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View From the Potter's Wheel

Jennifer Hooks

How Potter's House in Dallas, Texas, is sculpting one of the most dynamic volunteer programs and children's ministries in America.

Potter's House church in Dallas, Texas, though young, is already legendary. Church founder, Bishop T.D. Jakes, is also legendary. The New York Times named him one of five preachers likely to succeed Billy Graham. He's been nominated for a Grammy Award. Home Life magazine named him as one of "10 Most Influential Christian Leaders." He received the Gospel Heritage Award for Ministry from Gospel Today Magazine. He's the prolific author of nearly 20 books, some of which have dominated the New York Times Best Seller List. Even Dallas awarded him a key to the city.

It's no surprise, then, that the people Jakes has chosen to lead Destiny House, the children's ministry at Potter's House, have the same visionary streak and ebullient spirit.

The heart and soul of Jakes' work is located on top of a sloping hill in the southern, very depressed section of Dallas. The building sits amid shifting prairie grass and thick patches of fragrant bluebonnets.

Potter's House has had its share of critics, which isn't altogether unexpected given the explosive success of the church that planted its roots in Dallas in 1996. This 28,000-member megachurch is the result of Jakes' irrepressible vision, and like many things that see rapid success, critics have gnawed at the heels of the church, alternately charging that the philosophy behind the church is empty and that it promotes wealth accumulation. A single visit to this south Dallas church, though, is an eye- and heart-opening experience. One is hard pressed to find anything to criticize about a program that's helping urban minority children-who so often get the short end of the stick-take control of their futures, learn accountability, cultivate moral fiber, develop marketable skills, give and receive respect, and above all, maintain a close and growing relationship with God.

Today is Tuesday, and the parking lot outside the church is almost empty and quiet. But inside the giant building, Children's Pastor Anthony Meyers' office is a hub of upbeat energy. He and his two right-hand ministry leaders, Education Coordinator Cynthia Hunt and Children's Ministry Coordinator Naomi Brown, are gathered around a glass-topped conference table.

The buzz in the air is infectious, and it's powered by the enthusiasm and passion of these three people. They clearly live, eat, and breathe the ministry they've hand-engineered over the past six years.

Curiously, their eagerness isn't to talk about everything this distinct ministry has accomplished in its short tenure. Instead, they're eager to share why this ministry is so important and how it's affecting the kids it reaches.

It's impossible not to get caught up in the enthusiasm that crackles inside Meyers' office. Simply listening to the three discuss the trials and triumphs they've experienced gives a glimpse of the raw love and the compelling drive they have for what they do.

MOLDING A LUMP OF CLAY
Destiny House took shape in a series of conversations between Meyers and Jakes shortly after Jakes moved his ministry from West Virginia to Dallas. Meyers admits that he was reluctant about the prospect of relocating to Dallas from Alabama to take over a children's ministry that wasn't already in place. He was already busy as an assistant pastor and at his job writing grants and directing federal programs for a local community college. But the opportunity to lead an emerging and promising children's ministry kept calling to Meyers, and in 1997, he answered the call.

"I like building and developing," says Meyers. "I get bored easily at work, and this was a job that wasn't going to let me get bored. It was an opportunity that would test all my skills and all my experience."

Sculpting and defining Destiny House was indeed a big job. There was no organizational structure, no manuals, no curriculum, no growth management plan -- all of which were very real problems since thousands of kids were already showing up each week.

"We were a megachurch. We had 3,000 kids. When you start looking at those numbers, sometimes it's real difficult to figure out, okay, how do we deal with this? And the numbers are growing all the time," Meyers says.

Meyers, who holds a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and a master's degree in education, set about molding the Destiny House ministry.

SETTING THE WHEEL IN MOTION
One of the toughest issues Meyers faced was to identify, assess, and address the needs of the people the Destiny House ministry would serve.

"We were a new church," Meyers says. "We didn't know the people coming to our church. We didn't know the kids. They come from all over the community. So there are many dynamics here that are different from a local church."

All the unknowns of the new ministry resulted in many successes and, naturally, some failures when new curriculum or programming was put in place.

"Some of the things I thought would work initially didn't because of the different types of people," recalls Meyers. "You try to see errors, just try to go through what worked -- this worked, this time...My focus was really building a framework for children's ministry -- developing manuals, developing a structure for growth. And one of the things I realized when I first got here was there are a whole lot of kids."

The church was booming -- so much so that PBS Moneywise reported Potter's House as dominating national church growth records with 7,000 members after one year, and 17,000 members after the second year. The growth has continued -- today Potter's House is home to 28,000 members and 6,500 children, infants, and toddlers.

"We went through this process of looking at volunteer training, going through curriculum, looking for what curriculum would work. There are lots of curricula out there that are great for 20 to 30 kids. I had 830 kids. What do I do with that?" asks Meyers.

Then there was the question of physical space -- there were too many kids and too few places to put them. "We got some portable classrooms. We ran the 7 a.m. service, 9:30, 11:45, and a 7 p.m. service, and we had children's ministry for all of those. And Saturday at 6 and Wednesday nights."

The ongoing growth eventually prompted a remodel. The sanctuary that had held Jakes' Sunday sermons became the children's church sanctuary. A new sanctuary and broadcasting studio with a $40 million pricetag replaced the old sanctuary.

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