Welcome back to the Monday Morning Church podcast. Louis Timberlake is joining us today from Christ United Methodist church in Greensborough, North Carolina. Louis, great to have you on.
Great to be on. Thank you.
So, Louis, let’s tell us a little bit about your position there at Christ United Methodist and how you came into it.
Yeah. So my role here is Executive Pastor. What that means here is that I have responsibility for, really, church operations and work in everything from HR, to finance, to facilities. We have staff within those areas, but working with those staffs, have some supervisory roles over our business staff, facility staff, and communications staff. I actually got into this, it’s funny. I finished a seminary in 2014. So I really have not been in this very long and have not taken the most, I guess, natural path for an executive pastor because I’m pretty young. I started in this church as an associate pastor and one of my primary responsibilities was congregational care, which is funny because in terms of my skillset, that’s really not something that would be high on my list in terms of giftedness and passions. That’s where I started out. And then after about a year or so working with the current senior pastor at the time, and he left this past year, we realized that some of my gifts for ministry were really more in the operational side of things, strategy, and management, and organizational work. And so it’s funny, he joked with me, he said, you know when this church grows a certain point, I want you to be my executive pastor. And I kind of laughed at him because at that point, I think I was 28. And I said, well, one, I’m too young for that and two, I don’t know if I see myself in that kind of role. And also, the church, we didn’t think it was at that point. Well, some time went by and then he actually asked the question in more seriously. Hey, would you consider moving to role of executive pastor, really attending to a lot of the more operational and administrative needs of the church? I initially told them, no. I said, I just don’t think that makes sense. It would be odd to shift into that role and have the supervisor responsibilities. That seemed like a lot of responsibility given my age and experience. And so I told them, no. And then I went and talked with my wife. She looked at me and she said, that’s the stuff you’re good at and you really like. And so I prayed about it and then got breakfast with him one day and I said, I think I need to give it a shot. So I did. I shifted into that role at the beginning of 2016, and really, particularly that first year was just trying to figure out what I needed to know, what I knew, what I didn’t know. And there was a lot I realized I didn’t know, a lot of learning, a lot I’m still trying to learn but it was a cool experience and at times, an overwhelming experience trying to get up to speed but it’s been a very good experience to date.
As you’re going through seminary, were you aware that you were a little more like operations management minded or is that just something that came to the forefront at this position now?
I would say to an extent, I realize that in terms of church operations and some of those, I tended to think more about those things, I cared more about those matters, but I never really saw myself in this kind of role. And part of that, I think, is that in our denomination at least, Methodist church, this role of executive pastor, even though it’s been around for a long time in the world wide church, is fairly new to our denomination, at least in the area where I’m serving. And so I didn’t really have a lot of models, people I could look to and say, oh yeah, I could totally see myself doing that, doing what they do. And some of the ones I did know in that type of role were in it with maybe more focused on finance and that it didn’t seem like something I would be interested in.
So tell me a little more because some churches struggle to know when it’s time to have an executive pastor. And so obviously, you were there during that decision period that the senior pastor was making. What were some of the things that indicated that it was time to have someone in that position? Was it just the congregation at a certain size, the staff, the functionality of the team, Monday through Friday? What were the signs that it was time?
Yeah. Yeah. I think some of it is the scale of the organization, old model, I guess my previous senior pastor pulled from. He said most churches really don’t consider that until they hit about 3000 members or so, someone in that type of role. We’re a little under that. So that had been a model that he had heard of. So we didn’t feel like we were really at that scale. But as we did more research, we realized that more and more churches are going towards having that type of division of responsibilities at a much smaller size than maybe was the case in previous years. So it’s part, I think, scale. Things get large enough and then they get complex enough that there’s no way one person, in a senior pastor role, can attend to all of the administrative functions of the church, and preaching every week, and pastoral care, and other ministry leadership, and community engagement. When you’re in that kind of role, you go to all of these different community events and meetings, and to try to do all of that is just impossible if you want to have any sense of balance in your life. So part that and then part that drove it for us is giftedness. I think he realized that even if I didn’t fully see them at the time, I had some of those gifts and they complemented some of his gifts well, and that it would be a good thing for him, for me, and for the church.
Now, obviously, you know your relationship as senior pastor and executive pastor starts out at an advantage because he asked you to come into this position and see these gifts, but that’s a position or a relationship, I guess, that takes some time to work out. Being a new position for both of you, how has that been in the last two years for you guys to figure out who does what? How have you ironed that out?
