Common Core Issues
Having served on the ground with over 500 churches, our team has identified some common core issues that seem to get churches stuck. Last week, we addressed the core issue of churches with an inward-focus. It’s clear that when this issue takes root, the church is headed towards decline.
Today we’re talking about a different kind of core issue; one that causes churches to stunt their own growth and potential. It’s the challenge of empowering leaders, especially high-level volunteer leaders, in the ministry of the church.
COMMON CORE ISSUE: EMPOWERING LEADERS
Ephesians 4:11-12 says that “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” Yet a lot of our time is spent trying to do all the work of ministry by ourselves.
This week, Amy and I were joined by Andrea Lathrop, Executive Pastor of Leadership Development at Oaks Church and a consultant with us at The Unstuck Group. Andrea recently received her Doctorate of Ministry in Leadership and Global Perspectives after completing her doctoral thesis on empowering leaders, so we knew she was the best person to talk to when it came to exploring this core issue.
As leaders, we know that there are only so many hours in a day and that, if we want the impact of our ministry to grow and multiply, we have to begin giving leadership away and empowering others to do the work of the church. Andrea described it as learning how to “change the world without exhausting ourselves.” But a lot of the time it’s easier said than done. Andrea and Amy discussed:
- 3 key ministry mindset shifts
- The cultural conditions needed for leadership development
- Balancing excellence and empowerment
- Creating a staffing pipeline for future leaders
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- Designed to Lead by Eric Geiger and Kevin Peck
- 3 Questions to Improve Your Church Leadership Development
- Discover The Unstuck Process
Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Having served on the ground with over 500 churches, our team has identified some common core issues that seem to get churches stuck. Complexity, unclear discipleship strategies and inward focus all land toward the top of the list, but one possibly more than the other stands out when churches get stuck. On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy are joined by Andrea Lathrop, Executive Pastor of Leadership Development at Oaks Church in Dallas, Texas, for a conversation about how to develop and empower leaders in the church. As you’re listening today, don’t miss the opportunity to join Tony and Amy on August 13th for the exclusive podcast coffee hour. All you need to do to join them is leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, take a screenshot of your review and tweet it to us @unstuckgroup or @TonyMorganlive using the #unstuckchurch. You can also email us a picture of the review to Jordan@theunstuckgroup.com. Anyone who sends us a review, will get an exclusive invitation to join Tony and Amy on zoom for a virtual coffee hour on August 13th. Now let’s join today’s conversation with Tony and Amy.
Amy, we’ve built this podcast around sharing the conversations that we’ve been having with the pastors we’re serving. And today’s topic is a conversation I know you have frequently. I know this because I do, too. It’s the challenge of empowering leaders, especially high-level volunteer leaders in the life of ministry of the church.
That is so true. I think most leaders in the church, we know we need to do this, but many of us don’t feel like we’re doing it very well. I actually remember, Tony, four or five years ago when a few of us gathered at your home in Atlanta, in your basement, to refresh the staffing and structure phase of our process. And I remember this was one of the issues, even back then, that we hunkered down on for a while. And we talked through Ephesians 4:11-12, you know, where it’s written, “Now these are the gifts that Christ gave to the church, the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers.” And here’s the kicker. “Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ,” and that phrase, their responsibility is to equip, this is where I think we know, but the how often remains a challenge.
Yeah, Amy, that’s actually one of my life verses, and you can probably see a lot of the mission of The Unstuck Group is coming out of that call to equip the people of God to accomplish his work. And, well on this topic, we have a great person from our team speaking to this today, Andrea Lathrop. Andrea serves our churches primarily in our Unstuck Team space, but she recently got her Doctorate of Ministry in Leadership and Global Perspectives. And Amy, you had a chance to catch up with her, so I’ll let you take the lead in introducing her.
Yeah, I love Andrea. She’s one of those people that when you spend time with her, you always leave just a little bit better. And she’s been serving in the church, I think for over 20 years. She lives in Texas now, but did you know that she has Minnesota roots, Tony?
I did not know that.
