Welcome back to the Monday Morning Church podcast. Don Long is joining us today from Castle Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas. Don, great to have you on the show today.
Oh, thanks for having me here today.
So, Don, tell us a little bit about your position there at Castle Hills and some of your journey about how you came into it.
Sure. Currently, I serve in the role of Executive Pastor for Castle Hills Church. We are a multi-site church but that consists currently of two campuses. So for those churches that have 6 or 8 campuses, I know 2 is not as multi-site as they are, but we’re excited about the way God is using us to grow and reach out into other areas in San Antonio. As Executive Pastor, my role is to support our lead pastor in the vision that he implements. I joke with people on staff and say, his job is to envision and guide us toward the finish line. My job is to make sure that we get there with the least number of casualties (laughs). So the Executive Pastor role in our church, all the staff and everything rolls up through the Executive Pastor. And then I report to the lead pastor. And my job is to make sure everything moves, everything is executed, everything gets done that needs to be done.
Okay, now your background, you came into this position not from another church, you’re in the marketplace in home building, is that right?
Yes, that’s correct. I had a career in real estate and home building for almost 17 years. I’ve been at Castle Hill Church for the past 8 years as a church member. There was a company that I was working for in the marketplace outside of the church world that moved my family to San Antonio, 8 years ago. And we landed at Castle Hills Church as our place to worship and serve and ended up through various other volunteer positions at the church, ended up serving as one of our elders in the church as well. So we are an elder led church. There’s a group of 6 or 7 elders that that govern everything that happens with the church. And so I was serving in that role about 2, two and a half years ago, made the change and left my career behind and went ahead and jumped into church work. I was definitely the guy that said, I’ll be a great volunteer, but I’ll never work for a church.
Famous last words.
And learning not to tell God, “never”.
So tell me a little bit when you made that switch, what are some of the skills that have been really beneficial for you to bring into this position and what are some of the things that you had to unlearn?
Oh my, the skills that have been beneficial. So I guess there’s two, but one thing that comes quickly to mind is where we’re at in the life cycle of our church is we have an existing aging campus. So not just with population and everything else, but the facilities. And so there’s a lot of actually pure real estate and renovation and construction work that is needing to go on. Our oldest campus, if you will, has been in place since the 1950’s and it’s comprised of unbelievable 250,000 square feet currently. So there’s some selling off of portions of that because that’s much more than we need, especially as we branch out into the multi-site direction for our church. That and then securing the land, and the plans, and constructing the site for our second campus. A background in building and construction and real estate has come in handy there. The second thing that would come to my mind is even in the secular market place, God allowed me to work under some great leaders who valued empowering a team and how to care for a team. I’ve worked in a couple of very good team environments in the marketplace, and that is one thing that I find is very helpful, whether it’s in the church world or in the marketplace is you are as good as your people are. So using some of the things that I’ve had the opportunity to be mentored in, and then applying those to the church, I feel like, has helped quite a bit.
So I want to know a little bit about — you talked about selling off part of the building. What exactly, you’re not talking about selling the entire building, how do you sell off part and who do you sell it to?
Our campus is comprised of 8 different buildings, the one that has 250,000 square feet. So there’s a south portion of it, about half of it that is currently, there’s a Christian school that’s seeking to buy that portion of it from the church. So we’re walking through that. That Christian school was a ministry of the church in prior years. And so one of the recent changes over the past two or three years that we’ve done is launched them into independence and having them stand and manage on their own. And in that, we also wanted to offer them the opportunity and they’re pursuing that to purchase that portion of the property from us.
Now then the other side of that, which is coming from the marketplace into the church setting, a lot of Executive Pastors have that journey and talk about. There were some things they were surprised about, either didn’t carry over or that they didn’t quite realize they would have to handle. What were some of those things that maybe took you by surprise or some skills you’ve had to develop since joining the church?
I would say that probably the biggest changes in my perspective and mindset on the church came, not so much when I came on staff as the Executive Pastor, but they came about for me, when I agreed to fill the role of elder in the church. Our 6 or 7 elders that govern the church now are involved in a lot of different aspects of church life, not on a day to day basis, the operational side at all, or even the day to day ministry side, but meeting once every week or two. We, as elders, stayed pretty well-engaged with everything that’s moving and going on in the church. And so I think most of my learning, or surprise, or ‘uh-oh’ moments, if you will, came about when I stepped into that role. I would say that the change in some regard, if I could pin one down related, becoming on staff, on to vocational ministry staff, page staff, would be working with smaller teams, a lower number of people. There’s not a staff person who does every little intricate part of a process or a system. There’s a lot of people at the church, and in a good way, but there’s a lot of people at the church that wear multiple hats and much of my background came from, there’s a staff person who specialized in doing A and another one specialized in doing B, and you called on the appropriate person to do the job because there was 500 people on staff. And in the church world, there’s a lot of us that wear 500 hats as opposed to hiring 500 people.
