Courtney: Welcome back to the Monday Morning Church podcast. Randy Ongie is joining us today from Mountain Lake Church with two locations in North Georgia. Randy, great to have you on today.
Randy: It’s my pleasure, Courtney. Thank you for inviting me.
Courtney: So Randy, you are the Executive Pastor there at Mountain Lake. Tell us a little bit about your journey to get to that position.
Randy: Well, I’m an old guy, so that’s been quite a journey and I’ll try to shorten that a bit. I actually started in the business world as a new believer, and a young husband, and a new father, and migrated to a church in East Tennessee that we fell in love with and became really cemented in, that sort of thing. And over the years, became an elder at that church. And as it continued to grow, was asked to personally consider becoming an Executive Pastor. And in 1994, ’95, which is when that happened, I’ve never even heard the term Executive Pastor.
Courtney: Yeah, that was very much at the very beginning.
Randy: It really was. And so I chuckle about the notion of being a pastor to be candid with you but I was asked to personally consider that, and my wife and I did pray about that for about two weeks, and God totally changed my heart and confirmed to me that this is really what he wanted. And so I spent 13 great years at that church as an Executive Pastor. That go from about 500 people to about 3000 people over that time. And we’ve built three times, and acquired property, and grew staff. And then got to a place where I felt like the church’s needs and my passions and interests and giftedness really grew apart as it got to that size. And so really felt about is clear calling to move away and I actually pursued a career that I spent several years as a church consultant, traveling the country, consulting with other churches, helping them think through, especially building. Are you ready for a facility expansion? Are you healthy enough? Have you counted the cost? — that sort of thing. Spent five great years doing that and then migrated to a company called MAG Bookkeeping and was the president of MAG Bookkeeping. It helped do virtual bookkeeping for churches across the country. And the church we were attending then, while I was President of MAG Bookkeeping, happened to be Mountain Lake. And very, very happy doing what I was doing, thought that would be what I would do the rest of my career, only to be tapped on the shoulder by our young pastor who came in. While we were there, there was a pastor transition. He came in and tapped me on the shoulder after our then executive pastor left for another opportunity and ask me to personally consider. So same process again, personally consider jumping back in and just as clearly got a firm that that was the right thing to do. And so been doing that about a year and a half and absolutely, absolutely love it. Get to work with a lot of really young, smart people that are very gifted and passionate for God’s kingdom. So it’s been a great journey.
Courtney: So I’ve got to ask you then some reflections on the Executive Pastor position in the last 20, 30 years. Does it feel like you’re putting on an old shoe or does it feel like a completely different position now with all the resources and all the people around you?
Randy: Very much new. Love the technology, being able to leverage technology, leverage the tools and resources that we have now that we couldn’t then, including being able to tap into really smart people’s thinking across the country through things like this. Through podcasts, and blog posts, and other resources as well. So technology certainly has changed the role for the better.
Courtney: So tell me a little more about Mountain Lake. How is the church structured and what exactly falls under your responsibility? Our lead pastor Chris Emmett likes to say that I take care of all of his headaches. And I don’t know. I think he looks at a lot of what I do as headaches. Obviously, I don’t look at them that way. But I oversee the staff team. I oversee facilities, finance. I help lead an Advisory Board. I serve as a board member on our board. Chris actually is the President of the board but we’ve got some external board members, as well. So lead in the governance area, make sure we’re compliant and legal and we stay ahead of things. I’ve got some skills and abilities in the area of strategic planning and so I sort of lead our staff team through both strategic planning and an annual planning. And obviously, Chris cast vision. And so I try to fill the gap in between vision and strategic plans and then tactical or annual planning and budgeting.
Courtney: Is it much of a transition for you going from being the President of MAG Bookkeeping now to Executive Pastor which is often described as leading from the second chair? Has that been much of a transition for you or does it feel pretty natural?
Randy: It feels very natural. I love collaborative environments and collaborative processes so I’m not big on hierarchy. And so I wouldn’t have done well going to a place where there’s a very hierarchal feel of top down and “Here’s your marching orders.” and “Go do that”. That was not the case when I was at MAG Bookkeeping, certainly not the case now. And other environments I found myself in, I would describe, is very collaborative and more of the best idea wins. So that resonates with me. I feel good about that.
