Welcome to the to the Monday Morning Church Podcast. Brent Nelson is joining us today, from Westover Hills Assembly of God in San Antonio, Texas. Great to have you on the show today, Brent.
Thanks, Courtney. Yeah. I really look forward to this opportunity.
So let’s start out, Brent, just let us know how did you come into your position there at Westover Hills.
Well, I started out my ministry career as an army chaplain. I served 20 years and I’ve already retired from serving as army chaplain. That started out, in college, I was in Army ROTC. But I’ve been a Christian from a young age, and always involved in ministry. My dad served as a pastor. So I’d already been oriented to ministry. But finally, didn’t really feel that call until I was well along in college, and almost finished, and I was serving and preparing to serve in the military. And as I was getting towards the end of that, getting ready to graduate, God really made a natural connection between the military and ministry. And then directed me to go to seminary and became what they call a chaplain candidate, and then got experience like an internship with the Army. I got to go in summers and took a semester off even to go do some training with the army, and then was able to be accepted as a chaplain. So that was a wonderful career. So serving as a chaplain, we do a wide range of things.
The first part of my career, I served directly with combat troops. So I worked with combat troops and basic training, and eventually as you move up in rank in the chapel, so you take on more and more responsibility. And at a certain point in my career, they identify me with management skill. I actually studied business and management of different things in college, and they identified those skills. And so they selected me to actually go to an MBA program. That was a super deal. The army, actually, paid for my MBA program. So I already had a seminary degree to become the chaplain and already pastored the church for a couple of years as part of the requirements to become chaplain, and then became even more well-rounded with a business degree. And so what I did was what they call resource management or business management within the chaplain corps. Now, chaplain corps is relatively small compared to the army. Now, picture we have 500,000 soldiers in the active army and only about 1,500 chaplains. And so we need people in the chaplain corps to manage the business of the chaplains. Just like regular churches, there is offerings that come in. There’s also a budget that comes from Congress. They call it appropriated funds. And then there’s the offering monies that come in and they need people to manage that professionally, just like you do in any church.
So I really set the stage, during the second part of my career, for managing resources for the chaplain corps for churches, and then I was able to also lead and manage other pastors. So, eventually, became assigned to the Pentagon, which was a really exciting possibility. A lot of people have this perception of what it means to serve at the Pentagon. And it is exciting for a little while, but it’s incredibly busy place, a lot of pressure, a lot of business. But I got really good at correcting the bureaucracy, as I call it. Learning how to understand how to operate, how to get resources. And God really blessed to be able to use those skills in business and ministry, to be able to understand the system and to help channel more resources in to ministry, in the military ministry. So that was really an amazing opportunity to be able to really help with building chapel facilities, and putting money into amazing family programs to help out families at all levels and spiritual programs. A lot of people have this concept about the military that is not really open for ministry, but there is an amazing work that God is doing in the military. But getting side tracked on that too, that set the stage for management. And then as you move up, as a chaplain, you help to manage and mentor other chaplains and pastors. I really became a pastor to pastors.
And as I’m getting close to the end of 20 years in the military, my denomination, local churches that I developed relationships with over the years were pulling on me and calling and looked at more stability for my family, and had great opportunity then to transition back into civilian ministry. And then the executive pastor was really a great fit for the skills that God had really developed in the army chaplaincy, to be able to have that unique combination of management and ministry together, to be able to help other churches and other organizations to succeed in a local community. So it’s interesting how God do that combination of business and ministry to move on to what Executive Pastor is.
Yeah, it sure sounds like the path you took was tailor-made to make you end up where you are now. So tell us a little bit about that transition from working in this more secular environment in the military, and then now this Executive Pastor role within a Christian environment. What was that transition like for you?
It was really a smooth, seamless transition. I had actually started volunteering with the local church near where I was stationed. And so, getting involved with the church world again too, and the business management of the church, and the skills directly translated. There was actually a very positive difference in transitioning and that I didn’t have to deal with the bureaucracy anymore. I spent so much of my career, especially the second half of learning how to negotiate the bureaucracy, and the rules, and the regulations and how to get things done, and how to do Christian ministry within that secular environment. And so it was really a beautiful thing when we had more freedom in the local church just to be able to focus directly on the Christian ministry. So it was very positive for me in making a transition.
So fast forward to today, what exactly falls under your responsibility there at Westover Hills?
