September 27, 2023

Empowering Gen Z Leaders in the Church (with Chris Hodges & Mark Pettus) – Episode 315 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

empowering gen z leaders in the church (chris hodges & mark pettus)

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Empowering Next Generation Leaders (Part 4)

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Gen Z is now a crucial part of the workforce and on the front lines of ministry, with the oldest of the generation now in their mid-twenties.

So how can we identify the unique strengths to this generation and effectively raise up Gen Z leaders for both ministry and leadership?

When I think about the short list of churches that are winning when it comes to raising up this next generation of leaders, Church of the Highlands and Highlands College in Birmingham, Alabama may be at the top of that list…


That’s why, for the final episode of our series, I invited Chris Hodges, Lead Pastor of Church of the Highlands, and Mark Pettus, President of Highlands College, to join me for a conversation around their strategies and advice for identifying and empowering the next generation of leaders.

Join in as we discuss:

  • Helping young leaders confirm their “calling”
  • The unique characteristics & challenges of Gen Z
  • The importance of mentoring relationships
  • Next steps every church can take to develop more leaders

How to Structure Your Staff to Develop Next Gen Leaders

At this free webinar, Tony Morgan and Amy Anderson will empower you with the systems and strategies to confidently structure your church for future impact.

When it comes to developing leaders, you have to see people through the lens of faith. It's seeing things not as they are, but as they could become. — Chris Hodges, [episode 315] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet If you want to develop leaders, never minister alone. Take advantage of the opportunities that already exist and invite someone to go along with you. — Chris Hodges, [episode 315] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet In some ways, Gen Z is unique, but they’re the same, too. They have a hole in their heart for purpose and to do something that actually matters. — Chris Hodges, [episode 315] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Combining a mentoring relationship with an empowering mindset creates the perfect environment to tap into the resources and strengths of Gen Z. — @MarkPettus [episode 315] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet

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Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Gen Z is now solidly in the workforce and on the front lines of ministry with the oldest of the generation now in their mid-twenties. And because most don’t recognize the world without technology, they’re one of the more leadership- and entrepreneurial-engaged generations ever. On this week’s podcast, you’ll hear from a church that’s engaging in training the upcoming Gen Z leaders for both leadership and ministry. If you’re new to the Unstuck Church Podcast, stop before you listen and go to and subscribe to get the episode show notes in your email. Each week, you’ll get resources to support that week’s episode, including our Leader Conversation Guide and access to our podcast resource archive. Again, that’s to subscribe. Now, before this week’s conversation, here’s Tony.

Tony (00:57):

A lot of people in ministry feel overwhelmed by the amount of details they need to organize, volunteers they need to schedule or events they need to plan to cultivate community. But Planning Center, an all-in-one church management system, can help you organize your ministries and give your congregants a place to engage. Anyone can sign up for the free plan of any product to try out today at

Amy (01:26):

Well, welcome back to all our listeners. Tony, good to see you. What have you been up to lately? I know you’ve been on the road quite a bit this past month.

Tony (01:33):

I have been. I’ve actually was just up to Canada and back, which was fun. Just hanging out, hanging, yeah. Hanging out with some friends in Edmonton. But, on top of that, we’ve been working with a lot of churches. And I was just sharing with you and the rest of the team this morning. This is such a fun season right now for us because churches that are reaching out to us, many of them are experiencing growth again, and they’re looking help, for help with future vision or multisite expansion or helping new people take steps towards Christ or partnering with young families. And I’ll just say, Amy, that is a lot more fun than survival mode.

Amy (02:15):

Isn’t it?

Tony (02:16):

Which is where a lot of churches were. So it’s just fun to be doing that again.

Amy (02:20):

Yeah. I was just sitting around the table with, my goodness, I think all eight of them were Gen X or millennial leaders. So they’re going through a succession plan. So the lead pastor wasn’t in our meetings, and the energy around that table and the fun and ideas and the discovery was just super fun. I feel like I’m still their age, but I’m not, apparently.

Tony (02:45):

I know. That’s exactly how I feel. Yes.

Amy (02:48):

Yes. Oh, well, anyways, good to see you, and I’m glad you’re getting a little bit of time off coming up after this long run. But, today, we are wrapping up our series on Empowering Next Generation Leaders, and I’m really excited about this final conversation.

