How to Define Reality for Your Team – Episode 189 | The Unstuck Church Podcast


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Creating Alignment in Your Church (Part 1)

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How do you define reality and create alignment on your team?

Back in 2019, 85% of churches that took our free online Unstuck Church Assessment self-identified as declining. A simpler way to say it is 85% of churches were “stuck.” Now having gone through 2020 and a global pandemic, more churches than ever are feeling that sense of stuck-ness. So, we are starting a 4-part series on how you can take practical steps to get your church unstuck, and we’re kicking it off with a conversation about how to define reality as a leader.

You might be asking: Why do you think this is such an important topic for churches?

You would think churches would be the most aligned organizations in the world because we all share this clear mission (go and make disciples of all the nations). But what we find time and time again is that lack of alignment is one of the reasons why many churches get stuck. If churches want to be healthy and grow, it’s essential to get alignment as a team.

On this week’s podcast episode, Amy Anderson and I are excited to start this series and dig into some important questions including:

  • What does it mean to define reality for your team?
  • What kind of language can you use for defining reality?
  • How do you practically lead change?
Leaders have to embrace DTR (define the reality) moments if they want to help their team get unstuck. #unstuckchurch [episode 189] Click to Tweet The WAY we do church will never be as important as WHY we do church. #unstuckchurch [episode 189] Click To Tweet

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Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be ann unstuck church. Back in 2019, 85% of churches that took the Unstuck Church Assessment, self-identified as declining in health. A simpler way to say it is that 85% of churches were stuck. Maybe your church was one of those. Now having gone through 2020 and a global pandemic, more churches than ever are feeling stuck. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy begin a four week series on how you can take steps to get your church unstuck with a conversation about how to define reality as a leader. Make sure before you listen to subscribe and get the show notes in your email. You’re going to get tools to go along with this week’s conversation, all of the resources we mention and access to the archive of all of our podcasts resources from past episodes. You can sign up by going to Now let’s join Tony and Amy for today’s conversation.

Amy (00:59):

Over the next four weeks, we’re going to be talking about how to experience alignment in your ministry strategy and among the staff and volunteers on your team. Tony, why do you think this is such an important topic for churches?

Tony (01:11):

Yeah, I mean, you would think churches would be the most aligned organizations in the world because we all share this clear mission, go and make disciples of all the nations. There are many clear calls to unity in scripture, like “be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.” But what we find time and time again is that lack of alignment is one of the reasons why many churches get stuck. And it’s interesting. We have talked in the past, Amy, about the lifecycle of churches. It’s kind of the foundation or the framework that I wrote about in The Unstuck Church book. But, you know, the left side of the life cycle, I mean, there’s typically clear direction, clear mission, but even in those churches that are experiencing increased growth, there’s a lack of alignment around strategy and structure. And so the larger the church gets, the more kind of out of alignment they get. Certainly on the right side of the life cycle, we find many times churches are, this is interesting. They’re married to their strategy and structure in an almost unhealthy way, but where they lack alignment is around mission and future direction. So it’s almost the opposite challenge of the churches on the left side of the life cycle, but both churches on the left side and the right side of the life cycle, they both have the potential to get stuck. This is a big topic, and there’s a lot to unpack. And that’s why our next masterclass, which is going to be on May 13th, will focus solely on four keys to align your strategy and your team. And we’re going to discuss four practices to achieve alignment. Practice number one is about clarifying direction and defining the win. The second practice is all about getting the right people in the right roles. The third practice is gaining traction by embracing new systems. That’s one of the questions I get many times from leaders is let’s talk about the systems that we need to have in place. And so we’re going to talk about that on May 13th. And then the fourth practice is all about leading collaboratively to eliminate silos because so many times we find ministry silos in churches. So think of this as a one day crash course on this important topic or you could look at it as this is The Unstuck Group teaches alignment, but if you need alignment within your team, you’re going to want to participate in this masterclass with your team. I mean, this is, we’re trying to bring teams together. And so the best way you could do that is to experience this masterclass together as well. And you can register at

Amy (04:04):

Well, today we want to hit a small element of that first practice that you mentioned, which is all about clarifying direction and defining the win. Only it sounds like today, you don’t want to talk about either clarifying direction or defining the win.

Tony (04:18):

No, I want to talk about that. That’s right. I’d rather talk more about clarifying direction and defining the wins in the masterclass. But today I want to focus on the DTR moments for leaders.

