The call came as we pulled into a parking garage in El Paso, Texas. We are a football family, so every year I try to take my kids to a college bowl game during their Christmas break. The six-hour trip from Arizona to Texas was a small price to pay for seeing my alma mater, Virginia Tech, play in the Sun Bowl.
“Do you have a few minutes to talk?” said the person on the other end. I recognized the voice. He was on the board of one of our sister churches, and I had been a friend of his family for over a decade. Knowing we had arrived at the game with plenty of time, I motioned to my kids to follow me down the stairwell on our short journey to the stadium.
“Sure ... what’s up? Everything OK?” I questioned.
“Not at all,” he responded.
Over the next few minutes he told me an all-too-familiar story: Another pastor was asked to step out of leadership. The play-by-play varies in each scenario, but the final score is always the same — devastating defeat for everyone.
I’ve seen leaders in every size church fail out, burn out and walk out for a number of reasons.
However, I’ve also seen that having a few plays in your game plan can make the difference between winning and losing.
Developing a winning game plan
When I was a seminary student, God used three men to train me in developing a game plan to last in ministry. Dr. Johnny Miller was president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary when I was a student there. In my final year, I had the privilege of meeting with Dr. Miller every other week. At our first meeting, I asked if we could use our times together to invest in making me a better leader.
For 12 sessions he pounded into me the message of Psalm 101. Many scholars believe this was David’s coronation speech. He makes commitments in this Psalm to let his private and public life be resourced by an overflow of his inner life, his walk with God. Dr. Miller taught me that ministry must flow from a personal, vibrant relationship with Jesus. He taught me that effective long-term ministry will be an overflow of the leader’s inner life. He challenged me to develop solid character built on God and his Word. In the words of leadership consultant Larry Osborne, “No amount of competency can make up for a fatal flaw in character.” In the words of Jesus, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
I first met Dr. Bill Jones, now president of Columbia International University, when he joined Columbia’s team as the Youth Ministry specialist. A student there, I heard him speak in chapel one day and thought, This guy knows a lot more about ministry than I do. So I contacted him, and he invited me to join him and a few other leaders in weekly conversations about leadership. We worked on a few youth ministry projects as well. Each team member had talents the others did not have. Learning from each other made all of us better. It was truly an “iron sharpening iron” experience (Prov. 27:17).
A leader’s success is often determined by his/her inner circle. Team chemistry — the way teammates coalesce, collaborate and challenge one another to great heights — has become a huge factor in the health of leaders these days. Having “project people” (those who get things done) is essential and having “people projects” (those in training but not yet ready to lead) is also a positive thing, because ministry is a relational endeavor. However, the larger a church gets, the fewer “people projects” a leader can afford to have in the inner circle. Leaders who don’t have people around them they enjoy and who God can use to build up their souls will be susceptible to burnout. Creating a healthy, high-functioning inner circle is essential for leaders of every ministry.
Perry Bowers was senior pastor of the church Lisa and I attended while I was in seminary. He had taken on the revitalization of a church and invited me to join him. My front-row seat enabled me to watch Bowers lead this church to grow from 16 people to 250 in five years. Ironically, my greatest insight from this experience was that most of our troubles came from within. While the Sunday morning crowd seemed pleased, the ministry core never came to agreement. Leaders held onto territory, programs were all deemed essential and longtime members cried “foul” every time a change was proposed. When Perry left, it didn’t take long for the church to implode under these dysfunctional patterns of interaction.
Although it seemed a defeat, I learned a crucial lesson: The interworking of a team will make or break its ministry. Your church may have gifted and godly leaders, a great plan and abundant resources, but your team must trust each other. They must humble themselves to coordinate, communicate and collaborate with each other, or your ministry will never reach its full potential.
In the words of business guru Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The culture of a team far outweighs the competencies of its individual members. The interworking of an average team fully devoted to Christ, each other and the community over the long haul will outperform an elite group of individuals every time.
Inner life, inner circle, interworking — these are essential for every leader. The Converge district and national teams, churches and missionaries are here to help our churches stay healthy, strong and focused on the task of making disciples of all nations. My prayer is that each leader will design a game plan to win.
Scott Ridout, Converge President
Scott Ridout is the president of Converge. A graduate of Virginia Tech and Columbia International University, he and his wife Lisa led Sun Valley Community Church, Gilbert, Arizona, from 1998 to 2014. Sun Valley has grown from 375 to roughly 5000 attendees on three campuses under his leadership. Previously, Scott served six years as a Converge overseer, including two years as chairman. He is also a church leadership mentor and will continue his coaching during his presidency.