Welcome back to the Monday Morning Church podcast. Today, we’ve got Paul Alexander joining us. Paul is the Executive Pastor of Sun Valley Community Church, which has five locations in the Phoenix metro area. He’s also a ministry consultant at The Unstuck Group. Paul, great to have you on the show today.
Courtney, glad to be with you.
So I imagine people’s ears perk up at the mention of The Unstuck Group. How long have you been working with them?
I’ve been with Tony in The Unstuck Group from the ground level, so going on six years now, from the inception of the group.
Now, we’ve actually had quite a few interviews lately with Executive Pastors at churches who recently experienced some kind of period of exciting growth, and they’re now in a season of attempting to tighten the ship and catch their bearings, which can be a welcome season for Executive Pastors, as they tend to be people who place a high value on organization and administration. You have been blessed to be a part of a number of fast growing churches. So how do you and how do other Executive Pastors do their job effectively when growth and sprawl are happening faster than administration can keep up with?
Yeah. Well, it’s a great problem to have, right? I bet all of the listeners would love to have that problem. It’s certainly a blessing when you’re in an environment where you get a front row seat to see God’s spirit moving in a special and unique way, and you’re chasing it, just trying to catch up and stay up to pace with the whole thing. But I know a lot of Executive Pastors can get exhausted on that journey because, like you said, a lot of those guys and gals have a tendency to be a little bit more oriented towards structure, a little bit more oriented towards policy and administration. And so when you’re chasing chaos like that, you can get tired and even a little bit of frustrated. So I think that one of the first things I would do if I was having a conversation with a guy or gal leading in that kind of a context, I’d say, enjoy it. And I don’t think I can overstate that at the end of the day, the goal of the church and the goal of the Executive Pastor role is not structured. It’s to accomplish the vision that God has given you. And so if you can structure things to where you’re chasing that vision, my goodness, and you get to see that kind of growth and life change happen, soak it in and enjoy it because there’s a lot of people that go through their entire ministry career and never get a front row seat to what you’re experiencing. So enjoy the blessings of God as He pours them out and don’t take it lightly. I’ve talked to some people who actually get frustrated at the rate of growth that they’re in, and sometimes they just need to turn around, get on their knees and pray, and thank Jesus for what they’re experiencing. So I’d say start there, honestly, Courtney.
That’s great. You’ve got an article that I really like. It’s called Five Mistakes that Fast Growing Churches Make. And in it, one of them that you mentioned, one of the five mistakes is that they failed to prepare for lean moments. The church lives hand to mouth, and then the momentum stops and their kind of stuck. What are some of the classic ways that you see churches spend resources unnecessarily during these seasons of growth?
What happens, oftentimes, in fast growing churches is they behave financially as though these fat moments will always continue. And because they’re growing fast today, they’ll always be growing fast at the same rate. And so what ends up happening is they don’t create margin during these moments and during these seasons that are really fast, and really fun, and really fruitful, and they don’t prepare for the lean moments when they come. And then when those lean moments do come, and they always come, they’re unprepared to react and make it through those moments. And so if you read the — the Book of Proverbs is in the Bible too. It’s fun to chase growth. It’s fun to be in a growing environment, but there’s a lot of scripture that tells us to prepare for those moments because they’re going to come to all of us that are lean.
A couple of ways that churches overreach in moments like this, they live kind of hand-to-mouth. So every cash dollar that’s coming in, they’re just putting it right back into growth and momentum. And so they have a low cash reserves. Oftentimes, they’re spending more than 50% of their income on staff salaries. Oftentimes, these churches, they’re not competitive with their staff salaries, and so they’re hiring young talent that they can get cheap and they may be paying more people less money. And I always advise churches to actually do the opposite of that. Hey, less people, more money. So get higher and greater competent team members that are going to build teams and lead through people, instead of paying younger, underdeveloped talent to do tasks. So if you’re going to pay someone, pay a leader. Don’t pay people to do ministry. Pay people to lead ministry. And I think churches, because they’re growing faster in seasons like that, they get really frantic about they’ve got something in front of them they got to get done. They don’t have the time to develop people because people don’t develop and grow at the same rate the organizations have the capacity to do so, and so they pay someone to do something and they get in the rut in the way that they hire. A couple of other things churches do financially is they can get themselves in a high debt levels during these seasons. And all those leads to — when these lean moments come, if they’re not prepared, they’ve financially led himself in a position where they can’t say yes to opportunities that Jesus gives them anymore.
