Welcome to the Monday Morning Church podcast. Today, our featured speaker is a very exciting person that I’m excited to bring on here. She has been an executive leader at churches. She is an author of several books and she’s a famous speaker that goes around and talks a lot, now doing a lot of consulting. Jenni Catron is our guest today. Hi, Jenni. How are you?
I’m great, Neil. Thanks for having me on today.
I’m very, very excited to get to know you more and to get our listeners to hear a lot of your stories. Why don’t you start with a little bit of your background of how you got into church ministry and what you’re doing now?
Yeah. Thanks. I ended up into ministry, full time ministry work, unexpectedly. My husband and I were a part of a church plant when we were living in Nashville, Tennessee. There was a new church starting, and we jumped in, kind of as faithful volunteers, ready to help get this church launched. At the time, I was working in the music business in Nashville. That was kind of my dream job, as a kid, was to work in the Christian music business. So I was kind of living the dream and we were helping with this church plant. It began to grow really rapidly and the senior leader said, hey, I think I need your expertise over here helping me run this organization. Because, as most of you guys know, as the church gets a little bit larger and a little more complex, there’s just so much operationally, administratively, and just staff development management, all of those things that often land in an executive director, executive pastor type of role. And so I found myself on church staff full time which was surprising in many ways, but just an absolute joy and one of the best decisions, I think, I’ve ever made in my life, being able to use the gift that I’ve been given to serve the local church like that. So I did that. I was at the church in Nashville for 9 years on staff. Then I came out to Menlo Park, California, to Menlo Park Press and served as executive pastor there for a couple of years. And then most recently launched a company called the 4Sight Group, working with churches and organizations across the country on leadership development, team development and strategy. So I take that broad scope and say, how can I help other organizations really accomplish the things that they feel like that’s put on their heart?
Wow. So you started off in Nashville at the time, at a startup type church atmosphere, and then you go out to Menlo Park which is a fairly established church that’s been there for a long time. Can you talk just briefly about the difference between the cultures that you found there?
Yeah. It was really a stark contrast, but in a really good way, just from an experience standpoint for me, because I was part of a church plant that was rapidly growing and had all the complexities that come with church plant startup mode. So that was the church in Nashville. And then when I came out to Menlo Park, 142-year old denominational church, well-established, long history, that comes with some natural bureaucracy. But there’s a real heart to continue to innovate and reach the Bay Area in significant ways. But very different type of cultures. The areas of the country are radically different so that, in itself, was two very different things. Then you had church plant, non-denominational situation in Nashville to 142-year old, established denominational church. So just a totally different experience, but really good for me because it just stretched my thinking as a leader and helped me to just get perspectives on leading in different types of organizations.
I’m curious how this transition actually happened. Going from this, did they recruit you? Did you seek that out to make that transition out to California?
Yeah. They recruited me to that role. When I was at the church in Nashville, the church there in Menlo Park had just networked, as churches do, just learning from one another. That kind of morphed into me, being recruited by — John Ortberg is the lead pastor at Menlo Park, and him recruiting me to say, hey, we’re rearranging some of our executive leadership. They were really focusing on a multi-site strategy at the time and still are. But that was one of the core things that he was interested in having me come and do was help them re-launch their multi-site strategy. So yeah, as these things do, they kind of morphed over time into, oh, we think you should do this role. And my husband and I are going, okay, are we moving across the country? Is this really happening? But it was one of those wild journeys of faith and obedience.
Yeah. So over this time, you’ve also been an author of several books. A lot about influences is one of your popular topics, women and leadership is another one, different types of leadership type things. Can you tell us about what’s one of your favorite stories that comes out of your books and how you got into being an author too?
