November 13, 2019

Leadership Development with Paul Alexander – Episode 119 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

leadership development

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“It doesn’t happen in a classroom, seminar or Bible college, it happens in every day life.”

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How do we develop great leaders? This seems to be the golden question of church leaders today. 

No organization can thrive without great leadership. And it’s not likely that you’ll stumble upon enough great leaders to maintain the health and growth of your ministry. 

When we work with churches, we consistently see leadership development rise to the top of the core challenges churches face. It’s the tension of not only finding potential leaders, but primarily how to develop them. How do you take them to the next level and increase their capacity? 

In this episode, Tony and Paul Alexander, Executive Pastor of Sun Valley Community Church in Arizona, dig into how effective leadership development really works in the context of the church. The episode shares:

  • What’s currently working and not working in developing leaders
  • Why leadership development pipelines seem to be struggling and how to discover a better option
  • Practical ways to simplify leadership development
  • A paradigm shift for expectations of staff members
  • How to create clear leadership distinctives to be passed down from senior leadership to staff and volunteers
Leadership development doesn't happen from a distance, it happens up close and over time. #unstuckchurch [episode 119] Click to Tweet Leadership development starts with the senior leadership team and cascades down to the staff and church. #unstuckchurch [episode 119] Share on X

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Paul: 00:00 I think leadership development really comes down to relationship, Tony. It doesn’t happen in a classroom. It doesn’t happen at a seminary or Bible college. It happens in everyday life as people gain the experience having responsibility for action and deliverables.

Sean: 00:22 Welcome to the Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. No organization can thrive without great leadership and it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever randomly have enough leaders to help sustain the health and growth of your ministry. But how does effective leadership development really work in the context of the church? Today on the podcast, Tony sits down with Paul Alexander, Executive Pastor at Sun Valley Community Church for conversation on how leadership development looks at their church and why it’s working so well. Make sure before you listen to subscribe to get the show notes in your inbox. Every week you’re going to get one email with a leader conversation guide. All of the resources we mentioned in the archive of all of our podcasts resources from past episodes. You can sign up by going to the Unstuck While you’re checking out the podcast resources, we would love your help in making the podcast even better in the year 2020, click on over to the unstuck survey and share your thoughts on the topics you’d like to hear about in 2020. The survey will take you one minute or less and it’ll help us resource thousands of leaders. Go to the to respond. Now let’s join Tony and Paul Alexander for this week’s conversation on leadership development within the church.

Tony: 01:40 Hey Paul, I know I have actually known you for quite some time. But the folks listening today may not know you. So you have actually two roles. We’re connected in two different ways. One is your day job, so share a little bit about your day job.

Paul: 01:55 Yeah. So my day job, what I get paid to do day to day, so to speak, is I serve as Executive Pastor at Sun Valley Community Church, which is large multi-site church located out in the Phoenix Metro area.

Tony: 02:08 Yeah. And then you’re a, I don’t even know what you would you call this job? It’s more of a hobby maybe for you, but, people may not know this, but Paul, you and I go back the longest time at the Unstuck Group. I mean, you’ve been serving as a ministry consultant for the unstuck group for how many years?

Paul: 02:29 It’s like seven years now. It wasn’t even the Unstuck Group. It was Tony Morgan Live.

Tony: 02:34 It was before we had good branding. You’re right. Well, the reason I wanted to chat with you today, Paul, this is probably not a surprise to you. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you hear this from the churches that you work with too when you’re consulting with our team. But when we get to the end of the conversation of assessing health and then defining strategy, future direction and then what the core kind of challenges or opportunities are for the church. I mean I could rattle off a handful of things that we see on a frequent basis. We need to improve our weekend experience. We need a more clearly defined discipleship path. We need to address the communications challenges internally more often than the next is what we see. But you know what often rises to the top of the perceived core issues in churches and I don’t think it’s just a perception.

Tony: 03:30 I think it’s reality. It’s this issue of leadership development and you and I have had a lot of conversation through the years and even most recently about leadership development and what’s working and not working and why I wanted you to be a part of the conversation today is it’s working at Sun Valley. You all are developing, raising up leaders and too oftentimes there’s a lot of theory conversation about leadership development that we’re not hearing from the churches that are actually doing it. So, why don’t we start with this thought, this is the basis for the conversation. How would you describe leadership development?