Yeah. That’s a great question. I think one that anyone who explores this type of role, whether you call it executive pastor, administrative, pastor, whatever it might be, you’ve got to navigate that well, and you’ve got to be on the same page with your senior pastor. It’s funny, we actually had a — I don’t say funny. Ours is a little more complex in that we had a senior pastor transition this past summer, and so we have a new pastor now. So I’ve now navigated that or have been in a process of navigating that with two senior pastors. Initially, again, you mentioned he asked me into that role and so there was some stuff that was very clear from the outset of the things that he anticipated handing off pretty quickly. Then he, previous senior pastor, he was very ready to hand off some of the more in depth matters related to facilities, and finance, and staffing, and really was ready to give some of that up and focus on other things. Our new senior pastor, he was coming from a church where it was a little bit smaller and they didn’t have anyone in my type of role, and so he was so used to dealing with those that we’ve had to talk through that as well and navigate that, and we’ve navigated it really well. He’s really appreciated having someone who can deal with a lot of the administrative stuff that you have to deal with us in a church.
But I think what helped us, I think, is really clear lines of communication. In both cases, both pastors, at least we would meet once a week with a more formal check in meeting, but meet other times as needed to talk through things. Your senior pastor has got to be in the loop on everything. And so you don’t want them to have any sort of surprise, whether it’s related to finances, or staffing, or anything like that. The executive pastor is going to be really on top of communicating what’s going on. And if I know I’m going to a trustees meeting and we’re going to be talking about this important topic, communicate that to the senior pastor and say, you’re welcome to be there for this conversation, or if you’d like me to relay your input, I’d be glad to do so, so that they very much got a voice in things going on. More times than not, they simply would say, here are my thoughts, share them and just let me know what the decision is. That has work tremendously well. I think communication is just huge.
One thing we’re doing in our current situation which was the senior pastor has been here now about seven months is we’re going to, as we continue to live into this, use an outside coach to help us work through some conversations to figure out what these roles look like. And that’s not because we’ve had any strings or troubles in it. We’ve really had a great relationship for the past seven months. But just because it’s new to him and we want to make sure we navigate this really well, having someone who can coach us through that, we’re really excited about that.
And I wonder who brought up that solution because it’s both an interesting one and it seems like a very wise one to bring someone in before you really need someone. So where did that come from, that solution?
Yeah. It’s interesting, the guy who’s going to do it, he has actually served as my professional coach for the past couple of years. So I have a good relationship with him and our new senior pastor got to know him a little bit too and was very comfortable with him and really liked him. So since we both have this relationship with him, we thought it would be — I’m trying to remember. I think it was actually the coach himself who raised it with me in the course of conversation, not necessarily saying, I would love to be in that role, but if I remember it right, suggested it may be helpful as you all live into this, for someone to help you navigate what that looks like. The senior pastor and I talked about it and said, this guy would be really, really great at that. He knows our church, he knows us. We wouldn’t be starting some square one.
Yeah. What a wise decision. So I want to keep building off of these good solutions. What are some other things you guys have implemented there at Christ United Methodist that you’ve really seen some success with? And it could just be something you’ve implemented or church-wide also.
Well, I’ve been here now just over three and a half years, and really from day one, when I got here, the senior pastor that time had been here a couple of years, and we realized this church has had a tremendous amount of transition after having a lot of continuity among the pastors and staff. When you have a lot of continuity, like decades of continuity, and then a lot of transition at one time, it compelled us to reassess our leadership structure and to ask questions about the best way to structure with our lay leadership, our unpaid leadership, and then our staff leadership. That really began because she was multiple years of work on reshaping and streamlining that structure. Because over time, it had just grown into something that had been effective in previous years, but had gotten a little unwieldy and made decision-making difficult, and challenging, and created at times a lot of unnecessary meetings and maybe more committees that were not necessary. So we worked on streamlining structure to facilitate decision-making and to make sure that — for example, our church council, our primary administrative body had grown so large that it was really hard to have good strategic conversations. So the thing about the board of an organization, if that board has 50 plus people on it, you can have some conversations, you can certainly have presentations and votes. But to have in-depth, just strategic conversations, it’s very difficult with a group that size. As we worked on streamlining things in a way that all areas still had input and representation, but it allowed us to have more in-depth strategic conversations with our chief leadership bodies. And we’ve really seen some fruit from that in terms of how we’re able to make decisions and help the church move forward.
Now, when I hear that, obviously the end goal, it makes a ton of sense, but I also think about what that process looks like to actually lessen the size of committees and groups, and there can be a lot of hurt feelings involved. So what are some of your reflections on that process? How do you do that in a way that still expresses value for these committees and for these people?
Yeah, that’s a great question and something that if we went back, there were some things we would certainly do differently. It wasn’t perfect and there was definitely some tension, some conflict in the midst of that. One of these things, there were certain committees that just had not met in even years. So it was pretty easy to transition out those committees. With some others, there had been this practice of always putting people on committees every year for three year terms but never really asking them to meet, not really organizing them in a way that they were making important decisions or doing much. And one easy way we worked through that was just not adding new people to committees. They could continue the work if they chose to meet for a year or two and then also, those committees didn’t have any members anymore. So you weren’t asking someone to end their term prematurely. They simply finished out their term and all of a sudden the committee didn’t exist anymore. Other things we did, one of the key things is we had, say, 30 plus committees and we organized them into ministry areas. So instead of there being two or three different committees related to missions, there was a ministry area formed and the leaders from those various committees within our missions area had representation on this ministry area team. And there was someone, a lay person who was elected the chair of that team, and that chair sat on our church council. So rather than having two or three people from that area, it was one. And if you do that in five different areas, then you can go from, say 20 people to 5, but still making sure that they’re meeting frequently enough that people can give input, that people feel that their area is well-represented, that they’re part of the decision-making process.
