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Welcome back to the Monday morning church podcast. Justin Atkins is joining us today from McKinney Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Justin, great to have you on the show today.

Courtney, it’s great to be with you.

So Justin, tell me a little bit about your position there at McKinney and how you came into it?

Certainly, I grew up in the church and came to know Christ a young age, but I ended up going to college for business finance. That was the degree I was pursuing, thinking I was going to spend time in the business world and towards the end of my college career, I got calling me in the ministry and I really got a hold in my life. So I started in the ministry at the church I grew up at in the Memphis, Tennessee area as a middle school pastor actually, and did that for several years. And then my wife and I believed that we needed some theological education. We moved to the Fort Worth area to do some seminar at Southwest and it was there that I really took my first step towards an executive pastor role. I got involved with the church planning network, catalytic movement, trying to start about four churches a year, and was just volunteering serving there when they asked me to come on staff. And they actually recognized some of that business background combined with some leadership experience and asked me to fill a role that for them wasn’t titled executive pastor but was certainly a step towards that and began to pick that interest. I thought that I was supposed to be a church planter at the time, so we went back to the Memphis area to start a church only to discover through the painful process of a failed church plant that I really am wired to be an executive pastor versus the lead pastor. And that was both a hard process, but ultimately a very fulfilling one because the things that I learned during that season really solidified my calling and really solidified how God had wired me. And I had a friend of mine that was a church planter coach that asked me to consider a role as executive pastor the church plant at Lovett, Texas and ended up going out there as the very first role as an executive pastor. He thought I’d be a great fit and so we ended up at Lubbock, a church plant that was really growing fast at that time. It was about a year old and about two years in, it ended up being the second fastest growing church in the nation as it experience life at Lovett, Texas. And that was just a wild ride, a lot of fun. And we did that for several years and when we moved there, we knew clearly that God wanted us there. We didn’t know how long He would have us there. In a few years, the church had grown so fast that I really had a season that I discovered two things I felt like the Lord had showed me that – one, the church had grown beyond a size that they really needed multiple people to do some of the things that I was doing and some more specified gifting, especially in the area of finance and business management. I love giving oversight and philosophical guidance. I don’t necessarily find a lot of joy on a day to day basis getting in the weeds of spreadsheets. I love my business manager that he loves that now. And also I had recognition that the lead pastor there and I are really headed kind of, I would describe it as competing gifting versus complementary gifting. We are very much alike. We found a lot of joy doing a lot of the same things, and that worked great for us for several years because the church was growing so quickly. In many ways he needed two of himself. But the church was finally gaining more staff and getting larger and he was getting a little bit more margin to live back into some of those areas and just recognized that while we were still friends and things were still going great that what the church needed for its next season and what he needed from an executive pastor was different than where my gifting and my passion for ministry was. And it was around that time that William Vanderbloemen actually saw. Well, we did a podcast with William – great guy. William gave me a call and we were talking, and he asked me to consider the role here at McKinney and Fort Worth. And we had lived in Fort Worth before, had loved the city. And as we began to interview here and talk just fell in love with the church, and its leadership and I really walked into a unique situation – the church had been in existence at the time for about 50 years, and initially I didn’t think it might be a fit because I thought a long term existing church. My background is really more as an organizer, a grower of a church, I don’t have maintenance ministry very well, but they began to quickly explain that the church is going through an intentional lead pastor transition from a previously pastor who had been here for 27 years – incredible man and leader, and they were transitioning into a newly pastor who had only been alive a few more years than 27 years at the time. And they were hiring his leader and really the explanation was much as one of the elders told me once. He said, “Justin, just because the church has had 50 years doesn’t mean you get 50 more.” And it was an intentional decision, a reposition of the church to reach a coming generation and also recognition I think at the time that the church over the years had grown more and more complex. And in some ways that even drifted from the original vision of the church, not intentionally, but as every organization ages. There’s a tendency to add add add and you just never subtract. And so Chris, our current lead pastor – incredibly wise and gifted guy – we found, I found quickly that we were very complimentary in nature in both gifting and personality, and so ended up coming aboard staff. And we’ve been in the process for the past six years of really returning to that original DNA vision and using in many ways some of the lessons I learned in church planning to focus on simplified strategies and kind of just a whole practice and pursuit of what God has called us to do here. McKinney has been a fun ride and really I feel like I find myself now in a position and a church and a people that were hoping that God will let us stay here for a long time. It’s been a lot of fun.