Which I love as a fellow Minnesotan, and you can just see it in her, right? But she served on the executive team at Christ Fellowship in West Palm Beach, down in Florida. And she’s currently serving as the Executive Pastor of Leadership Development at Oaks Church in Dallas, Texas. And in my interview with Andrea, she shares her perspectives on just what it takes to get an empowered leader culture embedded into your church. And as I started the interview, I asked her why she chose her Doctoral Thesis on empowering leaders. And so she starts the interview with her response to that question.
My focus was really trying to explore the connection between the theological truth that God is not a user and how charismatic, ministerial leaders change the world without exhausting themselves. And really it was just such a privilege to kind of study my own story and trying to kind of make the correlation between how high of a view we have of God and how work and mission, how heavy it weighs. And so I started like kind of using the research question, you know, are there beliefs and practices that evangelicals in particular bring to working kind of for God that make it difficult to imagine working with God? And how would that like a theology of contemplative activism change that? And that theology of contemplative activism is kind of where I ended up going with my thesis. And again, really the story of my life, that there is in our lives for God and on mission that there’s room for both a lot of action but also a lot of intimacy with God. And those things aren’t mutually exclusive.
Well, Andrea, why do churches struggle to empower leaders? And by the way, feel free to speak to empowering volunteer leaders as well as staff leaders, but maybe let’s start on the volunteer side of things.
Well, because volunteers aren’t paid staff, so their availability is different, right? And leading people that we don’t pay also has its own challenges I think is as well. So there’s, you know, there have to be other motivations in play for them and for us as opposed to just being able to direct someone’s work. So I think because ministry is challenging and there’s a lot of pressures, there’s a lot of responsibilities. It’s hard work that sometimes the work that is longer term in its fruit can get put on the back burner. And what I mean is that like the tyranny of the urgent, at least for me, is where I find myself living and working a lot of times. And so it’s like whatever’s most urgent, whatever’s right in front of me. And usually developing leaders and empowering leaders is a different kind of work, it’s if you’re familiar with cubbies like quadrants, it’s usually in the important, but not necessarily urgent, quadrant. And so sometimes it’s hard to get to, especially when our important and urgent quadrant is full, which I would think in this last season of ministry leadership, it would be for most. And so I think it’s hard sometimes to get to that kind of work that’s so important and so much a part of the call of ministry leadership. And sometimes, I think for me, I’ve struggled to have kind of a theological conviction around empowerment and equipping. And as I’ve gotten that deeper in my heart, it has helped me prioritize it. As opposed to just boy, maybe I could get work done more or like a work hack technique, or maybe I could get to some things I’m not able to get to if I would empower some people around me, but more really studying scripture and seeing the example of Jesus and Paul’s admonitions, or even an old Testament example in Moses, and getting that like conviction, this is at least a chunk of what I’m called to do is to equip and to give ministry away. And that has helped me then go, okay, how, when, where can I prioritize it?
Yeah, it’s almost as you speak of it, it’s almost a discipline. Because it’s an undeveloped muscle probably in a lot of us because I agree, I love to live in the important and the urgent. But you’ve got to develop those muscles to get there. Would you have any additional comments, Andrea, as it relates to empowering staff leaders? So not just volunteer leaders but staff leaders?
Yeah. I think my paradigm of being a vocational minister, the focus, I think, for me naturally, and I’m not necessarily proud of this has been on my leadership, how well I’m doing, how much influence in space I have in the organization. And it’s taken me a lot of years and some pain to get to it’s really about making space and developing others. It’s not really about me as much as I think I initially thought, and in ministry, it’s about others and kind of that others focus. I think that has helped me with staff go, I could lead this. I could lead this agenda item. I could be kind of front and center on this, or I could give someone else a rep. I could give someone else an opportunity. And, you know, again, getting in touch with not just the theological side of that, but also the, I think, the psychological and sociological side of it too, that once people have their basic need met of, you know, belonging and love that that need for growth and development is so strong in people. And if we want to keep our staff and keep them, you know, growing and thriving in our organization, I think we have to find ways of making space for them, getting out of the way and letting other people shine. And that hasn’t always come naturally to me.
