Welcome back to the Monday Morning Church podcast. Today we have a very special guest. It seems like everywhere I look around, I see stuff about Unstuck, I see stuff about Tony Morgan around and he is on our show today. Tony Morgan from the Unstuck group is here. How are you today, Tony?
I’m great Neil, it’s good to be with you.
It’s very good to be with you. I’m sure most of our guests out there or most of our listeners out there have heard of you, know a little bit about you, but why don’t you give a brief bio of who you are and how you got to this place?
Most importantly, I’m a husband to my wife Emily for over 25 years now; pretty excited about that. We met when we were in middle school, started dating in high school and got married right after college. For those of you that have middle schoolers at home, be on the lookout, future spouse may be hanging around too. We have 4 kids. Our oldest just got her real first time job with a real salary and benefits and everything like that, so we’re celebrating that at our house. So yeah, a lot of fun stuff happening at the Morgan house. I accepted Christ back when I was in high school and it’s the craziest thing. I can’t really explain it, but God from those early days of my faith journey gave me a real passion for the local church. I always thought that I would be engaged full-time in ministry after my career in local government, but obviously God’s plans were a little bit different. I transitioned into full-time ministry back in the 90s. It’s hard to believe, that’s been a long time ago Neil, and got to serve on staff full-time with a few great churches, growing churches, large churches, multi-site churches, single location churches and that was incredible. But through those experiences, I also have a passion for helping churches continue to grow and we launched the Unstuck group. It’s been just over 8 years ago now. Since then, we’ve had the chance … I just looked at the account, it’s been more than 225 churches now that we’ve served across the country and into the UK, Canada, Costa Rica in the past 12 months too, so it’s been fun to work with all kinds of churches, reaching all kinds of people. The great thing is there’s not one right way to do healthy church, and that’s pretty fun to see the many different ways God’s working in different churches across the globe.
Yeah, it’s really amazing to hear about being able to partner with churches, to able to help them get unstuck, which is what you guys are talking about. You just came out with a book that released last May about the Unstuck church. Why don’t you give us a little background about the book and what it’s about?
Really this book has been about 8 years in the making because it’s a reflection of my experience working with all those churches through the years. One of the things that we’ve learned is though every church is different, it’s not uncommon to see a church falling some place on a life cycle. That’s what the book is about; it’s about the life cycle of a church. The diagram we use is a bell curve. You’ve probably seen a bell curve before. It’s kind of hard to describe on an audio podcast but picture a bell curve. In the book, we break out the life cycle into 7 different phases beginning with launch, going through a few different phases of health and growth, reaching the pinnacle which we call sustained health, and then on the right side or kind of the downside of the life cycle, we talk about 3 other stages leading towards the church being on life support. That’s a broad overview of what the book is about. We can dive into some conversation about some of those phases if you’d like, but 7 different stages of the church.
Here’s the great thing is hopefully this is a great resource for pastors, church leaders, boards, others that are really trying to help the church find health, and then grow the number of people that the church is trying to reach. In the book, what we do is not only describe the 7 phases but maybe more helpful is then offering some practical next steps. Once you determine what phase are we in in the life cycle, then I’m trying to offer some specific next steps that the church can take.
Our audience is executive pastors, administrators, people who are coming into these things from that system process role, so they’re going to love this. I’m going to make sure this graph is up there for them to see when this goes out in the email so people can see it, but when it comes to examining your own church, trying to figure out where you are, what’s the best way to do a self assessment to figure out what stage are we at in these things?
