Welcome back to the Monday Morning Church podcast. Josh Dean is joining us today from Princeton Alliance church in Plainsboro, New Jersey. Great to have you today Josh.
Hey Courtney, thanks for having me, appreciate it.
Josh, you were in the youth ministry actually, for 17 years, planned to be in that position for life. And now you’re an executive pastor. What happened?
Yeah, I’m still trying to figure that out a little bit, but I totally thought I was a lifer. Jumped into youth ministry right out of college, had a youth ministry and bible background, we were kind of in a Christian home setting. My life was pretty significantly changed at the age of 14 on a mission trip. And my trajectory was towards youth ministry. And I didn’t wanna be one of those guys that just use it as a stepping stone. So, committed to youth ministry long term, spent 17 years as full time youth minister in three different churches. And then about three years ago, there’s this stirring in my heart that I tried to ignore for quite a while and realized that it was God asking me to let go of my identity that went hand in hand, it was being a youth pastor. And so with fear and trembling I wrestled through that prayed through that and talked about it with my wife and I actually went to my boss and said, hey, this is gonna sound weird, but I think I need to give up my position. I didn’t know what was next… I didn’t know if I was gonna go plant a church. I didn’t know if… The church didn’t ask me to lead the ministry I actually volunteered. And during that season God gave me an opportunity to lead some different parts of the ministry. I became a next generation pastor and oversaw children, youth, adults, and also some of our local outreach initiatives and things. But then, just about a year ago, the church was going through a space kind of re-organization, and it was decided that we needed a singular executive pastor. Prior to that, we had had a four-person executive leadership team that had been in place for about three years, and I was actually part of that leadership team. So it was four people reporting directly to my senior pastor, and it just didn’t play to his strengths and our needs as a church. And so, they made the decision to go to a single executive pastor. At the time we had 34 staff members and they asked me to consider the position to become head of staff and oversee all of finance, HR and facilities in ministries, basically everything except for the Sunday morning experience. I was asked to lead and I said yes, it took some time to rustle through, and pray through. But after I went through a life plan process with one of my mentors and talked about my life and just really felt like it was calling to say yes to executive pastor role, not really knowing what that meant. And it’s been quite a season, it was last year.
So now you’re just at a year into this position, is that right?
Yeah, it’s like 13 months, I think officially.
Okay, so this might be maybe too early to ask this question, but looking back on this transition for you in the last 13 months, what’s it been like for you?
I have learned so much. I’ve learned a ton about myself. I’ve learned a ton about God. I’ve learned a ton about what I believed about ministry. I think the thing that I learned the most in this last year is how much different the senior leadership level is. I had always been a staff pastor up to that point. And as a staff pastor, I thought numerous times like, oh man, I would have done that differently. I always had that kind of Monday morning quarterback kind of feel. And then actually when I became an executive pastor and understood the gravity of the role and the responsibilities, it was about six weeks into the role, I went to my lead pastor and I actually apologized. And I said, hey, I’m sorry for all the things I thought about how to lead church when I wasn’t in a senior leadership position, because once you’re in it. The weight and the responsibility and expectations, it’s unlike anything I’ve experienced and now after one year of full time ministry it’s just a much different feel. And so I would say I faced more challenges than I knew I would face, but at the same time, I grew more than I thought I would, and I guess probably the biggest take away for me is just how different the weight to senior leadership is.
So tell me a little bit more about Princeton Alliance church.
Yeah, so we’re about a 32 year old church planed through the Christian Alliance, and it’s actually now a church of about 1500 on a weekend. We have a very diverse staff in community. We actually have 88 administers representative in our church on any given Sunday, and in fact, white is actually not even in the majority, it’s 62 percent non-white. So it really neat to be part of a community like that. My mom was a missionary in Ethiopia, and my dad was in an urban context, and although I’m a white middle class kind of American guy, I’ve got a background of being exposed to a lot of different ethnicities. And so, I wanted that for my family. I wanted that for my kids. And so, it’s been so beautiful to be part of a really diverse community, we are kind of a resource church. Almost 40 cents of every dollar that comes into our church, goes out in some way, should reform you to local or in national missions. And that’s kind of unusual for a church our size. We also send 250 to 300 people a year on mission trips around the world.
Yeah, that’s a big thing that I love about our church that we’re committed to really reach beyond just our local complex. So that’s little bit about PAC (Princeton Alliance Church).
Tell me a little more about your staff. Does the staff all report to you?