Yeah, I’m wondering about – I don’t know if you can even do a direct comparison but I am just curious –some of your reflections on your experience in that church planting environment, and then now in a situation where you’re kind of taking a big ship and steering it into a different direction. That’s a very, seem like very different processes. Do they seem so different for you? What have you learned having your foot in both of those sides?

Yes, I mean in some ways, I mean a lot of ways they are very different doing those two things. One thing that God was gracious to me, and in some ways I think he positioned me through my ministry experience perfectly for this situation because I started ministry as a middle school pastor and a larger church that was established and had traditions and setting and some of those existing trappings. So I had some background there before I spent about 10 years in church planting. And so one of the things that I had to learn a lot in is in the church planting world, when you’re dealing with change in direction and decisions, nothing’s established, of course – so you can just set direction and go and you just casting vision, trying to get people on board. And in the church planting world, there is a lot of talk about – we use the word exegeting the culture, and typically that’s used in terms of the external culture around us and how we’re going to reach it. But one of the breakthroughs for me was when I arrived at McKinney; I would say certain things and get puzzled looks on people’s eyes. It just wouldn’t connect or I might get pushed back on an idea, and one of the breakthroughs is I felt like the Lord just said, “Justin, you got to spend some time exegeting the internal culture of McKinney.” And it was only once I began to really understand and embrace the internal culture of McKinney that then I would be able to find myself using many of the same strategies, thoughts, etc. But I could use it and cast vision in the language and in an approach that fit within the existing culture here and work within it. And so there were bumps and bruises along the way as any transition, any change management process and we formed a lot of lessons through that. I can go on and on about that, but a lot of differences but some similarities – I think the biggest thing was just learning the internal culture first and then being able to just to speak to that.

That’s interesting. And that point about exegeting the outside culture and coming to McKinney and exegeting the internal culture, I guess a follow-up question that I have is a lot of times the traditional churches that have been around for a while, the longer they are around, the more internally focused they are. So have you found, you’ve also been able to bring in that perspective of remembering to look outside of the walls and exegeting the outside culture despite the fact that there is something established going on.

Certainly, I think one of the strengths that we had was the original DNA of the church that we could go back to that, as I had mentioned we had sort of drifted and part of really our first three years with Chris and I, we were working on with our staff, and the elders was returning to that. And that original DNA really was a Missional Focus 50 years ago. One of our elders, I think that had been attending the church for 40 years told me a story of coming to McKinney. It’s in the South Bible belt – this is 40 years ago – and noticed that the church didn’t do Sunday evening services, which in this culture would have at that time been very strange. And he asked the lead pastor and the elders at the time, “Hey, why don’t we do Sunday night services?” And their answer was, “Why are we going to bring you back up to church for a second sermon rather than bring you up to live out the sermon that you’ve already heard among your neighbors? Invite your neighbors over, build relationships, go and reach your neighbor.” And so we had that history, that DNA – what we had to do is simply bring people back to it, and so we began to use that, get some clarity along language and this apprenticeship process that pointed externally, and then bring people back to that filter over and over and over again as the decision making process occurred on. What do we need to subtract? What are some things that were good ideas at the time that just no longer work and how do we keep beating the drum externally because this is not discipleship or evangelists that we have to manage that tension, stretch the rubber band. And so we’ve just found ourselves consistently stretching the rubber band externally over time. And really for us, specifically through what we would call a neighboring strategy, and it’s been – so far we are getting some traction and saying God do some really cool things.

