Welcome back to the Monday Morning Church podcast. Christopher Cass is joining us today from First Baptist Burleson in Burleson, Texas. Christopher, great to have you today.
Thank you so much, Courtney. Glad to be on.
So Christopher, you are the executive pastor there at First Baptist Burleson. Would you tell us a little bit about how you got to your position there?
Sure. I’m the executive pastor here. I’ve been here, as a matter of fact tomorrow will be one year. My pathway into this role is that I knew early on, when I was eight, I knew I wanted to be a ministry full time, but I also had a very strong entrepreneurial spirit and so I started, when I was in college, with some businesses and had some pastors along the way give me some good counsel to continue doing that and do everything I could before going into ministry to make sure that was in fact the passion for the rest of my life. So when I was 29, I had made that decision, it was time to get into ministry full time. I went to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was there that God introduced me to another issue. Again, being entrepreneurially minded, the issue was one of our pastors did not have a clear path to learn how to lead people, they had pathways for theological education, but not for leadership. So a gentleman, a mentor of mine, Dr. Gavin, decided we were going to do a lot of research on leadership and started writing curriculum and we founded a ministry called Leader Summit, it’s now called Lead now. Lead well and Dr. Don McCune is his name, and so we spent about 10 years teaching pastors. Through that process, I started doing a lot of consulting for churches, and then our pastor started to ask me if I would join their staff, and that’s how I ended up being an executive pastor. The pastor I serve now is an alumni of our training program, Dr. Rodney Marriott, and so it’s a great joy to be serving with them at First Baptist.
So this is your first executive pastor position, then?
No. Probably eight or nine years ago, I was an executive pastor for Rent, and that meant really more of a long term consulting, where churches would hire me for 12-18 months to come in and handle specific issues that they were facing. And at one point, I had up to five different churches across the country that I’d be doing that for, but then I went to work for GracePoint Church in Coppell, Texas. That was my first full time permanent executive pastor role. And this is my second at First Burleson.
Okay. Well, I have a lot of questions for you now. And one is – Having been in the professional world for 10 years, not that the church world isn’t professional, but in the lay professional world, and then doing your seminary and starting this business where you are doing consulting for churches and now being in a practitioner seat, what is it like for you now sitting in this position where you are the one entrenched in the church and making hands on decisions?
Well, I would say there’s a huge difference between being the expert from afar and then being the person that lives, eats and breathes every decision that you make. So being the full time permanent executive pastor, you don’t get to walk away from the good decisions or the bad decisions that you make. And that’s part of the difficulty of being a senior leader in the church, is that sometimes you have to make decisions that you don’t know the outcome of and obviously through lots of prayer and supplication and good counsel, you try to make the best decision you can, but no leader, if we’re truly being honest, ever has a surety of the outcome of their decisions. So that’s a huge difference from being the experts from afar. And I would also say a lot of people, I think, have a misconception in the secular world versus the sacred world that pressures are different. And they are different. I don’t think that the pressure is any less or more in church versus secular work, but certainly the pressures are much more personal in the church world than they are in the professional.
That’s an interesting distinction that they’re the same pressures, but they’re just more personal.
So how many folks do you have there on staff at Burleson?
We have about 20 ministers and associates on staff at our church, and total employees is about 70.
Okay. So now, what is your relationship with the staff and what are your specific responsibilities?
In our dynamic, the senior pastor is responsible for the vision of the church and the spiritual shepherding of our flock. He and I spend a lot of time with others in our church thinking about the future. He looks to me to execute plans, to move us in the direction he wants to go. So for us, every staff member of the church is a direct report of mine, except for the senior pastor. So I report to him, but all the staff reports to me. So managing all of the ministries in the church, that’s me now granted. We’ve got great staff, we segment responsibilities as you go through the organization, but at the end of the day, I have the blessing of being responsible for all the ministries of the church.
Now, you’ve been there at Burleson for a year, but you’ve also had obviously extensive experience prior to that. So this question can be specific to Burleson or even maybe a prior experience, but what is a solution or a best practice that you’ve implemented that might be of interest to listeners?