Now, is that mostly in terms of — when I hear debt in church, the first thing I think of is building and facility. Is that usually where that goes towards?
Yeah. Typically, when churches incur debt, it is for facility and maybe for building a new building, acquiring new land, renovating an existing facility. Nine times out of ten, that’s where churches are entering debt.
Now, the first one you mentioned, which is kind of goes against what the knee-jerk reaction is in those times of growth, like you mentioned, is people wanting to just get cheap people really fast to fill in the gaps really quickly. But what I hear in all of that is volunteers and raising those volunteers. But as you said, that takes time. So how do you, being in the middle of this whirlwind of all this growth, but be able to keep your wits about you to stop and be developing all these new people who are being brought to you?
It’s a really good question and I’d be lying to everybody listening if I didn’t say it wasn’t difficult. But it comes down to priority and it comes down to where you’re going to spend your energy and your time. Before we get too far into this conversation, I think, one of the things I’d be remiss if I didn’t say is that personality plays a big part in this conversation. There are people who are very comfortable with ambiguity because this is the way that God has wired them up and made them. And people who are comfortable with ambiguity, they can be very vision-oriented and take an approach and say, it’s okay, we’re going to figure it out, we’re going to solve it. Their first step forward can be very solution oriented. Some personalities are more structure-oriented. So, oftentimes, their first foot forward is to identify all of the problems. Here’s the deal. Solving problems doesn’t grow churches and doesn’t sustain momentum. Problems are usually about the past and something that’s already happened. When you’re talking about the future, and momentum, and growth, these are two different kinds of conversations. So the kind of person that’s leading in a growing church matters a lot too. They’ve got to be able to be comfortable with ambiguity, be solution-oriented instead of problem-oriented. Think about the future and where you’re going, more so about where you’ve been.
Now, I’m not saying ignore the past and learnings from the past, don’t mis-hear me, but personality plays a big piece in this. And I think church just get themselves in trouble during fast trades of growth because when you have structure-oriented people like, as you mentioned, Executive Pastors have a tendency to be when structure over takes growth. That’s when the growth begins to slow down. When you begin to over policy growth and your policy answers a question, how does everybody do it every time they do it? It’s as a consistency thing. Executive Pastors love consistency. The problem is life is not consistent. So I’d be cautious to encourage listeners as they’re dealing with fast growth, give themselves the freedom to allow the structure and the policy to chase the growth, not overtake the growth because that’s when the growth will begin to stop.
Now, with what you just mentioned, and you talked about hiring during these seasons of growth, that adds another level to hiring, because a lot of churches decide to hire an Executive Pastor in the middle of something like this because they’re panicking because they don’t have orders. So they hire someone who will bring order. But it sounds like it could be very easy for the Executive Pastor to be the one who kills the growth.
Unfortunately, yes. I think about my own kids. I’ve got four kids. And if anybody, any of your listeners has more than two kids, they know what chaos means. It’s just loud in my house all the time. I love my kids. You can squish the spirit of a child quickly by over structuring everything. I’m not saying my household doesn’t have a culture or even rules or consequences when rules are broken. But if you over structure a child’s life, you can squish their spirit. The last thing we’ll ever do is squish the spirit of your son or your daughter. And I don’t think any Executive Pastor wants to stop growth. They want to feel it. But I think, well-intentioned people who are structure-oriented can unintentionally, actually hinder the movement of the gospel. If you look at the book of Acts, it’s much more of a description than a strategy of how the early church behaves and what happened. If you read the book of Acts, the gospel wasn’t ever prescribed or intended to be controlled. It was meant to be unleashed. And so my encouragement to Executive Pastors is, yes, God has given you a very unique insight and perspective of being a structured-oriented person. God has a structure and order not disorder. I get that. But don’t overstructure to the point where you discourage team members, you discourage your Senior Pastor, you discourage volunteers, and you slow the growth. You got to be wise in your approach.
