Welcome back to the Monday Morning Church podcast. Today, I’m very excited about our show. We have the one and only Rich Birch, from unSeminary. Hi Rich.
Hey, glad to be here. Monday morning is always a tough time for church leaders.
Yeah. But it’s the time to sit and refocus. And what better thing for people to hear from than you and your experience. I’m sure some people know who you are, but maybe others out living under rocks don’t know. So why don’t you give us an introduction?
Well, first of all, I’m honored that you’d have me on the show. I love talking to church leaders. Really, the mantra I’m living by is “always helping church leaders”. I think the profession, the career, the calling we’ve picked is – there’s nothing better. A lot of churches struggle so I just wanna help in whatever way I can. So I’ve been in the ministry for almost 20 years. I’ve had the privilege to be in that kind of executive pastor, that seat, for most of those years and have had the opportunity to work in some really great churches and see some pretty amazing things happen and see all kinds of transformation and growth. I also, on the side, I have this thing called unSeminary which is a blog, and a podcast, and a series of resources, and free magazines, just seems to keep growing. It’s like a cancer (laughs). Our slogan over there is, stuff you wish they taught in seminary. So one of my convictions is, I know that a lot of church leaders struggle with, frankly, stuff they didn’t teach in seminary. They don’t struggle with Greek. They struggle with what to do with their Facebook strategy. So we’re trying to help with all kinds of practical resources around church leadership, communication, multi-site, personal productivity, that kind of stuff.
Yeah. Absolutely. That’s been the theme on our show, hearing people talk. We have guys that are going back to school for MBAs because they realized they need that information there. So what was your shock point whenever you’re coming out of seminary, realizing, “wait a second, I’m not quite ready for this”.
Yeah, it’s interesting. It kind of happened when I was in school. I remember, you know when you’re in school and they give you these, okay, you’ve got a pastor, they’re going to be your mentor and you do a placement with them. And I have a distinct memory of sitting in, this is a great guy, great leader, sitting in his office, and you’re just watching him do his thing. It’s one of these, you’re shadowing and that kind of thing. And I realized, oh, wait a second. I don’t think I want to do this. When I looked at what he spent most of his time doing, there was a lot of pastoral care, a lot of that kind of one on one stuff. And I was like, “Oh, I got in this because I wanted to see us reach more people.” I thought that was kind of the point. And so that was really where the germ of unSeminary came from.
Early on, I struggled because I didn’t see myself as a traditional ministry person but eventually ended up figuring out, hey, I can use the skills that God’s given me in environments and really sitting that seat that’s about saying, how do we help our church grow? How do we help our church reach more people? unSeminary, really, is an outflow of that. One of the numbers that hunts me that I think about a lot is 94% of all the churches in our country are a losing ground against the growth of the communities they’re in. So I sometimes hear that as the more optimistic that 80% of all churches are plateaued or in decline. But it’s actually worse than that. There are churches that are growing but actually two thirds of the churches that are growing in our country, they’re not growing as quickly as the communities they’re in, so the towns and cities that they’re in, which means they’re actually losing ground. They’re actually having less influence year after year. So what we’re trying to do is provide resources to help with that. And I think a lot of times, that executive pastor seat, that’s where you end up thinking about those types of situations, communications, and how do we get new people connected and what do we do to see more volunteers, and how do we raise resources and all that kind of stuff.
Yeah. That’s a huge issue to think about. From your position, what do you think is causing churches to lose ground? Is it because church leaders are not in touch with the skills that they need? Or what do you think is causing that?
Yeah. I think that’s a great question. So two things, first of all, I’m not entirely sure why. I think it’s a part of a long term trend. There’s another study out there that says that between 1990 and 2050 — so that’s really, you and I serve in the middle of that, that during that time period, that the absolute attendance of the church will be cut in half although the population in the world around us will double or maybe even triple in that same time. So I think we’ve got to work to try to turn that around and we’ve got to do what we can. I think some of it is a disconnect with the broader world. I think there can be a siege mentality where we have this us versus them. I don’t think that’s particularly helpful for us, long term. Jesus didn’t call us to hide our light. He actually called us to be light in the world around us. And so I think we have to continue to find ways to reach out to the people around us.
