Interview with Phil Kniesel
Phil Kniesel

Phil Kniesel is the Lead Pastor at Hope City Church (formerly Mill Woods Assembly) in Edmonton, Alberta. He and his team have a God-inspired vision to reach 1% of Edmonton, and in order to reach that goal, they are starting their first multisite in southwest Edmonton this fall! In this interview, Pastor Phil shares a bit about their journey and some of the lessons being learned in their pre-launch season. This is a great story growing, and a win for the City of Edmonton!

Give us a bit of your history at Mill Woods Assembly.

I’ve been at Mill Woods Assembly for 12.5 years. I started as the lead pastor for the Project, which is our Sunday night service targeted towards a young adult demographic. After 8 years I transitioned to the Associate Pastor role and then for the last 2.5 years I’ve been in the Lead Pastor position.  

What were the biggest shifts for you personally and professionally in taking the lead role?

You definitely carry the weight of the church in a whole different way than when you are a staff member. Everything, and I mean everything, matters when you’re in this role. I have also felt more stress, however that has caused me to become more structured and consistent with patterns that help me to thrive. I’ve become regimented in personal growth, exercising, balancing work and family, and continually expanding my learning and leadership experience. I also realized very quickly that I was now a pastor to my staff as well as a pastor to the congregation.

What lead you to the robust vision of reaching 1% of Edmonton?

Probably the biggest single factor would be the great commission mandate as stated by Jesus. Secondly, I would say a vision needs to be something big that actually scares you a little bit. We are in a large metro city and I wanted to set a vision that wasn’t easy to reach and that would drive all that we do and try to accomplish. I also believe people rally behind a big vision and get excited when they start to see it as a possibility. Keeping that in mind, I make sure we celebrate wins along the way. I remember when the Lord put this on my heart. I presented it to our pastoral staff like this: Team, I want to share something that may or may not resonate with you but I think God might be in this. When I shared it with our pastoral team they all, one by one, felt the same drive in their hearts. It was a real Holy Spirit moment for our pastoral team – one that solidified the vision of having 1% of Edmonton call our church home. It echoes the phrase from Acts that says “it seemed right to the Holy Spirit and us”.

What changes have you had to make at the main campus to help facilitate this new initiative?

We had to quit some things that were really good in order to do some things that are even better. That meant shutting down our choir, which has been running since the beginning of our church. It wasn’t an easy decision but one that we knew needed to be done in order to effectively facilitate five services each Sunday morning. They were currently only ministering in one of our three services. We also aligned our current three morning services in regard to worship style. We used to run a more contemporary/traditional service as one of the three. We have now aligned the services, which means they are all the same.  Our services lean young and are designed for those people who aren’t here yet. That was a tough decision and it doesn’t come without tension.

The other thing we had to do was release some of our best team (volunteers) in order to have quality people leading things at the new Terwillegar campus. It was made really clear to every department that leadership development needs to be at the top of our list to continue moving forward and prepping us for our next campus.

Another macro change was to our name. You can’t call yourself Mill Woods Assembly in Terwillegar since both are neighborhood names. So, we have changed our name to Hope City Church – Mill Woods Campus and Terwillegar Campus. 

I was also very intentional about saving money out of our budget each month for two years prior to our launch. I felt it was necessary to learn how to budget on a little less and prep ourselves for our next as a church – which meant financially prepping ourselves. This also included launching the position of Campus Pastor and four part-time positions for the new campus. I am staffing for growth.

As a church we prayed a lot for this new campus. Our prayer teams, prayer nights, prayer partners and pretty much every emphasis on prayer included praying for the campus.

You’re in the end part of your pre-launch season. What has been the most surprising part of this process for you?

I love the excitement it has created in our church. There is literally a buzz within our people. They are super jacked about us going into the south end of our city and trying something new. I love how we currently have 215-250 people committed to making this happen and ready to attend and serve at the campus. We will be launching with double services right out the gate.

I have also been blessed by the financial support that we have received through this. It goes to show you that with big vision people will step up and want a part of it. I have honestly been brought to tears a few times when I see the incredible passion that exists for this campus within the people of our church.

We have a saying in our church that goes like this: “we can’t stay here”. I believe it’s based on a scriptural premise that momentum and forward motion is always part of the Christian life and it needs to be part of the church’s life as well. I love how our congregation fully believes that motto.

What are you most excited about with your new multi-site?

By far, it would be reaching people who aren’t here yet. Reaching into suburbia and helping people make sense of biblical truth and how it relates to their lives. We truly believe that following Jesus is the best decision anyone can make, so I’m excited about seeing salvation after salvation. Honestly that never gets old. I’m also excited to see some people who have been part of our church as attenders step up and be an integral component of making this site happen through serving. That’s cool – I always say you grow closer to Christ when you serve.

What would you say to a Senior Pastor wanting to reach their community through multi-sites?

 I would say the following:

  1. Know it’s from God - make sure God is calling you to do this.
  2. Know that it’s going to be a lot of work. Be prepared for it and do your best to know what you will be facing. (We did over a year of research on multisite churches, we were part of a Leadership Network cohort, and I brought in experts in the field to help guide, coach, and lead us through this process.)
  3. Know it’s going to cost some money. You can’t do this without finances.
  4. Know it’s going to change the make-up of your church.
  5. Know that you are going to grow by doing this.
  6. Go for it. As one of the coaches said to me: healthy churches need to do multisite.