Courtney: Going a little more into these ‘best idea wins’. What is a solution or best practice that you all have implemented there at Mountain Lake that you’ve really found success with?
Randy: Well, one of the things we did consciously when I first came aboard, there was somewhat of a lack of transparency in finance. Because Chris was really new, he was about a year in the role when I came aboard, and so he was trying to implement change. Helping him think through and implement transparency in all areas, including finance was a thing that I think has worked well. Our people have very much appreciated that. We try to be very candid and upfront and share details. And of course, when you’ve got a church of 2500 people, everybody can’t know everything all the time. But to think through what do people need to know and when do they need to know it and to try to get ahead of that. And so that’s been a major initiative that we launched a year and a half ago and it continued to try to hone and improve over time.
Courtney: So what are some of the ways that you make the finances more transparent? Is it you’re using your website or mailings? What do you guys do?
Randy: Sort of all of the above. We try to have meetings with key stakeholders face to face, offer opportunities. For that, when we’ve got timely news, we do use our website to post our budget to website in big buckets, big blocks, so that it makes sense to people. We try to keep people informed as to where we feel like God’s leading us. So we answer the ‘why’ question for people as much as possible. Before we talk about the what and the how, make sure that everyone is on board with the why. And so that’s a big part of the website. A key part of that, we found a really gifted individual in our staff, that was part time, that we elevated to Communications Director and she’s been a rock star in helping us think through effective ways to communicate on an ongoing basis. And she really just executes so well that has been a game changer as well.
Courtney: Now that’s a position that some church just think about doing or, like you said, people work on the communications here and there and it’s pieced together. What did you elevate her position to? What is she in charge of?
Randy: She’s our Communications Director and she’s the gatekeeper for all communication that goes out of our church, either publicly, be a social media, the web, mailings of any kind, nothing goes out of our church without her eyes on it. And part of the why for that is so that we make sure we’re always going out with the unified voice, and so that we’ve got a unified efforts, so that we remain integrated in messaging and we don’t have different areas of ministry sending different things that look differently, that sort of thing. And again, because she’s trained and skilled in that area, she’s able to keep the messaging very consistent, and she’s also very proactive, which is very helpful as well of thinking ahead. When do we need to start talking about Easter? What do we need to say? Who needs to give the needs to provide input? Who needs to what areas do we need to promote? And what do we need to say? That sort of thing.
Courtney: Now, so you’ve been on staff there for a year and a half and it sounds like you said the senior pastor didn’t come on too much earlier than that. How has it been for you going from a trusted member of the congregation to now a staff person? Has that taken some time to build trust or switch or position or has that been a huge benefit for you to be known and then step into the position?
Randy: I think I wasn’t probably very well known by most of the people in the church and, obviously, now I am. And what I’ve tried to do is be very accessible. I’m out in our lobby area or at our camp, other campuses’ lobby area every Sunday. I try to interact with people. Now that I’ve delivered some information from time to time and been on platform of that sort of thing, people know who I am. And so I try to be very accessible. I try to make sure that I’m listening to people, connecting, and that we’re available. We’re really a pretty high touch staff team. Our people know us. There’s a great deal of accessibility and we love being that way. We also have a very outgoing and friendly church body, which is really fun. It’s really a fun environment to be a part of.
Courtney: So I’m going to flip this then. What is something you guys have going on there that you have not yet found a solution for?
Randy: Well, we’re certainly a work in progress. We’re lean right now and part of that is because the church, over time, had accumulated more debt than we really should have. And we’re still working through that. We’ve made some major, major strides in the area of that reduction and been successful with that. But that’s left us pretty lean and mean from a staff perspective. And so we have to be really careful not to take on too much and that we’re taking on the right things. One of my favorite metrics is full time staff equivalent for worship attender. How many worship attenders per full time staff equivalent that you measure. And I think the national average, the last time I looked, probably for Evangelical churches was about 80 to 1. And we had said at all between 95 to 1 but, right now, we’re 126 to 1. And so we rely on volunteer leaders, and we’ve got some really high capacity volunteers that really fill that gap nicely. But we still have to be very careful not to be taking on things that stretches thinner than we already are.