Amy (04:31):

Define the relationship?

Tony (04:35):


Amy (04:35):

Are we talking dating today?

Tony (04:35):

You might have to do that as a leader. I’m talking about, when I say DTR, “define the reality”. Leaders have to embrace these define the reality moments in leadership if you want to help your team get unstuck. So to move beyond stuckness, you need to define reality first in your leadership and then with your team and then with your church. And by the way, that order’s important. You want to do it in that order? And by defining reality, this is kind of the framework that I have in mind. First, you need to remind people, often, this is the mission God gave our church, and then you need to let people know. If you’re stuck, let them know, we’re stuck. I mean, strong, healthy leaders know how to do this. They know how to admit that. And then you need to explain, this is why we’re stuck. This is why we know we’re stuck. And then finally, this is why we need to change if we’re going to fulfill the mission. So this is the chance to talk about new opportunities, new ways that we can renew the health of our ministry. Or I could say it this way, Amy. To achieve alignment, leaders must define reality by reminding others this is why we exist, this is our mission. This is why we are stuck. This is why we must change. And this is why we will change. And that final bullet, it’s it’s actually, we have to connect that back to our mission again. So the why behind the change is actually connected to why we exist as a church.

Amy (06:17):

Well, and you’ve been thinking about this a lot, getting ready for our masterclass, but could you just give us some practical examples of how a pastor might do this?

Tony (06:25):

Yeah. So let’s take it again step by step here. When we define reality, it begins with a mission reminder. And so we might communicate God’s mission for our church is to help people move from where they are to where God wants them to be. Whatever your mission is, when you define reality, you start by explaining the mission again. Secondly, we need to acknowledge that we’re missing the mark. So one way we might communicate that as like this, though we continue to see people take their next steps toward Jesus at our church, we know that we could be seeing more fruit. So we’re acknowledging we’re not seeing what we ought to be seeing in the impact of our ministry. Thirdly, then, we need to explain why we know we’re stuck. And so one way we might communicate that is like this. We’re seeing fewer new people connect to our ministry, and we’re seeing fewer people say yes to Jesus. And because of that, we’re hearing fewer stories of life change. So we’re explaining to our team or explaining to our church, this is why we know we’re stuck. That’s a key part of defining reality. And then finally, we need to explain why change is needed. So we might say something like this. We want to help as many people as possible move from where they are to where God wants them to be. And our current approach is not working. We will likely need to pursue some new strategies that may make us feel a little uncomfortable. I know it makes me feel uncomfortable, but we will never let our methods get in the way of our mission. And so the way we do church will never be as important as why we do church. And then we might talk about the specific change that we’re going to be making. And so, Amy, again, when we define reality, we give a mission reminder, we acknowledge we’re missing the mark. We explain why we know we’re stuck. And then when we explain why change is needed. And in The Unstuck Church book, I wrote about a church that did this, a pastor that did this. I wrote about the story of Piedmont Church near Atlanta, Dr. Ike Reighard became their senior pastor in 2006. For the previous decade though at Piedmont Church, they had been in a slow decline. The congregation was still holding onto a ministry strategy that worked well in the past when the church was still thriving, but that ministry strategy wasn’t working when Dr. Ike took over as pastor of the church. At that point, when he took over the church was in decline. And it was very obvious. I would characterize the church as being in preservation mode. That was the stage that they were in in the church life cycle. Ike shared with me this statement – “My first step was to create a sense of urgency based on the data, which helped to kind of take the emotions out of some decisions that we needed to make. And then I expressed this.” He said, “Piedmont church had become virtually invisible and had lost its impact in the community.” And he said, “Sometimes we became so fixated on being the best church in our community, rather than being the best church for our community.” And then with that, he began to cast vision for the change that was needed. And finally, let me share this statement. This is what Ike shared with me. He said, “I called the series,” in which he was talking about the change that was going to happen. He said, “I called the series ‘Courageous Conversations’. And I based the messages out of the book of Nehemiah.” One of my favorite books in scripture, by the way, Amy. And he said, “Having a strong biblical context is essential when you desire change in a church setting.” So I love it because as Ike was walking through their previous situation, where they were stuck, and then the specific, next steps that he was taking, he was actually living out one of these define the reality moments as a leader. And he began to really help the church understand this is where we are. We’re stuck. This is why we’re stuck, but this is why we need to change. That is how a leader embraces those DTR.