Well, let’s bring it into our ExPs, church admins, IT directors, also to people who are listening to this. A lot of them come from seminary ministry backgrounds and some of them come from the corporate side. I think it’s about a 50-50 split from the people that we interview. So speaking to those people who come out of the ministry side, who were educated in seminary, who are coming into this situation, what do you feel like is one essential business skill you think they need to develop?
Yeah. I would say it’s maybe rather than skill, maybe it’s a mindset. Results matter. That at the end of the day, particularly in this role, we’re called to steward the ministries that God has given us and there’s clear evidence that, as a good steward, we should be thinking through how we’re using all the resources that were given to us. So I think we do need to have a clear results-driven culture as an executive pastor. We need to find ways to encourage our people, to our staff teams and our volunteers to make the most of the resources that God’s given us. And I think that, sometimes, can be a struggle with people who come purely out of a ministry background. Not that people who just come from ministry background don’t worry about results, but a lot of business leaders, they’re constructed out of that orientation and I think we can learn from that. We can learn to say, hey, what is it? Our church should be becoming more efficient over time. We should be finding a way to do the same thing that we’ve done, we did last year, but do it with less resources this year. That’s a standard thing in the business world. But frankly, in a ministry world, we don’t think about those things a lot. So I would really say this idea of being results-driven is an important piece of the puzzle for people who come in from the ministry side of the equation.
Right. And you’ve been there. You know what it’s like to be out of church, to be an executive pastor, and to be focusing on these things. It’s one thing to say it, but what are some of the challenges and the things that keep it from actually happening?
Well, I think there can be not a clear systems thinking. We need to find repeatable processes, standard operating procedures. We need to do things in a similar way and then really test them and actually get numbers on them and say, is this actually working? What could we do to improve this? All of those disciplines are a part of what we need to bring to the table. Even something as simple, and this is like dead simple. This is nowhere near — this isn’t complex. But even just something as simple as, where were we this a year ago today, across five or six different metrics. Not just one metrics, attendance, but where we financially? Where are we on volunteering engagement? Where were we on people attending our small groups? Let’s look at those and say, hey, is it shrinking or are we heading in the right direction or the wrong direction? Some simple steps like that, I think could help.
Yeah. Absolutely, just to think about those things. A lot of times when we talk about — we talk about processes, we talk about Kissflow on the program a lot. What we try to get through to people in a communication standpoint is just thinking, there are some standard processes that you have. You probably don’t even realize that you’re committing lots of time and effort into. If you can take those, package those up, tie a little bow around and set them off on automation, then you can focus on these other things.
Absolutely, for sure.
Well, great. So those are for people from the ministry background. Let’s switch for people who are coming from the corporate side, who are coming from some business situation where they’ve been volunteering at church while and somebody says, hey, you’re the perfect person for this role. Let’s bring you in. What’s one thing they should know about how working in church is gonna be different?
We’ve had a lot of leaders come in. I’ve coached a lot of leaders that have come in from the marketplace over the years. I think the main thing I would say to them is that relationships matter. So it’s literally the mirror of what I just said to church leaders. At the end of the day, we try and have at least a double or triple bottom line as a local church. The relationships that we foster with people is actually what we’re producing. So at the end of the day, we’re more like a family than we are like a business or at the bare minimum, were more like a family business. The relationships that we have amongst each other are a critical outcome for us. And we have to pay attention to that.