Yeah. Yeah. It’s funny because I think being an author was always one of those wild dreams that you thought would never become reality. So I didn’t actively chase book writing. What I began to do, as I began to write — this was back in, probably, the early 2000s when blogging was super popular. I was at the church in Nashville, it was growing really rapidly, and I recognized that a lot of the congregation weren’t hearing from the leadership probably as much as they would like. There was a lot of change in growth so they needed to hear from us even more than they were. So I began blogging as a way to help the congregation here about the decisions we were making and why we were making them and just as a communication channel to the congregation. Well, what I’ve found is that it was other churches that were reading my blog rather than the congregation. Some of the congregations were reading but, by far, the majority of my readers were people that were at churches across the country, just because we were trying — again, we’re looking to share ideas and learn from one another, and that was a platform that was really rapidly growing. So just unintentionally, I created this audience of church leaders around the country who were saying, hey, it’s so good to hear your thought process of how you’re making decisions and why you’re making the decisions you are, and the wrestlings that you’re having as a leader. So the blog writing turned into that which ultimately turned into opportunities to publish some of my thoughts on leadership. And my passion, kind of story-wise, one of the big moments for me that was the catalyst for me to really dive into leadership and say: You know what? I’ve gotta really understand what this leadership thing, what it looks like, what it means, how do you do it. It happened in my early 20’s, and it was when I was still back in the music business, but I was put in my first real position of leadership. I had an employee who reported to me and I was kind of in charge of this division of the company, and I really botched that first leadership experience. I feel so sorry for the person who worked for me or the people who worked around me in that area because I just naively started barking orders and going on this power trip and I think it’s just because I just assumed that that’s what you did. It’s embarrassing to look at now. But that moment, and I had one of my mentors who said, Jenni, if you wanna work with widgets, go work in a factory. But if you wanna work with people, you’re gonna have to learn how to love them and how to lead them. And that moment marked me and it changed me. It really solidified this passion for leadership and this passion for helping leaders understand the significance of their role as leaders. And it doesn’t matter what position you’re in, what you oversee. When you have responsibility for leading others, and everybody who’s in church ministry has a responsibility for leading others, whether it’s staff or volunteers, like the congregation, you are influencing. And that’s why I have such a passion about the word influences but leadership begins with this understanding of influence and that when we have influence, by definition, influence means the power to change or affect someone. And so when you really grasp that, that as a leader, you have the power to change or affect the lives of the people that you’re influencing, then, oh my gosh, we’ve gotta understand the significance of it. We’ve gotta figure out what does it take to do this well because we’ve all experienced good leaders and we’ve also experienced really bad leaders. So as much as it’s within my power, I wanna have, leadership influence that is doing good rather than harm. So that solidified my passion for leadership and I speak and write on it, and help other leaders in their journey.
So most of our audience are executive pastors, church administrators, leaders in some ways, but in a lot of ways, leaders of large churches, leaders of large staff. So why don’t you talk a little bit about the team leadership dynamics and about culture and about how that brings in? I know it’s a passionate topic for you so let’s hear some more about what the executive pastor can do in terms of creating that culture.
Yeah. That’s so good. I love this conversation because I think, again, it’s one of those things I accidentally stumbled upon. But you realize pretty quickly, especially in ministry where you’ve got to rely on a lot of people, you have some staff that you never have enough budget to have all the staff you need. I’ve never met a church who felt like they had every staff role that they could possibly want and they were fully staffed. I think part of that is even the design of the church is that we have volunteers who are helping accomplish the work of the ministry and that were leading to help accomplish the work of the ministry. So I think, just by design, the church is intended to be primarily a volunteer organization. So that makes leadership complex because people aren’t there just because they get a paycheck. Even your staff aren’t there because of the paycheck, typically. We don’t get into ministry for the money. We get into ministry for our passion and our heart for what we’re doing. So that requires an even greater level of intentionality as a leader to recognize that we have to really motivate and inspire people to be a part of what we’re being a part of and, obviously, at the end of the day are why the gospel, the mission of what we’re accomplishing is enough. But we have to keep people connected to that. We have to help. That’s what our responsibilities as leaders is, is to help keep people connected to the core mission and vision of what we’re doing, why it matters, and how they’re connected to that. So from a team perspective, I think a lot of folks in executive pastor type roles or similar type of leadership roles within the church, you have a huge opportunity to really connect people to that mission. So even if you have a pretty operational or administrative role, which a lot of executive pastor types do, we can get caught up in the task and the details a lot of times. But we have to really stay connected to the people part of ministry, and that our primary responsibility is to help people connected to that mission and vision and help them see how they are impacting it with whatever role or responsibility they have that they can see that and they can align with that. I think when leaders have an eye on that first, they’re next gonna help create a culture that people wanna be a part of, they’re gonna be intentional about getting to know their team and how they thrive them, what motivates them, what inspires them, and what their gifts are. A lot of times, leaders can just think that their job is a bunch of tasks on a list, again, especially when we have more operationally-driven roles. But I think we have to constantly be living in the tension of both. Yes. Again, as executives, we have a lot of responsibility for the tactical work of making ministry happen but we’ve gotta keep an eye on the people dynamics and what’s going on with the team. Are we keeping people motivated and inspired? Do they understand our vision and mission? Do they understand our values? Do they understand how they connect to it? And when you have great intentionality on those things, you’re gonna create a culture that people are clamoring to be a part of and you’re gonna recruit some of your best people, and you’re gonna keep your best people.
