prepare me for, what I now call, a conversion of leadership/personal integrity.
Until this point, we often divided leadership into sacred/secular categories. I said all of life was holy, but I treated the executive/planning functions of pastoral leadership as less meaningful and sacred than prayer and preparing sermons. For over a year I incorporated the job description of the executive pastor into mine, determined to learn the role. I cancelled speaking engagements outside New Life, said no to a potential book contract, and signed up for a round of excellent counseling to sort through my own “beneath the iceberg” blockages that were in the way. I preached less, and we moved more deliberately to a teaching team.
Over the next year I learned that doing the executive work of an organization requires much more than simply learning skills. They require character. Like many other “visionary” leaders, I justified my lack of engagement in these areas to a gift deficit. That was not the whole truth. The real difficulty for me was making the time, thinking carefully “before the Lord,” summoning the courage to have difficult conversations, and following all the way through. While executive/administrative gifts are not in my primary gift mix, the issue for me revolved around laziness and a lack of integrity.
We also developed for our pastoral staff team a “Rule of Life” in 2007. The purpose was to articulate a unique combination of spiritual practices for us as staff that would provide the structure and direction we needed to walk with integrity with our growing church. We made our Rule of Life public to our church membership so they know the kind of lives we seek to live. This is available on the website. I encourage you to read and ponder it. Our elders then followed in developing their own Rule of Life.
In September of 2008, we finally moved our entire church membership to an intentional Rule of Life as well. We have since begin calling this our Way (Rule) of Life. This led a major focus on intentionality in our spiritual formation.
Because of our commitment to a in-depth transformational spiritual formation model, we have sought to grow slowly, integrating people into our small groups and resisting the temptation to simply be a crowd.
A few major events have expanded New Life into the fastest growth rate of her history. We have formed a 3 person teaching team, added a third service on Sunday at noon and expanded the ministry of EHS to over 60 countries with the support of the Willow Creek Association.
Our New Life Community Development Corporation now has a permanent home here in Elmhurst. The Community Health Center serves hundreds of the medically uninsured in our community and the food pantry feeds over 1600 people each week. ESL classes continue to expand and we are initiating youth development and mentoring programs.
In 2009 Pete initiated a transition of his role at New Life from Senior Pastor to Pastor-at-Large/Teaching pastor. This transition will be completed in Sept/October of 2013 when Rich Villodas takes on the role on of Lead Pastor.
This has been a great season for New Life. The following excepts from Pete and Rich’s letters to the congregation, were read on June 3, 2012, at the annual membership meeting of New Life: “Three and a half years ago, in early 2009, Geri and I knew the time had come for me to hand over the senior pastor role at New Life Fellowship Church. We were also convinced that I was to remain at New Life in more of an “apostolic” role, serving and supporting a new leadership as they took our church vision and values into the future—making them relevant for this generation. New Life is growing and flourishing. Geri and I are growing and flourishing. This is the optimal time for us to pour our best energy into investing in future generations of leadership.
Geri and I also had an on-‐going sense that God was setting us apart, as He did with Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1–3), to offer our gifts and services to the church in North America and around the world. Many pastors and churches have been coming to learn from New Life. This has been a growing phenomenon since the release of The Emotionally Healthy Church (Zondervan, 2003), Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (Nelson, 2006), and I Quit! (Zondervan, 2010).
My best contribution to New Life has always been in the area of teaching and preaching, along with breaking new ground, providing leadership, and shaping our spiritual formation life together. In many ways, however, I am more like an artist: I love imagining, creating, and writing about new possibilities. This is a God-‐given part of me that has consistently called for greater expression for the sake of the kingdom of God. Providing oversight and day-‐to-‐day leadership for a large, growing staff and church requires highly focused energy, and has limited my ability to respond to that call.
With this clear sense of God’s call for me to mentor and champion New Life’s new leadership, I approached the elders in 2009 and set September of 2013 as the date for my transition out of the role of senior pastor. This gave us four full years for a slow, prayerful process.
The elders and I began to research how other churches had transitioned from a founding pastor to a new leadership. There were very few success stories. A healthy transition would lead to another generation of fruitful service and impact for God’s kingdom. A poor process would lead to years of faltering before New Life landed, if ever, on her feet. Most churches, we learned, never recaptured the “glory days” enjoyed under the founder’s leadership. Yet we remained convinced that New Life’s best days were still ahead of us.
