Welcome back to the Monday Morning Church podcast. Today’s guest is Brian Chelette, coming to us from Sandals Church based in Riverside, California with additional campuses in the surrounding area. Bryan, great to have you today.
It’s great to be here. Thanks for giving me some time.
Yeah. So Brian, how did you come to your position of operations director there at Sandals?
Sure. It’s kind of a long story. I’ve actually been with Sandals in some capacity for about 18 years now. We’ve just celebrated 20 years. And I’ve been following Pastor Matt for about 18 of those. I think I started my service here, stacking chairs some 15 years ago. Over time I ended up kind of getting connected in with some of the leadership team, I joined a small group that was co-led by our current executive pastor Dan Zimbardi, and through that process just really formed a relationship with him. He began kind of mentoring me, developing me as a leader, and eventually asked me to join the board at Sandals Church. So I joined the board, served there for two or three years while I was running a company just out in industry and over time, that company, that market began to shift and change a bit. Eventually we decided to go ahead and close that company down and just through that process and really spending a lot of time with Dan and with the team and serving in my capacity on the board, it became a natural next step for me to go ahead and jump in and join the team as the executive director of operations. So I took that plunge about just three years ago this coming February, actually. And it was quite a transition, but it’s been my joy to start my real life’s work here at Sandals Church.
Was this an existing position when you came into it?
It was. The predecessor was moving on to a different role at a different organization, and really the timing just worked out great. Dan gave me a phone call one afternoon and said, “Hey, I’d just love you to consider applying for this role. We’re in the middle of a transition.” And it was really kind of God’s providential timing in that. So I was filling a role that previously existed as that predecessor was moving on to a different organization.
How has that transition been for you moving into the professional church world?
It’s been really great for me and really great for my family as well. And I think a big difference maker is really the culture at Sandals. We’ve got a beautiful team and a great culture, so moving from the company that I was leading for about 10 years, where we also had a really strong culture, into the Sandals environment was seamless in a lot of ways from a positive culture perspective. I did have to do a good amount of learning moving from the for-profit world to the non-profit world, but that’s a little bit more kind of nuts and bolts and tactical…But I would say the transition was really quite smooth and positive for us, driven mostly really by the positive culture that exists here and the support that we have from our senior pastor and our executive pastor and the executive team. So I would characterize it as just a really positive transition for myself and my family.
That’s great. Tell me a little more about the culture there at Sandals.
We’re really a fast paced team. We value folks that are strong leaders with a lot of drive, a lot of capacity. And with that, we make a tremendous amount of investment into the staff. We invest in the staff through lots of training and development. We invest in the staff through retreats and relaxation, and we do that in part because of the huge investment that not only the staff, but also their families are making into the work that we’re doing at Sandals. We are a bit more casual, we’re not super stuffy and traditional in that sense. We enjoy one another, there’s a lot of laughter, we have a very open and approachable culture and environment, our office spaces are always very open. Our leadership team are always very approachable and open, so we’re very open and collaborative in that way. And a lot of that is really just to support the heavy load that we have as we’re really trying to drive hard towards this big vision. We’ve got a very, very, very big vision from our lead pastor at Sandals Church and in support of that we’ve got to create really a strong culture by investing in the staff as we really work pretty hard to drive towards making it a reality.
So can you share with us what that vision is?
Sure. God has put on our pastor’s heart a vision to plant 500 churches.
Yeah, it’s a big vision. We seek to plant 500 churches, we’re hoping to send 100 missionaries to India. And then third, I would add, we want to leave the next generation with really a truly amazing foundation for their leg of the journey, as our executive team and leadership team think about what is our big vision and our big goals, I would say those are really three of them and we’re working aggressively towards them. We’re getting ready to launch three more campuses by this coming Easter. We have four campuses and pop-up site now, and we’re really kind of in the throes of perfecting that model, working through some of the challenges that come with that rate of growth and scale. But the big vision is to launch 500 churches and to find a really great model and strategy that helps us do that.
With such an aggressive strategy and a really strong vision towards planting these 500 churches, you’re well on your way, at least by comparison to a lot of churches for how many that you either have already started or are going to be coming this Easter, what is another campus or a church plant look like for you, guys? Do you take people from your existing campuses to go and start something? Is this, you have staff you fully hire and start the church? How does the start come?