So yes, technically, now on this last year, I became head of staff. The only person that does not report to me is our lead pastor and he reports to the board. And at the time when I took the position, as I mentioned, we had 34 staff members about full time equivalent about 29 or 30. And we actually had a pretty significant transition. In this past year. We had 11 people who left our staff in the last 18 months. And so we went from 34 down to 23, and we’ve hired back a couple. During the first 10 months of my role as executive pastor, I had 12 direct reports, and I did that on purpose. I was an inaugurator, I was the initiator of a reorg right after I took the position and I wanted to really flatten out our church. I wanted to flatten out our staff and our organization. I wanted to have as much faith time as I possibly could with our staff members and to really understand their gifts and skills and talents, and make sure that I could match those gifts, skills and talents with the needs of our church. And so for 10 months, I had 12 direct reports, which I would never advise anybody to do long term. It was the right decision for that moment, and it really flattened our org structure in a significant way, but it was not sustainable for me. And I don’t think for any executive pastor, I would not encourage you to have that long term. At the same time, I was building a second org structure that basically reflected a more team approach to ministry. And so now I have… I went from 12 direct reports down to 6 direct reports, and that’s been a significant change in accordance with the reorg.
So what has been… you said he had 11 people leave in the last 18 months, but what has been the general kind of response from staff to the reorganizing?
Yeah, that’s great. I get questions a lot as to whether or not all of those 11 staff transitions were voluntary and it’s kind of hard to believe, but they were. People who came face to face with the reality that where we were going as a church, may or may not fit with where they were going personally. And then there were some pretty natural transitions that took place. People have retired or they were called to other ministries. But I would say, by and large, the thing that I learned most in this past year with those transitions is given our staff the ability to grieve. There’s a loss that happens in the context of staff members, and although they… none of them passed away, they all transitioned, there is a sense of loss in a sense of almost a death of the relationship that we need to give our staff the opportunity to grieve through. And I wasn’t always good at that, but it’s something that God began to really teach me in this past year. The opportunity for our staff to the process and to grieve and to let go of what God birth in the past, and really embrace with God’s calling us to in the future.
That’s great. So maybe this has to do with some of this reorganizing or leading a church with a lot of diversity, or maybe something else entirely, but what is one solution or best practice that you all have implemented there that might be interesting to some others listening?
Sure. Yeah. I think the one that was most important for me is that I had identified in this last year, four qualities that I looked for in developing leaders and developing teams, and these four qualities were actually both a litmus test which I used for our current staff members. And then also a lens by which we evaluated our new work structure. And so I’ll just give them to you quick. The first one is a sensitivity to Holy Spirit is number one. Just an individual’s ability to sense the move of the Holy Spirit in their lives in life and their ministry is crucial. The second quality I look for in developing leader, in developing team is a proven ability or desire to develop people not just get stuff done. That’s great when you have people that wanna get stuff done but there is a limit to that, and so we look for people who want to develop others into their own gifts and skills, and actually further the ministry in that way. The third one is the ability to develop systems. Churches our size rise and fall on systems, and some of our backup systems are great, and some of them really need some work. And so I was looking for people who cared about systems, who cared about developing systems and putting them in place to help us grow, put the infrastructure in place to help us grow as a church. And then finally, the fourth quality I look for is the ability for someone to respond in a healthier way to issues or conflict. So when you put all those together, sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, passion for developing people, abilities to develop systems, and then also healthy responses to issues and conflicts for me, those four qualities reflect and the quality of the type of person that I want to lead our church, our organization. And even if one person doesn’t reflect all of those four qualities in them themselves, I look to build teams in such a way that all those four qualities are fully represented across individuals and across the team.
Did you find this list somewhere or is this just kind of from your own struggle and observation?
Yeah, in fact, I think I don’t wanna rob from anybody, but I think it was mostly born out of pain. It was mostly born out of struggle. And to be honest with you in my journey is within the context of our church. I’ve been there now seven years, and my job changed almost once a year over the last seven years. And I took on new responsibilities and new roles, which finally led me to an executive pastor role. During that same time, our church didn’t grow necessarily in any kind of exponentially or numerically. We planted a couple churches during that time period, but there wasn’t a ton of growth. And so I kept getting questions from staff members like, hey, how come your job keeps changing. How come you keep getting more things to do and how come my role kind of stays in the same time frame and same trajectory. And so I began to really wrestle to that, okay, what’s different about my journey. And what was different about my journey and what I felt like our church needed most were those four qualities. I really prayed through them and wrestled through them and realized the Holy Spirit, the development of people, development of systems and then responded to issues in a healthy way or things that are actually gonna help us move church forward. And so I was kind of born out of pain.