Good question because this helps me sell more books Neil, so that’s good. Obviously the easiest way would be to pick up the book and read through it, but I would encourage you and of course probably every author does this, to review it with a team because people are going to have different perspectives once you bring different voices to the conversation. I’m already hearing from churches that are going through this, either with their elders or with their staff leadership, but they’re going through this together and going chapter by chapter, phase by phase of the life cycle, to try to discern where the church is currently. I think that’s going to be a good process to engage together with your team. One way is to obviously read through the book together with your team, but the other way we’re trying to make this easy for churches is we’ve offered a free – it’s called the Unstuck Church Assessment, which is available at TheUnstuckGroup.com. There are 2 ways to do the assessment. One is you can do it on your own. If you’re a pastor of a church, executive pastor, senior pastor or whatever the case, you can go on and give your own perspective of where the church is and we’ll share results then in the assessment automatically. But again, even with that online assessment, there’s a team version that you can take and what we’re finding in the feedback we’re hearing from people is when they do that as a team, again, different voices speaking into that online assessment is delivering better results, more accurate results for the church to determine where they are in the life cycle. That’s a couple different ways that executive pastors can dive into the resource and hopefully help the church determine where they are in the life cycle.
You have this term unstuck which is so apt, I think for many churches to feel like we hit a level and we just keep getting stuck there. We don’t know how to get out of it. Which phases do you think churches get stuck in most often?
By the way, there’s a couple different types of stuck-ness in churches that we hear from.
Yeah, let’s start there. Tell us about the different ‘stuckies’.
One is, maybe the church that you would be thinking of that’s stuck is the church that’s plateaued or in decline. They’ve probably been there for a long time and they’re legitimately stuck, and in many cases unsure why they’re there and certainly don’t know what to do next. Maybe about half the churches that contact us for help, they’re that type of stuck. The other type of stuck-ness that we hear about is from a church that it’s really healthy and it’s growing, but they’re at a place where they’ve never been before. They’re unsure what they need to do next to continue to experience health and growth moving forward, and so in essence they’re stuck too. It’s a different type of stuck-ness but it is stuck. I offer that initially because the 2 places on the life cycle that we see where churches most commonly find themselves getting stuck are on opposite sides of the life cycle, but both are near the top of the life cycle. In other words, both of these churches are experiencing impact. They’re still seeing life change. They’re still seeing success, if you will, in the ministry but they’re at 2 different places but both offer the opportunity for a church to get stuck.
The first is on the left side, the church moving towards sustained health, experiencing health, experiencing growth; we call it strategic growth phase of the church. What’s most challenging about this phase is it’s a church that has already experienced launch, they’ve already experienced momentum growth and now they’re at a place where … the word I like to use is they need to do things intentionally to continue to move forward. It’s intentionality around who’s on the team, how the team is structured, the strategies that the church is using, and even more specifically the systems that the church is using to produce health and growth going forward. It takes a different type of leadership to help the church move through this phase, and as a result of that, it’s not uncommon for churches to get stuck here. That’s one place on the life cycle where we see churches getting stuck. The other is on the opposite side of the life cycle and it’s that first step after a church has experienced sustained health and plateau has started to set in, maybe some decline. They’re entering what I call the maintenance phase, the maintenance season of the church. Here’s what’s most challenging. They’re still reaching a lot of people probably. There’s still life change that’s happening in the church. They probably have done all the things that a church is supposed to do to bring foundational health to the church. In other words, they’ve clarified the mission of why they exist. They have a vision for where they want to go in the future and they’ve clarified their strategy for how they want to do that.
Some of the common factors we see in churches that get stuck in this maintenance season is, number one, the way the church does ministry becomes more important than why the church is doing ministry. The way we see that playing out is the ministry begins to focus more on the people that are already connected into the church, rather than also keeping focus on the people outside the church and outside the faith. So we begin to see the pendulum swing where it just becomes a little bit more insider focused, and that’s playing out by the fact that the church becomes really focused on the way they’re doing ministry rather than why they’re doing ministry. Another characteristic of churches in this maintenance season is there’s a lot of complexity about how decisions are made, how things get on the calendar, what gets on the calendar, ministry programming, communications … it just gets very complex because the church is probably mature, and through the years ministries have been added on and nothing’s been removed. As a result of that, there’s just a lot of complexity that exists in the church.
