Welcome back to the Monday Morning Church podcast. Mike Alexander is joining us today from Westside church in Bend, Oregon. Great to have you on, Mike.
Hi! It’s great to be here.
So Mike, tell us a little bit about your position there at Westside and how you came into it.
Yeah. So my role is as an Executive Pastor. I started here because my wife and I moved to Bend, Oregon in 2005, and just started attending Westside Church. I was working in business at the time. I had previous history as being a youth pastor in the Bay Area of California for about 14 years of the church. So from there, we transitioned to Bend and we’re just attending. And then through just a series of steps, got invited to have lunch with a couple of pastors here, one thing led to another, and was offered a position to oversee small groups. And that was, I think in 2008. And it’s just been a steady process of taking out more responsibility. About four and a half years ago, we went through transition of our lead pastor who had really, I wouldn’t say founded the church, but had built it to really what had become pretty large for a town our size. And that was a big transition there. There are big shoes to fill all those kinds of things and, could any team follow this person, that kind of stuff. And that was when I team on as Executive Pastor with the only pastor who was previously the Executive Pastor, and that’s been, I think, about four and a half years. So yeah, it’s been an exciting adventure.
Yeah. I’m sure. So you moved into the Executive Pastor position with the previous Executive Pastor becoming the Senior Pastor. Was this transition something that was anticipated? Was the congregation prepared for this transition? Or was a surprise you all had to work through?
A great question. It was very anticipated. It was the retirement of our lead pastor. And so there really was a couple of years of planning and prepping and ended up being very healthy. And I tell people, the reason that it went healthy was really because the retiring lead pastor was able to really believe and trust the incoming team. And the incoming team, Lead Pastor, Executive Pastor, etc., wasn’t really ambitious or grabby. And it was just a real sweet rhythm that allowed it to be healthy. I think, sometimes, we force things or we get too quick. And so we did learn for sure, to walk through that.
Sure. So now, four and a half years later, there’s a lot of talk about doing succession planning well, and often it’s not done well, which is no secret. So four and a half years later now, is your senior pastor, after having been a part of your church for so long, is he still a part of the church today? What does it look like today?
Yeah. He and his wife still attend. They still, really, are available, on as needed basis, in terms of any kind of mentoring, coaching, that kind of stuff. But again, they were able to really, in a healthy way, let go, trust the incoming team, and as people would potentially come to them, they just were so good at boomeranging everyone right back to the new leadership. And it just didn’t leave gaps and room for some of the funky stuff that can kind of creep in the church transitions. But yeah, they’re here and it’s just a healthy part. And that’s been, I don’t know when, because people see that and me them, wow. That means something that they’re still here and they choose this as their home church.
That’s really neat to hear. So moving more into your position now, what exactly falls under your responsibility day to day?
At the highest level, the idea is that my job is to help vision become reality. I do that through teams, and systems, and culture, and all kinds of things. I would say my role as an Executive Pastor is probably fairly typical, as far as I understand it. I oversee staff. I’m a primary strategic driver with our leadership team, oversee day to day operations with an Operations Pastor, and variety of those things. My goal is to try to free up the lead pastor to really be able to do what he can do best and allow him to have his mind off of the day to day operations of the church and those kinds of things.
Now, obviously, the relationship between the Senior Pastor and Executive Pastor is one that’s been talked about a lot and written about a lot. And you’re in a unique position, in the sense that your Senior Pastor used to be in your position as Executive Pastor. Was there this kind of a time of transition to figure out, exactly, how all those responsibilities were going to kind of shape down, or was it pretty cut and dry? You move out of Executive Pastor, you’re now a Senior Pastor and responsibilities change with that.
Yeah. It’s interesting. We had about a year’s period of time before the culmination of transition where we all kind of shifted into our new roles and it gave us time to just figure things out. There was a lot of just open candid conversations and trust. And I think there wasn’t a lot of intense expectation in terms of everything needs to be that it’s always been and was, and those kinds of things. And it just was freedom for everyone to walk it out and figure it out and, ok, here we go. Let’s do this together. It was very collaborative feeling and that I think helped it go smoothly and made it easy for him and I to have a smooth hand off and have just great relationship through the whole thing.
So what is some solution or best practice that you all have going on there at Westside that you really found success with?
Two things pop front of mind that have been maybe, in some ways, unique for us, maybe not, but that has been certainly meaningful to us. One is the concept of pack leadership. That concept or metaphor, if you will, comes out of a book by Stephen Hacker and Marvin Washington. It is called Leading Peak Performance: Lessons from the Wild Dogs of Africa. It is too fascinating. Here’s two people who have been at the highest level of business and the leadership, and even in the academic world, and had studied high performance teams for a couple of decades. And they were trying to really find a metaphor to help them describe what they were seeing and what they call these super teams. These teams had seen to, despite all odds, be able to perform, produce, have a measure of health, longevity, those kinds of things at a unique level.