So what’s some kind of solution or best practice you guys have implemented there at Castle Hills that you really seen success with?
Well, I’ll talk about one that comes in. The first thing that comes to mind, which I usually find to be the most honest answer, as painful sometimes as it may be, but one of the best practices or solutions that we’ve implemented in the past couple of years has been our solution for conflict resolution within the staff. My perspective, both at our church and from speaking with other pastors in town and even out of town, my perspective is one that there’s a lot of times in the interest of mercy and showing love, which is all those things are very, very appropriate, both in church life and in not for any of us that are Christians. As a Christ follower, we are to show mercy and love. But the bible says, Jesus was full of grace and truth. And as I read the bible, I find there were times where he was eminently full of grace and mercy and love. And there were times where he had tough love with his followers and disciples and told them the hard things. And so one of the things that we’ve implemented that I feel like is a good practice is the way we resolve conflict. There will inevitably, be conflict between staff members because we’re working. Whether it’s toward the same goal or not, we’re working, we’re going to rub up against each other and rub each other the wrong way. And so what we do is when there is that conflict or even the hint of it, as the Executive Pastor, I’ll give the two staff members, whether they’re in a pastoral role or in a support role, I’ll give them 48 hours to meet by themselves one on one, to talk through the issue. And I’ll say, hey, this sounds like there’s an issue. In the next two days, you go to this person. And I believe it’s following Matthew Chapter 18 as well, in resolving go directly to the person, don’t run around, let it fester. And so we’ll give them that, and then I’ll follow up with them after two days. And if they have not, then we have a little meeting that I institute there in my office and we say, here’s what you said, here’s what you said, let’s resolve it. And invariably, it has worked out to where the conflict is resolved. And they end up hugging like Christian brothers and sisters should, and go in on their path. And so that’s one thing that’s been very successful for us as a church, and I believe has created a staff team that really can pull together and appreciate each other’s differences in a way that we couldn’t before.
And you know, it’s interesting because that’s actually a pretty simple, to the point solution. So it just shows how complicated we can make conflict when we stir over it and try too many fancy ways of resolving. Instead of, like you said, just sitting down and figuring it out.
What is some current administration challenge that you’ve got that you haven’t found a solution for?
Well, I would say that I referred earlier to on-church staff finding that we wear a lot of hats. And I think that is irrespective of the size of the church staff. Whether it’s one person, obviously, they wear a lot of hats or it’s a hundred or a thousand people on staff. There’s a lot of hats to get one by individuals, especially in a pastoral role. And one administrative challenge that I have currently that isn’t resolved, and I don’t know if that ever does get resolved, but it is the combining of roles. I’ll explain very briefly. When I have need of a particular specialty, and I’ll apply it maybe to some other churches or to ours. Let’s say, there’s a need for a part time IT person, or a part time accountant, or a part time administrative person, or part time this or that, but you can’t get all the way to needing a full time person. You can’t justify and say, I need to hire somebody full time to do this job. One of the administrative hurdles we have is finding the degree of excellence that we’re seeking while hiring somebody in a part time role. They’re splitting their time elsewhere. And I’m not saying all part timers don’t do an excellent job at all, but typically, the degree of excellence you want is a real dedication and loyalty, and dig in, jump in with both feet, and you’ll find that in somebody that’s going to take on a full time role as opposed to a part time one. And so what we’ve done, as a church, is a lot of times, double those up. And it’s just a matter of growth. You say, okay, you’re doing this and I want you to do this as well for a time until we grow to a size, but that’s a specialized, full time position. And so managing administratively through exactly when the right time is to launch officially somebody’s job duties as, hey, you’re going to be half IT and half this other thing, or half this women’s ministry and half this other thing, when the right timing is to officially have them do that, and then again, when the right time is to say, you’re not doing half and half anymore, we’ve hired a new person and they’re going to take this on and specialize, and you’re going to specialize over here. And I know that deals a lot with wisdom and discretion, and we treat it very prayerfully and go about it seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance. But I think that’s one of the hardest challenges is knowing the right time and being efficient and good stewards with what we have, when to pull the trigger on specializing, and when to keep it wearing multiple hats.
Now speaking of staff, how many staff do you have on there?
It’s in the mid-20s. We are about 24, 25 staff.
And how many of those are part time right now? Are they all full time?
I only have, I think, 2 people that are part time right now.
Okay. With this balance, as you said, of the part time, full time, where do your volunteers fall into that for you? Do you guys typically bring up people from within the church into some of these split roles or they gradually form into an official position? How has that worked for you in the past?