We have a pretty large church. The lead pastor who founded the church is still there. He founded the church 32 years ago, and he is a master of organizational leadership too, and has made a practice studying that over the years too. So our structure continues to change. I’ve only been there a few years, but the structure just continues to change and adapt to the changing ministry environment in our community. And now we’re well over 6,000 folks in average we can attendance. And two other campuses that we’re adding, we have an Español campus, then a campus out to a growing area, to our west. And so, we have under the lead pastor, we have two Executive Pastors. Now, Executive Pastor takes on a little different shape, depending where you are in a church. So we have two Executive Pastors. And all the ministries are organized under one of us, and then so we have overseen all the pastors and directors. We also have a Chief Operations Officer and Chief Financial Officer around our executive team. So in this role, I don’t have to focus as much on the business as I did in the military role, but it still definitely helps to have the understanding about how to organize things and certainly the management experience to be on such a large team.
Now, I started out in a unique role. I mentioned as the pastor continues to shape and to grow the organization, we had just one Executive Pastor for a while, then I came on board specifically to put emphasis on volunteer management. So for my first several months, for six months, really, most of my focus was on how to energize our volunteer management, because most of it are grown organically. We got to the point we had about 1,000 regular volunteers, and it just grew organically within the different ministries. But now we were to the point we needed more standards, we needed more organization, we needed to really have a plan to be able to get to the next level and moving to the future. And so we started out, with that I had tremendous success within the first year. And then as I got that rolling, then I started taking on other responsibilities such as oversee our life group ministry, oversee our growing connections ministry which — connections in our context means what a lot of churches call stimulation or discipleship, first impressions for new guests. Also oversees ministries like seniors’ ministry, women’s, men’s and family life, so all those family type ministries that are coming together.
I want to hear some kind of best practice you have going on there at Westover Hills, but you might have something else in mind, but I also want you to go back and talk about this year where you focused on the volunteer management, because that is something that a lot of churches really struggle with, understanding how to connect with volunteers, how to encourage them, how to manage them. And so, the fact, you found some success with that, I’d like to hear a little bit more about that. What were some of the systems you set up?
Oh yes, yeah. If you mind, if I back up a little bit. I’ll give you about a minute of the story of how I even came on staff. I had actually been, had moved to San Antonio when I had opportunity, after retiring, to move where I wanted to move and was doing some entrepreneurial things, and doing some working with veterans, and doing some ministries, and had just got to know our lead pastor and been in the congregation, and I mentioned he is creating and shaping the organization. At a certain point, he invited me to be on staff. He said, hey, are you willing to take on this challenge of building our volunteer corps to really infusing, creating a culture of volunteerism? And so what I did, he allowed me the first few months, just to study. I read everything I could read on volunteering, talk to other churches, talks to other pastor friends to — how do we do this? Because I had some experience, of course, in the military.
Over the years, we run in volunteers, and chapels operate just like regular churches as well. So I had a lot of experience in doing that, as well. But now, we’re looking at a comprehensive plan. So the center piece of that is one best practice that we developed out of assessing our current processes and examining what other folks are doing and reading a lot, we develop what we call the Next Steps class. It’s not a brand new concept. It’s really just a reworking, a combination of different ideas that were out there in different churches. Perhaps some folks out there may have heard of churches that do something called the Growth Track where they have a series of classes for new members and volunteers and it encompasses a lot of things. And our churches experimented with various things over the years, of course. And so, when I currently got there, we had a similar model actually of a four-step process over four weeks to take guests through. But we were only getting — we get about, even in a large church like ours, we were getting about 50 people that would start out. And then, of course, the second session was less. And by the fourth session, we were on the getting literally only about 10 or 15 people to finish the four steps out of this huge church.
And so we thought something could be done better. And so in the end, what we did, in what we call the Next Steps class is a combination of our welcome for new guests, introduction to the church, where we come from, where we’re going, introduction all our ministries, talk about life groups. And then we had a membership class that was separate and we incorporated that into it. And then we have our volunteer training. Now, we had a great system for training volunteers over the years but those are standalone class. But now we even incorporated that in here. So what we did in effect, we’re inviting people who are new guests, have only been there for a few weeks, to people that have been there for several years and just never took time to get involved, say, hey, come to this one class. And here’s an interesting thing I learned about our culture when we’re looking at not only the content, but when we’re looking at the frequency of the class in our culture, we looked at, okay, attendance is obviously dropping off. Other churches have had success with getting people to continue in a regular pattern, several weeks in a row too. It just wasn’t working for our culture.