One of the things that I think we do that’s been very effective, and I’ve been doing this for 17 years or so, and it’s very very common in the secular world, not very practiced in the church world, and it’s something that through our leadership turning that we talk not just apply still today, it’s called a 120-day leadership map. It’s very, very simple. It can be complex, but essentially I look at every staff member, we’re going through the process right now where I ask the question, “How will we know that your ministry department is better on May 1st of 2018, than it is on January 1st 2018?” So we break the cycle of the church, really there’s three semesters to church work, in your spring and your summer and your fall, and with input from me and from others we talk with each ministry department and ask this question, and then on paper we write out how they’re going to achieve those things. And what’s important about this is that every single leader has to make things better. If we don’t make things better, then we shouldn’t be leading. When we talk about the 120-day leadership map, we’re not talking about the routine work, the same they have to do every single day just to keep their jobs and make the things work. What we’re really talking about is how, what are three to five things that you’re going to do, they could be small, they could be big, that are improvements to your ministry area. And all of our performance reviews, which I’m new to this church, a year in, and for the first 10 months I met every two weeks with every staff member to review this 120-day leadership map. So people know on a consistent basis exactly where they’re at and how they’re doing, there’s no surprises, but that’s something that I’ve been doing for a long time. And it’s strange for a lot of churches when we start doing something like this, but it’s really the least invasive way I’ve discovered of how to make sure that we’re consistently moving things forward in the right direction.
So you do this every trimester, I guess, throughout the year.
We do, and one thing I do need to say, Courtney, now that I’ve been here for a while, all of our staff have graduated, now that I know that we’re consistently heading in the right direction, I meet with each staff member once a month now to review that and it’s only new staff members that I meet with every two weeks.
Okay. How many staff you have? That’s quite a few meetings every week.
It is. They’re short, they’re 15 to 30 minutes, they’re very detail-oriented, but by doing it in that fashion in my office, they know that whenever they see me around the church or whenever I’m in their office, we’re not talking to that level of detail, they don’t have to always feel like they have that level of detail on top of their mind, they only have to do that for that 15 to 30 minute meeting in my office.
So I have to ask a question that if I was an executive pastor, I would want to know. How do you keep these meetings to 15 to 20 minutes?
Well, we work off something that’s written, that’s important, and there’s really only three questions. The three questions that we have is, well, the question is, “How are you doing on this spreadsheet?” So we look at that and I’ve already seen it, we share these documents all the time, so they’re not walking in to report on the sheet, I’ve already reviewed the sheet. So I really know where they’re at. So we’re just going to review it quickly, then I’m going to ask them, what do they think they need to do to course correct or to modify the plan, maybe we need to take something off the list and wait until the following semester to do it. And then the final question is simply, “What can I do to help you?” And that’s it.
That’s really helpful to have the actual questions that you use. So now I want to transition to the flipside of this, which is, what is a current challenge that you have right now that you haven’t yet found a solution for?
Well, there’s a lot. The older I get, the more convinced how little I know and also, I think when I was younger, I was convinced that I was right a lot.
I think you have a lot of “amins” from the crowd right now.
Yeah, I mean that’s just the way it is. I think that’s age, hopefully, that’s maturity, but I really have a much more open-minded concept of what we should be doing and the right way to get things done. I’m really interested in what’s the right way to get done today versus having some systematic formula that equates to church growth. As a matter of fact, I’ll say this, that when I was younger, I was really interested in having a well-oiled machine, and by the way, I’m not the first to say this, but it’s really become part of who I am because now I’m much more interested in having a well-watered garden, trusting that if we create the right conditions is a step for growth to occur, that when God breathes upon us, good things will happen, but it’s not ever going to be formulaic, and it’s never going to be a machine that creates growth. It truly is a spiritual thing and we rely on God to do that. We just have to do our part for the right conditions to be in place. Now, I’m sorry, and you asked, Courtney, what’s something that I am still trying to figure out, and I just had a meeting last week with a group of executive pastors talking through this issue that I’m still trying to figure out and it’s church technology. The larger a church is by nature, the more complex it becomes, and the more difficult technology becomes. Technology is in every single ministry that we have, but it’s also in the ones we expect, it’s set in our financials and in our church database management and our contact management, and how we communicate with our people, in our website and the apps that we use and the push technology notifications that we use, child checking. I mean there’s so many ways that technology is core for our church at this point, trying to find the right ways to do this, the less complex ways to do this. I think it’s a constant pursuit, the one that I’m still in.
