the shape of leadership

Between the Rockies and a Hard Place

A profile of church planter Leila Ojala

With average temperatures in the 30s, 175 inches of snowfall annually, and elevations that hug the timberline, Summit County, Colorado, hardly seems like the ideal location for planting anything.

It’s an especially harsh environment for church planting. The population is overwhelmingly millennial, unchurched, and transient, with more than 10,000 young adults coming to the ski resorts to work each winter and thousands more arriving to play, party and smoke pot for a season. Even the year-round residents seldom stay more than two years. And only 4 percent identify as evangelical Christians.

“It’s a hard mission field,” says Leila Ojala, lead pastor of Elements Church in the ski town of Dillon. “It’s like planting in a parking lot. We have to dig it up before we can start planting seed.”

Yet this rocky ground is where God called Ojala to put down ministry roots, and she is passionate about reaching the community. People here loathe religious pretense, but they are spiritually open and curious. They say what they mean, and they welcome differences.

“I get to be a part of a disciple-making movement — reaching the world from these mountains.”                                   — Leila Ojala

The outspoken 5-foot-2-inch Ojala — an ethnic minority as a person of Indian descent and a minority in her profession as a woman pastor — says she can appreciate that.

“We just really love the raw honesty, authenticity and transparency,” says Ojala, who serves alongside her husband, Eric, the church’s executive pastor. “This is so far above sea level that some people say they can’t breathe. I can breathe better here because there’s so much honesty.”

Though many of the locals have a low opinion of church, the congregation is gradually growing through relationship building. The transitory lifestyle of the area means few people have relatives nearby. In fact, Ojala says 95 percent of attendees do not have family members within 50 miles. Elements Church offers them a family culture and a place to call home, and seekers are responding to that.

“The beautiful thing is that people want that,” Ojala says. “Some have never experienced it. Many are here because they’ve run away from their families. We want to gain the capital to speak into their lives with the gospel.”

It’s an uphill struggle at times, but every victory, every changed heart, makes it worth the effort.

“How we measure success is based on what God is telling us instead of what other people are saying,” Ojala says. “Success is seeing individuals become disciples of Christ, and disciple makers, as the kingdom of God grows in and through their lives.

“What gets me up in the morning is not that I get to be a church leader, but that I get to be a part of a disciple-making movement — reaching the world from these mountains.”

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2017 edition of Influence magazine.

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