Yeah, so tell me a little bit about who McKinney is today?

Yeah, today we are certainly an established church, but now a much younger one, and have a vision for developing Christ into people, make a difference by helping them connect with Christ, transforming community, engage the world. But at the core of that, I believe really a heart of our lead pastor is that some of that, much of that would begin in the neighborhood. We can ask – it’s kind of the root of some of what we are dealing with and running after right now is we ask the question when Jesus said love your neighbor as yourself, who is He talking about? And yes, we rightfully feel logically answer that as anybody in our spirit of influence and anybody we come in contact with. However, in the American church we also found that by making everyone our neighbor, no one has become our neighbor. And we literally don’t know the person that sleeps 40 feet away from our head. And so we began to ask what if when Jesus said love your neighbor, He actually meant your actual neighbor. And so we began pursuing that with great passion. Part of our existing vision is to get an outward facing, a missional community group in every single neighborhood of Southwest Fort Worth. We are about a third of the way there in the past four years of pursuing that, and really just casting vision for beginning with even just, “Hey church, do you know your neighbor’s name?” Began to use a block map to just say, could you fill it in? Could you know the names of your neighbor because if you don’t know their name, you can’t pray for them. If you can’t pray for them, how are you ever going to share the Gospel with them? And so we began pursuing that, encouraging that, revisiting that and as you know with casting any vision, it’s over and over and over, and it begins with us. We have to model it. I moved into a neighborhood, I bought a home, and I began learning my neighbor’s names launching a small group in our neighborhood, throwing block parties and have our people over, so that we have stories to tell and vision to cast ourselves.

That’s fantastic. I mean that’s putting hands and feet to what’s going on inside of the walls of the church.

Yes, certainly.

So tell me, what is a solution or a best practice that you guys have implemented there at McKinney that you really found success with?

From a neighboring strategy, probably the number one step for us that we found was that block map. We created a graphic as we preached on it. We went into the Sunday morning worship guide, and we gave people an opportunity in the service to say, fill this out. And it had a square in the middle that represents your house and eight squares all the way around. And then we just began to challenge people “Will you learn their name? And we didn’t just make that a one Sunday thing or a one sermon series thing. Instead six weeks later, we put that block map back in the worship guide and said, “Hey guys, pop quiz. Let’s talk about this.” And then began to celebrate who knows at least one name more than they knew before. And we celebrated those successes and began to tell those stories. And then as we began launching community groups in those neighborhoods and people began to see the fruit, we began to tell the stories. We found that it’s begun building upon itself.

 Now, something I’ve heard and it’s unfortunate but it is a reality is there can sometimes be fears in churches of if your people are so engaged in the community around them, in their neighborhood, it might be difficult to find volunteers to actually volunteer for programs going on at the church. Has that been something that has been a struggle for you, or you really haven’t noticed anything like that?

In some ways – I’ll be honest, I’ve always used a bit of an encouragement tool with our staff to say if you have all the volunteers that you need and we are probably in trouble. It probably means that we’ve stopped growing. However, sometimes the need is a good problem to have and we’ve actually, in some ways, found the opposite. It’s been during the same season of outward focus that we’ve probably almost doubled our volunteer base. We actually have a volunteer appreciation event this weekend where I think this year we have about a 125 more people signed up for that event than the previous year. And some of that, it’s a both end right, you are focused on one thing – you can walk and chew gum at the same time and so leader development and really running after that and modeling that as well is important. We haven’t really found those as competing things. We think in some ways they are complimentary. We would hope anybody serving here, it would awaken them to go – you know what god can use me out there as well and vice versa.

That’s great, so what’s something going on right now administratively that you haven’t quite found a solution for?