That’s really well said, well, you know, I spend a lot of time working with churches on the staffing and structure side of their Unstuck engagement. And honestly, it’s rare when I hear about high-level leaders that are actually engaged in the life of the ministry. Has that been your experience as well, Andrea?
That’s a real tension. And I’ve noticed it now for almost two decades. I’ve noticed sometimes when they’re really bought in and have been around church for a really long time, they feel maybe safe enough to say I have more in me to do, but I don’t see how you need me. And one of my concerns is, you know, can we deliver on this promise? Like if you’ll do what we tell you to do, go through, you know, our leadership training stuff, like you will have really amazing opportunities. And so I think finding ways of giving people more to do than just kind of entry-level serving positions is a challenge for church leaders. And I don’t have as many examples as I’ve liked. For us, I think, the board of directors and our board of elders, we actually have two governing bodies, which has helped us empower more high-level leaders and core leaders, but then we’ve started going, okay, what if you’re in charge of like the altar and the follow-up and what if we gave that to, you know, our dream team? Which is what we call our volunteers here. And with those that have gone through a process to give them even more spiritual leadership and ownership at higher levels, or I’ve brought into meetings or brainstorm meetings or design meetings I’ve brought in outside highly engaged people that are amazing leaders in the marketplace. And just ask them to join meetings here, if they can, or we’ll work around their schedule, to use, you know, their gifts for the church’s good.
Yeah. I think you nailed it. It’s sometimes we don’t know how we can engage high-level volunteers. I’ll give you an example at my church years ago. We were really stuck on how we were doing local and global outreach. And of course that was under our discipleship director or whatever, you know, comparable title is out there. And we ended up tapping a gal from our, I shouldn’t say a gal. She was, I mean, C-suite employee out of Minneapolis in Chicago. She had recently retired, and her name just must’ve come to mind to our discipleship director. And he challenged her. He said would you give us eight hours a week for the next two years? And help us really rethink our strategies for local and global outreach and lead the teams that are responsible to that? And it was such, this was her area of passion, and she did. She volunteered. She didn’t want to work full-time, but she did volunteer her time to her passion area and her leadership gifts. And she completely revamped the way we approached local and global. I think we’re still doing it her way 10 years later. So just, that was a great example that I often lead with, just to think about why, you know, we probably can use high-level volunteers in some spaces where we assume staff leadership first. Well, let me ask you this, Andrea. If churches want to create a culture where ministry is given away and people are empowered, talk to me about the cultural conditions that need to be present in order for that empowerment, you know, to truly take off.
Sure. I go first with culture usually to what’s being celebrated? What’s being highlighted? How do we talk about wins? And I’ve noticed that a couple of times over the years, I’ve noticed the shift between celebrating staff that has killed themselves, you know, and that is, you know, worth celebrating, I guess at some level, like gone the extra mile, you know, worked 80 hours, did whatever it took. And I remember sitting in a staff meeting and thinking what will have to change for us is that that actually is not the win it used to be. What will have to be the win is that they weren’t crushed by that week of ministry, but actually they had raised up and given pieces of that away and involved and empowered people around them to do what they were previously doing. But we’d have to start celebrating different things. And I remember early on, when we kind of said, hey, the rock stars here are going to be the ones that equip and release and empower people. So I know in the past the rock stars have been the ones that have been doing all of the work. We’re going to change what’s most valued here, and we’re going to change what we’re looking for. And I remember a ministry associate kind of being honest with me and saying, I’m concerned about my job security. If I give all this stuff away, if I have people making the phone calls or doing the follow-up or, you know, organizing that event or that meeting, and you will see you don’t need me and I might lose my job. And so I haven’t empowered people because I want you to see how needed I am here. And I was like, oh, let’s talk about that. And again, just really challenged her. I’m like, I can’t promise you you will always have a job, but I can promise you that job security is actually tied to your ability to empower and to give it away than it is to keep it and hoard it. So that’s what we’re looking for. That’s what we’re wanting to celebrate. And so that was, that has been a big factor, I think, is looking at what we celebrate. And I think one of the things I’ve also noticed is most large, fast-paced churches have a value of excellence. And I think there is a real place for that in the church. And I understand where that came from, I think really, maybe after the like seventies and eighties and you know, this emphasis on leadership, and, I think, excellence kind of followed with that. I think we have to keep wrestling though with it culturally, as a staff to go, what do we mean by excellence? And do we at least have the same value on development to kind of balance that out? Because sometimes I think excellence, if we overuse that, it can keep us from letting other people do things. And because we lose a little bit of the control sometimes, right? And sometimes it’s a little messier, and I think there’s a way to still value excellence and doing things well and the best we can while also having a culture of development and empowering people.