Tony (03:03):

I am, too, because joining us for this conversation today are Chris Hodges, who is the lead pastor of the Church of the Highlands in Alabama, and Mark Pettus, who is the president of Highlands College, which is connected to the ministry of the church. And for those who may not know about Church of the Highlands, first of all, you really should because it’s a great ministry. They have 26 locations, primarily in Alabama, and they’re just very, very intentional about leadership development. And so when we started to brainstorm this particular series for the podcast, I thought, well, here, there are several folks that we should talk with, but for sure, we need to connect with Church of the Highlands. And by the way, Highlands College, I think it pops up in the, our conversation, but not only are they directly connected to the church’s ministry, they’re helping to place people in ministries really around the globe now.

Amy (04:00):


Tony (04:00):

And here’s a fascinating stat, Amy, they have, their placement rate for graduates is 100%.

Amy (04:08):


Tony (04:08):

Everybody who graduates from Highlands College is placed in a job. So, you may wanna check that out, or you may wanna check that out for, for your kids if you have kids my kids’ age. But, doing, through all of this, they’re, again, they’re just doing a great job raising up the next generation of leaders. And I thought it might be fun for you to hear a little bit about how they’re approaching that at both Church of the Highlands and through Highlands College. So here’s my conversation with Chris and Mark.

Tony (04:41):

Well, Chris, when I think about the short list of churches that are winning when it comes to raising up the next generation of leaders, I think Church of the Highlands and Highlands College may be at the top of the list. And Chris, I guess, why are you just so committed to that part of your mission?

Chris (04:59):

Well, thank you first of all. I really appreciate that. Consider you a dear friend, and I love what you do in the body of Christ, as well. You know, Tony, I think, I think leadership, the way I say it is I think solving the leadership crisis is the best problem to solve. So Jesus said in Luke chapter 10 that the harvest is plentiful. Workers are few. I think that was true 2,000 years ago. I think it’s true today that we have plenty of things that could be done if we had the leaders to pull off. Even when I’m talking to my friends who lead different ministries, of course, they all think their ministry, whatever it is, is the most important problem to solve. And I always point back out to them. Yeah, but if you don’t have leaders to pull it off, your vision or ministry will never succeed. At the end of the day, it’s a, it’s a leadership problem to solve. And that’s why, you know, whatever churches or pastors or leaders do, it has to include the development of other leaders. And that was really the gist of Jesus’ life. You know, he said, unless I fall to the ground and die, I remain a single seed. ‘Cause remember, they were complaining. The disciples were getting a little upset about his, him keep, keep talking about going to the cross and dying. Like, no, no, no, we’re just, we’re just getting some momentum here. You need to stick around. And he goes, no, no, no. I, I have to. I’m gonna live my life through you. Not just keep preaching on hillsides to a certain number of people. And, and I think there’s that tendency to be able to, you know, to, to just kind of focus on what, what you do. But I think at the end of the day, the best fruit of your life isn’t what you did is but what you put inside of others.

Tony (06:35):

Hmm. Mark, tell us a little bit about the relationship between the church and the college. How do you complement each other when it comes to equipping and empowering future ministry leaders?

Mark (06:46):

Yeah, and I’ll just reflect on Pastor Chris’ just answer there. I, that’s what I’ve seen him do the entire time I’ve been here at Church of the Highlands since 2001 is, is invest in leaders and then through leaders see the multiplied impact of, of their leadership. And so it’s definitely the culture of our church. So when we really, in 2011, when Pastor Chris shared the vision for Highlands College, though, I think one of the first things we really realized is no matter what we do, the college and the church have to coexist. That there’s just a, there’s a long history of, of Christian colleges or Bible colleges that separated from local churches. And we just didn’t wanna be on that list. And we felt like it was an important value to, to really put these two together. And there’s a lot of of reasons for that. One being the efficiency of being able to train our students that all of our professors are practitioners. And so that our students, when they’re here learning and growing, they’re getting taught by people who aren’t just theoreticians but who are actually doing ministry. And then we just love the fact that every single day, our students are coming on campus here, and they’re, they’re surrounded by the mission and spirit of the local church. So they’re, they’re, they’re receiving all of that great commission passion while they’re here learning and growing, never forgetting that it’s not just about learning, it’s about going out from here and making a difference.

Chris (07:58):

Yeah. In most, in most seminaries, were, were, began local church based, and you can actually, in most cases, traced back to when it went, went away from that value is when they disconnected from local church.

Mark (08:11):

So, physically, our campus, college campus and a one of our church locations coexist together. So even physically, we’re tied together. And then, in mission and vision, we’re tied together. And I think it’s powerful. I think it, I think it impacts especially a Gen Z generation. I think it’s a great statement of, of our values.

