Pastor Greg Asimakoupoulos has resigned from . His last day as head pastor at the church he served for 6 years was May 29.
But Asimakoupoulos wants to make it clear that he wasn’t forced to leave or made to feel at fault for the situation with his congregation.
“I was very popular as a pastor,” he said. “The concern was the need for someone to step in who had more administrator-type gifts due to the financial crisis at the church. My gifts were in ministry and outreach to the community.”
Though the decline in attendance began 15 years ago, the church has been losing members more rapidly for the past few years, (it’s down 20 per cent from five years ago) and the nearly 300-member congregation that remains is mainly seniors, according to the Chairman of the Board of Elders, Tim Krell.
“The economic recession has had a negative effect on all non-profits,” he said. “People, especially seniors on a fixed income, don’t feel like they can give as much when the collection plate comes around, so (the church has) taken a hit.”
Reverend Mark Travis of the Congregational Church on Mercer Island and the president of the Mercer Island Clergy Association, says that the struggles of the Covenant Church are not unusual. "There are a number of worship houses on the Island that are challenged financially and are struggling with lower attendance," he said. "It's a huge challenge for all of us (pastors) but it's not dire yet." Travis also mentioned that many churches are now seeking what he calls "CEO pastors" to raise money while the church then hires another minister for pastoral care of the congregation. "Unfortunately, they don't teach you practical things like fundraising when you're in (training) in seminary."
Krell said the church began a process called “Veritas” in February 2010 which involved focus groups and surveys of the congregation, as well as the church staff looking carefully at the its annual budget of $850,000.
“We had a coach come in to help (Asimakoupoulos) improve some of his weak areas and amplify his strengths, which is part of the evangelical church process, to give support to pastors in leading them through long range planning,” said Krell. “We felt it was important for (Pastor Greg) to lead us so we’d have a focus and direction, and be able to reverse the declining trend of attendance, because ultimately, if we have fewer people, we have fewer dollars.”
Krell noted that 50 per cent of the annual budget goes to the church staff, while a quarter goes to charities and supporting missionaries all over the world, with the rest used for facilities and operations, such as putting a new roof on the church last month.
“Another publication made it sound like the church is on its last legs,” said Asimakoupoulos. “Yes, we’ve been hit by the economic recession and yes, we did a self-study last year with polls, workshops and interviews, but we determined that the church just needed a more administratively-savvy pastor in light of these economic constraints. I’m more relational—my gifts are in preaching and pastoral care and networking--I viewed my role as a chaplain to the community and our congregation.”
Asimakoupoulos said that he felt this publication overlooked his contributions to Mercer Island Covenant Church and the Mercer Island community.
“I helped articulate a vision that looked beyond the walls of the church.” He said. “I think I was misjudged for not being in the church office every day, but that was by design.”
Among the many outreach services, Asimakoupoulos founded “Feet to Faith” a Mercer Island Covenant Church group of over 200 volunteers that helped run the Rotary Half Marathon, he fostered small groups for spiritual mentoring and Bible study meeting at Starbucks (which the group nicknamed “St. Arbucks”) twice a week, introduced “Stage of Life” Sunday School for adults, created ‘niche’ worship services with the 8:30 am traditional service that included hymns and liturgy, and the 11 am contemporary service for younger people and families, and finally, Asimakoupoulos worked with his flock to formulate a vision statement for the Covenant Church. “Mercer Island Covenant Church has been called by God to flood the Island with the refreshing fragrance, the appealing presence and the saving grace of Jesus Christ.”
“It’s an intentional attempt to redefine what most people think of conservative Christianity,” Asimakoupoulos said. “If you think about it, Jesus was not in the temple all day, he was out with the people on the street, with women of the night…his nickname was ‘friend to sinners.’”
But Asimakoupoulos said he’s not moving his family from their digs on Mercer Island, which he’s grown to love as a community. “I will continue to be a freelance guest speaker/interim pastor in the community, and I will still be a part of Mercer Island Rotary Club,” he said. “While I’m waiting to hear when God calls me to another church or chaplaincy, I will do some ‘pulpit supply’ gigs for vacation relief for other pastors, like the one I’m doing in Gig Harbor for the next two weeks.”
“We really appreciated (Pastor Asimakoupoulos’) efforts to make the church relevant in the 21st century context,” said Krell. “He will be missed.”
Mercer Island Covenant Church is currently setting up a search committee that will be looking for a part-time interim pastor and a full time pastor in the coming months.” We have a substantial elder population,” he said. “But we do really need young people to revitalize the church, and that will be our focus going forward.”