I have a question specific to your situation, to a lot of people out there. Let’s say you’re an executive pastor out there, but you also have a senior pastor who is very charismatic, influential, well-known, as you experienced that in Menlo Park, what is that role when it comes to creating that culture, creating good teams between the executive pastor and the senior pastor? At what point should the executive pastor may be step back and let the senior pastor determine the culture? Or what point should the executive pastor jump in and try to influence in certain ways? What have you found to be the best mix in that situation?
Yeah. That’s a great, great question because this is the dynamic of the 2nd chair. We’re not typically the visionary, but we do have a huge responsibility to help live out that vision. I always summarize my job as an executive pastor, as a person who put feet to the vision. And in both cases, both in national and in Menlo Park, I was alongside big visionary leaders. Both leaders thought big, had big ideas, big dreams. But I was typically the one that had to take that and go, okay, what’s the plan and how do we align people to accomplish it? So when we’re talking about particularly like values and some of those cultural dynamics, some leaders, and I will say of the two leaders that I worked for, one of those was really good at understanding the values in the culture piece, and the other one wasn’t as intuitive about that. And so even my role with each of them looked a little bit different because a leader who naturally thought about vision, and values, and culture, then it was an easier overflow. We would have a lots of conversations about, okay, well, what does that mean? And how is it affecting the team? And I often saw myself as kind of that bridge between the rest of the staff and our senior leader. Because, oftentimes, it’s easy to have a disconnect. It seems so obvious to that visionary leader, even if they think values and culture, it feels doable. It feels easy to them. But tactically for the team, it can start to get lost in translation. So I would often see my role as a person who is the bridge between both. That I needed to help the senior leader understand what was happening with the team, I needed to help the team understand how they connected to that vision, and how we wanted them to live out values and behave. They say values or culture is made up of your values, beliefs, and behaviors. And so my job was to figure out what’s the culture the senior leader would like to see created within our team, and then with him, define the values and then determine how we wanted the team to behave. What does that mean for how we work? For the leader who was not great at the culture piece, I had a little more leading up to do there in helping him understand, hey, here’s what’s going on in the culture, here’s how some of the decisions we’ve made as an executive team or some of the things that you wanna do as a senior leader are impacting culture negatively or positively. But I had to really lead up a little bit more to that leader to help him understand the value of the culture and what was either building or eroding the culture. And one of my firm beliefs is that culture is building or eroding every day. I think when you sit in that 2nd chair, you really have to understand your senior leader and what they get about culture from a staff perspective and then help either educate them or help facilitate their vision for it. So it can kind of vary by the leader that you’re working with. But if you can see yourself as the bridge between that senior leader and the rest of the team and go, you know what? I’m gonna be frustrated with both sides at different times, but I need to really see that what I’m doing is helping be the bridge to connect that senior leader and his vision with implementation of the team.
Yeah. I haven’t really heard that term of leading up before, but that’s really great imagery to think about and to walk through. That’s really nice. Jenni, you’re doing a lot of consulting these days, going around to see a lot of different churches and help them strategize organizations. I know a lot of ExPs out there just wanna know general states of things out there. What would you say the state of church leadership? What are some things that the most progressive churches are working on? What are some things that we’re still struggling with that we maybe should move on from?