Tony (08:28):

Absolutely. And by the way, side note: I think congratulations are in order because there’s a recent accreditation. Is that correct? For the college?

Mark (08:36):

Yes. So it took a, a seven-year journey to get from where we started to accreditation this past spring. We did achieve that. And, it, it truly is a miracle of, of just the thousands who’ve invested in our college and, and, and the vision that Pastor Chris has, and a, a lot of hard work. But we’re so excited that’s allowed us to go from a two-year school to a four-year university now with three different schools offering seven bachelor degrees, which is a massive opportunity for us. So.

Chris (09:01):

And a .edu, which is kind of, it’s just kind of fun to say that, Tony.

Mark (09:04):

We love it. We love it. That was, we, it’s one, one of our favorite parts. But it, it really is just a, it’s a, it’s, it’s a visible recognition, recognition of what’s happened.

Chris (09:13):


Tony (09:14):

Very good. Well, Chris, I’m recalling, we had a conversation a few weeks ago, talking about the next generation of leaders in the church. And during that conversation, I was really encouraged and frankly a little challenged by your thoughts on, as it relates to calling with young leaders. Will you unpack what you shared with me, and it kind of explained what your thinking is related to this critical part of this conversation about raising up the next generation of leaders.

Chris (09:42):

Yes, because what I was pointing out is that, you know, one of the difficulties is, is recruiting and attracting the right leaders. Ones in our case that are full-time called into ministry. But that doesn’t begin with them just, you know, holding a brochure or their youth pastor saying, “Hey, where are you going to college? Why don’t you consider this option?” You know, when I look back at my own life, it was a football field on a Sunday night after a missionary spoke in our church. And I was wrestling with should I stay at LSU and finish my accounting degree. And, versus, man, I want to go impact the world. I had a burning desire. I mean, it was, I know the spot, the moment, the feeling I was called. And you know, Paul, of course, says, you gotta make your calling an election sure. And if you do these things, you’ll never stumble. There’s a lot of stumbling going on right now with people in ministry. And that’s because many times it does turn into vocational mindset instead of, man, I, I, I’m, I’m answering to God for an assignment he gave me. And so then, I began to ask myself, then where, where did I get that call? And where do you know students today have an opportunity to have that calling? And I, and I came to the conclusion that a lot of times those environments aren’t in the church anymore. It’s like my case, it was missionary speaking. We had missionary speaking, you know, every month. We just, we were a mission, my, my pastor was a missionary. And so we had, we had a missions culture, which gives you that opportunity. But, also, we had summer camps. You know, they weren’t, they weren’t conferences. They weren’t, you know, what the church has evolved into, and I’m not saying what we’re doing now is not good. I’m just saying we’ve gotta make room for, at our conferences or whatever we do, for this sense of Holy Spirit showing up, calling some of you. And, and, and these kids wrestling with, man, this Damascus Road kind of, kind of moment with God that I’m convinced that he wants to do inside of people’s hearts and minds.

Tony (11:48):

Chris, I’ll just say it’s really tough, you know, as a Georgia Bulldog fan, to hear that someone couldn’t connect with God l at an LSU football game. So, I’m just, I, you kind of caught me off guard there.

Chris (12:01):

Well, it wasn’t an LSU football game. It was a Sunday night, but I was an LSU student. And, yeah, I, but, but, go tigers.

Tony (12:10):

Well, Mark, with that in mind, how is the college then really working to equip future ministry leaders while also helping them confirm their calling?

Mark (12:20):

Yeah. And, and I think what we are seeing, and we’ve Pastor Chris is what he just shared with us here, we’ve, we really, even at our, our summer conference, our high school conferences, past couple years, we’ve inserted moments for students to respond to calling. And it’s been interesting and just powerful to see literally thousands of students having that opportunity, receiving that call, and then many of those and then from other places coming to Highlands College, having already sensed. So all of our incoming freshmen would’ve already had that kind of experience where they sensed the call of God. And that’s part of our, even our application process. One thing we are learning, as students come in, there can be a lot of anxiety around, you know, knowing, which many of us have done, trying to figure out their entire calling the next 30 or 40 years of their life all at once. So a lot of our work is taking that calling, which we know at the core of it is to be a disciple and to make disciples, and then to help them over the four years they’re here, unpack that and grow. And Pastor Chris always says, you know, he uses different examples. I’ll just go with a Louisiana one ’cause we’re talking about LSU here. But, he says, you know, there’s, there’s lots of different ways to get to Baton Rouge. And so we, we tell students, just take the pressure off. And you’re, you know, continue to pursue your calling. You know where you are with what’s in front of you here. You have seven degrees. Find the one you’re passionate about. Learn everything you can. And by the way, go above and beyond that, learn from other areas, and then trust God with it and take next steps. And if, if you’re on the, on a road heading in one direction, you can always, you know, take, take the next intersection and still end up in the same place. And so we’ve really done a lot of work just to take the pressure off because a lot of times that pressure can be a distraction. So there’s almost, you know, students get paralyzed because they’re, they’re worried they’re gonna miss their calling, the ultimate calling of their life. And we’ve really tried to create an environment. In fact, while they’re here, they get 800 hours of practical training, and just telling them, God’s gonna use it. You have no idea. Your twenties are gonna look one way. Your thirties may look a completely different way, probably will, but ultimately God’s gonna be faithful to take you to that ultimate destination.