A third attribute – we talk through several more in the book, but a third attribute and this one may catch you by surprise, but I talk about in the book a giving lag that takes place in churches. For the church that’s in launch or in momentum growth, they know the giving lag very well because what ends up happening is the attendance growth in the church exceeds the financial resource growth, the giving growth that happens. There’s a lag that occurs in those churches, but what we don’t recognize is that giving lag actually stays with us all the way through the life cycle. So for the church that’s in the maintenance season, their attendance is probably starting to plateau or decline but what we often hear from these churches is that their giving is still very, very strong. Financially the church is still healthy, even though there’s a plateau in giving. When we start to see stories like that, red flags begin to go up because that may be an indication they’ve slipped out of sustained health and they have entered that season of maintenance.
Let me get a perspective from an XP. They’re typically very organized type people. They like to keep things working. Actually that word maintenance is probably appealing to a lot of them and they’d say “Ok let’s get our system going.” I talk with a lot of people who deal with that complexity of saying “Everything continuously gets complex as it goes through.” What’s the role of somebody who wants to come in and establish systems, establish processes to keep things going smoothly? Where does that fit in with the strategic growth, sustained health, maintenance, and where is it overdone and is there always a place for that very structured process as it goes through?
It can be definitely overdone. You can have a great system, very efficient and you can train people to use it and it can be implemented very efficiently, but still be the wrong system. If anybody should know systems, it should be a guy that comes from government. The government knows systems. We call it bureaucracy though. For those of us outside government looking in, we call it bureaucracy. We know what bureaucracy is. It’s lots of systems, many of which probably are unnecessary now. Those systems may be very efficient but their effectiveness may have waned. It might have been good in one season but not effective now. The best example I can give you of this from my local government days, I was working with the fire department at one point and fire departments have to have systems because you don’t want the fire department to show up at the scene of a fire and not have a system in place for how they’re going to organize an attack to put out that fire. They need to have systems, but I kind of determined it was getting a little bit out of hand. They have operating procedures for everything in the fire department. They actually created an operating procedure for creating operating procedures, and that’s when I knew things were getting a little bit out of hand with the systems in the fire department.
The reality is churches in this maintenance season, through the years, they accumulate systems and methods for doing things and they don’t go back to the question of why. Why are we doing this? I’m a big proponent of healthy systems. I’m having this conversation constantly even with my team at the Unstuck group now. It’s certainly part of the coaching and facilitation we do with all the churches that we serve, but I think you have to begin with the question of why. Why are we doing this and what are we really about as a church? Before you can talk about healthy systems, you really have to come back to the foundation of why do we exist? What’s our mission? Where are we going? What’s the vision that God has for our church and how are we going to get there? What’s our primary ministry strategy for reaching more people and helping people take their next steps toward Christ? We need to have foundation around that first, before we can start putting in the systems in place to make all of that happen. I think that’s where churches get stuck in this maintenance season, is they get so focused on their methods for doing ministry that they forget why they’re doing ministry.
Part of what we do when we’re going in to help a church like that is going back to the very beginning, to establish first who we are, where we’re going, how we’re going to get there, and then we come back and look at the systems to make sure we just have the right amount of systems done the right way, at the right time, to help us accomplish the mission, the vision and the ministry strategy God’s called us to as a church.
I wonder if you could talk to the dynamic between … a lot of the churches that we talk to, there’s a executive pastor and then there’s a senior pastor or lead pastor. In many cases, the senior pastor is the one who’s giving the vision, saying “This is where we’re going to go” and the executive pastor is the one that says “Here’s how we’re going to do it. Here’s how we’re going to get there.” How does that dynamic, especially if it’s between 2 people, how does that play out through these stuck stages? Do you see any patterns in those?