Now, going a little more into that, what are some of those signs in your staff or in your congregation that the church is overreaching during this period of growth?
We talked about some of the financial indicators of overreaching just a couple of moments ago. But when you win and you have some kind of extended history of winning, so you’ve been winning for a year, two years, three years, that winning can lull you into a sense that you can’t lose. And when you think that you can’t lose, you can start running them to some problems. There’s a reason why the bible talks about pride comes before fall. Humility is the chief that all the effort of the spirit grow up in. It’s kind of the soil that all that other stuff works in. And so that’s one thing I would caution team members to be aware of. When you start thinking that you can’t lose and you can do anything, be careful. That could be a sign of overreaching. When you overreach financially, it’s another key indicator. I mean, we talked about four or five of those different indicators a moment ago.
Are there certain responses from people on your staff that you, as an Executive Pastor, know that you’re either trying to over organize during this period or you’re doing any of that overreaching? Are there certain phrases you’ll hear from staff members or postures or responses you all get that can tell you, okay, I need to back up here?
Yeah, that’s a really good question, Courtney. When young leaders, or even experienced leaders, start feeling like they’re handcuffed and frustration begins to set in, when Executive Pastors get frustrating with young leaders when they act like young leaders, I think that’s an indicator you got to pay attention to this. Young leaders act young because they’re young. So you can’t expect a young letter to act like something that they’re not. And so when they want to try things and they want to tinker with things and they think their way is better, you got to give them room to explore those ideas and experiment. And when you’re being over structured and over policy, it begins to constrict room for your leaders to lead and to experiment with new ideas. Leaders by the very definition, they got to have fresh meat and fresh ideas, and they got to have fresh things to go mess around with, otherwise, they’re going to get bored and go lead somewhere else that gives them freedom. And so I think one of the things you got to be aware of is, are the policies restructures I’m putting in place, are they constricting leaders or are they feeling leaders? I think part of the job of the Executive Pastor is remove barriers for growth and not put barriers in place to growth. Yeah. Give people what they need to do their jobs and let them run. So on one side of it, that’s one thing. When people started saying they’ve got ideas, but they can’t execute ideas because they don’t have the resources or the time to do it, that may be an example of overreaching.
Another thing you mentioned in this blog, one of the five reasons or mistakes that growing churches make is, and you just alluded to this, implementing policies that have a negative effect. So what policies are okay to have during these seasons?
I guess someone can listen to this and think, this guy doesn’t care about structure, strategy, or policies at all, and that’s just not true. Policies can be useful, and even necessary at times in churches. I think a couple of good instances are when there’s legal obligation, have a policy. Then have a policy. For example, with HR compliance, when the law states you need to behave in a particular manner, well you should probably put a policy around them. There’s all kinds of cultural behaviors. When a church gets very clear about who they are, not or not, and what their team culture is and what they want it to be is aspirational, as well, you can begin to say, hey, in our church, this is how we expect our staff to behave and if you’re not going to behave this way, you just can’t be on our staff. It’s okay to institutionalize your culture. And policy and structure can institutionalize your culture for you. So I think when there’s a legal obligation to have a policy, you should do that particularly in compliances with HR and like-minded things. I think when you want to institutionalize behavior and culture, policy and structure can do that for you. And then when it helps make your vision real, if there’s a policy or a structure that needs to be put in place that can act as the rails for the vision or run on, my goodness, do that. So there are good moments to put those policies in place.
Can you flush out the institutionalizing the culture or helping make the vision real? What has that actually look like in the churches that you’ve been at? What’s an example of a policy that brings life, I guess, and push this division forward?
We have a couple of cultural statements that are streamlined for the staff that I’m on right now. We have eight distinctives and they drive our culture. And ultimately, they drive the culture of the church because an organization always takes on the personality of the leader and the team reflects that. And obviously, the overall organization reflects that. One of those statements for us is we talked about being sober-minded quite frequently, as a team member, that we know who we are, we know who we’re not, and we do what’s best for the whole. And so we want to put people in the area of a service on our team where they had the greatest impact. When they have the greatest impact and they’re doing what they’re made to do, they’re going to have more fun and they’re going to produce more fruit. And so when it comes to institutionalizing this, for example, we have very clear training that we’ve done on that distinctive. And so all staff training, we’ll train them on that. We’ve written very clear objectives when it comes to being sober-minded, and then we coach to being sober-minded. And people who are not sober-minded, can’t work at the church that I’m in.