Chris (14:12):

Yeah, because it, it evolves. I actually thought I was gonna be a missionary to France. I was, that was my first calling, so to speak. And so ended up in youth ministry, and while I was in youth ministry for 11 years, said I’d never be a senior pastor. You know, so like, it does evolve to the calling. And I always remind the students that Jesus didn’t even start his public ministry until he was 30. So what was he doing? There’s only one verse from 12 to 30, and that’s Luke 2:52. And that is, he was growing; he grew in wisdom, stature, favor with God, favor with man. And I said, so I, the way I said to the students is, you don’t have to know. You just have to grow. And so, to answer your question about the intentionality of that process, we believe that, unfortunately, academics becomes the only thing that kids can get during the college years when that’s really what we believe only one-fourth of what they needed. So, we’ve actually borrowed from more the academy model, like at West Point or Annapolis or Air Force Academy. I actually taught a religion class at the Air Force Academy back on in the, in the early nineties when I lived in Colorado Springs. So I kind of got bit by this more holistic approach anyway, Tony. And, and, and everybody who’s listening to me should start some kind of development process. And, and it didn’t have to be a university, use this mindset that I’m getting ready to share. And that is that academics is important, but it’s only one-fourth. You know, at the, at the academies, they’re also doing military training. So they go to class just like a university, but then they’re jumping out of an airplane in the afternoon. But then there’s a character pillar where their bedrooms being inspected, and they’re, they’re, they’re, they’re held to a higher standard in their, in their morals and their values. And then, finally, in their case, physical development, we borrowed that. And so we have academic instruction, ministry training, as Mark said, 800 hours. On the day they graduate, they’d have already done it, 800 hours worth of experience, character formation and spiritual development. So it’s a, the, the point is, when you develop people, it has to be more holistic.

Tony (16:14):

I love that. I love that model. And, Chris, you know, again, outside looking in, it feels like one of the key distinctives of the church, the church’s ministry is how you’re embracing young leaders within that ministry. And I would love to just hear from you: what do you think some of those unique characteristics are that this next generation of leaders brings to the church and brings to our mission?

Chris (16:40):

Yeah, I, I mean, definitely every generation has distinctives that make them different from the previous, but at the core, man, they just want somebody to believe in them.

Tony (16:51):


Chris (16:51):

I always say you have to, you have to see them as they could be, not as they are. Probably one of the greatest values I’ve learned about developing people is you gotta see people through the lens of faith. So, you know, it’s, it’s seeing things not as they are but as they could become. And then saying that to them, “Man, I see a champion in you.” Well, they may not be displaying that, but they need to be able to hear, man, this, this guy believes in me. He sees something. I mean, that was me, by the way, Tony. I was a C student on my best day. I was bullied. So I was a little, in my junior year, high years, I was bullied. So, I was a little gun-shy, you know, in relationships. And I didn’t, I didn’t close in. I overreacted. I tried to always make everybody laugh, but I, I was doing it out of insecurity. When a youth pastor came in and said, “Man, you’re a champion. You’re gonna be a world-changer.” I’m like, no, I’m not. And he, but he kept saying it and giving me opportunities. I played music. He kept putting me on stage, you know, to, to play piano or in lead worship. And, and it was, it was those moments of belief in, and, and one thing I’ve learned is that people tend to become what the most important people in their life think they’ll become. And that’s good or bad. So everybody, and everybody has important people around them. And when the important people, the people they admire, say things like that, it’s powerful. And so, at the end of the day, they are different, but they’re the same, too, because they have this hole in their heart. And it’s not for money or marriage or career; it’s for purpose. It’s, it’s to do something that actually matters. And when you connect them to that, then you have a disciple. You have people drop their nets and follow. Right?

