Across America, congregations are in distress. Sometimes it’s because the members are elderly and can no longer take care of their beautiful, 100-year-old building. Other times it’s because the members are young, the church is vibrant and alive, but they’re meeting in a cold and drafty barn.

Doc, Gladimir and Rev Kev at a Biker Church

Then there are distressing situations in which the church treasurer has absconded with all the funds and there’s no money to pay the preacher, catch up on the mortgage or purchase Sunday school material.

So, what do you do? Sometimes the answers are obvious, says Kevin “Rev Kev” Annas, one of the stars of a National Geographic TV series, “Church Rescue,” which takes the successful idea behind “Extreme Make-Over: Home Edition,” “Kitchen Nightmares,” “Bar Rescue” and “Restaurant: Impossible” – but focuses on rehabilitating churches.

The show follows Annas and two friends, marketing specialist Anthony “Gladimir” Lockhart and pastoral counselor Jerry “Doc” Bentley, who call themselves “the Church Hoppers.” Traditionally a church-hopper is a discontented attendee who constantly switches from one church to the other in search of the perfect congregation – which, regrettably doesn’t exist. This church hopping trio accepts that reality and goes from one house of worship to the next as consultants – offering solutions to boost the ministry’s effectiveness.

The opening procession at Cowboy Church was not exactly traditional

The opening procession at Happy Trails Cowboy Church was not exactly traditional

“We simply go around the country working with religious organizations focusing not on their belief system but on their business, their staff and their marketing,” says Annas. “National Geographic follows us through that process, giving viewers an opportunity to see inside the different religious cultures, to watch a construction makeover and to observe an internal makeover – as we explore how each ministry works.

“In a week’s time, believe it or not, we will make over a church – and in one case a Jewish synagogue – uniting volunteers from the congregation with our own team to do a business makeover.”

What challenges has the team faced?

“From the construction perspective, probably the worst-case scenario is going to be an episode where we worked with a cowboy church. The reason it was a worst-case scenario was not necessarily the habitable condition of the space but the bland condition of the space.

“This cowboy church, not to give too much away, shares a facility with a saddle club, common to the east coast and especially to western North Carolina. It had a rodeo arena where they perform rodeos – an outdoor facility. They also had an indoor facility in the event of inclement weather. When we arrived there, we were challenged with

actually making the place look like, first of all, a cowboy church, and second of all, a church at all.

Doc, Gladimir and Rev Kev at a rural log church

Doc, Gladimir and Rev Kev at a rural Episcopal church

How easy is it – with a TV camera following the team around – to be effective in counseling staff?

“I am the confronter of our team,” says Annas. “I get the opportunity to speak to these pastors very candidly about the situation that we have arrived at. We don’t go in trying to change that ministry’s belief system. We believe that a church has its own special DNA, which begins with their pastor and their leadership team and everything God has given them that has made them successful. We try to help them deal with problems that have arisen – and to do what they do well even better.”

The churches they tackle on the show range from the North Carolina cowboy church to the synagogue at a popular beach to an inner-city congregation in the worst part of south central Los Angeles.

Each time the goal is to help the congregation and staff improve what they’re already doing – and consider ideas that will make things work better, such as move up from ledger-and-pencil bookkeeping to a good financial computer program.

At a synogogue in distress

Doc with synogogue kids at Venice Beach, California

“We want them to shine brightly,” says Annas. “In order for them to do that, they have to plug back into the core of what are they were created to be.”

How realistic is this version of “reality TV?”

“We thrive on truth,” says Annas. “Many times you have people failing at ministry because you have the right folks in the wrong place. We are able to identify the right people and the right place.

With an urban congregation

With an urban congregation

“We’ve done that more times than we can count because the essence is that there are many ideas and many beliefs about the individuality of a team and a church. We just identify the uniqueness of everybody on that team and help them excel.”

Running a church takes more than faith, after all. Even the holiest of institutions can fall victim to harsh realities. And that’s the mission of the Church Hoppers — to help faith-based organizations reestablish themselves in the marketplace so they can continue spreading the word and making the world a better place.

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