Entrepreneur-focused church plant launches in Richmond, VA area
Written by Bethany Dzielski
It’s a typical weekday at Real Life Center for Entrepreneurial and Leadership Excellence in Midlothian, Virginia. In a room with expansive windows, entrepreneurs sit at long tables with laptops, their minds churning out business strategies, occasionally looking up to gaze out the windows at a view of the lake. Groups meet over coffee to brainstorm. A young man with a vision and a button-up shirt meets with a smiling leadership mentor.
But on Sunday, team members put away all the tables and set up chairs in their place—preparing for a service at Real Life Church.
Real Life Church is the first AG church in the nation to launch as a business incubator. The church launched on January 17, 2016 in Midlothian, Virginia, under lead pastor Dr. Svetlana Papazov and her husband, Michael, who leads worship.
Before the church’s official launch, the couple also had a “soft launch” for the Real Life Center for Entrepreneurial and Leadership Excellence— a co-working space and hub of entrepreneurial innovation and development to help aspiring entrepreneurs develop the skills to start, or take to the next level, their own small businesses.
“When people asked us why we moved to Richmond, and we told them that we came to plant a church—they weren’t interested,” Svetlana says. “But, when we told them that we came to create a small business incubator and entrepreneurial center, to help bring new jobs and help the creative minds dream again—that excites people!”
With 13 yeas as small business owners, including running their own landscape architecture business, as the Papazovs did business God was at the center of their lives. They led their business as a mission, giving customers Bibles as thank-you gifts and praying with those who were receptive.
The Papazovs saw a growing disconnect among small business owners—a disconnect between faith and the marketplace. “Entrepreneurs are the most bold individuals in our communities. But, you usually don’t see them in church,” Svetlana says.
In 2002, God began to lay it on Svetlana’s heart to create a church where “business is the front door” to draw in the unchurched and serve small business owners. She didn’t know what that looked like. At the time she was a CEO and landscape architect with a master’s degree in landscape architecture—not prepared to lead a church or launch this unusual vision that God had given her.
In order to prepare for what God had called her to do, Svetlana needed to pursue more education. She went on to earn a Master’s of Theology from Southwestern Assemblies of God University and a Doctor of Ministry in Leadership from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.
Svetlana also taught as an adjunct profession at Southwestern Assembly of God University, teaching economics and leadership and served as a pastor of spiritual formation at Fellowship of Joy Church while the couple lived for several years in Texas. The couple moved to Maryland, where Svetlana served at the executive pastor of Our Father’s House Assembly of God Church until relocated to Richmond to launch Real Life.
“In preparation to launch the church, I needed to get my diplomas and gain these experiences to add some validity to what I wanted to do. Looking back, I can see how during every step of the way God was preparing me ,” she says.
The day after receiving her diploma for her doctorate in May of 2013, Svetlana met with Steve Pike, then the director of Church Multiplication Network to share her vision with him. He was really excited and got Svetlana started on her journey.
Steve also introduced Svetlana to Jeff Leake, president of Reach Northeast, via email. After a discovery interview and a meeting to look at the vision, Jeff said, “Yes, we will help you.”
“Jeff and Reach Northeast really came alongside us and believed in us. Many others didn’t understand our vision, but Jeff supported us 100%. And it was never an issue—never even mentioned—that I’m a woman,” Svetlana says. “We’ve never felt as welcomed as we did when we visited Jeff’s church, Allison Park Church. We were treated like gold when people found out we were church planters. I’m so grateful to Reach Northeast and Allison Park Church.”
In 2014, the Papazovs moved to Richmond and integrated into the entrepreneurial community. They began holding “interest socials” to grow their launch teams and gain interest in the church and entrepreneurial center.
As the Entrepreneurial Center developed, it now has paid members who can work in the space during the week and get advice and mentoring from Svetlana. “When I do programs at the center, I bring my leadership training, economics and entrepreneurship expertise to the table, but I also bring my faith. I bring the fact that God is the creator, that to co-create with God is why we were created,” she says. “I teach that you can only flourish in your business and in your life as much as your soul is flourishing,”
The Papavzovs launched Real Life Church on January 17, 2016 with 64 people, despite inclement weather. “When people walk in and see the huge windows and gorgeous view of the lake they think ‘this doesn’t look anything like church.’ And that’s exactly what we want. We’ve seen so many unchurched people, many from the entrepreneurial center, attend on a Sunday.”
Allow the following week the church had to close because of a blizzard, more than 90 people watched the service on Periscope. Since then, Real Life has maintained it’s numbers and seen dozens watching on Periscope each weekend. Real Life Church is already holding their first membership orientation class because several attendees are interested in becoming members.
Click here for more information and Real Life Church and Entrepreneurship Center.