I’ve seen a lot of leaders come in from the marketplace and they actually struggle and wonder why that is. They’re having a hard time and they’re like, listen, I used to do marketing and some business in town and they get excited about coming to work in a church because they’re like, they think it’s going to be like Sunday morning all the time. They think it’s going to be, wow, it’s all amazing and every day is like the end of the worship service every Sunday. But it’s not like that. It’s actually work. You’ve gotta actually push through and do it. But there’s an added weight in every interaction in the church world, even if you’re doing the exact same work or very similar work because of the relational element. Because at the end of the day, although results do matter, one of our key or the key outcome is actually how we interact with each other. Are we growing closer to each other and are we growing closer to God? And that adds a different dimension. It’s the difference between checkers and chess. It becomes everything we do we filter through relational rubric. That can be difficult for leaders that come in where, at the end of the day, when you come from the marketplace, the issue is, did we make money or lose money today? Are we winning or losing? And so the reality of it is in the church world is, yeah, with think all our numbers could be great, but for not developing relationships with each other, for not developing relationships with God, then it’s all for naught. It all just pushing in the wrong direction.
Can you give us an example of someone either you’ve worked with or, in your own experience, where that actually has to take place, where you have to put aside maybe a specific goal or a specific metric because you’re reaching for the other metric which is better relationships? Can you give us what that looks like in real life?
I’ll give you an example, a generalized principle and then I give you a specific example. So we have this interesting relationship with our volunteers in our churches. So volunteers, in a very real sense, come to us and say this. They don’t say this explicitly. They say it implicitly. They say, “Can you make this volunteer experience really positive for me? And if it’s a great experience for me, I’ll turn around and I’ll actually donate to the church.” And so in a very strange sort of way, using marketplace language, “Our volunteers are both our labor force and our clients at the same time. And what that does is it creates an interesting relationship with our volunteers where we have to handle them in a similar way that we would handle, say, our best customers in a marketplace world. And that’s not theoretical. That’s not like, oh, that’s just a good thing to do. It’s actual in that the people who volunteer for us, they literally are paying us for that opportunity. They’re literally giving us money to say, hey, can you create this experience for me? I’ve seen this when you bring in a new leader and they’re used to working in an environment where all of their staff, they can ultimately use financial reward or punishment to motivate people. That’s not a piece of the puzzle with our volunteers. That’s not in the equation there. And so you have to find other ways to motivate people, which is around creating altruistic experiences, around vision, people love being a part of something bigger than themselves, and so it’s communicating those things clearly. But then, it’s also taking responsibility on our side of the equation for ensuring that what’s important to the church becomes important to those people. It’s our responsibility to try to communicate in a way that raises what’s important up in their priorities. There’s a few examples of that in work. Does that make sense?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m trying to wrap my head around this idea that church members are the labor force and also the client. It’s a very interesting topic to think through, especially coming out of a business situation.
Yeah. Using language at folks that are coming from the marketplace, that wouldn’t be traditionally how we would talk about it in the church world. But when you’re coming out of the marketplace, I have found that to be helpful interacting with particularly marketplace folks who might be struggling to understand that dynamic of working with volunteers, I found that to be helpful language for them to get their head around. And the interesting thing is, it’s not just hyperbole, it’s actually true. If you look at the people that give to your church, the people who volunteer at your church, the people who are benefiting the most from the church, those are all the same people. They are the people who are fueling the ministry. They’re literally the labor force. They’re also providing resources for it and they’re volunteering which does create life change in them. Plus they’re involved in, say, a small group, so they’re benefiting from it. They’re coming on Sundays to our services, which is another way that they’re benefiting from the ministry. And so ultimately, that’s what drives us back to this idea that relationships matter, and that we really, at the end of the day, are more like a family business or a family than strictly a business because how we interact with people at that level when they have a multi-faceted relationships with us, is important. So I think we’ve got to keep our eye open and understand how we’re cultivating that community.
Rich, let’s take a peek at the future. What do you see as the role of the executive pastor specifically? How do you see that role changing?
