10th anniversary interview with our pastors
This is a transcript of an interview where Pastors Phil and Denise Buechler recounted their ministry journey. From being ordained in 1979 to taking over as full-time pastors of C3 Long Island in 2008.
Pastors Phil and Denise Buechler
just recently celebrated their tenth year at C3 Long Island. They came in 2007 as interim pastors, and took over full time one year later. Now they are the senior leadership at one of the most vibrant C3 churches in the U.S.
But Pastor Phil had had a long-time relationship with the church going back to its founding in 1989, by Pastors Mark and Bernadette Kelsey. Over the years Pastor Phil visited C3 (then known as Christian City Church) at least once a year as a guest speaker. He was not only the church’s most frequent visitor, he was the one members of the church most looked forward to hearing.
Pastor Phil was ordained in 1979, at Melodyland School of Theology. He created Phil Buechler Ministry in 1986, and immediately began helping plant churches in spiritually challenging parts of the world, such as South Africa, Singapore, Turkey, Arab Emirates, England, Ireland and France. Eventually he began working in the U.S., and to date he has been hands-on at 28 church plants. And now, one of his responsibilities is to oversee nine C3 churches across the country. It will be 10 soon, with C3 Miami on the way.
What was your first reaction when you heard there was a leadership vacancy at C3 Long Island?
Phil: My first reaction was a great desire to help a church that I had known since 1989, coming in as a guest speaker every year. I loved the people, so to be able to help was very captivating to my heart. But I also have to confess that we had just moved to Atlanta, where I was going to be a church-planting coach for the C3 movement, so there was a little bit of confusion as to what God was up to at the time.
Denise: My first reaction was “Yes, we’re moving north!”
Did you go into prayer mode to ask the Lord if he really wanted you to do this, or did you go with the wisdom of the people above you who asked you to come to N.Y.?
Phil: In the kingdom of God it’s a really important principle to listen to those whom God has put in authority over your life, especially proven, trusted people that have God’s best interests at heart, and so it would be very foolish for us to ignore that. But also in the kingdom there’s this dynamic where God wants us to own it as well. We did both – we said “yes” to our pastors Dean and Jill [Sweetman, C3 Atlanta], but we also went into the closet and said “God, how can we help this church that we love so very much?” And what can we do with a situation that was originally supposed to be a three or four month period of time to bring hope, bring some health and maybe bring the church forward a few steps in the right direction.
Denise: I never thought it would be three or four months. I got everybody praying right away. I knew that was where we were gonna be, and nothing was happening for us where we were. So you’re looking for something to do at that point anyway, so why not take it.
Phil: There wasn’t the favor or the grace that we would expect to be where we were.
You were serving at a church in Minneapolis when you first heard about C3LI. Describe the circumstances.
Phil: I’d never been there before, but I had this burden that I was supposed to be involved in this church plant in N.Y.C. My pastor pulled out a letter from Mark Kelsey, who had just moved from Australia to the U.S. to plant a church. My pastor said to give him a call, and I did.
I phoned him and explained who I was and why I was calling, and Mark said, “You plant churches? Would you come and stay with my family?” So I did, and we were with him for three days and became really good friends, and have been good friends ever since.”
So, many years after the Kelseys returned to Australia, and their successors Bill and Audrey Clemens retired, the Buechlers were asked to become interim pastors here. It was clear to them that they needed to give a least a year to it. They spent three weeks a month here, and then would return for a week to Atlanta, where they owned a home. During the weeks they were here, over dinner they would meet with members to find out where they were at.
After several months were you thinking that you’d soon be back in Atlanta, doing what you’d gone there to do in the first place, or were you really open-ended about it?
Denise: Our first week I wasn’t really thinking that we were going back to Atlanta.
Phil: I was probably about eight or nine months into this journey when I reviewed again the principle of where is God’s grace flowing and his favor happening, and I realized that the grace and favor was not in Atlanta, it was definitely on L.I. And while I didn’t have that figured out at the time, some things come only by obedience. The understanding comes by just doing what you know is working in a kingdom kind of way.
We were about nine months in, and I remember we were sitting by the beach at Robert Moses, and we agreed together that we were supposed to give this a full-time call. We were going to go to Australia, and it was there when we were at Oxford Falls [C3’s mother church], and Pastor Phil Pringle walked up to us after a prayer meeting, and spoke specifically to us and said ‘How’s it going on L.I.? Do you love it?’
Denise: I said, ‘I love it. It’s great.’ And he said ‘Well, I reckon you’re the ones to do it,’ and turned around and walked out.
How did things shift when you went from interim pastors to knowing the church would be yours?
Denise: I think it shifted more for the congregation than it did for us. I felt we should be here all along. But when you come into the congregation and say ‘Alright, we’re renting a house and we’re staying here,’ everybody was holding their breath, waiting to see what was gonna happen. And suddenly they can go ‘Okay, we can breathe now.’ It was like a big sigh of relief.
Phil: The shift for me was that there’s a level of problem-solving and vision-casting you can do with the thought that there will be somebody else that will be taking this on, but if I’m going to be the one doing it, then I can really solve some problems and casting vision, because I’m gonna be the one responsible for that.
What were your first thoughts when it was decided that C3LI would be your permanent home?
Denise: We went to every leadership couple to find where their hearts were, and change things so that we could get round pegs in round holes and square pegs in square holes. It took a lot of rearranging.