And they began to realize, through some of their work on the continent of Africa, that there was a metaphor right in front of them with the wild dogs. And the quick shot is this, the most efficient predator on the planet is the packs of wild dogs in Africa. You’ve got the lions, the cheetah, the big cats, they all have about a 50 percent kill ratio. And these packs of wild dogs are 80 plus percent effective on their hunts. They begin to ask, why is that? What is that? And other things that connect. So basically the idea is this, what they see in these packs of wild dogs is the dog that’s closest to the hunt, so to speak, they take the lead. The pack trusts them. The pack cues off of their lead instead of it always having to be the alpha dog, so to speak. They saw that trait and they saw that same trait in these performance teams, that there was this trust, there was this ability to really trust and follow the leader, someone who was closer to the situation, to the decision, to the whatever it may be. And for the pack to follow that or the team to follow that lead, that’s been a big thing for us. That ability to collaborate, to trust, to really go back and forth and not require things to be super hierarchical sometimes, that’s been a huge win for us.
You know, you talk about that, and obviously in nature, you can see this metaphor happening, but our nature, as humans, is definitely hold on to power. So it’s much harder in practice than it is to talk about in theory. How has that worked for you all? Have you had some push up against that or do you have to keep coaching yourself to release that power to whoever it is its closest to the action?
Yeah. Great question. I’m not sure you’ll like my answer. It took us several years when this conversation began to come up. It helped us that the author of this book and the one who’s done most of the body of this work sits in our seats. So we’ve got this amazing coach sitting here, sharing these concepts. Early on, I was like, what? Okay, that’s really cool. Nice book. Okay. Back to the way we usually to do it. But over time, we began to see that some of these concepts of trust, of candor, of commitment to one another and commitment to the “we”, that’s a big part of it. It’s not just that I’m committed to me, and my team, and our department, but there’s a bigger “we” here and there’s a bigger “we” happening, and we’re all after that. Again, that’s certainly the background of the wild dogs concept. That’s what they see in these packs of dogs is they’re all salivating for the same thing. And the more we have these conversations, the more it begin to shape a culture, the more our values begin to lean towards that. And then there’s this domino effect. The more that that happens, you’re affirming those values, all the morons. It’s certainly not perfect. We don’t always get it right. But it’s been such a huge thing for us culturally, and in terms of how we operate, lead, manage, those kinds of things.
Okay. Now, I interrupted your thought. So what’s the second thing you were thinking about?
Oh yeah. Probably, in a nutshell, the way to put it would be just as it matters. We all know this. And anyone who has read some of the books could agree and the idea of getting the right people on the bus and in the right seat, those kinds of things. We realized, though, that we had great people, right people on the bus, those kinds of things. They were probably in the right seat, but the seat maybe had more to it than that person needed, so speak. And we began to play with some hybrid roles. I’ll give you an example. We had two team members, both in our discipleship seat of things, and one a tremendously gifted communicator. This gal is just a tremendous teacher, author, she’s published, tremendous communicator. And, could she lead? Yes. Could she manage? Yes. Administrate? Yes, on all accounts. But some of those things, especially administrative and managerial things, really, really sucked the life out of her and pulled energy out of her teaching gift.
We had another person on that team who would do the exact opposite. Gifted, fueled, energized by administrative things, systems, teams, budgets, all of that. And if you asked her to take the microphone, even for base announcements, she could do it and do it well, but boy, it’s just sucking energy out of her. And we began to pull those to create two hybrid roles of those two that lean them to each of their strength. So they’re both in that department still. They both still oversee all that they did. They just really take a hybrid role that leans on their strengths. We’ve played with that a lot with a lot of our teams and just realized that the more we can hybrid things to fit people’s strengths, we tend to be better off as better health, happiness, joy for it. Now, the balance to them, and we talk a lot about this. We joke and say, hey, everybody’s got to eat the broccoli. There’s just a lot of times where you don’t just get out the perfect little world that you love, and sometimes you’re going to have to do, whether it’s budget grabbing or whatever it may be that may not be your favorite thing. So that’s been the balance for us. We all serve. We all occasionally have to eat some broccoli. But when we can, where we can, we lean heavily into strength, the passion for things that we really should have and we see strong fruit. Fruit is a big part. We got to see fruit.
I would think that that would also allow for a lot more personality and your personal DNA to shine through, rather than just having the cut and dry, here’s the role and here is what their responsibilities are under that role. That when you’re allowing each of your staff to lean into their strengths that your DNA would get stronger with that.
Yeah, I think you’re right. I think you’re right. I think in the church, our tendency, not always, but our tendency is we’ve got this pastoral position portfolio and it has this basket of things from teaching, to leading, to managing, to filling all the blanks. And we tend to say, here you go, and we hire people, and we bring them in, and then they may have a strength in one area another, but we tend to give them the same basket every time. At least I see that tendency. And I think you’re right. When we can break that up, again when possible, people first, you see that DNA, that energy, that synergism. And I think you’ve become a little more than you probably ever could have without some of that hybriding. We’re still figuring it out, for sure, but it’s been a game changer for us.