That’s a good question. A couple things. I think the executive pastor role, as we look to the future, I think the whole area of big data and how do we manage the data that’s around us, it’s a horizon for us. I think that we have access to all kinds of information that, frankly, businesses in our towns wish they had because we interact with our people so much. And so how we leverage that data, how are we measuring it, how are we becoming experts at that beyond just who’s attending on Sunday morning, but how do we actually measure engagement and what does that look like, and then how do we build predictive analysis around that to try to get people to the point where, because we’re seeing data work in their lives, we’re seeing them engage in a couple different ways that we know that if we lead them in a certain way or offer them a certain next step in their relationship, that they’ll actually grow more. And so I think that’s a huge area for the future. I think this whole idea of big data is important. I think the other area, I would say, is we are in interesting sociological time, or that we’re the rise of the millennials, and then even the generation after the millennials. Most churches are being led by boomers or gen Xers, and very quickly in the next five years, that has got to change. We’ve got to push the age down.
As a gen Xer, I was born in the lowest birth year of the 20th century. So my entire life, I’ve always had people a lot older than me and a lot younger than me in every environment I’ve been in. So it’s easy for me to say, hey, we’ve gotta pass this thing on but there’s a significant imperative around that. There’s a whole kind of succession planning thing that most churches — it seems like most churches are behind the 8 ball. We’re not working far enough ahead on that and we’re not passing off the ministry to the next generation fast enough. If we don’t do that, we’re gonna find ourselves in a tough situation, 5, 10 years out.
I want to go back to your point about data. For the most part, most churches, they’re tracking attendance, they’re tracking budget. I think that’s coming across every church in America. But what are some of the more forward thinking churches? What are some examples of data points that they are looking at and they should be looking at?
Well, a couple things. So in the whole new hire process or, in other environments, they would call it onboarding, where the people fall out in that experience. So tracking what is, for lack of better word, conversion ratio between folks that arrive that indicate that they’re new here, and then how are we tracking them, what percentage of those are coming back within the first month, within the third month, fourth month, that sort of thing. Then understanding what is the behavior we need to reinforce with our onboarding process to get them. We know that the stat out there is that if someone visits your church 3 times, the chance that they’ll stick and stay becomes 80%. So what are we doing to move people through that, to get them to come back a 2nd and 3rd time? So, I think, that whole process is like a data ripe process. There’s a lot of thinking and a lot digital work done on boarding from a software point of view, or from a social network point of view. And I heard this statistic recently that 30% of Facebook’s engineering team works on their first 24 hour experience. So literally, just the first 24 hours of people signing on to Facebook, which is amazing, when you think about that. Third, and they’ve had such an incredible growth rate, the fact that they’re still obsessed with what happens when someone first signs up tells me something. It says, are we being as obsessed as we need to be on that front end experience? Because we know that, as people arrive at our churches, that if we can get them feeling good about that experience, getting them the information that they need, we’ll see those people stick and stay at a higher ratio. So that’s one area, that whole area, I think there’s a lot there. I think even just something simple as even the net promoter score, which is there’s all kinds of thinking done out there in the marketplace around just how easy that — so net promoter score, we’ve all seen it. It’s that question on a scale of zero to 10, how likely are you to recommend this service, or insert the company name or the store or whatever, to a friend? And there’s a lot of thinking around that being the ultimate question to ask, well, we should be segmenting our community and finding out what aspects of our church are we seeing the highest net promoter scores. Is it people that have kids? Is it people that are single? What are all those various segments? How are they performing? It’s a useless number first time out but if you track that year after year after year, across a 5 or 6 segments of your church, you’ll understand and get a sense of like, oh, there’s something we need to do particularly with, say, parents of teenagers. It seems like when people become parents of teenagers, they’re desire to tell others about the church goes way down. Why is that? That’s lean in on that and talk through what we need to do to improve this experience for them.
Yeah. Wow. Absolutely. I’m gonna throw a big question in there that people have been asking for ages and ages and ages, but you talk about the generation gap thing, millennials coming in, people coming in through there. I think the question is always, “Okay, if we need to change as a church, in our leadership, in our style and everything, because the church has constantly done this, making some changes to try to adapt to the next generation, sometimes a little too slow, sometimes too fast maybe.” And then some people feel like, “Hey, we’re losing our character, we’re losing what made us who we were before.” What’s one thought you have? We’re not going to answer that question fully, but one thought you have about how churches can approach that question in a very healthy way?
