Welcome back to the Monday Morning Church Podcast. Hunter Johnson is joining us today from Crossroads Church of Denver in Denver, Colorado. Hunter, great to have you on the show.
Thank you very much, Courtney, my pleasure.
So Hunter, tell me a little bit about your position there at Crossroads and how you came to the church.
I serve Crossroads as Executive Pastor, and like most Executive Pastors, I have financial responsibility, human resource responsibility, and overall administrative responsibility. But because of some unique circumstances with the church, I also carry what may be an unusual amount of pastoral responsibilities for the typical Executive Pastor or administrator.
Crossroads has been going through, or went through, a massive change 3 years ago, that began with a somewhat less-than-peaceful split. It’s what our the pastor at the time, called an ‘involuntary church plant,’ and that had the effect of approximately a third of the congregation at the time, which was probably 1500 to 2000 people, approximately a third went on the involuntary plan, approximately a third stayed in the church. And another third, we have no idea what happened to them because it was a very contentious situation for 2 to 3 months.
I get to the church four to five months after all this had happened. And I went there because the church was having to deal with a financial structure that was built around a 1500, 2000 member church, and now had, at that point, probably under 500 in any event. And part of that has been a very massive debt. The church currently has property debt in excess of $5 million dollars. And that represents $41,000 a month in monthly debt services, so we had to make some hard cuts very quickly once I got there. And one of the great blessings at our church is: our founding senior pastor is still the senior pastor and the church is 41 years old.
And one of the things that we had to do, almost upfront, was eliminate his salary. Completely. We went through a situation where we reduced staff, within the couple of first couple months of me being there. And this put us in a situation where to get some of the most fundamental things done around the church. We had to intentionally develop volunteers, and so it probably didn’t get this bad, but there would be many Sundays where effectively, I would say: I know everyone that’s always coming to church on Sunday morning and having clean bathrooms, and if you really like that, I need people to volunteer to help us get that done. Or obviously, Denver does get snow, though not very much this year. So we had to raise up volunteers that would keep our sidewalks in the property clean. If there was a snowstorm, we eliminated all of the office staff, and so we have volunteers that only collect the money, which I think most churches do in the ushers, but also count it and also enter it into the databases. Obviously, that’s something that I look over, but basically everything single function of the church at this point is built on volunteers. And one thing that has been such a rich blessing for us is the more people are volunteering, the more they’re really caring about the future of the church, the more they’re volunteering, the more they learn about the people they’re volunteering with. And so it’s been a unique way, or an interesting way at least, to to develop a small group ministry within the church. And it’s a small group ministry that also refills the soap dispensers in the bathrooms and vacuums the floors, and whatever else you need. And so there’s a part of me, the finance side of me, wishes: let’s forward to the day where the financial situation is not as challenging as it is today. But what I worry about when that happens is it is so easy for us in the church to get complacent. It is easy, I think, for us in the church to say, well, we need something done. So let’s hire an assistant pastor and getting this particular thing done, heading up this particular ministry. And I hope we’ve learned some lessons over the last couple of years. We’ll leave it where it is and continue to invest in and love on, and encourage the volunteers that actually make church work at Crossroads each and every Sunday.
Okay, well obviously I have a lot of follow up questions to what you just said. I want to talk about the volunteer side, but before we even get to that, I’ve got to know, why go to a church like this? Because you came on after all this happened, what was it that compelled you? Was it just some kind of hope you had or just a very specific calling from God? What was it that drew you?
Two and half years later, my wife is still asking me that question. Going to work at Crossroads is a little bit like swimming onto the Titanic, 5 minutes after it hit the iceberg. And I knew that at the time, but I felt like this is something that…I just felt like this was God’s next step for me. And what makes it more thought-provoking sometimes for me is, I actually left a really good job in a really good church to go do this, kind of of my own volition. So there’s times I joke and I say, I was having a bad mental health day. God has given me a heart for churches that are struggling in some of the basic areas like finance, accounting, operations. My background has throughout most of my career has been administrative in some way, shape, form or fashion. This was a church that I just felt like: I hope that I can make a contribution being there and working with and working around the people there. It’s just unbelievable. So I think there’s so many churches today that have gotten small enough over time for whatever reason, or whatever reasons, that more and more churches are fading away from their communities. I think the rapidly growing churches and the flashy ministries, I think those are the great, I think those all serve God’s purposes too. But at some point in time I think all of us need to be concerned about the smaller churches and the neighborhood churches that are fading away, all around us. And I guess maybe this is my start at that, but this was an opportunity hopefully to serve the church and serve the Kingdom.
On the other side of that then, on the other side of the negative “why did you do it?” – when I hear you talk about these volunteers, so many of the other people that I talk to have churches that are growing rapidly. It’s really exciting. They’ve got a large staff, but something they really struggle with is connecting with volunteers and empowering and discipling volunteers, which is actually something that you guys are doing a great job at, despite other struggles. So tell me a little bit about developing these volunteers, who these people are. Give me a little insight into that, and maybe a little bit of insight for those listening. I know a lot of yours was born out of urgency. You had to use volunteers. But talk a little bit about, just developing these people and encouraging that community.
