My consulting firm does a lot of work with nonprofit organizations. A large component of our nonprofit portfolio is with churches and church organizations. Now, the church world has changed dramatically over the last fifteen to twenty years. There has been a seismic shift from traditional denominational (e.g., Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian) churches to non-denominational, Bible-based churches. Mega-churches like Bishop T.D. Jakes’ The Potter’s Houe or Steven Furtick’s Elevation Church have thrived across the country. The idea behind many of these churches is to set up, what they call, a main campus, and then open up satellite campuses. In New Jersey, where my family resides, one of the fastest growing non-denominational churches is Hillsong Church. Founded in Australia by their Senior Pastor, Brian Houston, the church has grown to one of the largest churches around the world.
The US East Lead Pastor, Carl Lentz, has a vision for opening up new campuses across the northeast. They have their main campus in NYC and have opened sites in in Montclair, NJ, Boston, MA, and in Norwalk, CT. I am a member of the church and have had the opportunity to witness, first-hand, their growth and expansion. I quickly realized that leadership is critical to the success of any church. In order to open a new campus each year, leaders must be raised up, and leadership development becomes a key priority before sending a new leadership team to a different site.
Prior to joining Hillsong church, I worked with a senior pastor of a non-denominational church down the Jersey Shore. I met the church’s senior leader, Pastor Dennis, shortly before the holiday season a few years ago. Like so many of his colleagues, Dennis had a vision for planting and growing churches. As I began to learn more about Dennis and his vision for the future, it became clear that his team needed leadership development. If his church was to begin moving to a multi-site model, he would need to create a culture of leadership and leadership development. I started coaching Dennis and we outlined a plan to develop a leadership competency model for his staff. From this, we would design and implement a leadership development program for his high potential leaders—those he identified and selected to open new church sites. As I got to learn more about Pastor Dennis, I quickly came to understand his values and beliefs. He lived by two mottos, love people and relationships are everything. He had a positive impact on people through his communication, social awareness, and relational intelligence. As we began to develop a leadership competency model for his staff, I witnessed his leadership in action. He built trust by being open with communication, demonstrating empathy, and sharing information. We discussed his ideas for what a good church leader should look like, but he wanted to take things a step further. He valued the opinions of his staff, and so, we developed a first draft of key leadership competencies, which he shared with his entire leadership team. This created a sense of ownership on the part of his people. It also helped church leaders start to think with a leadership mindset.
Once we had their leadership competency model in place, we began the process of identifying talent. Through this process, I got to see how Pastor Dennis connected with people. I saw his compassion for others. He had a great sense of what people were good at (their gifts), and placed people in roles where they would succeed. He empathized with the experience of others, and did not overly rely on his personal experiences when building teams. I saw him mentor and develop people with an eye towards the future. This took a lot of his time. Some would argue that the Lead Pastor must focus more on vision and strategy than on people and relationships. I’ve seen many pastors that do this. They surround themselves with the “touchy-feely” folks who can build people up. Pastor Dennis was not like this. He placed such a strong emphasis on relationships that it impacted everything he did.
Pastor Dennis would have weekly one-on-ones with his key direct reports. These were not check-in conversations. They were about compassionately supporting his people. He strived to serve others, and this engendered loyalty, trust, and commitment from his people. The amazing thing was that almost all of his staff were volunteers. No one was paid for their efforts. As an example, his worship leader was there every Sunday at 6am to set-up the musical instruments and practice with his team. This leader never missed a Sunday! It’s a testament to the relationship Pastor Dennis built with all of his leaders.
He was also a great listener. I assumed this was something that all pastors needed to do, but Pastor Dennis took it to a whole different level. From the first-time guest to a loyal church goer for years, he made personal connections with people from all walks of life. He also had the ability to possess a deep understanding of others, and an ability to, anticipate their needs. He knew if folks were having a bad day or a rough week. He wanted people to grow in their relationships with God. He modeled this love and compassion for people in all that did. As we designed and rolled out the leadership development program, I saw him take a lead role in making sure the program was a success. He didn’t have to do this. He could have delegated it to other folks in the church. This was simply another testament to his commitment to people. He wanted deep, personal relationships with all of his leaders. This was especially true for the new and emerging staff. I greatly admire Pastor Dennis for his steadfast commitment to people and relationships. He in one of the rare leaders that is skilled at building rapport, understanding others, developing trust, and cultivating influence, four skills that are critical for successfully building and sustaining successful relationships.
Adam C. Bandelli, Ph.D. is the Managing Director of Bandelli & Associates, a boutique consulting firm focusing on leadership development and organizational effectiveness.
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Leadership Matters. Without It, People Fail.