Mark (18:37):

And I’m, yeah, I’m seeing that in my own family. So I’m raising four boys right now. The oldest is a teenager. And what our church provides for him is something to be a part of, as Pastor Chris was saying, that’s bigger than the party on the weekend or bigger than the other, the other options that might be out there. And he’s being invited in to literally change our cities, to change the world. And he knows that he’s in an environment where there are pastors and then small group leaders who believe in him. And I think something else that’s important that we’re really focused on right now is teaching truth in a generation that is so confused. And it’s been interesting. You know, maybe you would’ve thought on the front end it would be the opposite. But they’re so hungry for that. There’s so much misinformation and fake news out there. When you open the Bible up right now to a group of teenagers, there is a hunger that I’ve never seen before. To say, Hey, can you unpack that verse? Can you under, can you help me with this theology? Because I need a place that is solid to land. And I’m seeing that in our youth ministry and in my own kids, the fruit of that. So they’re learning that truth. They’re, we, we do believe in them, and then they’re a part of something bigger. And they’re, they’re, why would I, you know, why would I go out and do all of that when I can be a part of something that’s real and making a difference.

Tony (19:38):

Yeah. Chris, repeat that phrase again about what the important people in our lives are saying to us.

Chris (19:45):

Yeah. So we, we’re all the, we’re all the sum total of our relationships, all of us. So, and it’s what they’ve said to us, good or bad. And that’s why no one can name me the last 10 sermons they’ve heard. But everybody can name 10 people who’ve impacted their life, good or bad. Everybody can because our lives are shaped by relationships. So, therefore, people tend to become what the most important people in their life think they’ll become. And that’s why if you’ve, if you’ve had negative things spoken about you by teachers, coaches, parents, uncles, whoever, you tend to become that. You be, you tend to take on the nature of what was spoken into your life. And that’s why we have to be very careful with our words ’cause our words have power.

Tony (20:26):


Chris (20:26):

They have the power of life or death, the Bible says. And those who love it eat its fruit. So it’ll bear fruit on people’s lives. And, and I am very fortunate in that I’ve always, I had a very God-loving, God-fearing and very loving dad who kissed me and told me he loved me every day of my life. I had a father-in-law who was my best friend. He’s now in heaven. And I’ve had nothing but healthy pastors who spoke things over my life. So I’m, I know who I was without Christ and without mentors. And here I am today doing things that still, it just, nobody more amazed than me. I promise you. That’s not, that’s not false humility. Nobody more amazed than me. But it was because I had people in my life who spoke those things over me, developed me and believed in me. And, of course, the work of Christ, too, is, can never be understated, so.

Tony (21:14):

So good. So good. All right, Mark, here’s the deal. I’m a Gen Xer. I admit it. I’m getting old, and because of that, I think of millennials as being young leaders.

Mark (21:24):


Tony (21:24):

But the reality is Gen Z now is beginning to step into leadership.

Mark (21:30):


Tony (21:30):

So what are some of the challenges that Gen, Gen Z leaders are facing as they try to take a, take on their first leadership responsibilities within the context of the church? And how can those of us that are maybe a little bit older, a little bit more seasoned, help that generation transition into leadership?

Mark (21:49):

Yeah. And I’m a millennial, and I’m, I am, you know, four, 42 years old. So I, millennials are old now. That’s the bottom line.

Chris (21:55):

And I got you both beat; I’m a baby boomer. So I’m in, I’m in the second to last year of the baby boomer generation. So you guys are all young.

Mark (22:04):

