A Church That is Reaching Its Redemptive Potential – Part 2
August 19, 2014 Vicki Ohlerking

A Church That is Reaching Its Redemptive Potential – Part 2

August 19 2014


The other part about leadership that was very confusing to me in the earlier years of pastoring is people-management. When I started Willow Creek, I grabbed three buddies of mine to help us. First was a kid I went to grade school with who had polio and has always walked with a severe limp, and worked at a drill press for a living. Second was a friend who was a Vietnam veteran who had developed a bad marijuana habit during the war.  And third was a missionary kid who had gotten disillusioned about Christianity and was living on the west coast spending his time surfing and drinking. I asked them, “Hey guys, wanna help me start a church?” And they all came to help me start Willow Creek.

But soon into the development of Willow, I began to learn that we needed fantastic people to help us build a fantastic God-honoring church. Those guys were all good guys, but one was just whatever, one couldn’t lead much of anything, and the other was the one I had to tell he needed to quit smoking so much dope because I needed him to help more.

If you want to build a fantastic God-honoring church, you have to find and develop fantastic people to join your team. This begs the question, “What is a fantastic person?” Some would contend this is a matter of opinion, but over the years, I’ve found a definition that works well for us:

Christian – Certainly fantastic people need to be Christians.

Character – Don’t ever invite someone onto your staff or into a key leadership position about whom you have any concern of their basic character. The core leadership team at your church shouldn’t be about character reclamation. That’s what you’re doing for the people who come to your services. Don’t do that on your staff. It’s expensive and it’s time-consuming. So start out with people of character.
Competence – It really helps if they have a basic competence of some sort. That’s where I missed it a bit with my three friends. How much competency should they have? As much as you possibly can get. Shoot for the moon.

Chemistry – It helps if you get along with these people. It helps when you look around the room in a meeting and people are enjoying the vibe in the room.

Culture – This one we have learned the hard way. Every church has a unique culture. Some have a free-flowing, easy-going culture. Others are more focused on productivity and process. I used to think that if someone is a Christian, has decent character, decent competence, decent chemistry with the team, then they’re going to fit in at Willow and stay a long time. But when they’d leave after a short time, I began to learn about the matter of culture. I decided that we needed to define our culture, so over the course of the next 18 months we began to put words to our culture – words that answer, “Who are we?” and “When you cut us, how do we bleed?” and “How do we behave?” Now, whenever we look at inviting someone onto the team, we have language to describe to them to tell them that unless they’re wired like this, they’re not going to fit in our culture. They may be called to our cause, and they may thoroughly love our vision, but they’re never going to survive our culture.

The Line Exercise

Here’s something else we do at Willow to develop fantastic people. It’s an exercise that is so painfully practical. Let’s say you have a department of five people. The exercise begins with the idea that if there were some massive financial calamity, and our church lost 50% of its revenue and we had to lay off tons of people (God forbid that should ever happen), who is the person you’d say that no matter what you can’t let go? Who is that one who is the most talented, best attitude, greatest chemistry, best fit in our culture? And then you ask who the next most valuable person would be. Then the third, fourth, and finally the fifth. And realize please that these aren’t bad people. They’re just at the end of this line.

We have such fascinating conversations about this. We ask, “Why is Joe at the end of this line? Is it Joe’s fault, or is it your fault as a leader? Is he clear about what he is supposed to be doing? Have you given him the tools to work with?” Many times, the answer is that we haven’t challenged Joe enough. In fact, the first time we did this line exercise when my HR Director and I made this up, we did it with my executive team. The person who wound up at the end of my line has worked with me for over twenty years, and is one of the best people in church work. My HR Director said, “That’s impossible that he’s the one at the end of your line, Bill. Why did you put him there?”

“Because he’s just not carrying the weight of these other people to whom I’ve entrusted all these important responsibilities that are so germane to Willow Creek,” I told him.

“Why don’t you then entrust something incredibly important and exciting to the future of Willow to him and see what happens?” he suggested.

After a couple weeks, I found just the thing – a big assignment. When I asked him if he’d take the assignment, he said, “I’ve been bored.” I told him this was a really big two-year assignment and it was going to take the best he had. He said, “I’m in.” Within a few months, if I were to have redone the line exercise, he would have surely been further up the line. It wasn’t his fault he was at the end of the line. It was my fault for not having entrusted him with a bigger responsibility.
We also use something called a Challenge Chart to help us with people-management. Basically there are different levels of challenge people on your team can be in. If someone on your team is under-challenged, they’re not really happy, and neither are the people around them. If they truly are a fantastic person, and they remain under-challenged, they’re going to leave your staff in favor of a church or situation that’s more exciting to them.

The next level is for those who are appropriately challenged. It’s worth noting that if people are merely appropriately challenged, they do not do their best work. Instead, they do their best when they are just a little bit into the highly challenged area. However, if you are in the over-challenged level, if you have staff members with responsibilities to the extent that they stay in the dangerously over-challenged range, they will self-destruct. Take it to the bank. They will self-destruct. First it will be cracks in the soul, then cracks in their marriage or family relationships, then it’ll be relational things, then other stuff. You simply cannot over-rev an engine without there being serious consequences. If you stay over-revved for too long, something will come apart.

As a senior pastor, I haven’t particularly liked myself too much when I’ve stayed in the dangerously over-challenged range for too long. I got an enormous amount done, but at a cost that was too high. Now I’ve done all I can do to stay in the top end of the appropriately challenged range – so that I’m dependent upon God, and need His grace, and His Holy Spirit’s work in my life. But not challenged at a level where I’m frenzied and fried, because all kinds of bad things happen in that place.

My focus now is this: I believe that God has only ever done His absolute best for me. Consider this with me for a moment. When I needed a Savior, God took His absolute best, the sinless Lamb, His only begotten Son, and gave Him for me. And I believe that He is saying to us, “Your absolute best for My glory would be greatly appreciated.” Since God has only given us His absolute best, maybe we should be motivated to give Him our absolute best. Our best leadership, our best preaching, our best worship, our best affection, our best engagement in our families.

If you stay faithful, and give God your absolute best, I believe your best work you’ll experience in church is still ahead of you. Keep surrendering to the Holy Spirit, and you’ll have days that just blow your mind as you see your church reaching its redemptive potential, and you can give God all the glory because He deserves it.