Absolutely, I think that’s a common pursuit for a lot of executive pastors these days, how much technology is just enough, how much is too much, what price did you pay and all of that.
Where do you go to learn about becoming a better executive pastor, and I expect you have probably quite a few resources at your fingertips considering the consulting you’ve done in the past? So what are some of your favorite ones to continue learning and pushing yourself?
Well, one thing I do want to say, I mean I’ve had the opportunity in my career to spend time with thousands of pastors across the country. That was an incredible learning experience as much as they came to our seminars to learn, I was learning the entire way. So I would say no matter how much someone used themselves as a subject matter expert, I would one – challenge everyone that you can always learn more, you can always be better. And so one of the things that I do, I still attend conferences. There’s one conference I go to each year, and it’s by someone that’s done a podcast for you in the past, David Fletcher in California. He really is an executive pastor guru, he’s an incredible man, very, very wise. So that’s something I won’t miss. When he does an executive pastor conference, I will be there. I always approach it expecting different things, and I always have…you know, clearly there’s three questions I want to get answered while I’m there, no matter what happens, these are things I’m going to pursue, because I mean the content that’s provided every single time it’s going to hit different people different ways. But the other part is I also attend weird conferences, things that are completely outside of my area of expertise, it’s like I’m not necessarily a creative person, although I’m married to an amazingly creative designer, so I’ll go to a church design conference or a communications conference, or I’ll go to a speaker on Business technology, or go to…you know, there’s a conference I hope to go to, I don’t want to make a plug for it, I’m not committed to go to yet, but there’s one in Silicon Valley that I really want to go to. Peter Drucker was asked by a businessman “How can I learn to be a better businessman?” And Peter Drucker said, “Learn to play the violin”, something completely different than what you do for your living per se, additional warning through strange things that don’t particularly pertain to the legal and the finance and the staff management aspects of being an executive pastor, so stretch me and grow me in different ways and bring clarity to what I’m currently doing. One other thing that I do, and this is something that I would encourage all ministers to do, we do it as a staff, something that I believe in strongly, and that’s developing a private peer network. And I know that’s strange for ministers to do that, but there is a group of executive pastors that I meet with, we meet once a month and we’re from very diverse backgrounds, multi denominationally, multiple size churches. But when we get together, we have a couple of questions that we ponder and talk through, and I learn every single time I’m around these guys. So I would encourage all staff members to do that. Then for me there are two mentors that I have in my life that I meet with, or at least talk to as much as I can, they are men that have gone much further in life than I have in much greater context than I ever will, and they’re gracious enough to take my call every once in a while or go and have a cup of coffee. Those are two things that I try to do the stay sharp on.
Yeah, those are great. And you touched on this a little bit, but what encouragement would you give to others in church leadership?
Well, I would say one – the book I read last year that had a significant impact on me was Keller’s book, K-E-L-L-E-R, his book called The one thing. The book is a secular book, but what it challenged me on is really how I start my days. What is the one thing that I must do today that will make everything else easier or not necessary? And at least in the executive role, having so many ministries to oversee, so many staff to oversee, it’s very easy to get lost in the weeds. As soon as I arrive at the office, it’s non-stop to the end of the day. And if I don’t have a plan before I ever step foot to the office, then I can go a whole day, do a lot of stuff, but maybe not accomplish anything. So one is, I would encourage all the other ministers to begin each day with a singular purpose in mind, what must be done today. I found that to be helpful. Then the other thing I would just say is do not be a ministry alone. Please find a peer group, develop your own as necessary to find people that you can genuinely share what’s going on in your area of ministry and ask for help. In the corporate side we do this all the time. There are tons of networking groups that you can be a part of, and it’s just common place to do those things. For some reason in church work we have this feeling that if I am failing, then I’m failing God himself, and that isn’t unnecessary amount of baggage for someone to carry. Leaders are going to fail, we are going to struggle, and ministry can be a bone grinding mill. And if we try to do it in isolation, there’s only bad things that are going to occur.
That’s really great. I find that point, the idea that if I’m failing, I’m failing God himself. I think that is a common whisper or a lie in many church leaders’ ears.
Sure. We all fight it, there’s no doubt.
Thanks so much for being on the podcast and we’ll put a link to LeadNow, so that people can check that out.
That’s awesome. Thank you so much, Courtney.