Well, the first thing that we have going for us in this regard is, we cannot afford staff. In my previous church it was a very staff-heavy church, 45 people on staff. So I think part of it, if you’re raising up volunteers in the church, and they see that you’re a very staff-heavy church then their perception is: that you’re raising up volunteers just because you think you need to raise up volunteers. So what we learned very soon in all this, is people, whether they express it or not, have a deep need to feel like what they’re doing is necessary. And so what we would communicate is: guys, we’ve got to do this, that, and the other thing and we need help to do it. And so when people are there volunteering for whatever it is they’re volunteering for, there’s a sense that: if I’m not here to do this, it’s not going to get done. And our church is not going to look as good as it should on Sunday morning. In churches that are very staff-heavy, I think people get the sense of, well if I don’t do it, there will be three or four other people that we’re paying that will come along and do it anyway. And I think that’s first and foremost. You have a very staff-heavy church, it’s going to be a little bit more difficult to do, but I think it’s still doable. But you have to develop a climate where the people that or doing whatever volunteer function that you’ve got them doing, they’ve got to believe that it’s very meaningful, that it’s very important for the work of the church.
Because if they don’t think that way, they’ll say, well, instead of doing this at the church, I’ll go play golf or I’m going to go do this or that and the other. One thing that that has worked well for us over the last couple of years is we do it monthly men’s breakfast. And our breakfast will go for an hour, it goes from 8 o’clock until 9 o’clock in the morning. And then we have…I develop three different projects that we need to get done on that particular Saturday. One of them is going to require a lot of people and probably several hours worth of work. Then there’s a middle, for lack of a better way to put this, there’s a middle-level project. And that could be two or three people for an hour and a half. Then there’s another one that might be one or two people for an hour or two. They will vary not only in technical ability needed to do it, but they also vary in terms of physical ability to do it. Because we have, like so many churches, an older population. And so I want to make sure that the 65 and 70 year old guy, that may not be as limber as he was at age 30, can still do something that we absolutely, desperately need to have done. And so we try to break it up like that. And none of these have a ‘make work’ component to them.
They’re all things that – I can’t think of one right off the top – well, have a piece of property that’s a on our property, a little over an acre and it had become overgrown to the point that the city had said: guys, you need to get this cleaned up. So one of our breakfasts, the big project at our November breakfast was, we put 20 guys out there with chainsaws. We cut trees down, shrubs, and bushes and made a big pile. And then two of the guys in the group of have a tree service, so they would come by periodically with a big commercial chipper and get rid of it. Now it’s a very pretty space. None of this…We work overtime to make all of these things, make it very apparent that these are mission-critical things that we’re doing. And so we get a real good turnout for that. Guys love doing it. And our women’s group does much of the same type of thin, it would just be different. The other thing that has been wonderful at Crossroads that has been such a great blessing is, we have several guys in our, for lack of better way of putting it, our facilities department, that are themselves either currently still facilities managers commercially, or are retired from doing that. And so that’s been part of my background for my career.
It’s been a lot of fun to get out and tell the church that there’s volunteers in that area, that had been forgotten about maintaining a commercial property than I ever knew. And I used to do this. There has to be a visible, viable need. It has to look necessary. And this is not really appealing to their ego, but it has to look important, because if it doesn’t feel like it’s important to get whatever it is done, they’re going to naturally kind of gravitate, instead of going up into church and do something that doesn’t really need to be done anywhere, I’m gonna go hit golf balls or I’m going to do whatever. That’s number one. And then number two, we do our best to always be encouraging them, and and thanking them. And then when we go out and we need more volunteers, we actually… I will sit down with other people that are volunteering potentially in the department that they serve and we actually brainstorm names, and then we actually invite them to do something. And so it’s a little bit different than…out in the lobby this morning there is a sign up sheet, for children’s ministry. So what we do…for example, Crossroads I’d come up to you and say, “Courtney, have you ever thought about volunteering for this, that or the other thing?”
And I tell you a little bit about it, and we talk, and sometimes they’ll say: well, I just don’t have time right now or I’d have to learn more or no, I really don’t like children, what I want to do is climb ladders and work on the roof. I hate to say it this way, but it forces we the church to be relational with our own people. Because we all have those times on Sunday morning where it feels like the wheels are coming off. We’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do that. We’ve got to get the service started on time. And so often we don’t reach out, or at least I haven’t over the years as much as I should have. And in this climate you either reach out and get relational with people and ask them for help or you’re really in trouble. So this has been a situation where it feels like some of this enlightenment has come in the middle of the thunderstorm, and it has, but I would not ever again want to serve in a church that does everything with paid people. Just wouldn’t want to do it.