We’ve really embraced what we call the merger model. There’s a lot of churches in our area and across the country that are really starving for a degree of energy, leadership and vision to go to the next leg of the journey. And we found that by partnering with those churches and essentially merging them into Sandals, turning them into Sandals campuses, we’ve put together a really strong strategy and for us it works from a model and financing perspective as well. But practically what that looks like is there is a staff at each campus, so that staff is oriented around ministering to that community and developing that campus. And then there’s what we call our network staff, which is that central support staff that provides a lot of the broader planning, marketing, brand development, teaching, back office functions like technology, finance, and so forth. But we do launch those campuses most of which currently are within a 20 mile geography, so we do have a good number of our current attendees we’ll transfer to that campus and then we’ll look to grow the campus from there. Some of that transfer helps us to launch the campus well, some of these campuses are running 20-30 people before the merger, and then when we launch, they might be at 400 and 500 to 600 people. And then they just kind of continue to grow from there. We’ll face the challenge, obviously, of going outside of that radius and seeing what that looks like differently for us in the future, but that’s been the model that we’ve worked through this first seven campuses.
So now, with that model, I have a lot of questions about your job as the operations director. What exactly falls under your responsibilities and how do all of these campuses, some of which I would assume come with a building already there, how does that affect what you do?
Yeah, so inside of the Operations department, we cover finance, accounting, human resources, technology, the online campus facilities, legal and some organizational project management. So yeah, inside of that there is the facilities component. We are lucky that a lot of these campuses do come with the facility, which is really a great model for us. We get to help that asset live on in the kingdom for the next generation. As we’re launching this campus, part of the project is to renovate the campuses to whatever degree they need to be renovated, to really insert our production excellence and our theming and environment excellence. So my team works quite a bit with the creative team, so Dex Alexander, our executive director of Creative services, and I work together quite a bit with our teams to rehabilitate the campuses from both the deferred maintenance perspective, and then to renovate them in terms of the production needs that we have, the look and feel of the campus, so that we do have some uniqueness to that community, but also some brand consistency from campus to campus and programming consistency, and that we kind of ensure the level of excellence that people are experiencing at any Sandals campus is where we want it to be. So we kind of cover the nuts and bolts of actually doing the transaction and operations, but the bulk of that load is really around preparing the campus for the folks to come. There’s another team on staff, an executive that covers, really building the wave of momentum around the campus, staffing the campus, setting up all the volunteer teams that are needed. That’s a whole another component of launching a campus and between those three categories, we seem to get them out the door. We’re learning every day, we’re kind of flying the plane as we’re building the plane, we’re learning every day how to do it, how to do it better, more efficient, more efficiently standardize as much as we can so that we can get a real momentum around Sandals 500.
How many staff do you have on there at Sandals that all of your campuses combines?
We’re running about 115 now. As we get into 2018 we’ll probably hire a handful more to staff, to the three campuses we’re getting ready to launch, and then we’ll see a pretty good jump in what we call our network staff. That’s the central staff that supports the campuses as we lever. There’s just certain roles in there that need to be filled, so we’ll probably add another 50 or 55 roles at the network level.
So share with us one solution or best practice that you’ve implemented there at Sandals that might be interesting to others listening.
Sure. One that comes to mind, a couple of years ago we implemented what we call a vision-driven planning cycle and a vision-driven budgeting model. So historically at Sandals, there’s been really a gap between this big vision that our lead pastor has and really our finances. And that gap is not unique to Sandals. There’s a lot of great visionary churches that sense that gap between the vision and the finances and the activity of the church. So a couple years ago as I was coming in, I noticed that part of our planning process was kind of this, “Let’s get all the good ideas on the table and then we’ll start sifting through them and organizing them, so that we can start working on all these amazing opportunities.” And when I began to see was that process kind of dilutes the vision a bit, it allows a lot of great ideas from even the staff, the community, the local government, who all have opinions about what Sandals ought to be doing to land on the table, and it can begin to kind of dilute the vision. So we flipped out a bit and we now have a process that starts with the vision, works down through initiatives around the growth of the church, the health of the church, and fueling the strategy of the church. And inside of those buckets, we can begin to identify the big themes that we need to focus on. And that is really what drives the activity of the church, more so than the current activity in programming driving the next year. And I think that’s made a big difference for us. It allows the work of our staff to be really directly aligned with the vision. And interestingly, every year we do a survey of the staff, and one of the questions is, “Do you feel that your work is aligned with the vision of the church?” And in this last year, we had 100% of the staff feel like their work was aligned with the vision of the church, which is really an amazing thing.