Amy (11:02):

And what I’m hearing from you, Tony, is it’s important to go through that process first before a church starts making random changes. Right?

Tony (11:10):

Right. Yeah. So, many of you may have read Dr. John Kotter’s book. It’s kind of the seminal book for leaders on how to lead their organizations through change. In fact, it’s called “Leading Change.” And in the book, he talks through an eight step model. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail, but let me list out the steps. It begins with creating a sense of urgency. Secondly, building a guiding coalition. Number three, forming a strategic vision and initiatives. Number four, enlisting a volunteer army. That’s his language, not my language, but it certainly works in the context of church, doesn’t it? Number five, enabling action by removing barriers. Six, generating short term wins. Number seven, sustaining acceleration, and then number eight, actually instituting the change. And the reason why I share Kotter’s eight-step model is you can see how these DTR moments, defining the reality, helps us create that sense of urgency that Kotter talks about. These define the reality moments help us to begin to build that guiding coalition that’s needed. It helps us rally people around the need for change. And then DTR moments also set the stage for the needed change that will follow. And again, I did this. This is what great leaders do. I mean, he braced that DTR moment to create a sense of urgency, begin to build a guiding coalition, and then begin to cast vision for a ministry strategy shift that was needed for the church to become the best church for their community.

Amy (12:57):

Tony, if the define the reality moments are so critical to alignment and beginning the change process, why do you think many leaders tend to avoid them?

Tony (13:08):

Yeah, that’s a good question, Amy. I mean, my gut tells me one of the reasons is because senior pastors tend to be optimist rather than realists. In fact, related to this, one of the guys on our team recently shared a cartoon, and the cartoon showed some folks that were gathered around a boardroom table. So picture executives. The cartoon is indicating sales are down. Profits are also down, and it had this caption, “What happens if we don’t change at all and something magical just happens?”

Amy (13:47):

This is right in your cynical sweet spot.

Tony (13:51):

But that’s how optimists see the world. I mean, they’re just waiting for that magical moment to happen, and they know it’s going to happen. But as I’ve talked about many times, hope is not a strategy. And we actually need some realists around us to help us realize that hope is not a strategy. Those magical moments are just not going to happen. So that may be one of the reasons why leaders don’t embrace these define the reality moments.

Amy (14:19):

So Tony, are you an optimist? Are you an optimist? Or are you a realist? I’m just wondering.

Tony (14:25):

I’m as realist as a realist can be, Amy. I have zero optimism.

Amy (14:31):

I’m an optimist.

Tony (14:33):

That’s good. We make a good team because of that, don’t we? Another reason I think senior pastors sometimes neglect these define the reality moments is they tend to be people pleasers. And that’s, by the way, I say that it’s a good thing. I mean, it’s one of the reasons why they’ve been drawn into ministry is they want to help people. But they don’t want to define the reality because by admitting the current ministry strategy isn’t working, it might make some people upset, and we don’t want to upset people. But defining reality is important because we can communicate why the pain of staying the course is actually worse than the pain of the change that’s needed to fulfill the mission. And so, even though some of us may be people pleasers, we don’t want to upset people. We still have to embrace these moments because in the long run we’re helping people avoid more pain. And I think maybe a third reason here that senior pastors don’t embrace these DTR moments is because they tend to view the need to change as admitting failure in their leadership. You’re not failing. All you’re doing is admitting that what worked in the past, something that may have been very successful in the past, is not working now. So, by the way, in that moment of time where leaders need to do this, we, this is worse. There’s so much change happening around us in this world. And for many churches, they’re stuck, and the leaders recognize this. So this is your moment to define the reality. Again, this is our mission. This is my honest assessment of where we are today. This is why that’s not acceptable and why change is needed. And this is why we will change. And again, it’s just reminding people this is the mission God has given our church. Amy, like many organizations, we actually had one of these define the reality moments this past year.

Amy (16:40):

Oh gosh, yes.

Tony (16:41):

Do you recall what that looked like?