Yeah, well that’s one thing I was is thinking about is: I hear a lot of churches who go through a building change and maybe in the intermediate time they’re at another church, they’re at a local school or something like that. And so they have to set up every Sunday, tear down every Sunday and it’s super stressful and a lot of extra work for everyone. But then people end up looking back on that time with a lot of fondness because there was the same people who tore down every week and they were all working hard together and it was essential. And so I wonder, do you feel like one day all the financial issues for the church can fade into the background for you guys, and it’s not such a pressing thing? Do you think it’s possible to hold on to what you have now? I know you mentioned that’s a bit of a fear, or is it kind of just an inevitable…? You make more money and you spend it, and that’s just kind of how it goes. I’m not sure if there’s a direct the answer for that, and I’m just curious on your thoughts about that.
Yes, I think it is possible, but we’re going to have to be very intentional, because as pastors and administrators I sometimes believe that we own the copyright on lazy. And it is always going to be easier to go to churchstaffing.com, and say, I need this person or that person, or whatever. I need these people to do these things and send them my way and I’ll interview them and get them going. And then if they don’t work out, I’ll run them off… and I think that what you have to do is you have to say: no, this is more time-consuming the way we have to do it now. But the great upside to this is we are much more relational church that we were a couple of years ago. And I think that when you get to the point where the financial situation evens out, whether it’s this year, next year or the year after. Whenever that happens, I think it’s an opportunity to just continue to tell the people: well, instead instead of investing money in this big giant staff, we’re gonna be investing money back into our community and we’re going to support other struggling churches, or we’re going to do this or that or the other thing. So it has to be part of the mission, it has to be part of the DNA of the church. And the nice thing about our situation now, is that foundational piece is becoming deep within our DNA. And what we have to do is, pray for wisdom in the future, not to screw that up.
Yeah, definitely. Okay, so I’m gonna back-back out a little bit and go back to you personally. It’s encouraging in a lot of ways, but it’s also a very taxing position. So where do you go to one, learn more about your role, the financial side or that management and raising up volunteers, and just keeping yourself healthy in the midst of all this?
On the church side, resources from ECFA, XPastor is a good one. For God, for many women out there that haven’t done the XPastor conference in Dallas, which is every February – that is absolutely outstanding. Now, it’s a little bit more geared to churches with slightly different kinds of problems. Most of what they’re talking about down there is going to be some of the problems we run into with your high-growth situations. A lot of accounting stuff I actually pull out of the secular world. I am blessed that I am married to a CPA. And so that part of it, you spend a lot of time reading and thinking about best practices and finances. It comes from a variety of places. I’m a big advocate of LinkedIn, so I follow a lot of posts on LinkedIn from guys in the church and particularly guys outside of the church. I think some of the best things I’ve learned about working in the church I’ve learned from the world outside of the church. And I think sometimes the church can do a better job of marrying best practices from the business world. I know that for some people that’s going to be heresy, but some of the best practices for the business world, whether it be on the human side, on the finance side, or the technology side, can pay off real big dividends as we like to say, Jesus took a boat. So I think so it’s kind of a hodge-podge. My job is very stressful, but it’s relaxing at the same time because I’m in this stressful environment with people I love dearly. We’re all in it together, but I do get mindful about taking time away and getting away from it. But I don’t know if that answered the question or not, but there’s tons of resources out there and it’s just a matter of making the time. That’s something that I’m not always good at, but making the time to investigate what other people have done in various situations, whether it’s the corporate world or the church world.
I want to end with this, Hunter, what encouragement would you give to others in church leadership?
We have the best job in the world. We get to do something, we get to serve the Kingdom professionally. And a lot of times, it is not going to be fun. A mentor of mine, a previous boss years ago, was very fond of saying where there’s God’s sheep, there is sheep “dip” and you will step in it. And I think that being aware of that up front, being aware that we all bring our own stuff to whatever the circumstance are, being able to serve the Kingdom and being able to serve our people is an amazing opportunity. It’s not without its problems. The biggest thing is to have people, whether they are in your church or not in your church that you can vent to. And they should never, ever, ever, ever, ever be your spouse. For guys in my case, I have several guys that I know we can sit down and have breakfast or whatever, and I can blow off steam for 30 minutes, or whatever the case may be. What I learned early on is: I don’t come home and vent to my wife, because it’s her church as well. So you want to have mechanisms where you can vent, you can verbalize you your frustrations, you can kick the wall, whatever you need to do. And so having a group of people around you, where you have that freedom, have that liberty to do that. And they don’t hold it against the church or the organization or anything else. They just know that that’s part of it, that is critical, absolutely critical. And for me, also having a physical outlet I’m a cyclist. And so if I’ve had a really bad day, it’s very easy in Colorado to find a hill that I can’t really reasonably ride up and try, because by the time I get at least part up, I’m feeling better about the world. That for me is worthwhile. But you have got to have people that you can be frustrated in front of. Aggravated in front of. Mad in front of. You have to get it out.
That’s fantastic. Hunter, thanks so much for being on the podcast today.
My pleasure Courtney, thank you so much for having me.