I think this is a good example of why we’re better as the Body of Christ. We all have different gifts, strengths, wirings personalities, and they exist but it’s pretty rare for senior pastor both to have that visionary leadership strength and the ability to lead through strategy and execution. I always look at is there are 3 parts of leadership that are essential for any healthy organization, including the church. We need visionary leadership, we need strategic leadership and then we need leaders that can execute primarily through other people. We need all 3 and it’s very unusual to find any one person that has strengths in all 3 of those styles of leadership. Commonly, senior pastors are the visionaries and that’s a great thing. We need that person to cast vision and keep primarily the leadership, both [lay 19:06] leadership and staff leadership aligned and focused on “This is where God’s calling us to go,” but we need the other types of leadership still. You can be the best visionary leader in the world and if that’s not complemented by someone who can lead strategically and someone who just knows how to get stuff done through other people – they know how to execute, if you can’t complement with those types of leadership as well, the church is going to get stuck.
I don’t think any person has all the gifts and all the strengths and all the wirings that God puts into us as Christ followers, and more specifically as leaders in the church because none of us have all of that gifting. It’s essential that we lean into what it is to be the Body of Christ and making sure that our leadership is a reflection of a team effort, where we have all the gifts represented and not just our own gift.
Absolutely, it’s great thoughts that you’re bringing about there. Tony, what are some of the best tools you’ve seen churches use to plan better and execute on these plans as they come through? What are some of the tools that XPs out there can be on the lookout for?
Primarily, I think churches need to make sure they have a ministry planning strategy in place. This needs to complement probably the financial planning that’s happening in most churches, especially healthy growing churches. You go through a financial planning strategy every year most likely, if not more often, but we need to have an ongoing regular ministry planning strategy that I think needs to precede how we’re doing our financial planning. In other words, the ministry plan should drive the financial plan rather than the reverse. Commonly, we’ll walk into churches, particularly stuck churches, and the financial plan is actually driving the ministry strategy, the ministry plan. That’s not a recipe for health in any circumstance.
For a lot of churches, we’re trying to introduce a new discipline. I call it strategic planning. You can call it whatever you want, but it’s taking a big picture look at where is God calling our church to go into in the future, and then working forward to then if that’s the big picture for where we’re heading toward, what are the key action initiatives that we need to be focused on today and over the next 6-12 months, in order to see that bigger picture vision mission for the church get accomplished. That’s what we’re looking to implement in a strategic planning process, is this focus on developing an action plan built around just a handful, maybe 2, 3, 4 key initiatives. This is going to bring the focus for the work where the church is going and then that will drive the financial plan that the church engages. This is a new discipline for a lot of churches, and why I’m encouraged to be able to connect with executive pastors because I think the executive pastors are best positioned to help bring priority focus to developing this ministry strategy.
Here’s why I think it’s so essential for churches, because if we don’t have this focused ministry strategy that leans into developing an action plan, our natural tendency is to drift back towards what we’ve always done. For churches, that’s always going to be a focus around what needs to happen for this coming Sunday, because Sunday is always coming and it’s always going to be what’s most urgent. The challenge is what’s most urgent, what’s the loudest in front of us right now may not always be what’s most helpful for us to find long-term health for the church. I think it’s this focus on having a healthy strategic planning process that helps us prioritize, what do we need to be focused on doing today to see the longer mission and vision get accomplished. That’s a priority for us to make sure that that’s happening in our churches. That’s my challenge, especially for the executive pastors that are listening, is make sure that you don’t just have an annual financial plan but you also have an annual ministry strategy process in place that drives towards action, and then feeds what’s happening with your financial plan as well.
Fantastic. Tony, I can see why people like to hear from you, why they’ve been so positive on your book and everything that’s out there. Why don’t you give one final bit of encouragement out there to XPs who are listening?
I’ve sat in your shoes. I’ve never had the executive pastor title, but I know what it is to lead from a second or third chair. You’re providing a great resource, a great value to the churches you serve because you are … you’re gifted uniquely and you should lean into that. You should leverage that gifting to help the church be all the church can be. I’m just grateful Neil, for the opportunity to be able to visit with you today and hopefully provide some encouragement to the pastors that are listening as well.
Absolutely. TheUnstuckGroup.com is the website. The book is The Unstuck Church. You can get it on the website or on Amazon. Anything else we need to know Tony?
No, that’s it. Again, I appreciate the opportunity to connect with you today.