I would say, very humbly, I would say that we have done a very poor job of that in the past. And I’m speaking of the recent past, just the past, say 5 to 7 years. The ability to use volunteers in our church has been there, but taking advantage of it and executing on that ability, I think, has been poor. And that is something that, as we have rolled into 28 team that’s been a core initiative for us, is the appropriate utilization of the volunteers in prior years, going back even 10 years and so on. Our church had fallen into somewhat of a trap of being very staff-driven church. And I think there are pros and cons to that. I think there are pros and cons to being a volunteer-driven organization in church as well. And so we want to seek a balance in that. We’re definitely still on the staff driven side of things and haven’t moved far enough into volunteer, especially during week day things. On weekend, and worship events, and things like that, I think we do a pretty good job. During the week, for those volunteers that are able to participate and help, we’re still on the ‘not doing a good job’ end of the scale for that one. So maybe that is, maybe you hit the nail on the head. That possibly is the administrative challenge that I was trying to put into words earlier.
Well, it seems to be a common challenge for a lot of churches. I hear a lot of Executive Pastor talk about that’s the one code they haven’t cracked yet, is the empowering the volunteers. So, Don, where do you go to make sure you’re staying sharp in your role and just making sure you’re staying personally healthy and connected in the church?
Sure. So there’s a couple of things. One of the — let me address the personal side, as far as my walk with Christ and me individually, spiritually. And then the other one, if I heard the question correctly, would be where do I go to stay as an Executive Pastor role? Where do I hone my skills and stay sharp and up to date on that? So those are two different things for me, most of the time. One is, as the Executive Pastor, it’s very easy for me to get caught up in the operational side of things, to the exclusion, I believe, to a fault, to the exclusion and almost a blinding to me, personally, of the spiritual impact and spiritual side of things. So there’s really two places that I have, within our church ministry, carved out that helped keep me really connected to God’s leading in what he’s doing spiritually in our church as a whole. And that’s where I need to be in order to be a good Executive Pastor, as well. I need to understand where God’s leading the organization. One is, I focus almost every single week. I worship at one of our campuses and I’ve made that, hey, that’s my campus, that’s where I’m going to go. It’s easy as an Executive Pastor to say, I’m going to float to this one this week, and that one this week, that one this week. And if the role demands it, that’s one thing, I might need to do that. But I’ve worked hard to say, I’m going to be at this campus. I’m going to participate in the worship service, sitting under the preaching, the opening of God’s word, worshipping through song, worshiping through prayer and communion.
And so that’s one way that I have personally stayed connected to both the church and to God. Because, I believe, he ordained the local church in that way. The second way that relates to me personally and spiritually is I make sure that I am involved in a discipleship group and for us in our church, that looks like a group of men that’s 4 to 5 men. We meet early in the morning, once a week, and we’ll walk through a book of the bible or a different study together, and hold each other accountable to various things. And so both of those have helped me not get lost in the operational side of the job of Executive Pastor. The other part of that deals with — you asked how do hone the skills as the role of Executive Pastor, what do I do? And I’ve taken advantage of a couple of things. There are some organizations out there that allow you to be a part of their — some of its more defined groups, some of its more loose groups, but it’s an email forum where Executive Pastors can get on and ask questions, hey, what do you guys do with this? And 10 other Executive Pastors reply and say, there’s a form I use, here’s this is what I did, here’s the way we handle it. And then I’ve also made sure, over the past couple years to roughly every year, year and a half, so 12 to 18 months, I’ll get away, even if it’s only for two days, and sit under the teaching of somebody else, which typically has been Executive Pastor related. One time, our lead pastor and I did that together and we went and honed our skills related to multi-site churches. Another time I got away by myself, and it was in a group of about a dozen other Executive Pastors, and we walked through good and bad things related to what it means to be an Executive Pastor in today’s world. So that’s the way that I have primarily engaged in that. There are a lot of good leadership books, and I will at times, get away for an hour and read a chapter out of those and that kind of thing. But I would point to probably those get away times once every year, a year and a half as the primary way I keep my skills sharp as an Executive Pastor currently.
So, Don, what encouragement would you give to others in church leadership?
The encouragement that comes to my mind today is something that I was talking with one of our staff members about today. I would encourage them, anyone who’s on staff at a church, to remember that they are called and empowered, not just called by God, to do what they’re supposed to do. My encouragement is that God never calls us to do something that He hasn’t fully empowered us to do. It might be hard at times. We might think it’s hard at times, but God already has the answers figured out. Our job is to simply rely on Him through the power of the Holy Spirit and let Him work through us in the way that He wants. And when we’re sure of our calling to ministry, we can be sure that He’s going to empower us to do exactly what He wants. And to me, that allows me to rest in Him, to rest in those things daily, when I come up against something, whether it’s a financial thing or a facility thing, or a staff member thing, or a ministry thing. And it’s something that I don’t have figured out because there’s plenty of those every day for me that I don’t have figured out my first response. And it always isn’t this way, but it always should be this way. My first response should be to go to God and say, God, I know you know the answer. I pray that you guide my steps in your path. And so that would be my encouragement. It’s just to rest in God. He’s given us the strength to do what He’s called us to do.
That’s great. Don, thanks so much for being on the podcast today.
My pleasure. Thank you.