In late 2009, we contacted Dave Travis, the CEO of Leadership Network. His depth of experience doing “succession planning” with a wide variety of denominations and ethnic churches was an ideal fit for our unique context. After a number of phone and Skype video meetings, we formally hired Dave as a consultant in 2010.
The following were the key stages of our transition process:
This prayerful, thoughtful, careful process has already borne much fruit. Our church has expanded and deepened. We have grown in number to a congregation of between 1,250 and 1,400 people weekly. Over 1,900 people attended on Easter Sunday alone.
Rich brings gifts of leadership that are uniquely suited to us in this season of our history. The values and vision of New Life are not changing, but they are deepening and expanding outward. That is a great thing. People ask me if I miss leading staff meetings. My answer is, “It never entered my mind.” (This is indicative of Rich’s strong leadership abilities.)
Another significant development in this process has been the emergence of Redd Sevilla, the executive director of our Community Development Corporation (CDC). Over the past year, Redd has become a “number two” person for Rich. Redd brings a strong set of executive and leadership gifts to New Life. His training as an engineer, experience in the marketplace, and background in small business development make him a wonderful complement to Rich. The synergy of Rich and Redd working together has already been transformative for New Life.
New Life, I believe, is a sign and sacrament of the kingdom of God. Through our existence as a multiracial, international community, and through the deep embrace of our unique values (our five M’s—Monastic, Multiracial, eMotionally Healthy, Marriage to Christ, and Missional), we make visible the invisible. New Life is a gift of hope to many around the world. Our community offers a glimpse of what is possible by the power of God, and is a taste of heaven itself.
New Life is moving into a phase of expansion—partnering with churches and denominations from places as diverse as Germany, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and the Philippines. Geri and I plan to spend part of our time equipping coaches and trainers to bring the grace, or charism, of New Life to the wider church through the ministry of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. We are excited about that.
I am also very excited about having the time and space to write. God has placed within me a number of book ideas over the years. These have grown out of the crucible of New Life. These include, for example, books on the unique contribution of emotionally healthy spirituality to leadership, marriage/singleness, and reconciliation (bridging racial, economic, and cultural barriers). In addition, I am eager to write monthly Daily Offices (that will be available through an app) and a small group curriculum for marriages.
Nonetheless, my first priority remains the integrity and health of New Life. I will continue to be the “Chief Champion and Cheerleader” for Rich, Redd, the staff, the elders, and all of you. I love New Life! There isn’t a church like ours anywhere in the world. I will continue to serve as a teaching pastor, preaching and offering retreats and classes under Rich’s leadership. Moreover, I will also mentor, lead small groups, and be a resource to our leadership and CDC.
While I recognize there will be a normal, healthy grieving process to navigate through during this transition, I also want to invite you to join us in our enthusiasm about the future.
New Life is called to be a movement of people, not a monument or institution erected around a person or building. For this reason, one of the greatest gifts Geri and I can offer is the investment in a new generation of leaders who can carry forth New Life’s mission for the next twenty-‐five years. We are looking forward to 2038!
One of the most important tasks in the spiritual life is letting go and receiving God’s new beginnings. While this transition remains fifteen months away, God has a number of new and wonderful things standing backstage waiting to make their entrance. We want to receive all of them.
Here is what I am asking you to do: Begin to embrace Rich as the person God has called to lead us at New Life as of September 2013. Let’s join together in what God desires to do in and through our church during what surely will be one of the most exciting, expansive times in our history.
Thank you all for being such a great church.
With much love,
God has made New Life an amazing community. It has been said that we are one of the most multiethnic, diverse churches in the United States. With our shifting demographics in Queens, we aim to remain that way.
We are living in an exciting and momentous time in our history. Yet I firmly believe we are only a seed of what God intends this local church family to grow into.
Let us pray together that we as a church family might be faithful to this unique opportunity and calling God has given us here in the center of Queens, New York City. And may we do His will, not ours. May we glorify His name, not ours. And may we advance His kingdom and not ours.
By Pete Scazzero:
The Emotionally Healthy Church: Updated and Expanded (Zondervan, 2010).
Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (Nelson, 2006).
The Daily Office (Zondervan, 2010).
Emotionally Healthy Leader (Zondervan, 2015).
By Pete and Geri Scazzero:
CD’s and DVDs’ for Churches
Annual Emotionally Healthy Leadership Conference
(see emotionallyhealthy.org for details).