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Senior Pastor Ed Robb discusses church growth and leadership

September 7, 2018

What began as one man’s charge to start a church in small but growing area has turned into a 13,000-member congregation that hosts eight live services per week in five different formats.

Ed Robb, the senior pastor of The Woodlands United Methodist Church, simply knocked on doors 40 years ago to seek out congregation members and is still at the helm of the ship. He’s witnessed each step of the church’s growth, and he sat down with The Villager to talk about his involvement along the way.

QUESTION: Tell us the story of how you got to be where you are today.

ROBB: I graduated seminary. I worked for a Christian magazine for a couple of years, a year and a half, trying to figure out what exactly I should do with my life. I felt too young to be a pastor, not knowing that I really felt called to be a youth minister. But I knew I liked journalism, so I worked for this small Christian magazine, and then the bishop of the Texas Conference said they were starting a number of churches in the Houston area. I had met this bishop, and he said he thought I’d do a good job, and he’d like to appoint me to one (of the churches). I said, “Well I don’t know anything about starting a church,” and he said “You’ll learn.” And thus, we arrived in January 1978, and we began. So it’s been 40 years.

QUESTION: Your church is celebrating 40 years this year. What has it been like to see the growth over those four decades?

ROBB: Gratifying. A bit overwhelming. We’ve grown all along the way. The early years were slow growth. There weren’t many people in The Woodlands or in the surrounding area. But we continued, and as the growth of south Montgomery county increased, we had more opportunities, and our growth accelerated along with it.

QUESTION: What is it like for you to be here after 40 years?

ROBB: I never set out to stay in one place, it just happened. Perhaps it was providential, but it wasn’t by design on my part. We do have deep roots here. Our children grew up here, and went to preschool through high school graduation, and now are back and they have children. We’ve grown up with The Woodlands and have been very involved in the community, not just the church.

QUESTION: You said you weren’t sure what you wanted to do at first. Did you always feel called to ministry?

ROBB: I think I did. But, my father was a pastor. That being the case, I had a true struggle — (I thought) “am I just doing the easy thing that I’ve seen modeled before me, or am I really supposed to do this?” But looking back, I always had a very keen interest in church matters and theology. Now, I know it’s not just growing up in a parsonage. I have two sons who grew up in a parsonage and neither one felt the least bit interested (in pursuing this path).

QUESTION: Do you primarily preach now, or do you have a different role?

ROBB: We have 13 ordained pastors, appointed by the bishop. A large percentage of my time is spent in administration. I do preach, but I have good help because we have a number of other pastors who are good preachers.

QUESTION: What’s been the most exciting part of a church that started out so small and grew so big?

ROBB: It’s very pleasing to see, having been here now 40 years, the generations. We have four generations — babies, parents, grandparents and some great-grandparents — all in the same congregation. It’s been pleasing over the years to welcome so many new people, by the thousands, to get to know them and to hear how much the church means in their lives in terms of their own personal growth and their relationships — (they’ve met) people who become true, lasting friends, to the extent that they consider this home and don’t want to move.

We relocated in 2001, from our original campus on Panther Creek Drive. Being able to relocate with enough acreage to continue to grow and build the kind of buildings that we need, we’ve been very blessed in that sense.

QUESTION: What’s been the most challenging thing?

ROBB: Staff development is always a challenge. You need to get the right people in the right positions. Of course, when you have a large staff, at times, you have complications, and you have to make adjustments. Always developing and maintaining a high-quality staff is of prime importance.

QUESTION: Your church also has different worship venues — contemporary, traditional and modern — how did you develop that model?

ROBB: When we began in January of 1978, I knew nothing but traditional worship. That’s about all any church did that I knew of. So that’s of course the way we started. But by the ’90s, contemporary worship was beginning to gain a foothold. And people were responding to it, and very welcoming of that style of worship. I thought, if we’re going to continue reaching people, we need to have not just vanilla ice cream, but chocolate ice cream, too. Our style of worship is not dictated by scripture, it’s just custom. It’s cultural, and we need to adapt to the times, and so we did. We began a (contemporary) service called Harvest. We were fortunate that our first worship leader for that was Chris Tomlin. So he was with us about five years, and now is really the most-recorded music artist in the world, I suppose. All along the way, we’ve had extraordinarily good worship leaders and people engaged in the music.

Then, we had an opportunity in 2005 to buy the property adjacent to us, which had a warehouse. It was a medical supply warehouse, and in contemplating how we might use that 70,000 square foot building, we thought it could house our youth ministry. We thought we could start a counseling center, or it could be the home for our recreation ministry. Then, the idea came to me that we could start another contemporary service.

The Harvest meets here at the main campus. It has a dome, it looks rather formal, even though The Harvest itself is not formal. There might be people who are unchurched who might be reluctant to come to what looks like a starchy, formal church setting. We thought, in the warehouse, we might be able to attract more people who are unchurched, perhaps even more young adults. That’s been successful. On the weekends, we have three services at the Loft, two on Sunday morning and one on Saturday evening. The Harvest has three each weekend, two on Sunday morning and one on Sunday evening. We have three traditional services. Then we have our Woodforest Campus as well.

QUESTION: You’ve just raised about $30 million in a capital campaign. What is the plan to use those funds?

ROBB: As we have in previous campaigns, our first million we dedicated to missions, both local and international. We have a robust and very generous missions budget, still this gives us the opportunity to do more.

In terms of our own campus, about $7 million of that goes toward our Woodforest campus, building the first facility on the approximately 12 acres of property there. Construction will commence in September on that project. We’re all excited about that opportunity, because that congregation, which is part of our church, has grown rapidly. We have our own pastor and staff for that.

Here on our Woodlands Campus, we are converting our original gym into additional space for children and adults. It may surprise people, because as large as our church is, we still need more space. We’re replacing that gym with a new gymnasium, which is adjacent to our Family Life Center. That will house our recreation ministry, which is vibrant and thriving. So, that will bring us back to three gyms.

QUESTION: Do you plan to stay here until you retire?

ROBB: Well at this point, yes, I would think so. I have no immediate plans for retirement.

QUESTION: What is the most surprising thing that you never would have expected when the church was started 40 years ago?

ROBB: When we began in January 1978, there were less than 3,000 people in The Woodlands. Today, we have over 13,000 resident members. How could anyone have imagined that? Over the years we’ve been able to accumulate 40 acres — how could we have ever planned or expected it? It was a gift from God.

QUESTION: In what ways are you involved in the community?

ROBB: Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of serving on the boards of a number of our local institution. The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, Center for Performing Arts, I was board of director there for several years. South County YMCA, Interfaith, where I serve now and have served previously several times. And (The Woodlands Township) government. It’s been a privilege to help shape our town government as we know it today. I’ve served every elected office we have: treasurer, secretary, vice chairman, chairman. I retired two years ago from that and was pleased to say I was never defeated. I now serve as a director, a trustee of the Houston Methodist hospital system, which is over all their hospitals.

QUESTION: What do you like to do in your free time?

ROBB: I like to try to improve golf, breaking 100 is always a happy day for me. We love traveling, my wife, Beverley, and I. We travel frequently abroad. Of course, reading and grandkids, too.

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