And I have some interesting bit of advice. Actually, we have an Español campus. We have a largely Hispanic community here in San Antonio too. Our church is approximately 75% Hispanic population. Most of those are multi-generation, been in the US for a long time, speak English. But we still have a separate Español campus. So learning about the culture and understanding that too — just a real simple bit of advice one of our pastors gave me from the Español campus, he said, if you can at least get people to one session and feed them, they will stay.
That’s great advice.
And one thing that is very popular around here are breakfast tacos. Oh my goodness, it’s amazing what people will do if we give them a taco.
If you feed them, they will come.
It’s true for us. It is very true. And we provide a bigger outlay than just that as well, but we thought we’ll get them there. And at first, it seemed like really long. We decided to make it about a three-hour class and we debated about that for a little while. People going in and stay for 3 hours. And eventually, we’ve turned it down about two and a half hours. We have plenty of breaks in between. We feed them. We have interactive component where we have different pastors and directors lead different sessions. So we keep it fast moving. We do a spiritual gift assessment in there, so there’s some interactive components. We have a few visual components that we set up. So it’s been real exciting. We’ve gotten really good feedback. And the success of this, so mind you, we talked about we only get 10 or 15 people to complete the full four week sessions. So every month, we’re only getting 10 or 15 people. But in one year — so we just finished in 2017, and one year we had 854 folks that’s in that class.
Wow. That’s a big difference.
So it was a tremendous difference. And out of that, our membership increased too. We had 350 that joined us in membership and increased our membership, as well. And then it started out really as looking how to increase our volunteers, but became so much more about assimilating our new guests and getting them connected in different ways. But we started out in January 2017 with about 1,200 active volunteers and those are volunteers, some of them may just do one major event during the year. Some of them are regular volunteers. We get all of those. And we ended the year with over 1,800 volunteers, active volunteers. And then now, we’re three months into 2018, and we’ve added a couple hundred on that, so we’re pushing 2000 now. But they’re active volunteers. So it just continued to increase momentum. So that’s been a big win for us in what simply we call the Next Steps class. But yeah, I’ll credit other churches where we studied, and people that have shared materials and ideas with us as well. Changeover Assembly, this is one of our larger churches in the Assemblies of God, closer to our headquarters in Missouri. I borrow a lot of information from them and learn from them too, and had relationships with their folks too. And the Church of the Highlands who has been really successful with the growth track. I had a lot of meetings with them and met with some of their staff to be able to do that. So again, just example for everybody about learning from their churches, but seeing what works in their own culture. Just how do you adapt at your own culture and see what works.
One thing our lead pastor always emphasizes too is that, don’t be tied to what we’ve always done in the past. My favorite part is it really in our ending part about how we wrap it up. And this is one of the things that’s been really key in increasing our number of volunteers. So as I mentioned, the class is much more than about volunteers, but that’s a significant component about how to motivate people toward serving. We offer the opportunity at end of the class, for folks who indicate an interest in serving, to meet with an actual representative from the various ministry areas. So we have a representative come at the end of the class from each of our major ministry areas and they can talk with a person there. Because what was happening when we did our previous system of how do we intake volunteers. Or a better way to say that would be, how do people indicate an interest in volunteering? For instance, they would speak to a pastor, or they would fill out a form, or they would send us a message online. And we found out that there were several gaps, and our pastor would always challenge us, how do we manage the gaps in the hand-offs, or minimize the gaps in the hand-offs. It happens in all churches too. Somebody would talk to me on a Sunday and I write down their name, and it sits on my desk for a while, or I forget about where with that piece of paper.
So then we channeled our inputs mainly to the next steps class. We say, if you want to volunteer, we know you’re very serious when you come to the class. But then we want to make it worth your while. And instead of saying, okay, you’re interested in volunteering in kids’ ministry, for instance. Instead of when they come to the class, you’re indicating, well, somebody will call you in a couple of weeks or in the next week, you can actually talk with a person right there, start the process. We tell them about what to do for references. We also do system of background checks. And we start the process right away, and even do an initial orientation interview right there with individuals to be able to get started. So, shortening that time for them to get involved had a dramatic effect as well. That’s not a big secret. That’s something I read from others’ experience too, and really tried to put this into practice about how to implement it in our context.
I find all these very interesting because, as you said, a lot of these are like, they’re very minor fixes, actually. They’re not really complicated things to make sure you have breakfast tacos or make sure that you have a representatives there at the end of the class. But this to me, when I hear all this is a real testimony to the leadership at your church and the fact that most churches have a really hard time changing programming once they start it or altering anything about it. And I really liked what you said about constantly look back, be willing to change things and adjust things if it needs adjusted. I think this whole process sounds like a testimony to that leadership perspective.
