Plus five more lessons in leadership longevity
By Philip & Holly Wagner
When we started pastoring, there was so much we didn’t know. After pastoring for 35 years, we have learned a lot—mostly the hard way. And we are grateful that God entrusted us to co-labor with Him in building the church.
Over the years, we loved getting input from other pastors and leaders who had experience that helped us with priorities and practices so we are going to offer a few thoughts that we wish we knew then.
Scripture tells us one person “planted the seed,” one person “watered it, but God has been making it grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6). We plant and water, but only God brings increase.
We often worry about what we can’t control. Obviously, there are things we can do. We can organize the services better, prepare an effective time of worship and pray for people. There is much we can do, but God is the one who ultimately causes the growth. We could not determine how many people showed up to a service or how many made a personal decision for Christ.
At Oasis Church, we never set attendance goals. Obviously, we had personal hopes and plans that would only work with more people and more resources, but attendance wasn’t the goal. We did many things to reach out to people in the community and encouraged people to bring a friend to church. But we tried to not make success about the size of our church.
Imagine someone who is taking a big breath and putting all their effort into lifting something heavy. Now imagine someone doing the same thing trying to grow taller. That doesn’t work. That’s sometimes how I (Philip) saw myself in trying to get people to want more faith, to like my sermon or to do a thousand other things that arise in church life.
Remember, success is not about the number of campuses you have, attendance or your number of Instagram followers. I (Philip) had to check my heart about my motivations. Was I grasping for personal significance? Was I seeking validation from the people I was pastoring? It takes work to not confuse who we are with what we do.
We are called to be a shepherd, not a CEO, not a successful entrepreneur, not a famous preacher. We are called to guide and love the sheep, and so is your team. If you are doing that well, you are being successful. Don’t compare yourself to others or get distracted by what is going on in someone else’s church. Trust God with the field He has given you to harvest. Trust Him with the results.
We are three part beings: spirit, body and soul. And for every situation we get three votes. Our spirit always votes the way of God. Our body almost never does! It usually votes with what feels good in the moment (eating the whole cake, sending that stinging email, lashing out in anger).
Our soul is the swing vote. When our soul is healthy, then it votes the way of God, and when it is damaged or weary, then it votes with the body. We need to do the work of keeping our soul healthy! We have made stupid decisions over the years when our soul was not well. Each of us is responsible for his or her own soul! To be a good team player you need to have a healthy soul.
A few thoughts on how to do this…
Get good at resting and replenishing. Take days off, and enjoy vacations. Play, laugh and remember what you enjoy! Make sure your team is doing the same. Give your team members the flexibility to go to their kids’ games, recitals and so on.
Develop a circle of friendships that are restorative and fun. We were not that great at this in the beginning. We loved our team, and we enjoyed time with them regularly—and that is good. But we needed to develop friendships with our peers, those who understood the weight of church Leadership.
And not just the surface friends, but ones with whom we could take off the “ministry mask” and be real. Ones to whom we could tell the truth about our marriage or our children or the pain we were experiencing. We need those friends who really know us. That might start at a conference, but it requires work and time to take it to the next level. You will never regret the investment you make in friendships. There have been churches in the last few years that have imploded. Perhaps if those leaders had had friends they were 100% real with, friends who could challenge as well as encourage, they would still be around. Just a thought.
Get a hobby. Find something that you enjoy doing outside of ministry life, and encourage your team to as well. Golf? Horseback riding? Fishing? Cooking? Hiking? Whatever! Just something that brings you joy.
Men are different. Men bring strength to a church family. Healthy men make families stronger. Something special happens when men are present and engaged in church. The last study I (Philip) read is that the average attendance of men in most churches in America is around 30% to 35%. Most churches that are stronger, and have more attendees, have more healthy men in church life. Perhaps adjusting some of your graphics, stage design and songs sung, would help in involving men in church life.
The people who start with you on the journey of planting and building the church probably won’t be around for the long haul. We remember being so shocked when people left. Some moved, some had life changes and some departures felt like real betrayals.
Every time someone left our church, it felt as if that person fired us, and that was a horrible feeling.
Being a pastor can be like driving a bus. At every stop along the way, some people get on the bus and some people get off. Those who are getting on the bus now will also get off some place up ahead. Some ride for longer than others; some you wish would’ve gotten off a few stops before. Only a few may ride to the final stop.
Leadership is about what you do together on the bus while they are still on board. Pastoring is learning to let people go without losing your heart, and with renewed hope, embracing new passengers.
Attrition is normal. People come and go. When your team begins to understand this, it takes away the sting of someone leaving. If we normalize attrition, then the team won’t overreact when someone leaves, and it won’t affect the morale of the organization.
We all start a church out of a sense of calling. We love God and want to reach people with His love, helping them live purposeful lives. What an amazing thing! And yet, there are some very hard moments on this journey. We recall being unprepared for the pain we experienced. Were we doing something wrong? Is that why we were experiencing heartbreak? The pain can come from loss and betrayal. Most of us have felt this agony. The pain can come from a moral failure of a team member and having to communicate that to the rest of the team. The pain can come from issues going on in our culture. We have certainly seen this in the last few years. The painful division in our country divided the church.
In many seasons, it can feel like one crisis after another. There are some battles we have to fight, however my (Holly) suggestion is to not get weary dealing with the conflicts that you don’t need to. Engaging in a social media skirmish will only take energy away from the problems you and your team are supposed to deal with.
In 1991, eight scientists lived for two years in an artificial environment in Oracle, Arizona, called Biosphere 2. Inside the three-acre closed system was a small ocean, a rainforest, a desert and a savannah grassland. The scientists produced every kind of weather pattern except wind. Eventually the lack of wind caused the tree trunks to grow weak and bend over. It is the pressure of wind that strengthens tree trunks and allows them to hold up their own weight. Like it or not, weathering storms builds our strength. The challenges and pain you and your team face in leading 100 people will prepare you for the trials of leading 500.
Even in the middle of pain, we must keep loving people and not allow ourselves to lead from bitterness. Sometimes the greatest pain produces our greatest lessons.
Who is around the table? As a church we are trying to reach the breadth of humanity, so the decision makers and contributors around the table should be reflective of that diversity. Not just gender and ethnic background, but personality.
We need the ones who take time to process and the quick decision makers. The loud ones and the quiet ones. For years we used various personality profiles to help the team members not only understand their own strengths and weaknesses, but to learn how to communicate and work with others on the team.
Let the team members shine. Be willing for them to have the better idea. Let their ideas energize you! Don’t have favorites. While there might be a senior leadership team, there is no “in” group. We are all the “in” group.
Have clear, measurable goals and clear roles within the team. Encourage each person to own their role and yet to also care for the whole team.
Celebrate the “tries.” While I (Holly) partially agree with Yoda when he said, “There is no try, only do,” I actually think we need to applaud the ones who at least attempt something big. We found ourselves celebrating the wins in staff meetings, and that is a good thing! I think we need to cheer someone on who tried something new, even if it wasn’t 100% successful. If we only celebrate the wins, then that might stifle the risk taker. We need our team to be innovators and creative problem solvers.
Just know that we are cheering you on as you love and lead people. You are probably doing better than you know. Don’t be so hard on yourself. We believe in you!
are the founders of Oasis Church in Los Angeles and were the lead pastors for more than 35 years. Philip is also an author and the co-founder of generosity.org, a humanitarian organization that has funded over 800 clean water projects in 20 nations. Holly is the author of 10 books, the founder of She Rises, mentors women in ministry and speaks in conferences around the world. Philip and Holly also serve on the ARC Lead Team.