That’s a pretty impressive task to take on when you’re jumping straight into the executive pastor role.
Yeah. And it was not all me. It was very much a team effort, a group effort. And as I said, it was not perfect. There are things we learned from it, things we do differently, but ultimately the fruit we see now, it was just worth it.
That’s great. Okay, I’m going to flip this then. What’s something you’ve got going on right now that you haven’t quite found a solution for?
Our church is 61 years old and it’s a great church, incredible church with a rich history. But it’s a church that — it’s kind of interesting because it’s old enough that it’s fairly established as a church in the community and within our conference of our denomination. But it’s so young enough that we have charter members at this church, many of whom are not able to worship with us anymore because of their mobility issues and such. But we have people who remember the first day of this church, which is really cool.
But with this very established church, transitioning in a way that we can continue to be faithful and fruitful ministry for years to come without alienating those who have worked so hard to build what is now, that is the perpetual challenge. Because we want to continue to grow, to do more, to be more innovative in our ministries, but we can’t do it in a way that’s going to make others, who has been a part of this church for decades, feel that they’re not cared for anymore, that they’re not a part of what’s going on anymore. And so that balance has been one of the biggest things we’ve been working through for the best couple of years. And that involves how you staff. We’ve worked on staffing structure in our lay leadership structure to make sure that all voices are heard and that various areas of the church, that we have appropriate amounts of attention going to all the different areas, that nothing is getting over prioritized. It is communications and we are continually growing in this area. How you communicate well to 5 generations and that’s challenging.
We’re blessed with a great communication staff. I think we continue to grow in that area but it is challenging to communicate to 5 generations. And then we’ve been working through ministry structure and offerings, and how we make sure we are conducting our ministries in a way that we are innovative, that we’re connecting with younger generations while still continuing to minister well to our older generations. But also doing that in a way that we don’t become too inwardly focused, that we have to be outwardly focused as a church, if we’re going to be faithful to who we are, and if we’re going to continue to reach new people.
Yeah. I have a feeling you’ve got a lot of heads nodding along with you. A lot of churches have this tension. So, Louis, where do you go to make sure you’re staying at the top of your game in your role? And I’m even curious, as you first entered into this role, realizing that, oh, I really do like organization and management. Where have you gone to sharpen these skills?
Great question. I’m always looking for more resources. Some of the key ones, particularly as I’ve moved into this role, one website that I found great was Xpastor.org. It is an executive pastor website, and there are a lot of great resources there that were extremely helpful for me and continue to be, as certain situations or conversations come up.
I listen to podcasts. The ones that I tend to listen to most often, Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast is great. He does a great job, has really knowledgeable, talented people on there. unSeminary, I listen to that quite a bit. I listen to Andy Stanley’s podcast from time to time. And there are handful of others that I listen to, as well. But those, in terms of organizational leadership, those three, probably, have been primary for me. I’m always trying to pay attention to what other churches are doing, whether it’s viewing through the website, or communications, or physically visiting them, or talking to colleagues. Always seeking to learn more, particularly from churches outside my denomination. I love the Methodist church. I love being a part of it but there’s so much we can learn from other traditions within the wider Christian tradition. And then sometimes I just google stuff. When HR questions come up, sometimes I can Google certain laws or things we have to keep in mind with certain situations and be directed to some great resources. So Google is great.
Yeah. God bless Google. Louis, what encouragement would you give to others in church leadership?
I think, it takes time to see fruit is one key thing. I think about some of the things we started three years ago. We started to work on, and at times it was incredibly difficult, frustrating. At times I wondered where we would be in a couple of years. But now we are really starting to see some great fruit in a lot of areas. So I think knowing that it takes time, you plant a seed and you water it, but then you’ve gotta be patient and you gotta keep working at it, and then all of a sudden you start to see fruit. That’s really exciting. That’s really rewarding. The other thing I would say with that is that momentum is this tricky thing, you can’t always figure out in churches. I would say we are in a place right now where we are really starting to develop some great momentum. It wasn’t necessarily apparent that I didn’t have told you a year ago, come January of 2018 we’re going to really have some great momentum. I would have hoped we would, but you can’t really predict that sometimes. But now that we have this great momentum, I’m sensing that we really have to seize it, and run with it, and continue to build upon that momentum to accomplish a lot of our goals and continue to be faithful in our mission.
That’s fantastic. Louis, thanks so much for being on the podcast today.
Yeah. Thank you for the opportunity. I appreciate it.