Leading "The BUC-EE'S Church"


Rev. Matt Neely, pastor of Watershed UMC, League City has lived into several leadership lessons in the process of starting a church right across the street from a well-loved Texas phenomenon super-station-store called Buc-ee’s in League City. Learn how a leader takes a church from zero to 300 in a matter of years.


Six years ago, The Watershed UMC was just an idea. About 30 people from Clear Lake UMC met in Rev. Matt and Ginger Neely's living room in League City, and “most had no idea of exactly what they were getting themselves into, including the pastor,” admits Reverend Matt Neely.  


As he reflects on the milestones of launching a new church start, he is celebrating God’s blessings on the process. Matt notes, “When we fast-forward six years to the present, it’s exciting to realize the original group of 30 has multiplied to nearly 300!” The modern style of worship at The Watershed appeals to many. “Hymns, creeds, and sacraments all have their place here,” he says, “but we just help them find a more modern expression.”


On February 24th, The Watershed United Methodist Church opened its first phase facility at 1751 E. League City Parkway, right across from Buc-ee's. In fact, Rev. Neely actually says that most people who know of The Watershed refer to it as the 'Buc-ee’s church'.  However, he adds, “The Watershed wants to be known for spreading God's love to inspire Christ-centered living. Facing outward to the community is in the DNA of the people here.  That is the vision God gave us from the beginning of the church. “


With a Little Help From our Friends

“God's hand has been apparent in the way our sister UMCs have supported The Watershed and made this journey possible,” he adds. “The Watershed exists today because of the generosity of God's people who invested generously in their own future, joining with the Texas Annual Conference, the district churches, our mother church (Clear Lake UMC) and our sister church (Moody Memorial UMC). Additionally, Bay Harbor and League City UMC gave us places to meet when we needed them.  If any of these people or groups had not believed in this church and its vision, we simply would not be here and several hundred people would not have a church home."


Leadership Lesson #1: Define Your Focus

The Watershed UMC is a young, kid-heavy and small-group-driven church, which focuses on three primary strategies: worship, deepen, and impact.  Leaders ask members to live their life by that rhythm, committing to be fully present to God and one another through corporate and private worship, growing in their knowledge of God and their friendships through a deeper group experience, and finding a place to impact the world both inside and outside of the church.


"I am convinced that one of our primary challenges in any church is a lack of focus," Pastor Matt suggests. "When we try to do everything… we often do nothing well.  Instead, we work to communicate the vision through every possible avenue: bulletins, meetings, the building design and even going as far as only announcing things in the service that apply to our three key strategies.”


Lesson #2: Try New Things

The Watershed’s unique 'all-family' Sunday School model gives the church a distinctive “hook” for area families. Every week, parents who have infants thru 5th grade gather for an all-family Sunday School experience where there are videos, skits, songs and a monthly theme and bible memory verse. “We follow that up with something every family craves more of . . . family time that focuses on the theme of the day. This model is the one we feel best allows us to partner with parents as they raise their children in Christ.”


Reverend Matt’s vision for The Watershed is to be creative and relevant in ministry. “When newcomers prefer an age-divided Sunday School program, I point them to some of the other great churches in the area that offer the kind of program they're looking for. “ In spite of the occasional naysayers, leaders felt this was an inspired part of the initial vision and worth championing.


Lesson #3: Solicit Feedback

It is encouraging and enlightening to ask members what brings them and keeps them at Watershed. Brian Cathey’s family moved from San Antonio to the Clear Lake area in May 2009. “My wife and I had lived in the area before and attended different churches but never made any of them our church home. When we came back to the area, we wanted to raise our two boys in church and joined The Watershed because the people were friendly, knew our names, and made us feel very welcome.  At other churches we came in and left and no one knew we had been there.” Additionally, the Catheys liked the family focus on all parts of ministry that was very evident.  “It is exciting to worship and serve together with our two sons, and it makes conversations with them about God and Christ more natural.” As it happens, the Catheys visited on a day when Kindness Explosion (a day where church is cancelled and we go out and serve the community) was being discussed.  He adds, “The idea of helping others was important to us to develop a generous, caring, and grateful spirit not only in ourselves, but also in our children. We also were drawn to the authenticity of the message and pastor. Being able to have a message that I can apply God’s word to my daily life is important and gives me tidbits to think about throughout the week.”


Another Watershed ‘regular,’ Trevor Brasel, says, “When my family and I moved from Los Lunas, NM, to League City in February 2012, I often questioned if I made the right decision. I realized quickly that the people were different here, the weather was different, and the job was definitely different. I now know that God led us to League City to find a church that was different. It isn't because of work, people, or weather, but rather because of Christ and the work that He wants us to do through The Watershed that we stay. We welcome the opportunities to get to know Jesus more and live through Him and we have found The Watershed to be the perfect place for us to do that.”


Lesson #4: Involve Everyone

Members are encouraged to join small groups of 8-12 that meet on a weekly basis. “These groups exist to help people deepen their friendships with one another, their knowledge of God, and their impact on the community and there is one available just about every night of the week,” Reverend Matt says. He also tries to involve everyone in getting the word out about the church. “Watershed is working to create a culture of inviting, but has also relied on billboards, postcards, and invitation cards, and even references to Buc-ee’s to get them to come to church.”


Lesson #5: Keep an Eye to the Future

"We're in the process of taking our outreach ministries to the next level through what we're calling our Impact Project that attempts to move us beyond charity towards compassion,” he adds. “This will be an intentional effort to move away from one-time giving opportunities into more of an on-going relational approach to ministry. Under the leadership of Michael Gienger and outreach team co-chairs Jill Moody and Melanie Dodd, he hopes this effort will transform the way The Watershed thinks about ministry in the community. Notes Michael, "We are excited about relational ministry that deals with people and processes, not projects and products. Instead of asking them to come to us, we want to imitate what Christ did by walking alongside, and even living among, those we serve."


Completing the first-phase facility is just the beginning.  He hopes this facility gives Watershed the ability to knock out walls and simply expand at a reduced cost for as long as possible. “We are already going to a second service to accommodate growth and will continue to do that for three services as well...as long as we can.”