Paul: 04:11 Well, that’s a big question. I’m probably not going to answer it in a way that all the listeners are really going to enjoy. I think leadership development really comes down to relationship. Tony. It doesn’t happen in a classroom. It doesn’t happen at a seminary or Bible college. It happens in everyday life as people gain the experience, having responsibility for action and for deliverables. They’re learning to deliver on time and they’re learning to do that with people and they’re learning to take people somewhere. And the development side of that happens in the context of a relationship. It doesn’t happen from a distance, it happens up close and over time.

Tony: 04:54 So let’s begin with another foundational question. Do you think everybody can or should aspire to be a leader?

Paul: 05:02 No. I think in Romans chapter 12, the apostle Paul’s writing to the church in Rome, and he’s working through a whole list of spiritual gifts. And he actually lists leadership as a spiritual gift. So from my perspective in life, I’m trying to follow Jesus. And so I try to live my life from a biblical perspective and point of view. So the Bible informs my view of leadership that not everybody’s a leader. It’s a gift that’s given to some and, not given to others. And if we keep following that out, it’s actually given to different people in different measure.

Tony: 05:32 Yeah. I was going to say, I’ve worked with churches and anybody that’s serving anywhere in the church, they’re calling them a leader. And so when we asked them, how many leaders do you have in your church? They’re counting everybody, including, I mean, every serving opportunity in the church, they’re reflecting those folks are leaders in our church. And what they’re talking about is their influence capacity. But what I think I hear you saying is just because someone has influenced, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a leader.

Paul: 06:00 No, it doesn’t. Are you spiritually gifted to be a leader? I think the greatest indicator if someone is a leader or not is, are people following them. It’s the easiest way to know if someone’s a leader. Do people want to follow that person?

Tony: 06:13 All right. So now we’re gonna kind of focus more on your experience at Sun Valley. But related to that, there has been a lot of conversation we’ve even talked about at the Unstuck Group about if leadership development is a challenge than one of your first steps, maybe is to define a leadership pipeline. And so do you use a formal leadership pipeline at Sun Valley? If so, what does that look like? If not, why not?

Paul: 06:41 Yeah, that’s a really good question. I’ve heard a lot of churches talk about this. It got really popular in church world, you know, 10 years ago or so, you heard that really thrown around a lot “leadership development pipeline. “And it seems sexy because we like steps and really accessible programs to put people through. But again, leadership development is not a program. It’s a relationship and it’s up close and over time. And so while we have a defined leadership pipeline, we deescalated that conversation and we’ve escalated something different than that. And so really simply, what we’ve worked really hard to do is identify our leadership culture. How do we expect people to think, behave, feel, make decisions, and lead and figuring out how to articulate that. And it took us a couple of runs, we did a beta test for this, and figured out how we needed to say it, where people would pick it up and be able to engage with it.

Paul: 07:36 But we’ve turned that into a cohort to where all of our staff now have leader guides, participant guides, supporting videos, and their job in leadership development is to identify leaders and to spend time with them in a cohort going through that content. And the magic is not the content. The magic is that it forces our staff to become experts in our culture, learn how to articulate it, not just live in it. It forces them to look for potential leaders. So for example, for a children’s director on a campus, it forces them to say, who are my greatest potential leaders that I need to be investing in. It teaches them to invite them to close proximity to them and it teaches them to spend time with potential leaders so it teaches them where they need to be spending their time. And this year we’ll put over 250 volunteers through cohorts at Sun Valley and we’ve hired multiple people out of that because it escalates potential leaders into the view of the staff, into the gaze of the staff. And so we found that to be more useful than a magic pipeline that, you know, for happy hops to being a leader.

Tony: 08:46 Yeah. So get real practical here then for your staff. I mean, how do you define the expectations around not just team development, but leader development? It sounds like you’re clarifying this is one of the key wins for their roles. Is that true?

