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Faith Community founder catches a new vision

The Rev. Gregg Heinsch is starting over.

Twenty years ago, he founded a church in a meeting room of a Hudson motel that has grown to have an attendance some 1,100 people at its Sunday morning services.

Today, Faith Community Church has a 27,000-square-foot building on a 12-acre campus on Carmichael Road, long-range goals that include a new auditorium and a new education wing, and daughter churches in neighboring communities.

That kind of success attracted the attention of leaders in the Baptist General Conference, the denomination Faith Community is a part of. In early 2005, Heinsch will leave Hudson to serve as dean of a church-planting training center in Orlando, Fla., and start one of the flagship churches in an initiative the Baptist General Conference is calling Vision Florida.

"We'll do something similar to what we did here 20 years ago. We'll meet in a school or YMCA. We'll start holding services and grow the church," Heinsch said in an interview with the Star-Observer last week.

The decision to leave Faith Community Church and the community of Hudson wasn't an easy one.

"I thought we would be here for life," he said. "We love Hudson - everything about it. And we never wanted to move to Orlando. We love vacationing there, and always said when we came home, boy, we'd never want to live there."

Here's how the 45-year-old pastor's mind was changed - and his wife, Heidi, and children Luke, 19, Leah, 16, and Taylor, 13, came to accept the move.

At a pastors conference in Naples, Fla., last February, the Rev. Steve Johnson, who 20 years ago encouraged Heinsch to come to Hudson, talked to him about the Vision Florida initiative that he is directing. The plan of the Baptist General Conference is to plant dozens of churches in Florida, have them start daughter churches, and then take the model to other rapidly growing metropolitan areas like Las Vegas and Atlanta.

Johnson told Heinsch that he and the Rev. Steve Smith, executive minister of the Baptist General Conference churches in Florida, were going to be meeting with Al Weiss, president of Disney World, about a large donation to launch Vision Florida.

Johnson and Smith wanted Heinsch to share his story about the success of Faith Community Church with Weiss, who is the son of a Baptist General Conference minister.

Heinsch has known the two Steves for years.

After helping Heinsch establish Faith Community Church, Johnson pastored a church at Oshkosh for 19 years. He left that pulpit only recently to become director of Vision Florida.

Heinsch's friendship with Smith goes back to the days when they both helped out with youth camps at Wood Lake Bible Camp near Grantsburg. Smith used to pastor a church at Cumberland.

Disney World president encourages move

By the time they met with Weiss in March, Weiss no longer needed to be sold on Vision Florida. Instead, Weiss, Johnson and Smith asked Heinsch to plant one of the flagship churches in a rapidly growing area on the outskirts of Orlando.

"I told them it sounded really exciting, but I wasn't really that interested in it, but I would pray about it," Heinsch said.

The trio convinced Heinsch to bring his family to Orlando in June for a "vision tour" of the area.

A future suburb east of the Orlando airport where 22,000 homes are expected to be built in the next four years intrigued Heinsch. He also was interested in the offer to train the workers who would be involved in establishing the new Florida churches.

"I knew that if we are going to do this, the key is maintaining theological integrity and leadership development -- keeping those two together," he said. "You can have a church-planting movement that is driven by pragmatism, which is just, what does it take to get a crowd and get the offerings up and pay the bill? And you can have a church-planting movement that is driven more by a vision of God and his kingdom, and what God is up to. That's where my heart lies - on the theological end of the scale."

While Heinsch was now ready to consider moving to Orlando, he told Johnson and Smith that he wouldn't do it without the full blessing of Faith Community Church's board of elders.

He's had an excellent relationship with the board, he said. Two of its members - Joel Moore and Willard Schultz - did the interviewing when he was called to Hudson 20 years ago. Other members of the board are Steve Holsteen, Steve Bradt, Ron Schettle, Dan Fosterling, Dave Simons and the Rev. Larry Szyman, the church's acting lead pastor.

Some of the board members traveled to Orlando with Heinsch to meet with the leadership there and see what Vision Florida was all about. It was on that trip that Heinsch was formally offered the position of dean of the training center.

The Faith Community elders didn't want him to leave, Heinsch said, but after being introduced to Vision Florida he knew it was where his gifts could be put to best use for the kingdom of God.

The family agrees

His family also needed convincing.

Heidi's reaction when told Gregg her about his first meeting with Johnson, Smith and Weiss was, "We're not moving to Florida." She enjoys Hudson and teaching kindergarten students at Houlton Elementary School.

She and the children ultimately agreed, too, that Orlando was where they belonged, he said.

"I would have never gone down there without her believing it's what God wants us to do," Heinsch said. "There's real unity with the family over both the sadness of leaving Hudson and Faith Community and the sense that this is where God wants us for the next step in our lives."

Heinsch will continue preaching the Sunday sermons at Faith Community through Christmas Eve. He and the family plan to relocate to Orlando in January.

When Heinsch departs, the Rev. Tim Haugen, the newest member of the Faith Community pastoral staff, will take over most of the preaching duties.

Larry Szyman, Heinsch's associate at Faith Community for 13 years, is now the church's acting lead pastor.

The Rev. Tim Porter is pastor of discipleship and family ministries, and the Rev. Brian Crim is pastor of student discipleship.

"The church is sending us, that's really crucial to understand," Heinsch said. "We're not just resigning and going down there. They are sending us as the next church plant, and are going to support us with prayers and finances."

Several Faith Community families are considering relocating to Orlando with the Heinsches to help get the new church started.

Heinsch spoke about the radical demands of Jesus when he announced to the congregation in August that he was leaving. He called them the sweet demands of the kingdom.

"I mean, things are going great guns up here. All of the signs are healthy," he said last week. "There's absolutely nothing at Faith Community that is pushing us out. It's totally the draw down there of the need, and the match with my gifts."

The training center and church are still just concepts. No land has been purchased or buildings built.

What awaits him, Heinsch said, is "just an idea and a huge harvest field with 100,000 people moving in in the next four years."

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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