Yeah, especially for having 115 staff.
Yeah, it’s incredibly critical to us, and I think it’s kind of a testament to the impact of that approach to our planning process and we kind of tied a budgeting model to that, that helps us fund this big vision. Each year we seek to peg our operating budget at the prior year’s actual giving, rather than forecasting any level of growth, even though we may be growing at 20 or 30% a year. That allows room in the following year to let that growth fund our vision, which has really changed our financing model and allows us to begin generating some real margin each year to launch campuses and send folks to India and so forth. So those are a couple of things that we’ve done that I feel like are best practices for a church that’s really vision-driven and growth-driven.
That’s really interesting. So on the flipside then, what is something you’re still working through and you haven’t quite found a solution for?
One of the challenges that keeps nodding at us is related to technology around what we call cross team project management. So as you can imagine, the church is growing and working a lot of initiatives. There’s a lot of complexity that enters that. We’ve worked with tools like TeamGantt and Asana and Trello boards and Basecamp. And we’ve really struggled to find a tool that really helps us effectively manage projects that run across teams, like the Creative team and the Operations team and Campus team. We really frankly haven’t got there yet. We’re just trying to understand what our process needs to be and then trying to find the right tools to help us manage it because the complexity there is growing quite a bit.
Yeah, I’d say so. One of my questions actually is – You know, you’re based in Riverside. How much of your staff actually comes to like a central office each week or are you pretty divided, spread out amongst the different locations?
Yeah, we’re pretty divided. One of our campuses meets in a school, so that campus team would meet at our central network offices. But we do encourage most of the campus staff to be at their campuses and in their community, maybe a day a week or so they come into the central office for their planning meetings and so forth. So we probably see 60 or 70 in the network, and then a good portion of the staff is at their campuses.
So Brian, where do you go to stay fresh in your role as operations director?
I spend a good portion of my time learning, I call it theme based right now, I’m thinking a lot about trust, and I think as I seek to become a better leader, I’ve really got to understand how trust works. I think the next generation is really interested in operating what I call a trust economy rather than maybe an authority economy that the work world might have been in maybe 20-30 years ago. So I’ll pick a theme like that, and I begin to kind of read and study about it. I’m reading a book about that now, Trust and Shame. So that’s my effort to try to grow in my leadership, kind of unique to me. I’m not really one of these fire-hose learner type of folks. I’ve got a good buddy who I think he follows about 40 podcasts a week.
I’m not smart enough to assimilate all of that information, so I’ll grab something and kind of begin reading and ruminating on it. The last night I actually started Carl Lentz’s new book. I was just curious how he relates to people as an operational person. That’s important to me, really trying to grow in my ability to relate with folks. It was interesting to me that he starts with what he calls, I think, disclosures and the first one is a disclosure of authenticity, which is really amazing considering Sandals Church is about being real with ourselves, God and others desiring an authenticity movement. And this guy, who’s really learned how to resonate with people, starts his book with the disclaimer about his authenticity in writing the book. So I grab things like that, I begin to read about them and study about them. On the practical tactical side I do follow just articles and so forth to learn more about the tactics and such, but where I really like to rest in thoughtful assimilation and some idea that’s grabbing my attention, whether it’s trust or relating to people, or learning more about myself and understanding my team so that I can relate better with them. That’s how I kind of approach it.
Yeah. What encouragement would you give to others in church leadership?
Sure. I think in terms of folks who play a role maybe a bit similar to mine, I serve our senior pastor, I serve our executive pastor. One of the things I would encourage them with is really just remembering your calling. Our calling is to serve our lead pastor, and in my case, also, our executive pastor. Sometimes I can get that a bit mixed up with having the best strategy or having the best model or making progress on initiative number seven or nine, but really getting grounded in what is my calling, my calling is to serve and support them in the work that God is doing through our church. And that brings me great encouragement because I can remember every Monday morning, “That’s my calling. I’m doing that this week”, and I would just encourage others to kind of…if you start feeling a little bit discouraged, come back to that grounding. If you’re serving, if you’re serving your pastors in the work that God is doing, take joy in that, take comfort in that and charge another week.
That’s great, Brian. Thanks so much for being on the podcast today.
Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity to chat with you a bit.