Paul: 09:06 Absolutely. Yeah. If you’re on staff and you’re in a coordinator or director level role at Sun Valley, part of your job description is to develop people. And we’re not paying people to do ministry at Sun Valley. We’re paying people to lead ministry, which means, identifying leaders, investing in them, delegating tasks to them, seeing how they do with that task, the only reason we delegate is not just to get stuff done, but to test people and to measure how they respond. Can they deliver on time and can they deliver what’s expected on time and then start empowering real decisions and authority to them and giving them a playground to play within and letting them jump in the deep end of the pool and swim zone.

Tony: 09:46 I just read an article recently about Bill Gate’s development as a leader at Microsoft. And one of the things he had to give up relatively early from Microsoft was the coding, which, I mean, he was phenomenal at and loved to do, but recognized he can’t grow the business if he was coding. He needed to be delegating that responsibility to others. And that really was the key thing he identified was delegation, as being kind of the primary capacity competency that he had to develop in order to be able to grow their business. And I think it speaks to what you’re focusing on with your staff leaders, those coordinators, directors, pastors on your team. You’re not paying them to do ministry. You’re not paying them to be good people, but I’ve been around your team. They’re all good people. You’re actually paying them to empower others, to raise up leaders, to build teams and equip God’s people to do the work of God. So with that, my sense is Paul and most churches when they identify leadership development is a key challenge that they’re facing that they really over-complicate what it’s, what it’s gonna take to develop leaders. And it sounds like you’ve just kind of honed in on what it really takes to develop, to mentor, grow other leaders and you’ve given focus to that without all of the extraneous strategies, systems, curriculums and so on. But can you unpack a little bit further about how you actually do this?

Paul: 11:28 I think the very best process is a one step process. You know, this is why Apple got such rave reviews and they made the complex things simple. If you have the ability to make complex things simple, you’ll always have a job and you’ll always be in demand. I think churches have over complicated this. Talk about the simple side of things. For us, what we’re simply trying to do with these cohorts is expose high-level volunteers who have already demonstrated some kind of faithfulness to ministry in some kind of capacity, expose them to our culture and that’s where the training and the processes and stuff come in place. But it’s exposure. Sometimes you as a young leader, an exposure to a new idea, exposure to a new person, exposure to a new method, can help light bulbs go on.

Paul: 12:20 And exposure to new things is critical for the development of a leader. And then faithfulness. You know, the Bible’s really clear about promoting somebody before it’s time. You know, Timothy and Titus give qualifications for pastoral leadership, it rarely matters that someone’s shown themselves to be faithful. This is why you’d delegate to see if they can actually be faithful in something small. That way you can trust them with a little bit more. And then do they have the capacity to deliver results? Why would we elevate someone to a leadership role who hasn’t had a proven track record over time of being able to deliver real results. And so exposure, faithfulness and results. That’s three really simple things that we’re looking for when it comes to developing leaders.

Tony: 13:15 So you’ve mentioned the cohorts a couple of times, tell us a little bit more. What do those cohorts look like? Who gathers? How often do they gather? What do they talk about? Things like that.

Paul: 13:27 Yeah. So, the first one that I did a couple of years ago when we were beta testing this, I simply asked, and this might be a good place for some of your listeners to start, I simply asked our campus pastors, give me your three or four best millennial leaders on your campus. And I want to spend a couple of months with them. And so that’s what I did. We went through each of our eight staff leadership distinctives and we talked through the content side of that. We discussed it, we read some different leadership books together. We did some personal assessments and again, the magic wasn’t the content. The magic was the face to face time, the conversation, the rabbit trails we got to chase. And then these were highly competent people. Tony, the churches of the leaders we’re talking to right now are full of highly competent people and these are people who have degrees and they get paid real money to do real big jobs and they have great, great capacity.