Yeah. I know. It sounds like it. On the flip side, what’s something you guys have got going on that you haven’t yet found a solution for?
Yeah. Probably a little bit low altitude, a little bit elementary yet still. So we’ve got a couple of people, actually, about a half dozen, our staff that are in pastoral level roles, who have really pretty extraordinary gifts in terms of music, authorship, and communication. And so they’re drawn. There’s high demand on their time to speak outside of their role here. A couple of, in particular, are in a band that’s very successful. And so for us, figuring out how to really affirm and foster our value for whole life and that it’s not just about ministry. We want people to flourish in their whole life, and figuring out how to give room for people to do that, and yet not getting stuck in the nitty-gritty, the little things. For example, when one staff member’s role requires them to spend a lot of time in their offices, at they’re desk, and doing roles that happen there. And another staff member’s job happens, primarily, in the evenings in here, there and everywhere. There can be that little low grades teether, right? That resentment. It’s like, hey, how come they never here? How come they’re always gone? I want to be gone. I want to work on that kind of stuff. And so we’re still trying to find that balance, and I think we do okay. I give us probably a B, B minus, but I would love to continue to learn from some of the best practices of other churches that are figuring out that balance, and figure out how to do it well in a way that works for everyone, and yet we’re not trying to create a universe where everything is shared. We’ve not felt like that’s going either. Any advice?
No advice, but I would say that, definitely, from what I’ve seen, staffing and especially just the culture of coming into the office 9 to 5, the churches kind of held on to that standard, despite the fact that the marketplace around is embracing work from home, work from a distance, and all that. So I’m not surprised you’re having a little bit of rub because you are unique in the sense that you are embracing, at all, the concept of some non-traditional timings, and maybe some bi-vocational work even too. So, I have no advice. I just say good luck.
That had to be continued, right?
Yeah. You’re kind of leading the charge on that.
But I will say this, it’s beautiful because it has called us again further into candor, to trust, to help a conversations and dialogue, and having conversations. We use a phrase a lot that there’s no good guy or bad guy in the story. It’s just sometimes we got to figure them out so you know how to manage then. That’s been healthy. Sometimes the friction on the rub is actually good if you can all walk through together somewhat healthy ways. So that’s been a good side of it.
Yeah. Absolutely. So where are the places that you go to make sure you’re staying sharp and staying up on your role?
Pretty good variety. I went through to Tim Stevens Executive Pastor Coaching Network a couple years ago. That was excellent. And certainly, I work in investment. I recommend it to anyone in this role or anything similar. We and I lean pretty heavily into high capacity mentors. We have a fair number of pretty high capacity business folk here in our seats, who really have been so generous with their time, their expertise, experience. I lean into a fair number of podcasts of some pretty unique thinkers that are even outside the church world, outside the safe world.
Can you give some names of those for recommendations?
Yeah. My son, who is 22, listens to a podcast by Joe Rogan, the Fear Factor theme.
Yeah. It’s probably the longest podcast out there.
Yeah. And he brings a pretty eclectic mix of people. So on a trip to California, in the car, the last year, my son said, hey, guys, do you want to listen to one? I was like, sure. And it was fascinating. It was so thought provoking, conversation provoking. I was like, wow, okay. And so that’s been great for him and our relationship to share that, but it has also pulled me into listening to some people I would never listen to, otherwise. It’s forced me to think different in terms of the kingdom of the church, how do we reach this world with so many different viewpoints? A little bit of the Apostle Paul, how you become available to all people so it might win some to Christ. That’s one example, the Joe Rogan podcast.
I certainly didn’t expect his name to creep up, but I do agree with you that he has been a huge pioneer in podcasting, and he’s pretty brilliant.
Yeah. Surprisingly so, right? You choose Fear Factor and you just go, this guy is too sharp. A couple of other things, I’m currently an MBA. That, for me, has been really helpful in filling in some of the gaps that I had, related to finance, related to HR or some of those things. My background was in pastoring. I had a Bible College degree but have some gaps. And it’s forced me to think and study, again, things I wouldn’t normally do on my own, things that are hard.
Yeah. So, Mike, what encouragement would you give to others who are in church leadership?
I think, it’s going to be a bit cliché, but stay humble. Remember that you can always learn something from everybody in front of you. Everyone who’s around you, you can learn something. So stay humble, keep learning. And I’ll say this about myself, but also for our teams, we work hard to create space where people can think, that we give people permission to waste time almost. It feels that way because I didn’t produce widgets to fill my outbox. It’s like, no, you need white space in your life, that concept to think, to dream, to wonder, to challenge yourself, those kinds of things. So I think that’s all kind of in that package of continue to be humble, keep learning, keep growing, that kind of stuff.
That’s great. Mike, thanks so much for being on the podcast today.
It has always been a privilege. Appreciate it.