Yeah, administratively I think we are always working on or not think the keywords administrative I was trying to think through that lens – for me personally, I always find the challenge of how do we develop policy and systems that support ministry rather than enter it as it relates to our team in my role. One of the phrases that gets used to describe me is I am the guy that speaks both languages. So I speak ministry language and business finance language, and so many times I find myself managing that tension to help our business office understand “Hey, the point of all of this is ministry. Let’s make sure that we are developing good systems and practices, but let’s not make sure, let’s make sure that they are not so onerous that we can’t – that it hinders ministry and our staff’s ability to do great ministry.” And at the same time I help our staff understand jokingly “Hey, you’d like to get paid at the other marks, so good financial practices and systems.” They are a great idea and we need to follow some of these. And so that’s kind of a constant challenge I think I always wrestle with, especially in a changing landscape when you’re dealing with regulations and health insurance and tax code changes. I’ve got business manager, a finance team that do an incredible job staying on top of that. But my challenge is how do I manage that tension between the two? And then as we turn out really, we are obviously, when you are dealing with trying to get, let’s say for example, a community group in every neighborhood of Southwest Fort Worth – that takes some actual systematic strategic work that doesn’t happen by accident. You got to know where those groups are, where those neighborhoods are, and you’ve got to have a plan for accomplishing that. We are really wrestling with how do we move from below hanging fruit we’ve achieved to getting into some of those neighborhoods that are going to be a little hard to lift.

We will be excited to hear a little bit of update then as you move into the harder to reach areas, how you change your strategies and even how you change communicating with your people.

Yes certainly, we’ve even been testing some things and just even recognize where some neighborhoods that we don’t currently have a group, but we have someone there. We have some people, and a lot of times we tend to think, we have to have that Bible study leader. But we’ve begun using – there’s some language called 3g id that some people are really Bible study leaders. That’s how they work. Some people are gatherers instead. Some people are goers. And so we’ve begun to help people identify, “Maybe you don’t want to lead the new community group but you are a gatherer. Could you help us begin gathering people in your neighborhood?” And then as we do that, we’ll see if we can raise up a grower or a goer to go with you. And so we’ve begun experimenting with that, just even some social gatherings. We just believe Christians should throw some of the best parties in the neighborhood and so we’ve begun encouraging that, and that’s where we are seeing some progress in some of those neighborhoods as well.

That’s really. So Justin, where do you go to just make sure you’re staying sharp in your role?

There in Fort Worth. Actually, Chris for cast – I think you interviewed him on a podcast. He’s a part of that. We’ve begun meeting monthly just to share ideas, encourage one another. That’s great because we just recognize that the church isn’t in competition with itself. Let’s work together. And so that’s been life giving – books and blogs, incredible resources out there. Right now I am reading, it’s actually not a ministry book, but it’s a staffing book “Work Rules!” by Laszlo Bock. He works at Google talking about their staff culture in that respect. And then we have a partnership with leadership network – great organization that works with a lot of larger churches that we participate in different gatherings and groups that they do with some of our peer churches around that area.

So Justin, if you could give a word of encouragement to others in church leadership, what would it be?

You know as I think about that, especially in my past, God provided an opportunity for me to become an executive pastor at an early age. And one of the things that I wish I could have gone back in time and told myself, especially in a mix of a younger Justin that had a lot of pride and arrogance coupled with maybe a lot of insecurity, I wish I could have gone back and told myself, “You don’t have to know all the answers. Instead learn to ask the right questions and you can always go find them, especially if you’re willing to surround yourself with the right people to help you look for them.” I just wish I could have learned that at an earlier age. Many times you hear the phrase, fake it till you make it. That’s a horrible advice to follow ministry. And many times I probably linked too much on my own wisdom and situations that I shouldn’t have at an early age that cost me some credibility and even gave me some bones and bruises. And I wish I could go back and say, “Hey, you don’t have to know all those answers, just learn how to ask tricky questions and then figure it out.”

That’s great. Justin thanks so much for being on our podcast today.

Thank you so much. It’s been great to be with you and God bless you in what you do and pass some more lovely podcast.

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