That’s awesome. That’s awesome. I, I think, we’ve already been talking about a lot of the keys. And so I would say what we’re seeing with Gen Z, and on our own team and definitely within our college, is to, to what they need are leaders that are more rabbinical in nature, who are willing to come alongside them and shepherd them to lead them and to help them not just know what, but why. And I think the best leaders right now for Gen Z is mentors. If you’re bringing someone, you’re listening to, onto your church staff or into your organization, recognizing they’re gonna come in and there’s some, there are probably gonna be some values that aren’t there. They didn’t have the privilege of growing up in a home that were those, you know, trusted, you know, biblical values were put there. Or they’ve been confused in the world, or they’ve been hurt and been through, you know, different levels of trauma in their own life. And so knowing that they’re coming in, but there’s so much potential there if you’ll just stick with them for the journey. And I think it’s really important for them to have environments that feel like family that you invite them in, that are, that are gonna, you know, we’re all busy, but you have to, I believe more than ever before, be intentional with the development. And again, going back to the why question, not just tell them what to do but tell them why it’s important. I think that’s extremely, extremely valuable. And there is so much innovation inside of them, so much entrepreneurship inside of them. I think another great way to think about leading Gen Z right now is, is a, is a leader-leader mindset. Is they want, they love to be empowered. Of course, you have to do that. We keep, you know, keep maybe hands off, but eyes on, you know, make sure there’s clear accountability and structure. But early on, empowering them. Something we do, even on the church side through our volunteers or our dream team, is early on, you’re gonna get empowered in our church to lead. And Gen Z responds very well to that because they have that kind of entrepreneurship inside of them. So I think a mentor relationship, that rabbinical relationship with an empowering mindset, you’re creating the perfect environment to tap into the resources of a generation that really are more focused than millennials. And they have that, that, that innovation side of them. And so it excites, as you can tell, I’m, I’m excited that we get to work as leaders with Gen Z. But it’s gonna be a little messy, especially early on. And, and part of that would be that they don’t trust institutions. And oftentimes, they don’t trust leaders. So you gotta get past that, that, that rough start possibly. But when you stick with them, especially through a, maybe a situation in their life, they go through and you don’t give up on ’em, you have won them for life. And I think there’s a lot of opportunity, to, to, to be a part, maybe one of the greatest generations of leaders.

Tony (24:27):

Absolutely. And I’m seeing that not only in our church, but I’m seeing that in my home, too. So, I have two millennials and two, two kids in Gen Z, and all of them are phenomenal. But the, my youngest, I’m telling you what, there’s, there’s something in her. There’s a passion for Jesus, and there’s a unique perspective that I think she’s gonna bring to the leadership and, and influence, roles of influence that she has going forward. So, I think there’s a lot of opportunity in this next generation.

Mark (25:00):

Yeah. All, all of my kids are like starting businesses. I’m like, I would never even have thought of that. You know?

Chris (25:04):

Technology in the phone did that to them. They were the first generation that was raised having everything they wanted at their fingertips. So, so it kind of trained them. Of course, there’s, we know the bad that comes with that too, from that technology. So that’s another point that has to be made is that we have to understand why they are that way is because they had all this incredible technology since they were one year old.

Mark (25:24):

And can I play off of that really fast? ‘Cause we’ve actually, that, that truth right there has even shaped how we’re teaching our students here at Highlands College ’cause information for them has no value proposition. Information is free. They can google the answer to anything. And so, recognizing that, we actually have built our facility here and our entire academic structure around what’s called active learning. So our students actually, before they even come to class, engage their content, whether they watch a lecture or read a book. But when they’re in the classroom, it is a, it is a mentorship. It’s a, a, a professor who is there to help them learn how to apply that knowledge. And so colleges are finding out students aren’t gonna pay for knowledge ’cause they, they’ve grown up with it, but they will pay to know how to use it.

Chris (26:03):

So we’ve reversed the process where the classroom is on their own and the homework is in the class. And so now they’re actually working it out, learning it, developing it, being mentored in it, in the classroom. And it’s really important. And any, and on top of that, we have digital-free zones. So we have our food halls, they check their phones at the door. We teach ’em how to have real conversation and not look, scrolling their phone while they’re sitting across the table with someone while they’re having a meal.

Tony (26:31):

Gosh, I might’ve actually enjoyed my college courses a lot more if that were the case back then.

Chris (26:35):

Exactly, yeah.

Mark (26:36):

Hey, Tony, no lectures. It’s, it’s discussion based. Yeah. They’re not getting lectured. I mean, I slept through so many lectures.

Chris (26:42):

There’s no rows. Yes. We have, we don’t have a single classroom with rows. Everything’s in pods.

Tony (26:46):

I love that. I love that. Alright, so, Chris, and there’s no doubt about it. God’s blessed the Church of the Highlands in so many ways through the years. And as a result of that, I mean, your, your ministry has resources that many other churches don’t have. But maybe, if other churches can’t start a college like the Church of the Highlands, what are some baby steps that other pastors, other church leaders could be taking to develop future leaders?