Well, I think a big part of this, for leaders that are listening in is ignore the macro and just think about your own life. Where are the young leaders in your life that you’re handing stuff off to? When I was in my 20s, I launched the first multi-site campus. I was 26. I had no bone. They shouldn’t have trusted me with that. I don’t know why they trusted me with that. But they did and that made a huge difference in the life of our church. That church, I’m no longer there, but that church today has 18 locations and it’s grown to 6000 or 7000 people and t’s great. But there was, in that case, some boomer leaders who had younger leaders around them and were willing to say, because there was a relationship there, were willing to say, hey, we should trust this person. And it may not work. There was really candid conversations on the front end. This thing may not work. It may go sideways and that’s okay. We’ll figure out what we can do next together. So I guess my challenge to leaders, gen X and boomer leaders, is more rather than the big macro thing, it’s more, who actually is in your life. If you’re an executive pastor today of a church of any size and you look around and everyone looks like you and there isn’t someone who’s much younger in your orbit, you need to change that. I was talking to an executive pastor at the fastest growing church, actually, the last 2 of the 3 years in our country, and I was talking with him about some training stuff they’re doing, and that leader meets with a series of leaders every week. There’s a dozen of them that he meets with every week. It’s like a training environment. It’s a Q and A, like a Mastermind approach where people bring questions and then they’re wrestling through it. And there are leaders in that circle, it’s a big church, I think they have 20 some odd staff on their team, this is the number two leader at the church. It would be easy for that person to surround themselves with people like them. They said, no. In that group, half of them are people in their 20’s who are in entry level roles on their staff. What that’s doing in that church is actively saying, how do we hand this thing on to the next generation? What can we do to pass this thing on? Because if we don’t, again, we’re gonna find ourselves in trouble in a couple years.
Yeah. Absolutely. We’ve talked a little bit about technology. So far, we’ve talked about data and different things. What do you feel like, again, looking at the future, what’s gonna surprise church leaders in terms of technology?
Yeah. That’s a good question. I think in some ways, I think what is going to surprise church leaders is the persistence of these little things we have in our pockets where the phone is completely ubiquitous, obviously now. And that is just going to become more the case. In the coming years, churches that fight the use of technology through, particularly, mobile devices in their services, are going to look as anachronistic as churches that don’t have websites today. If there’s churches that just don’t do anything online, you’re like, how do you even talk to people? That doesn’t make any sense. I think the same is true, particularly with mobile technology. It’s just these are becoming an extension of our brain. They are personal assistants that is going to embed itself more and more into our lives. I know it’s there now but that’s only becoming more as we look to augmented reality and as we look to the way this data and these tools are gonna follow us around. I think that the future is really in that how we haven’t always on digital assistant that’s with us all the time, and they’re really helping us do life. Well, we better cozy up to those digital assistants because they’re gonna be people that ultimately, gonna be reminding our people, hey, it’s Sunday morning, do you wanna go to church today? We wanna make sure we’re on those digital assistant’s good sides.
So individual church apps that are on phones right now, are those gonna be around in 5 years?
Well, it’s interesting. We had that whole thing this year where Apple moved against that idea and they punted out this template-driven apps and all that. So yeah, I think the idea of a digital experience on the phone isn’t going away. What’s that gonna look like over time? I’m not sure. What I do know is churches need to keep an eye on that, keep investing there, keep figuring out a way to create both digital and actual experience. I started doing church online in 2009 in the church we were in. Although I think it’s a good piece of the equation of journey with that thing for years, I still, at the end of the day, thinks that the local church works best as a gathered experience. So although I think digital is a critical way for us to communicate, I think at the end of the day, we’re still trying to get people to show up to stuff. I think we’re still, for lack of a better word, we’re an event-driven thing. We’re not trying to do it all online, totally virtual. So I think the idea of apps are good. Obviously, it’s hard to keep up with them. If you look at people’s apps, if you haven’t kept up within the last year, they just look stale really quickly. And I think that’s a very real problem for churches because we don’t have the R&D budgets that most apps do, even small apps.