Oh, thank you, yes. And then again, it’s a team work with anything that we do as well, but just trying to connect with our people. And every church, throughout time, has struggled with, how do you discipleship people? Discipleship is a keyword which becomes other words now, as well. Now, it’s connecting. How do we connect people? How do we get them involved? Every church continues to struggle with that and look for new ideas. And anything that we do is relationship-intensive. So what we did, in effect, is increasing the personal touch. I think that’s a lot of it, increasing the personal touch. And so it takes a lot of our volunteers to help other volunteers. Can I mention another best practice that really went hand and hand with this?
Yeah, absolutely. Please.
We, at a similar time frame, this has actually been one year now. March of last year, we introduced a concept that we call Serving Central and I’ve seen that specifically just to two other churches, previously. The first place that I saw it was at Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas, where they have what they call a Volunteer Central. It’s basically a VIP area for volunteers. So in addition to increasing our number of volunteers, how do we retain volunteers? And this is just a nice touch where we provide them refreshments, we start early in the morning. We do this on the weekends when there are people come before they’re serving, in between serving. We have multiple services, and even hang out a little bit afterwards, to be able to do that. And so in addition to giving them a little rest time and some refreshments, one thing we found was that it gave folks the opportunity from various ministries to be able to connect. In a large campus, for instance, our worship folks would always keep themselves up in the choir room. And the kids’ ministry would be downstairs in their area. But now, there’s a central place where a lot of them can come and gather together, and learn who each other are and to one another. And so we have volunteers that are really motivated to serve other volunteers. So that’s been a great win for us. And guess what we serve there primarily? Breakfast food.
I was going to say, I was going to ask, do you serve breakfast tacos?
I took the breakfast tacos away, after a few weeks of experimenting what we had offered. I got so much negative feedback about where are the breakfast tacos. It was crazy.
You’re going to need to write some kind of little e-book pamphlet or something on volunteers and breakfast tacos.
There we go. You gave me the tag line for the next breakfast.
Feeding your volunteers.
Just feeding the 5,000 with flour tortillas and breakfast tacos.
What are some of your favorite resources just to make sure you’re staying sharp and make sure you’re looking forward to new things are coming out, what could possibly work at your church?
Oh, I still rely heavily on pastor friends, other friends in the ministry. I use the network of friends we’ve been with over the years to share ideas, or folks at other churches and some of them have their own blogs and things that they publish. Give credit to one of the first book that I read on volunteering, was recommended by one of those friends, was called Connect by Nelson Searcy. That was just a wonderful resource. He has a growing church in the New York City area, and learned a lot of things from him. So then he has a bunch of resources that he puts out that I connect with. I found the Monday Morning Church, of course, to be able to learn from this resource. And then another one that I tuned in to for years, even when I was in the chaplain years, is XPastor.org. I think that’s David Fletcher that helps to lead that organization and resource. So I just continue looking and researching and turning into new things. But just to repeat, the pastor friends that I make over the years have been the best resources to share ideas and bouncing off of each other.
So speaking of those pastor friends, Brent, what encouragement would you give to others in church leadership?
I’ve been asked this question several times over the years and something somebody said to me way back, one of my mentors was, let Jesus be Jesus. Meaning, you don’t have to be all things to all people. Let Jesus take care of the main ministry. We’re just there to facilitate and to help lead people in that direction. Because sometimes we feel that, especially as Executive Pastors, we have the scope of the whole organization that you are leading, and that you have influence over and there’s a tendency to feel like you got to fix everything, you got to help everything. And in our context, we’re blessed to have another partner Executive Pastor. And so, we certainly lean on each other a lot and help each other out and support one another. But sometimes I know the Executive Pastor is the only person there, at that level, to be able to help organize and to oversee things. But again, just to make sure that you don’t feel like you have to do everything or be all things to all people, it’s okay to ask for help. Look outside your organization for other ways of doing things, to get some perspective. And to reiterate, have the courage sometimes just to say, maybe we’re doing too much. Maybe there’s some things we need to stop doing to focus on what you’re really good at. And that’s one thing I’ve learned in Leadership and Strategy over the years. Really try to focus on what you’re good at. Don’t have to do everything. And you don’t have to chase every trend that’s coming along either. Just because there’s a new book or a new thing out there doesn’t mean it’s going to work your context.
Absolutely. And I love that. Let Jesus be Jesus. Brent, thanks so much for being on the podcast today.
Great. Yeah. I really enjoyed the opportunity. I really appreciate everybody else who’s participated in this and the opportunity just to share and learn from each other in this community.