Chris (27:15):

Yeah. Start. So the simple thing is just start, start with one small group. The one thing I was doing before Highlands was Highlands. And before it, it was the size we are now. And is I, was I, from day one, I had small groups. I had, I actually had, at the beginning of the church the first year, I had four different small groups. I had a group of businessmen that I met at a library in Mountain Brook, Alabama. And just taught ’em leadership and just developed them. Some of them are on our boards today. I had another small group of men that I was developing that were going through difficult marriages and emotional issues. I had, you know, I, I, I had a group of interns, 19 interns, year one of Church of the Highlands, long before there was ever the vision of Highlands College. Actually just thought we were gonna have an internship here at the church, never a college. It wasn’t in the, it wasn’t something I was even dreaming, but I was working out every day with 19 college-aged students. I was giving them ministry opportunities. I was, you know, so it, you don’t have to have big things to do big things. You don’t have to have a lot to do something that’s important. Today, three of our elders were in that group of 19-year0olds. Now they’re in their forties, you know, leading major ministries in our church. And so, but I mean, it was just basic. It’s not, it was nothing glamorous about it. It was literally showing up at a football field and, and doing a workout with them every day, running laps. And, and then, you know, taking them on trips with me, missions trips. We were at 9/11 that year. That was the, that was the first year of our church. Nine months into our church 9/11 happened. And I, we took this group of interns up in New York City to serve people. So it was just raw, basic development of now that are some of the, you know, they’re world-class leaders today. By the grace of God, let me add; God did more work inside of them than I could have ever done. And, but, but everybody can do that. And that, again, that models the ministry of Jesus. You know, the Bible says that when he, Jesus taught, his public ministry really wasn’t that effective ’cause the crowd went away not knowing what the parable meant. They, they said they left in amazement. Like they have no, what in the world was he talking about? And then, the Bible says he brought his disciples off to the side and explained the parable to them. And so my question for every leader listening is, do you have a group of disciples that you’re explaining the parable to after Sunday? You know, after the events, as they go through the, the circumstances of life. And if you do, I mean, everybody can have, everybody can have the impact in someone else’s life. And, honestly, if we all do it, we will make a better, bigger impact than any university or college could, too.

Tony (29:53):

I love that. I love that. Mark, one of my favorite reminders from scripture about how we disciple or mentor others is really found in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. And Paul said, “Keep putting into practice all that you learned and received from me. And everything you heard from me and saw me doing. And then the God of peace will be with you.” And I love that picture of that combination of learning, watching and practicing. With that encouragement in mind, what are some practical steps that you think we as pastors can be, taking to help young leaders experience all three of those aspects of discipleship and mentoring?

Mark (30:34):

Well, it’s great. I love that you brought that up ’cause literally we’ve used that as the model for our majors. What used to be, what we call practicums have now become our majors. And that is what our students are experiencing here throughout their entire journey at Highlands College. So they’re, they’re getting their core academics, but then they’re having, within their major focus, whether that be worship or student ministry, they’re getting the environment you just described where they’re seeing experts do it. They’re doing it with experts, and then they’re getting the opportunity to step out and be empowered to do that. And so that’s a, a, a massive philosophy, philosophy for us but not just in the college. I mean, Pastor Chris, what he, how he just answered that last question, I would say is, would be my model would be him. As my, as my pastor, my spiritual father is very early on, he’s created opportunity for anyone to be a part of what, you know, the experience, let’s say a Sunday morning, seeing him preach a sermon on, on the stage, but then getting in the smaller room, helping us learn the, the, the method, his mindset, all the best techniques and then empowering us to go do it. And I think that’s important for every leader whether it be, again, in a university or an internship or through a small group function to have the after-Sunday or the around-the-office opportunities. Whether it’s structured or not, I think that’s, it’s vital. And, and speaking even back to Gen Z, it’s what they’re looking for. Maybe one of the most evangelistic things you can do if you’re a church, a, a senior pastor leading a church right now is create these environments for young leaders to jump in. And they’re, they don’t just want to attend. They want that extra effort. And yes, we’re busy, and there’s a lot going on. But if we’ve invest a little bit, the compounding effect of that will be more opportunity, more influence, more leaders to, to reach our city. So.

Chris (32:11):

And it doesn’t have to be complicated. Here, here’s a great simple takeaway: never minister alone. So someone comes up to me, for instance, after church and said, “Oh, Pastor Chris, could you pray with me?” “Happy to. Hey, Mark, come over here. Join me as we pray for, you know, Miss Susie here,” and I pray, pray, pray. She walks away. “Hey, Mark, let me tell you why I prayed that way.” So you can take every little opportunity. If you go to the hospital, bring somebody with you. If you go on a missions trip, bring a group of students with you. It’s just never minister alone. If, we’ll, if we’ll take the opportunities that already exist, none of that added more hours to my schedule. I just included Mark in it so that, so he could glean from that and we could grow together in that. So that’s a simple way that everybody can actually practically apply what we’re talking about today.