And to your point too, there is no other institution in the world, I would say, that’s more effective at voluntarily gathering people physically in the same space than church. Yes. I think that’s something we’ve always been great at and it had been a compelling reason for people to get together. And it’s something that businesses and other people would love to be able to have that kind of draw on things. But it’s something that we should really think about.
Absolutely, that’s one of the things, over the years, our church has been involved in providing clean water to folks in some of the poorest communities in the world. A lot of these communities, they talk about them being a dollar a day communities or less. So there where people in the community who are making less than a dollar a day. So these are, from a developmental point of view, they’re kind of on the lowest rank. If you don’t have access to clean drinking water, you probably don’t have schools and all the other stuff that’s in your community. And it’s interesting, when you look in those communities, the thing that is there is the local church. So even if you weren’t a Christian, and you were saying like, hey, I wanna impact. I wanna make an impact at that kind of lowest end of the developmental cycle, you have to start somewhere. You have to say, what is here? And you say, well, there is a church here and there are volunteers who help with that church. And so you’ll see a lot of times, actually, the church has led the way in the development at that level because there’s already volunteers there in that community. And that’s true from that kind of community, all the way up through the social economic scale across the world, there is this volunteer force that every week, helps makes this thing happen and they do it for free, which is incredible.
Rich, it has been great. I wish we could talk for hours and hours. We’ve been talking fast, trying to get through a lot of topics but it’s been good.
You are one of the more well-connected people in this space. So why don’t you give us a little hint as to who are the people we should be listening to, essential list of resources that an ExP needs to know about.
Well, there’s a conference that a friend of mine, Carey Nieuwhof, does called the Rethink Leadership Conference It’s a part of the Orange. It’s in Atlanta in April, this year. If you just search, Rethink Leadership, Orange, you’ll find it. To me, that’s a great conference. It’s deliberately small so I think it’s like 500 people. One of my things I really do believe is that as a leader, we are the five closest relationships we have. And so when we look around to the people that we spend most of the time with, we become those people over time. We’ll become like them. And I think we have to surround ourselves with the kinds of leaders that are going to push us forward. And I love that tribe. That’s a fantastic group of people. And so I highly recommend that.
I’d love if people drop by unSeminary.com. We’ve got all kinds of stuff. We do a podcast on Thursday, as well, at the end of the week so you can have this on Monday, and then that on Thursday. We’ll fill up every day of your week. We interview leaders, a lot of executive pastors, really, from the fastest growing churches in the country. What I’m trying to do there is to expose people to the execution and the ideas behind making churches to be really practical, trying to help people actually apply what it means to be a growing, thriving church.
Fantastic. unSeminary.com, right?
And you have a new book coming out too, right?
Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for that. So yeah, I’ve got a brand new book coming out called Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at your Church. What it is is it really takes the lessons we learned at Liquid Church, a church I was part of where we became one of the fastest growing churches in the country, but also interviews with leaders from over 200 different churches who are also in that category. It says, hey, if we could boil that down to some very kind of simple things — I talk about putting the cookies on the bottom shelf, I wanna make this as easy as possible, bare minimum stakes for every church out there. That’s what this book is. It is really practical, it is full of all kinds of checklists and next steps to do, that sort of thing. If you go to churchgrowthflywheel.com, we launch in the middle of February. If you go there before that, you can get the first chapter for free. If it’s after we launch, that’ll take you, show you where you can pick it up all that. I would love for people to check it out. It really is a practical, practical book. I’ve been humbled by the early reviews. Actually, the thing that’s been humbling is I went back to a bunch of church leaders from some of these fastest growing churches and I kind of said like, hey, could you read this and tell me what you think? And I was blown away by their feedback. And you see that right at the front of the book were the churches who have made huge impact, saying, man I wish I had this resource before. I wish this is really synthesis of everything that we’ve been learning. And so I’ve been humbled by that. So I’d love people, again, that’s just churchgrowthflywheel.com.
Fantastic. Rich, thanks so much. It’s been great to speak with you.
Thanks, man. This has been great. Love what you guys do.