Yeah, it’s the both-and. And I’m guessing there’s some areas of service where development is actually more important than excellence. And then there’s other areas where excellence is probably more important than development and being wise enough to discern where that is. If we have teaching on the weekend, we do want our teachers to develop, but I often tell churches, the platform is really the primary to use your gifts. You will get developed, but we don’t want to experiment too much on the one hour that someone finally gave us. But there’s other areas where that reality is probably flipped. Andrea, as you talk, I can just hear the passion in your voice around this area. Plus I can see your face cause I get to see you while we’re recording this. But somewhere along your journey, this must have become a passion area for you. What triggered that?
Two things, I think. One, I had to see it for myself. I wasn’t even wise to look for it like this other way of doing ministry that was again, really others centric instead of self-centric. And I had to see it. We, my husband and I went to Saddleback for some other reasons during a work week, and my mind was blown. And so it kind of blew up my whole paradigm for ministry because I saw something I had never seen before. They had volunteer teams at every level of the organization doing, you know, sermon research for Pastor Rick, watering plants, like anyone on the staff. They’re like, oh, we don’t water the plants here in the office. I’m like, huh. They paid someone to kind of, among other things, kind of coordinate the receptionist role, but they had the receptionist role completely covered by men and women who had retired and were willing to serve in that capacity. They had, like, I think at the time, 75% of their groundskeeping was done by volunteers. I mean, I’m like what? So that really challenged me and kind of lit a fire in me. Something felt right about that. And I think seeing it kind of changed how I saw that. Like, oh, this is possible. And like, what if we started trying to identify the assets and the gifts within, you know, the body that God has given us and see the ways that they can be on mission with us and build the kingdom and kind of go beyond just our basic Sunday morning serve teams of ushering and greeting? And what about during the work week or, you know, evenings or other weekend responsibilities that we could kind of share the load. And so I think that, and then again, I think that part of me that God really helped me, as I matured and as I kept walking with Jesus, was like ministry leadership is such a privilege and it’s really about stewarding and making space for other people. It’s like I said earlier, it’s just not as much about me as I had previously thought. So I think those things kind of collided at the same time. And then that is who I’ve endeavored to be and organizations I’ve loved being a part of is just a really strong value on dream team and volunteers and empowering high-level leaders.
Well, for our listeners who might be recognizing that they have some work to do in this area, Andrea, what are a few steps that you think they can just begin to take to start moving in a new direction?
I think evaluating your calendar. When I came back from Saddleback, I remember looking at kind of my task list in a given week or a given month or how I was spending my time and noticing I was spending almost no time with people outside of church staff. I was not intentionally bringing anyone, any volunteers, kind of into my world and into my projects and responsibilities. And so I started adjusting how much time I was spending, you know, just meetings and started making space for meeting with leaders that were already drawn to me or I was drawn to, and meeting with them, asking them good questions. And like you said, not always leading with an apology, but believing that this, you know, God had this for them as well. So I think calender is a really practical evaluation. You know, how much time are you spending developing people and empowering people? And you could think of your next event, or maybe that’s too big. You know, think of your next meeting or, you know, a smaller departmental event or a board meeting. You could bring, you know, 1, 2, 3, volunteers in it with you and walking along with you, you could give them a real role or responsibility, or I think with staff, and sometimes volunteers, if it makes sense, that is there an agenda item in one of those meetings upcoming that you could give to someone else to lead that discussion or to present on that, especially if it’s in their area of expertise or passion? And that gives you an opportunity to kind of meet with them beforehand and invest in them that way, talk about the meeting, and even do some follow-up afterwards, especially if that’s something that they want to grow in in their own leadership. So I try to do that with most of my meetings. It’s like, do I have to lead this? I have to say these things? Could someone else? And that would give them an opportunity.