When they think, hey, God made me to be hand, and they’re really made to be an elbow. If we can’t get them off of that and get them to be sober-minded, they just can’t work at the church because they’ll end up hurting themselves and hurting other people, because they’ll want something not good for them. And if it’s not good for them, it’s not good for the church.
Now, this kind of goes into, as the church grows, obviously, the culture and personality shift a little bit. The more people you add, it’s going to change. So when you got staff who were a part of your church, and then a season of growth comes, and they are a hand, and hands, maybe, aren’t needed as much during this season, is the first step to try and reorganize and place some somewhere else? Or, do you make the decision and say, look, it’s not you, it’s us, and hire different people and let go of people? What does that look like for you and your growing churches?
Yeah. You know what? Exiting people from a team, if anybody has ever had to do that, they know it’s never fun. And if they like doing that, there’s probably something wrong with them and they probably don’t need to be on the team. Honestly, Courtney, in our growing church, we’re right to identify that the church I’m in right now, seven years ago, we were one location and ran about 25. We bounced around being 2500 and 3000 people. This past weekend, we were at five locations, running around 8000 people. Those are two completely different churches. And to go through that kind of pace of growth within a seven year stretch of time, it can be hair-on-fire, a little nutty, it can be squirrelly. And so sometimes, there are people who work really well in a single site church of 2500 people that have a difficulty working in a multi-site church of 8000 or more. That’s not right. That’s not wrong. Sometimes it’s just personality.
And so I think sometimes to acknowledge what it is and what it isn’t and just uses and take some of the air out of it, some of the pressure away from it. There’s nothing wrong with a team member saying, hey, I really liked it when we could all go to lunch together and we made all the strategic decisions for the church over lunch. And now that person, maybe they’re not even on senior leadership team because the church has grown and become more complex over time. And so going back to being sober-minded for us, that’s one of the things we go to do. And, maybe, that someone was on the senior leadership team at one point when the church was smaller and they had access to the lead pastor in a different way than they do today. But as our church has grown, their proximity to the senior leaders change, that role may have shifted. We try to retain people as long as we possibly can. And so what matters is that it is good for them and it’s good for the church. If we can encourage them to shift into a different role that better suits their wiring, if we can hire somebody over them, or if we can develop them. All of those wins.
Do you find that a good portion of your time, especially during these seasons of growth, are spent in staff coaching and development?
Yeah, absolutely. Again, there’s decisions to be made and when you’re growing fast, you have to have the capacity to make decisions fast that reflects your culture and get you to do your vision. That’s important because lots of people can make decisions fast, but it doesn’t mean those decisions will reflect your culture or get you to your vision. They’re just trying to get the decision off their plate to the next thing. Basic decision making is important. The framework through which those decisions are made and then the way you spend time, you’ve got to be investing your team in developing it.
So I’d like to end with just some general encouragement from you to other Executive Pastors listening.
Yeah, I think I’ve said that a couple of times along the way. If you are leading in a fast growing church, enjoy it. If Jesus is giving you the opportunity to see life change at a significant rate and a significant volume, man, don’t take it for granted because what you’re going through and what you’re experiencing, it doesn’t happen everywhere. The other thing I’d encourage you, God’s giving you this momentum, steward it really well. Don’t squash it by over structuring it, but don’t neglect it by not understanding why He’s given you the momentum because you want to continue to be able to feel what He’s blessing. And the other thing is that, for those of you who are leading in environments that aren’t growing fast, it doesn’t mean that if you don’t make the right decisions today, that tomorrow, your church won’t start growing. That’s probably my encouragement to everybody listening.
Yeah, that’s great. Paul, thanks so much for joining us on the podcast today.
It’s my pleasure, Courtney. I hope the conversation is helpful.