Reaching the Summit
The walls are up at The Summit as the new church location over a decade in the making begins to take concrete form. But the story of First UMC Lee’s Summit isn’t about a church move or church growth. It’s really about church turnaround.
When Senior Pastor Jim Presig first came for First UMC 14 years ago, the church had the lowest per capita giving in the Missouri Conference. It was $4.3 million in debt, projected to fall $50,000 short of its annual operating budget of $600,000, and averaged about 500 in attendance.
Today, attendance stands at around 1,500. Before beginning this construction project, the church was debt-free and ends its year with a surplus and with an annual operating budget of $2.5 million.
When the church started to grow dramatically, Presig knew something needed to happen. The historic 3-acre campus downtown with limited parking wasn’t going to accommodate the potential and serve the church in its mission. Hailing from Wisconsin, Presig was a student of author and church consultant Lyle Schaller. He believed Schaller’s teaching that said churches needed to be willing to position themselves for the future rather than clinging to what worked 50 or 100 years ago.
Presig is now in his 15th year at First UMC Lee’s Summit and is the longest serving senior pastor in the church’s 150 year history.
“To see a 150-year old church coming newly alive is truly witnessing an act of God,” Presig said.
Presig won’t take credit for the church turnaround, giving God the glory. If you push him more on the details of the day to day, he hands credit to the church staff, initially naming several people, then taking it back out of concern about leaving people out that have contributed to much.
“We have a phenomenally focused and energetic staff that is committed and inspiring to work with,” Presig said.
Patty Buie has been part of First UMC Lee’s Summit for 27 years, and when talk first started about the church needing to consider relocation or expansion options, she was excited.
“I was certain we were ready for the next chapter for this church with a history,” she said. She served on the building committee and the capital campaign team.
“I feel privileged to be part of the building generation,” she said. “For my husband Steve and myself, we recognize this is not about us. It’s about bringing people to the kingdom. We have a vision of young families coming to a new, fresh space and finding something to feed their soul.”
The new building is a model of form following function. “It’s not a cathedral,” Presig said. “It’s a place that young families will feel comfortable coming to, helping us in our emphasis on reaching children and youth. We’ve had new families coming to visit because they saw the construction.”
Presig recalled how in his 34 years of ministry, he’d been involved in the building of a new church, the relocation of one, the paying for of one that had just been built, and in each case, he’d seen how a building project can drain the life out of a congregation. That hasn’t been the case with The Summit, and he credits his administrator.
“Having Robin Dawson administrating this has made all of the difference,” he said. “Her oversight has freed up the rest of us at the church to be excited about ongoing ministries. We’ve been able to recharge our growth groups and undertake new things in ministry because Robin has handled the building mechanics.”
Dawson has been the church administrator for about five years and has been a member there for 12. She was previously involved in the administration of the construction of the new hospital, so she has plenty of experience with large building projects.
And large it is. The building will be more than 34,000 square feet when completed, although the word “completed” needs to be accompanied by Phase I.
Upon the completion of Phase I, the church’s contemporary worship, children and youth ministries will inhabit the new location, while the traditional service and offices will remain at the downtown location. “I say we’ve got to make sure we’re keeping the grand old lady upright and happy, and make sure it remains a very nice place for traditional worship for as long as we are there,” Dawson said.
The downtown location is under contract, but is in the midst of a lengthy due diligence process. The sale is contingent upon various approvals by the city government for the new buyer’s building plans. If that sale end up going through quickly, the church has a plan in place to accelerate Phase II of construction so that all ministries could move to the new location.
The 42-acre parcel of land was purchased in 2007 for $3.2 million. “Hat’s off to them for finding 42-acres in town,” Dawson said.
It is located very near 470 and highway 50, making it easy to get there quickly from many parts of the city. It is also on one of the highest points in Jackson County, giving the property great views and great visibility. Longview Community College is nearby, a picturesque golf course is across the street, and Cerner is undergoing a major expansion on a plant just a few miles away. The corridor was deemed by the Missouri Conference Cabinet as underserved.
Paul Jones has been part of the church for 15 years and has been working on the new building since the formation of the master plan about a decade ago. The church was careful along the way. They thought they had the site they had now purchased at one point, but the deal fell through. They looked elsewhere, but later the seller came back to them and they struck a deal.
“The site is really important, whether you are talking about a McDonald’s or your home,” Jones said. “Hopefully this site will pay dividends for many years to come.”
Bunk Farrington started looking for a new church when he moved to Lee’s Summit from a different part of Kansas City. When he visited The Summit, he found the three things he wanted: strong message from the pastor, fabulous music and a loving congregation. This was about five years ago, so the land for the West Campus had already been purchased. Farrington became co-chair of the capital campaign. With most of the debt from the land purchase paid down, they decided to test the waters and see if the congregation would be willing to fund the new construction while they were still in the existing building rather than waiting for a sale.
“They rose to the occasion tremendously,” he said. “People recognize that now is the time. This is our chance to do something to build the Lord’s kingdom. People are responding generously, showing confidence in the leadership. We were blessed to be able to help. We were just a small cog in a large wheel. This took a lot of people doing a lot of different things.”
A 2014 capital campaign garnered $6 million in pledges, and $4 million has already been paid in. Construction started in 2016. The budget for the construction is about $9.5 million.
“It’s exciting to be part of this and to see God’s vision come to life in three dimensions,” Dawson said. “Lee’s Summit is a great place to live, to work and to go to church.”
Building for the future is important to Jones. “For many years my family has actively been part of a church that we didn’t provide. It was already there, and had been provided by people who came before us,” Jones said. “Now it is our opportunity to provide something for future generations.”