Paul: 14:26 There was a gal in there, she was in charge of sales for Harley Davidson for four different Harley Davidson shops. There was a guy in there who’s over a consistent experience at Circle K’s in the Phoenix Metro area. I mean, real big jobs. There’s a guy in there who’s in the C suite of one of the fastest growing window companies in the country. And just by spending time with fantastic people they felt valued. Someone sees something in me. They showed up every single time on time and prepared and I heard comments back like, my own company doesn’t invest in me like this. And we’re talking about really good companies that these people work for. And I think there’s a competitive advantage, Tony, that the church has that’s latent, that hasn’t been tapped into. People want to grow, they want to develop, they want to get better. And the church intrinsically, we believe that can happen, right? That the gospel can change us and transform us. And man, if you can invite someone into that, there’s great power in that. So I’m hesitant to be too prescriptive because I don’t want churches to copy. But each church has its own unique leadership culture. That’s in the culture of the senior leaders that needs to be mined out.

Tony: 15:51 You did mention eight staff leadership distinctives. What did you call those?

Paul: 15:58 That’s the language we use. The reason we landed at those is because, you know Tony, core values used to be a real hot topic in church world. You know, what are your organizational values? And we just kinda came to the conclusion that we’re not going to change the culture of a church by a couple of statements written on a wall somewhere. If we’re going to change the culture of our church, it starts with the senior leadership team and their behaviors and the culture of that team and cascades down from the staff to the church. And so like, we’re going to train something. Let’s train that.

Tony: 16:26 Yeah. And again, I’m not going to provide them a copy of that either. Maybe they can find it on your website someplace. But, because I’d rather churches that are listening define your own distinctives. Make it your own. Don’t try to copy what Sun Valley’s doing. All right. So that’s one challenge that I see churches are working to overcome is they’re trying to make leadership development too complex. But to be honest, the other big challenge Paul and I see is this really does come from the top down. It’s a lack of a focus commitment to developing leaders. And it begins with the senior level leaders, staff leaders specifically, they have to model this in order for the rest of the organization to embrace it. Talk about that strong commitment to leadership development.

Paul: 17:20 Yeah, and to your point, I mean, as the executive pastor, at the end of the day, if there’s a problem at Sun Valley, it’s my problem. It’s either because I’ve neglected something and I haven’t given it the attention it needs or there’s an unintended consequence to a decision that I made a couple of years ago. Right. And we woke up and we went multi-site and we went from one to three campuses, three to five. But, as we did that, we cleared our bench, Tony, every part-time, 10 hour, 20 hour person. All of a sudden you’re a full time director now, we’re transferring you. Congratulations. You got a raise and a promotion and you’re transferring to this new campus, we believe in you. And that’s a little bit of an oversimplification of what happened. But what happened is it put natural pressure on us and we learned that organizationally you have the capacity to grow faster than people have the capacity to grow. And so, we always talked about leadership development, but I needed the pressure of growth to light a fire under me to solve it. And to be honest with you, the majority of churches in the country that are plateaued or declining don’t need to think about leadership development. The reason it’s not a priority is because they’re not growing and they don’t have new things to solve. New people to reach new things to build growth dictates that you have to solve this issue.

Tony: 18:41 Yeah, I call it the New York Yankees challenge, because it’s not a challenge, when player development doesn’t happen in the Yankees minor league farm system, they just go buy more talent. But the challenge is churches. We can’t do that. No church I know of can go buy all of the leadership capacity. They need to expand ministry. And so, especially for larger multisite churches like Sun Valley, you really do have to be committed to this and focused on it and it needs to be a part of who you are as a church, doesn’t it?

Paul: 19:17 Yeah. And so, we also learned as we went multi-site, that culture is transferred through people, not through policies or processes. The policies and processes can support the culture, but they don’t build the culture. And so people do. And so we’ve had to get highly committed to this to the point where this year we ran the report. 70% of the people that work at Sun Valley are internal hires. We’ve had to do that in order to grow. So there’s a certain pressure associated with it. That’s good pressure that’s driven us to be committed to this. We’re getting ready to start another campus here real soon. And so we’re in the process right now of drafting our board and who needs to be on the staff and how are we going to do the transfers and how do we backfill where we are sending people from. And so we’re doing it all over again. It doesn’t stop. It’s just a cyclical thing.

Tony: 20:14 Way back when I was at Granger Community Church, Mark Bison used to talk about the power of the artists in our community at Granger Community Church. And he would talk about the fact when you have great artists using their giftedness, that it attracts other great artists. Do you see the same thing happening at Sun Valley when it comes to leaders?