That’s a great question. We could probably go a billion different directions with this, just depending on a specific topic or area. What I’m seeing a lot is that culture and just the world, in general, is changing so rapidly. With technology, with just our ability to be connected, everything is changing at such a rapid pace. And with that, the church is having to really work to keep up and stay current with what is going on and things of just technology and tools that are available to us, to how people think, culture-wise, what people think and what they value. Because the things that the church used to connect with or people would connect with the church about are changing pretty drastically. You see differences in different parts of the country. In major metropolitan areas, you see differences from smaller towns in more rural areas. So we are really paying attention to just in general, how do people even think about the church because that is shifting a lot. So I think it is impacting our strategies. One of the questions I’m hearing all the time is churches saying something shifting but nobody quite put their finger on what is shifting about how we do church. We know it’s changing. We know the way people are engaging with the church is changing, but our most effective ways to reach people are creating a lot of conversation and complexity. So I would say that there’s a sense that there’s something shifting in the church but I haven’t heard people kind of figure out what that is. They haven’t unlocked it, so to speak. Maybe we never do. Probably every generation wrestles with this. And just this awareness that just paying attention to how people are engaging and connecting in its simple things like sports dominate kids’ lives probably more so than ever. I live in the San Francisco bay area right now and Sunday is not a sacred day. It’s only two to four percent church in the bay area. And so it’s a very unchurched area. And Sunday mornings are soccer tournaments, and baseball, and all the different sports. And so people’s ability to even physically get to church is being inhibited more and more by all the demands on their lives. And so what does that mean for the church? And do we need to think differently about where and how we’re engaging with people because just their ability to actually even show up is less than it’s ever been? So there’s things like that that are big part of the conversation. Another thing too is, and it’s probably because my passion and my heart beat is this idea of developing great teams and healthy staff cultures, because I think we’ve gotten much better at building strategic plans and knowing how to do church. We’ve gotten much more intentional and we’ve learned to build strategic plans and all of those things. But in that pursuit of growth, church growth, sometimes I think we’ve sacrificed our health, and that’s both personally, spiritually as an organization, as a leadership team. And I’m grieved because I’m seeing a lot of my peers starting to flame out and just get burned out and leave ministry when I really think we should just be starting to get going. We should just start by starting to feel our stride. One of the big concerns for me is a lot of young church leaders are running so hard so fast that they’re not really leading with a long view and they’re health, on all levels, is being sacrificed. And so I think there’s a dynamic that churches are starting to pay attention to and I think need to pay attention to, and that the pace of culture, the pace of just the world, is sometimes producing things in us that I don’t think are the healthiest course in the long run. So we’ve gotta have an eye on that. There’s a great book by Pete Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader. There’s resources like that that I think start to get the heart of, are we leading ourselves well as ministry leaders and making sure that we’re equipped and prepared to do this for the long haul?
Right. Right. Jenni, we always talk about technology on this podcast. Why don’t you give us just one tip, I mean you’re out in San Francisco, right? So you gotta have the bleeding edge technology that’s there. So what’s one thing that maybe churches should be on the lookout for that maybe they’re not using yet or it should just be standard for them at this point?
It’s such a great question and I’m the worst person to ask because I am. I live in Silicon Valley but the crazy part about it is that there’s always all kinds of new apps and new ideas here. And so I’m not the earliest adapter. I usually adapt — I forget what the scale is, but it’s like, I’m an earlier adapter but I’m not the earliest adaptor. I’m not way on the innovator edge. So if there’s this new technology and tool that comes up, I’m like, Hmmm. I want a few other people to test that. And then if it seems like it’s actually working, then I’ll jump on board. So I’m probably not the best person to ask because then when I find something that works for me, I just stick with it. I’m just committed to it. So I don’t have anything newer flashy. I use things like Evernote religiously. I have files for every staff person. I have files for every meeting. That works really well for me to keep up with my life. I still will use Basecamp for project management. So some of the tried and true that have been around a while are still my old tools. The biggest conversation I’m hearing, and I’d love to continue to get feedback about from people is that we’re still struggling with our church database software. Nobody feels like they found the magic bullet on that one. So that’s probably the one I hear the most frustration with from churches. But I would say, the biggest thing is I see churches really slow to adapt any of these kinda tools. And I would say, ask your young people on your staff. What would they like to use and give some stuff a try? I’m hearing a lot of churches who use Slack. So I think you got to just be willing to try some of these tools that help, particularly with staff, communication and so forth. So I’m not the best person to ask, Neil. I just say, tell me what to use and then teach me to use it, and then I will use it.
Awesome. So that’s good to know.
You probably need to be educating me is really the truth of it.
Yeah. There’s so many things out there now, and so many tools are available for churches that maybe aren’t specifically marketed to them, like Slack or something like that, that churches can use and really get a lot of advantage from. Jenni, thanks for being on the show. We’ve really learned a lot from you. But I want you to leave us with just one tip, one thing for ExPs to listen to and to remember as they go about their day to day.
I would say this. I would say, leaders, lead yourself well so that you can lead others better. But at the end of the day, be intentional and be disciplined about what you need to do to continue to grow, to keep yourself humble and to lead yourself well for the long haul because when you’re well, then your teams are gonna be better as well. So just lead yourself well to lead others better. Everything else kind of falls on the line.
Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for taking the time to be on the show. We really learned a lot. Your website is Jennicatron.com, right?
Okay. We will include both those links on our show notes that go out, but thanks a lot for being on. We enjoyed it.
Awesome. Thanks so much, Neil.