One of the things I’ve seen, Andrea, across the country this past year is a lot of staff openings. And, you know, question I get from pastors all the time are where do we start looking? But as you’re talking, if we do get people engaged in the ministry and then develop the ones that have the leadership gift to start leading other people, and then maybe even some of them taking the next notch up to actually be able to be the person who’s leading the people who are leading other people, when we have staff openings, wouldn’t it be great if we could just look within and say, I think they’re ready, right? For the next tier. So it’s also in a sense, a staffing pipeline for future leaders on the team. All right. Well, any final thoughts, Andrea, thank you for your time today. Any final thoughts you’d like to share before we close?
Yeah, I was challenged recently by something I heard a well-known pastor share. He said, you know, we don’t find leaders, we build leaders. And I think I was challenged by that because even after my conviction around this and what we’ve just been talking about, I still see that, sometimes in my mindset, that we can just find them. They’re out there. And so I love what you just shared about, developing people so intentionally that when there are openings that they’re there. They already have our heart and know our culture, and we’ve built them. And so I have been recently kind of refocusing on that. Who am I building? And instead of just trying to find people that are already pre-built and all the work’s been done and, you know, already baked, you know. I’m so grateful that people have taken the time and are still taking the time with me and my leadership. So it’s good work. It’s the work God has called us to, and he’s with us in that work. It’s so close to his heart. And so I would just want to encourage, you know, all of us to continue to make it a priority, to build and empower the people around us that God’s given to us.
Amy, what great perspectives on empowering other leaders. As you reflected on your interview with Andrea, what stood out to you?
Oh, man, there was a lot that stood up. I actually went back and listened to it a few times. But if I had to pick a couple of things, I would start with the first that mindset shift, that shift that she talked about where she, you know, and we’re all this way, right? When we start in our careers, whether it’s a marketplace or whether it’s the church, we’re focused on our own performance, right? My leadership. My influence. What can I accomplish? But what’s different in ministry is that we’re really called again, going back to Ephesians 4, to flip that. And it’s really not about us. It’s all about others. And so it’s always important, as she said, you know, she went to the Covey model, we tend to live in these spaces where it’s urgent and important. Well, this work is important, but it’s never really that urgent. And so I just think we have to get back to again, a mindset change, to go this is our call. This is what ministry leaders need to be doing. This is what should be rewarded. And maybe that’s my second takeaway, Tony, is you hear me say this all the time, but what gets noticed, gets repeated. And so her challenge to go, what are we really celebrating? I mean, I get it. Rock stars are the developers, but it’s so easy for us in ministry to celebrate people who are doing things, who look busy, who have had a rough week and we want to pick them up, but we don’t want to reward the ones that are killing themselves doing things, we want to help people see that the rock stars in the organization are those that are doing the hard work, really, a lot of time, the hard work of investing in other people, giving them chances to try new things, to develop their leadership so that we can have a healthy body. I went back to Eric Geiger and I believe it’s Kevin Peck’s book “Designed to Lead.” And I love the quote in there by Howard Snyder. He said, “If the pastor,” and this isn’t just the lead pastor, right? “If the ministry leader is the superstar, then the church is an audience, not a body.” And I think we have to remember that, that our job is to be raising up people in our church and to be recognized for that and not to be recognized for doing it all on our own. And maybe the third thing I would call out is her challenge to put it on the scorecard that raising up leaders is a critical metric in our church. And so we shouldn’t just measure the number of people volunteering, although that’s an important one because people have to take first steps before they often take leadership steps. But we should be measuring the number of volunteers leading other people.