Courtney: Do you find that there’s a benefit in that? They say that once you start a program in a church, you can’t get rid of it. Has it also freed you to say no?
Randy: That’s a great point and yes. I do think it’s a reason to say no. It’s not the best reason to say no. The best reason is if you want to be as effective as possible, you have to say, simple. And adding programs does not increase simplicity by any means. And so I’m a big proponent of processes. I’m a process management sort of person. That’s what I grew up learning as far as management skills, total quality management. And process management always asks, where does this go? What is the next step and what is it linked to? How does it build for the core strategies? So it’s given us some reason for that, but we would be doing that regardless of other budget constraints or other things.
Courtney: Yeah. Okay. So this next question, I want to ask in two parts. So the question is, where do you go to learn more about being better at your role? I’m also just curious to hear what that answer would have been back in 1994.
Randy: Where did I go in ’94,’95? I actually attended a conference that I thought would answer all my questions. I came from the business world that church was new. So I went to a National Association of Church Business Administrators’ Conference, traveled, spent a lot of money doing that, and found out that I did get some questions answered but I bumped into a lot more people like me that had a lot of the same questions and we were all sort of had it together. But it was very, very difficult at that time, in that era, to stay connected and to learn from one another. And so it was always a great expense to sign up for a conference, that sort of thing. Buy books when you could. There wasn’t a great deal of writing being directed towards church leadership but there’s good leadership books, obviously, back in those days, as well. And so it was much more difficult. Nowadays, I listen to multiple podcast every week. I read multiple blog posts every week. I stay current with thoughts and trends in our space, and it’s very easy to do. I’m a Carey Nieuwhof fan, Carey Nieuwhof’s leadership podcast. I followed Dan Reiland who’s, in my mind, one of the best Executive Pastors ever to come down the pipe. He’s at the 12Stone in Atlanta. I had a big privilege of sitting and learning from him on a few occasions. Bryan Dodd has a good leadership blog. And there are myriad of others in church space that I really love reading and following because they deliver great content every week, in a very bite sized way. But I’m also still a big fan of good books and good leadership principles, and I’m a massive Patrick Lencioni fan. He wrote 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, which I’ve used to do team building and I’ve used as a consultant in other arenas doing team building. But he’s also written a couple books that really need to be paired with it. One of them is a book called The Ideal Team Player, which really helps you start understanding what kind of people really make it on a team and are good contributors to a team. What are the ingredients? And the answer kind of surprises you as you read it. And it’s real simple but it’s profound and so I love exposing or being exposed to those things. A good friend of mine, Jenny Catron wrote a book a couple years ago also that we brought our leadership team through called 4 Dimensions of the Extraordinary Leadership. If a church staff hasn’t done that, that is a great exercise, we get the book, read it together, go through it together because she is a great practitioner of leadership principles especially in the church arena. Those are just some examples of things lately that I’ve used and I like.
Courtney: Yeah. It’s nice to get some specific resources from you like that. Randy, what encouragement would you give to others in church leadership?
Randy: That no one’s figured it all out and part of the journey is a step at a time, being patient. The pace is different at church than it is in business, normally. And you can’t grow resources as quickly. You can’t grow people as quickly. It’s a different animal and understand that it’s important. One of the things I’ve talked to young ExPs about quite frequently is understanding the balance. Church is an organization, yes. And that’s why you have an Executive Pastor or an Executive Leader of some type that’s trying to lead from an organizational standpoint and build systems, structures, and processes. But a church is also an organism and that makes it fairly unique. And if you want to be successful in a leadership role, you have to keep those two things in balance. You can’t build organization faster than organism and you can’t let an organism just go wild without some constraints. It’s like a trail at some point.
Courtney: That’s great. Randy, thanks so much for being on the podcast today.
Randy: That’s great. My pleasure.
This has been Monday Morning Church presented by Kissflow. To learn how you can transition your church from paper forms to automated process and improve your communication, go to church.kissflow.com.