Paul: 20:41 Absolutely. I mean, go back to the Yankees. Everybody hates the Yankees cause they’re winning. But everybody wants to be part of a winning team. And so momentum can breed more momentum.

Paul: 20:54 if it’s leveraged properly. Practically speaking, Tony, I think is more about like when that children’s director begins to look at his volunteer team and begins to recognize leadership in a handful of people and draws them close to them and spends time with them and invests in them intentionally. Those people feel special. And they really do. They feel special. Someone recognizes something in me. They feel empowered, strengthened, and encouraged to lead and be who Jesus is and that gains traction. And so developing one leader turns into developing two and then turns into developing three and on and on and on. So it teaches your staff to think differently.

Tony: 21:40 So I suspect for leaders that are listening, one of the hangups that’s there someplace in the back of their mind is this, what if I invest all this time developing a leader and then I release, I empower that leader to actually lead. And it, it doesn’t work. Some, there’s a failure somewhere along the way. I mean, maybe the question should be what? What are the first indicators that there’s leadership? It’s not a good fit as far as this leader that you’re trying to empower. But what do you do in that situation?

Paul: 22:22 It’s a risk, right? Giving something away to somebody else that, you know, you could do better because either that’s true or perceived. There’s a risk associated with that. But the greater risk is what if you don’t? Yeah, I mean, you cannot fulfill the great commission and the mission that God’s given you and your context by yourself. If you can, then you’ve misread the gospel. And so, you have to, as a church leader, take the risk of investing in somebody else and giving away your leadership to others. So are there indicators that it’s going wrong? There’s potential coups that take place. You know, a leader gets a little bit of authority a young leader does, and they start experimenting and tinkering with things and they think their way’s better.

Paul: 23:13 Every young leader thinks their way is better. That’s why they’re a young leader. And the fact is, one of the indicators are that they actually might be a leader. Every leader thinks they’re right or they wouldn’t be leading the direction they’re going. The scariest thing for me is promoting someone before it’s time. And that’s a dance. That is something that you do and there’s gotta be a lot of wisdom involved in that. And humility. If the person you’re coaching doesn’t demonstrate humility to where they can receive candid feedback, like straight, big boy, candid feedback and they don’t respond well to that, cut him loose. That’s it. That’s a character issue you can’t fix.

Tony: 23:53 Let me also just say, I mean your senior pastor Chad, he’s just a phenomenal leader and I’m curious to hear your perspective in the second chair. What do you see Chad doing in his role as senior pastor that really impacts the overall health of the leadership development that’s happening in your church?

Paul: 24:14 I mean, really in a word is culture. There’s some things that a senior pastor can delegate or somethings things they can’t. Chad does not delegate the vision of the church. He doesn’t delegate ownership of the culture of the church and he’s quick to take personal responsibility if something’s a little bit wonky. Instead of looking somewhere else, he’s always going to look in the mirror first, which who doesn’t love to lead with a guy like that? Those three things I’d say help create the environment for leadership development.

Tony: 24:47 All right, Paul, I really appreciate you joining me today for this conversation on leadership development, but more important than that I just appreciate you being a part of our team at the Unstuck Group for all these years and being a model not only for how we can more effectively engage churches and help them have a greater impact, but for those of us that are also coaching, consulting on the ground with churches, you’ve really been a great model for those of us too, that are just trying to practically as best we can help churches take their next step. So thanks for being a part of the team, Paul.

Paul: 25:23 Well, I love being a part of the team, Tony. It’s really a pleasure.

Sean: 25:26 Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Don’t forget to add your voice to the direction of the podcast in the year 2020. You can do that by going to the If you like what you’re hearing on this podcast, we would love your help in getting the content out. You can do that by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform, giving us a review and telling your friends about this podcast at the unstuck group. We’re working everyday with church leaders to help them build healthy churches by guiding them through specifically designed experiences that focus them on vision, strategy, and action. If that’s a need in your church, we would love to talk. You can start a conversation by visiting us at; next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.

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