That’s right, Amy. And that’s one of the reasons why, I think it’s, it might’ve been right before COVID, we encourage churches to begin to track, not just the volunteer engagement, but the number of leaders that they have empowered and mobilized within their church. And there’s always a question. What do we mean by leaders? It’s not the people that are leading through their influence. It’s actually, in this case, the people that are leading other people, so leading a team of other people or leading a group of other people. And I really do encourage you to track the specific number. As we’ve looked through the data in the past, what we have found is this is actually one of the biggest differentiators between growing, thriving churches and churches that are in decline. In fact, what we’ve seen in the data is declining churches have about one leader for every 20 people in attendance at the church, and growing churches instead have about one leader for every 10 people attending the church. So almost twice as many leaders. And again, I think what this reflects is churches that are healthy, thriving and growing are empowering leaders and equipping them to equip other people in the ministry. Amy, based on what you heard from Andrea, what’s the one next step churches should consider in the coming months to take a step forward in empowering other leaders?
Well, I think it’s really an easy challenge, Tony, but maybe hard to live out, but I love the challenge of the calendar assignment. I think when you put time on your calendar to intentionally be praying about, thinking about, actually taking action on, meeting with other people, talking with the folks in your church, discovering their gifts, challenging them, this work again, it’s always important, but it’s not urgent. But when you put it on your calendar, at least it has some priority now. And put a recurring calendar assignment to begin this work of taking steps towards empowering other leaders. I go back to it’s our calling, and pastors are to train and prepare God’s people for ministry. This is how we build up the body of Christ. And going back to that quote, we don’t want an audience. I’ve seen this, Tony. When we have churches that aren’t giving ministry away and the staff is doing it all, when you think about an audience, what do they do? They pay for a ticket. And then they assess if what they paid for was worth the price of that ticket. And that’s where we get all of our critics out there. Like we give the money so that you guys will do the ministry that we want. And we know that’s a classic sign of a church on the declining side of the life cycle. So at the end of the day, we don’t want an audience. We want people engaged in the ministry, owning it and using their gifts to complete it. So I would challenge our listeners to put time on their calendar to invest in others. And by the way, when you do that, if you don’t know exactly how to start with that time, I just pray that God would reveal to you what roles, for instance, are staff doing now that that can be given to gifted volunteers? In her example, when she visited Saddleback, she listed off a lot of things that volunteers were doing that we typically pay a lot of people to do, especially in the administrative areas. It’s not unusual, Tony, when I work with churches, to have a lot of full-time equivalents going towards a lot of admin to support ministry, and I tell churches all the time, hire a great leader and let that leader create the systems for people with those gifts to engage in ministry. People love to help pastors. We just have to get it organized and have the right structure. But as she was talking about Saddleback, it was just a picture of they’ve done that. They’ve created leaders who create spaces for people to come and do work at their church that they just love to do. So, you know, when you’re doing this, you want to constantly think about shifting staff responsibilities to developing, not doing, and creating roles that people in the church can come in and, you know, they can lead as well, but also some of the doing roles.
That’s good. Amy, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Yeah, well Andrea made a compelling case today for empowering leaders. I guess that’s why she’s a doctor. I just, again, in preparing for this, I went back to the book “Designed to Lead,” and I would just encourage our listeners, if they want to go deeper on this topic, read it. Take it to your leadership. “Designed to Lead” by Eric Geiger and Kevin Peck. They’ll give you some really great, I don’t know, almost like mentally creating that shift on why it’s so important and then some really practical ways to begin exercising this muscle, because the healthiest teams give ministry away. And by the way, if you’re interested in help to create strategies that accomplish your mission, including strategies to engage more people in your ministry, we would love to help. And you can reach out to us at theunstuckgroup.com. We would love to hear from you.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Don’t forget to reserve your spot at the upcoming coffee hour with Tony and Amy on August 13th. You can do that by leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts and then tweeting us a picture of your review at @unstuckgroup or @TonyMorganlive using #unstuckchurch. At The Unstuck Group, we work every day with church leaders to help them build healthy churches with coaching and planning that focus them on vision, strategy and action. And if that’s a need at your church, we would love to talk. You can start a conversation by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.