Amy (16:43):

Oh yeah. I mean, looking back is, let me just process through those steps. That’s what you did for our team last year when COVID shut things down. You defined our reality. You reminded us of our mission. Like that didn’t change. We still have to help churches get unstuck. That’s our mission. And the honest assessment part, I mean, our churches’ worlds just turned upside down, and they’re scrambling to get their services online and their attenders cared for. You said there would be no travel. That’s part of our honest assessment. There’s no travel for the foreseeable future. We’re not going to put your families at risk. You said we needed to change how we reached and served both new and existing church clients. And you also, in that assessment, if I remember right, the issues that churches were facing had changed, therefore, our content, we did a huge content shift at that time. And I remember we had a content series coming up on multi-site expansion, and that really wasn’t relevant last March.

Tony (17:38):

It felt really out of place, didn’t it?

Amy (17:42):

But we dove into content around the shifts churches needed to make. Remember the seven shifts we talked through? How to expand digital front doors. We developed the bones of how churches could create digital engagement paths. And, you know, Tony, I did a little bit of research today. So that was last March. I always remember cause I was packed to go to Canada to go work with a great church there. And you’re like, you’re not going. But for all the church for all churches, ones that are new to us or ones we, you know, we had already been engaged with. When we shifted the focus of our content to the real needs of churches now, not what they wanted to hear before, but now, our webinar registrations exploded. We quadrupled the registrations compared to the year before because church leaders were just diving in with us on how to find new solutions. And I just say, nobody paid for that content, but we were focused on strategies that would accomplish our mission to help churches get unstuck, especially now during the pandemic. Our masterclasses, which were done digitally by the way, connected us to almost 2000 pastors the last 12 months. We had never considered that strategy before, but I think it’s been one of the most impactful new strategies to help more churches. The podcast, I was talking to Sean today about that. We now have downloads in 77 countries and the top five beyond the US are Canada, Australia, the UK, South Africa and New Zealand. And I just find that fascinating because this digital pivot, while we weren’t intentionally pivoting this far, it has given us the ability to actually get our mission, get lived out with more churches and more church leaders.

Tony (19:15):

Yeah. Let me, just to interject here, just last week we had two more Canadian churches sign on to go through The Unstuck process. We had a denomination from Australia reach out to us, and you know, in the past they probably wouldn’t have been aware of what we were doing. And honestly, we wouldn’t even have considered it because the expense of traveling around the world for us would have been cost prohibitive. But now, because we are embracing digital strategies, it can work. We can work with denominations on the other side of the world.

Amy (19:49):

Isn’t that fascinating? And then new offerings. You know, when we just had to get back to our mission and understand we had to have new methods, new content. That’s where we came up with our offerings for mergers and our digital engagement strategy. I also, Tony, I just went through our calendar, and I just remember the moment when we pivoted, right, when everything kind of shut down, and we didn’t know what the next few months would look like. We pivoted to an entirely virtual process in under two weeks. And we still helped 80 churches, just individual churches, virtually the past 12 months and again, in four countries. So it was pretty amazing, but you went through the…I guess that’s what I’m saying. You did remind us of our mission. You did give us an honest assessment about where things were at. We all kind of knew why we would potentially get stuck, and that the changes we needed to make were all due to the mission that God gave us to help churches get unstuck.

Tony (20:42):

Yeah. And so again, we still need to do the hard work of the direction that we’re heading, defining the win before we make changes. But the whole point of today’s conversation is we can’t miss those leadership moments where we have to acknowledge this is what we’re about. This is where we are, and this is why we have to change. Before we unpack what the change is going to look like, it’s critical to embrace and really lean into those DTR, define the reality moments.

Amy (21:15):

Yeah, well any final thoughts, Tony, before we wrap up today?

Tony (21:19):

Yeah. So this is an important conversation about embracing the define the reality moments, but it is. It’s only one part of that first practice that we’re going to cover in our upcoming masterclass. On May 13th, we’re going to focus the entire day solely on the four keys to align your strategy and your team. And again, those four practices, number one, clarifying direction, defining reality. There’s a lot to cover there. Secondly, getting the right people in the right roles. I mean, that has been maybe the most common conversation we’ve had with churches in recent months. Number three, gaining traction by embracing those new systems, and lots of new systems to talk about on that day. And number four, leading collaboratively so that we can eliminate ministry silos. We really do want everybody pulling in the same direction. So if you want to align your team, bring your team to participate in this one day masterclass, and you can register at

Sean (22:23):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. As Tony mentioned, we would love to have you and your team join us for the upcoming masterclass on the alignment. This experience will help you collectively cut through the murkiness of 2020 and clarify your priorities together. To sign up, just go to Next week, we’re back with part two of our series. So until then, have a great week.

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