Tony (32:55):

I love that. It’s actually confirmation of something I heard from the very first pastor that I served under back in Indiana. And he, he expressed it this way. He said, education can be alienation. And what he was encouraging us to do is anytime we’re learning, we’re experiencing, we’re discovering something new, we should bring someone along with us.

Chris (33:18):


Amy (33:18):

Because through that, we’re, it’s actually gonna draw us together in our relationship but we’re also then preparing somebody else to take a next step.

Chris (33:26):


Tony (33:26):

So, Chris, as we wrap up, this conversation, first of all, I just want to thank you. Thank you for investing in the next generation of leaders. And I know that certainly your church will benefit in future generations, but you’re really also helping prepare young leaders to fulfill the church’s mission around the world. So thank you for that.

Chris (33:47):

Thank you.

Tony (33:48):

But as we wrap up the conversation, what words of encouragement do you have for other pastors and other church leaders who are listening in to today’s conversation?

Chris (33:57):

Yeah, I would just say everybody can do this. I mean, they do, you don’t have to have great skills or large church to do this. There, there are people right there in your church right now who would love to go to lunch with you, who would love, you know, even on your staff. I mean, Tony, I’ve done this before where I just get my assistant to send an email to everybody on the staff and say, the first seven that responds, I’m taking to lunch. And we’re gonna do just Q and A at lunch, and we’ll go to a little Mexican place or, you know, a little hamburger place. And, and I just, we just have Q and A at the table. It’s like, it’s, it’s, it can be so simple. And I would encourage every pastor that, you know, I know we all, we all wanna do great in our own ministries and, you know, achieve a certain level of, you know, God-honoring success and, and just do what God’s called us to do. But, you know, the greatest success you have is a successor. That’s just it. And anybody who has grandkids like I do, I have, I have eight grandkids now. You know, it’s, it’s been fun to do life, but it’s way more fun pouring my life into them and seeing, you know, them develop. And I would just encourage every pastor listening to start today. Call someone right now. Text someone, you know. Encourage someone. Meet with someone. Go to lunch with someone in your church, and, and they’ll love you for it. And then, you know, your life will be multiplied. That’s ultimately what it is. You know, the first words out of God’s mouth to mankind is be fruitful and multiply. And he wasn’t talking about having more babies. He, he was talking about us having more, more generational impact. And, and I would just encourage you to do that. Yeah. Everyone.

Amy (35:40):

Tony, that is so inspiring. It’s amazing what Pastor Chris and the team at Church of the Highlands are doing to raise up that next generation of church leaders. I’m curious, Tony. What stood out to you from that conversation?

Tony (35:52):

Well, the biggest thing is just the power of our words and other people’s lives. And with that then, there was this reminder for young leaders to find mentors who will speak into your lives. And you need to be looking for mentors. You can’t wait be, wait for mentors to be looking for you. And then, it’s a reminder for leaders, especially leaders in my generation, that our words are very powerful, and they carry weight, especially with the people with whom we have influence the most. And I immediately thought of the words I use with Emily, with my kids, with my friends and certainly with my teammates at The Unstuck Group. But it’s also a reminder that, as leaders, we also have to speak into the lives of those next-generation leaders, those people that God has placed in our care. We have to tell them what we see in them and that they actually may not see in themselves yet. We need to be encouraging in that way. So my leadership obviously is still influenced today by the words of the most important people in my life from my past. So I’ve experienced this firsthand, and some of those words expressed encouragement to be someone that I didn’t think I was, that I was, that are, that I could be, and some of those words were part of tough conversations, Amy, that included some tough love that I needed to hear along the way. But the words of the most important people in our lives really do matter. And as leaders, this is part of our calling to equip God’s people to do the work of God. It just so happens that these are God’s next-generation leaders that are kind of under our care and under our mentorship.

Amy (37:35):

Such good reminders and great callouts on that, Tony. Any final thoughts we have before we wrap up, boy, not only this conversation but this series?

Tony (37:44):

Well, if you’re listening to this episode on the day it releases, it’s not too late to join us tomorrow for our free webinar on How To Structure Your Staff To Develop Next Generation Leaders. The webinar is tomorrow at one o’clock, and we will empower you through that experience with assistance and strategies to confidently structure your church for future impact. After all, if we want the legacy of our leader leadership to outlive us, we have to focus on giving leadership away to the next generation. And you can register now through the link in your show notes, and we hope to see you there tomorrow.

Sean (38:20):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Like Tony said, we’d love to have you join us on our upcoming webinar on developing next-generation leaders. To sign up, just use the link in your show notes, and if you don’t yet have the show notes, go to Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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