Phil: I call that defining current reality. Before you can even talk about your future – what could be and what should be – you have to define it. And part of that was getting everybody in the right place for the right reasons. Not only for the church’s benefit but for themselves as well. So one of a leader’s primary tasks in any season is to define accurately what you feel the problems are so you can come up with real solutions to what the real challenges are, so you can identify a breakthrough when you see it.
Pastor Phil, how do you balance being a big-picture, looking far down the road visionary with the day-to- day responsibilities of being a pastor?
Denise: Phil’s really good at that. I’m going ‘We need to do this. We need changes, we need changes.’ And Phil says ‘You’ve got to turn a ship reeeaaalllly slowly.’ And I’m like, ‘Nooooooooooooo…’
Phil: I can see the port that’s on the other side of the horizon, but again you have to work from where you are now. That’s part of defining current reality. Our current reality is right here. It’s not gonna be our future reality. You have to work with the people you have, to work with the resources you have, work with the context you’ve been given, and as much as you wish it were different, it is what it is. You can’t change yesterday and you can’t change tomorrow in any other way than what you do today. So just as a captain of a ship can see where he’s gonna be three days from now, a thousand miles from here, he can go only one nautical mile at a time. You have to set your course from where you are currently to where you want to be in the future.
What are some of the most satisfying things that have happened since you’ve been here full time?
Phil: For me it’s been that we are with great people, and seen their help, their giftedness and their experience, and able to build a genuine C3 expression of kingdom culture. I say this often: ‘God is the original Baskin Robbins’. He’s got all sorts of flavors to his kingdom. We’re called to build a C3 flavor, and that’s a faith, hope and love culture.
I view values as behaviors. There are decisions people make that cause other people to experience something called generosity or servanthood or leadership or faith or hope or love. You can say you’re all about those things but unless you have a great, great group of leaders and teams that are making decisions and putting forth those kinds of behaviors, you don’t have that kind of culture. We’ve seen a
great group of people grab hold of that immediately. So the number one thing we continue to hear from guests, returning guests and those that want to become a member of the family is that they experience faith, hope and love. They experience welcome and friendliness and relationship and connection. They feel energy and life, strength and health. These are things every church says they’re about, but until you have a great, great group of people that actually live that out in the moment, other people don’t experience it. That’s been very gratifying to me over the last 10 years.
How about the C3LI mission statement: “Your best life for the glory of God.”
Phil: The original verb that the C3 churches use to describe our brand was ‘connect,’ and that was the verb that was in use when we started 10 years ago. And like any good organization you’re gonna have to shift your brand, the verbs that you use for it, the logos, the designs, etc., but we grabbed a hold of that verb ‘connect’, so we talked about our mission is connecting people to Jesus , to salvation, to power, connecting people to one another and to Christ’s family, connecting people to their purpose and destiny. Our small group ministry is connect groups, very intentionally.
‘Your best life’ was introduced in 2008. It’s a fantastic vision statement, but the thing that bothered me about it, with my theological training, was that the ‘Your best life’ part sounds so secular, it sounds so humanistic. So I put the tag line on there, ‘for the glory of God.’ I don’t believe you can have your best life for God unless you’re living not only for God’s glory, but because of God’s glory and through God’s glory. So to me that’s a very important tagline.
What are your future plans for near- and long-term?
Phil: As the church grows, the complexity of the problems grows with it, so you have to continue to reinvent your systems for delivering your vision and your values. We’ve redone our financial systems, our assimilation systems, such as the Next Steps program, we’ve added baptism with that, we’ve redone our youth systems. We’re starting to work on C3 Kids.
We’ve also been working quite a bit on our facility. We inherited a facility that was restraining and constraining our growth, and there was not a thing we could do about it, due to contractual obligations. But we’ve slowly, piece by piece, been able to make the building look less and less like a professional school and more and more like the kind of church that says ‘Welcome home.’
The café renovation, and we’re in conversations now where can take over the sanctuary full time, because it’s a shared space right now. Denise and her team will go in and start putting together some renovations and re-workings in there, so the same kind of excellence you saw in the café you’ll also see in our sanctuary. Those are the next 12-18 months – continually developing our leadership pathways. I’m sure you’ve noticed the teaching and preaching teams are getting younger as well as getting larger, and we’re building that generational value into the church.
We also want to get that mortgage paid off. We want to be debt free. We’ve got some prayer and systems efforts in place to make that happen.
What are you most proud of at C3?
Phil: We’re just really proud of the church. A church requires strong and healthy leadership. I believe what John Maxwell says, ‘Everything rises or falls with leadership.’ But leaders don’t do it alone, so we have this statement that we use over and over again, that we do everything by team. Everything. And that includes the senior pastor role, we do it by team. Every staff member does it with a team. Every ministry leader functions with a team. When we decided five, six years ago, how are we going to measure and identify discipleship happening in people’s lives…it’s one thing to make a decision for Christ as a starting point, but how are we gonna measure that something is really starting to happen of a discipleship nature in people’s lives?
I came up with two things: they start to serve, they start to give. If you’re a server, you’re a giver, and you’re gonna be a great spouse. If you’re a server, you’re a giver, and you’re gonna be a great parent. If you’re a server and giver, you’re gonna live a great life. That’s something we look at the entire church at. We have some of the highest above-average percentages of members giving and serving, and there’s no way that would happen without Denise and I teaching it, preaching it, casting vision for it. But equally there would be no way it could happen without a whole slew of great leaders making that their vision, their culture, and carrying it for us. That’s what I’m most proud of.