Yes, sometimes the best wisdom is born out of pain I think.
And then it became kind of a framework that I began to use. I brought the idea to my lead pastor and said, hey, here’s what I’m thinking. Here’s what I’m thinking our church needs for our future for this new work structure. Here’s the four qualities that either should be represented consistently in an individual who’s gonna lead our teams or in the teams themselves. Do you agree? And we wrestled through that together and really talked through it and brought it to our board. And the board got on board with the concept. And so this became, like I said, our framework and our litmus test for the leadership for the future of our church.
That’s great. Alright, flipside of this, what is something going on right now that you haven’t quite found a solution for? You can only pick one.
Yeah, I can always pick one. So I am really passionate about a team based leadership, but I’m coming from a church in a context that is more individual based or ministry specific based leadership that has thrived on competition rather than teamwork. And so I think probably the one that I’m struggling with most is helping our staff understand what it means to go from a more competitive individualistic way of doing ministry to a more team based and trust based way of doing ministry. And that requires communication that requires just a lot of patients and the willingness to get down in the mud and figure out where that competitive spirit may have come from. And there’s positive things to competition don’t get me wrong, but trying to move from, like I said, from a more competitive atmosphere, to a more team based atmosphere in a staff of 20 something people. That’s probably been one of my biggest challenges in the last 10 to 12 months.
So Josh, where do you go to learn more about being better at your role? Or where do you go to be refreshed?
Yeah, sure, I’ll take them in that order. In regards to my job there’s actually… I don’t know if many executive pastors know about this, but there’s a Google email group that’s out there. I don’t even know how I found it, but I’m guessing dozens of executive pastors from all over the United States and churches from 500 to 25000 that are on this Google list, Google email list, and people can just throw out ideas and ask questions and get feedback. And I use that regularly. I like to see what other executive pastors are asking, what questions are they asking, and then occasionally I’ll throw out the questions I have, and I get feedback then anywhere from 3 to 10 guys, guys and women will jump in and give perspectives, and it’s really cool to hear how other executive pastors are doing it. I listen to a lot of podcasts and I do listen to Monday Morning Church at times. I’ve…listen to some other podcasts that are out there, EntreLeadership. I’m a podcast guy ’cause I’m always on the go. So I usually have three or four books going out at a time. I don’t always finish all of them, but I keep two or three or four books going at a time for different leadership perspectives that I find helpful in the context of what I’m doing. And on a personal side… I think boundaries and relationships are the two things that keep me most healthy. I’ve been meeting with an executive with an accountability partner now for… I think it’s going on 11 years, he and I have been meeting every two weeks, and we get into some really deep and dirty stuff in our lives, and we trust each other, and we know each other, and we ask hard questions and we don’t let each other get away with surface level answers. And that’s huge for me. I’ve had seasons where I’ve had coaches, I’m kind of in between coaches right now, but I’ve used two or three different coaches over the last couple of years that I find is a replenishing cycle for me. And I guess the last thing I would say that is big on a restorative for my own soul is some alone time. I’m a learned extrovert. So I’ve learned to be with people and I can do that well. I figured out how to do that in context of ministry, but I actually need to be alone to be recharged. And so, I ride my motorcycle, I spend time out in the woods, I go for long walks. I take hikes, that kind of stuff.
What encouragement would you give to others and church leadership?
Guard your heart. Yeah, I’d say the best thing I can tell the guard your heart. Everybody knows statistics. You see how many people, how many pastors leave the ministry in a given year? You see the tragic situations where more ministry families or our marriages implode. I’m not blaming anybody and my heart aches for those families, for those men and women, but if there’s anything I learned in 20 years of ministry is that I have to… nobody’s gonna guard my heart for me, nobody else is gonna set the boundaries for me. Nobody else is going to put the systems and processes in place that I’m to thrive personally. So I need to take really good care of my own heart so that then I can out from that is my relationship with God. Out from that is my relationship, with my wife and my kids. But if my heart isn’t surrendered, I’m just no good as a pastor, as a husband, as a father.
Ah, that’s great Josh. Thanks so much for being on the podcast today.
Yeah, thanks for having me Courtney, appreciate it.
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