Practical Strategies for Senior Pastors and Their Teams
In the first episode of this series on creating compelling church services, Amy and I talked about the importance of aiming for remarkable and not just settling for predictable. Based on the downloads alone, I’m guessing this is weighing heavily on many of you in church leadership.
It takes a lot of planning and effort to create remarkable experiences. I know firsthand.
With rare exceptions, we’re finding it’s at weekend services that churches have their highest engagement numbers. In other words, this is where you see more participation than small groups or serving teams or Bible studies or classes or missions engagement or men’s or women’s ministry.
That may change in the future, but it’s still critical to today’s church and to the overall ministry impact that we’re trying to have in our communities.
Unfortunately, I think many pastors tend to overestimate the effectiveness of their services.
So in this episode, we wanted to dig deeper into “the how” of getting off the predictability hamster wheel. In part two of this series, Amy and I discuss…
- Simple adjustments in your planning processes that make remarkable possible
- The people side of planning: who should be involved, who should DRIVE the planning conversation, and why it may not need to be the same set of people for every series
- The topical vs. expository preaching debate… yep, we’re going there
- The timing of planning well and making sure you’re not leaving GREAT ideas on the table
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- Predictable to Remarkable: Compelling Weekend Services | Episode 134
- Blind Spots on the Weekend | Episode 136
- Sermon Series Planning — Episode 105
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Sean (00:00): Welcome to The Unstuck Church podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Every church wants their weekend services to help people grow closer to Christ, but if you’re not planning in advance, you’re likely missing an opportunity to get the best from your team and lead people to their next step. Today on the podcast, Tony and Amy share some practical tips for how you can enhance your planning for better weekend services. Before you listen, make sure you have the show notes. You can get them every week in one email along with the leader conversation guide, the weekly resources we mention as well as access to our podcast resource archive. Go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Also, if you’d like to explore how your church can create more compelling weekend services as well as 12 other common core issues that churches face, take advantage of the open enrollment period for the “Leading an Unstuck Church” online course. New seats open up starting March 8th. You can find out more at theunstuckgroup.com/courses. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for today’s conversation.
Amy (01:07): Well, this week we’re continuing our series on creating compelling weekend services that people want to attend and invite others to. And last week we started out our series talking about steps a church can take to make their services more remarkable, but we know to get to remarkable it takes a lot of planning and effort. So today our conversation is going to focus on the planning of weekend services. You know, Tony, I know there are many churches out there that have some version of series planning, but there still seems to be tension around planning series and sermons. And I would love to hear your thoughts on why you think planning series in advance helps us create more compelling weekend services.
Tony (01:43): Yeah, well I think there are a lot of advantages for a lot of people, including those people that you just mentioned, we want to invite to come and experience the weekend service. But for the teachers, for the preachers that are listening, planning, I think, offers the opportunity for more compelling messages because it creates more space where you’re aware of what you’re going to be teaching on, space to hear from God, space to gather ideas, to gather stories and to then craft a message that is going to have great impact and then hopefully great application for people’s lives as well. It also creates the opportunity for more compelling service elements because when the artistic teams are aware of what’s coming, it gives them time to plan, develop, rehearse things like graphics and music and video stories and other things that we use to compliment the message. I think it creates an opportunity for more engagement with the teaching content because again, when your team is aware of what’s coming, they can help you create engagement strategy to make sure that it’s not just the teaching that’s happening on Sunday morning, but that there are other opportunities for people to engage discussion and conversation around (or Bible study) around the message itself. So your team can help you with email campaigns or devotions, Bible studies, discussion guides, small group curriculum. There are a lot of different ways that if we plan ahead, we can work together so that it’s just not a onetime shot on Sunday morning. As I mentioned a few moments ago, it creates more invitable opportunities too when we plan because it offers the space for us to create a promotion strategy to encourage people to invite friends, family members to join them. And then finally for you shrewd money people that are listening, maybe this is the only thing you’ll hear in this conversation. But it will save you money, too. Because what we’ve seen is when you plan ahead, it makes it easier to pull off a lot of these elements that we’re talking about. Now you can still pull these off even if you don’t plan ahead, but you’ll have to hire a lot of staff to be ready at the last minute to deliver all the things that I just talked about. When you plan ahead though, it creates more space to leverage the gifts and the talents not only of staff, but more importantly for volunteers that could be engaging this process with us.
Amy (04:20): That’s really good. Can I just add one thing? You just triggered it in me. I think it’s high quality, too. I remember we had a fantastic videographer at our church, and we were in a very last minute stage of our planning process early on, and we’d come up with a great story or a great idea, but it was Wednesday, and our first service was on Saturday. And finally this guy, he just goes, you know, I can create mediocre only for so long, and I’ve just got to get back to doing the quality work I know that I can do. And he just needed the time to do that. So you know, those artists have bars of what they want to be able to create as well.
Tony (04:58): Yeah. And so on that note, speaking on behalf of the teaching pastors that are really going to be maybe pressed in this conversation today, I am a creative, too. I totally get it. When there’s a deadline that I’m facing, the creativity quotient in my brain goes up as far as the content that I’m creating or any other project that I’m involved in that takes some concentrated time. Um, the opportunity we have though for those of us that appreciate the value of those constraints is we can just move the finish line and through a planning process, create the constraints so that we’re feeling that pressure that we feed on that pulls the best out of our creativity. But I totally get it. What we need to find is that compromise so that you get the benefit of the deadline and the constraints and the opportunity to really leverage your creative process, but at the same time involving more people in the process so that we can leverage the impact of our team as well.
Amy (06:01): Let’s actually talk about the people side because I think before we can create a great plan, we actually have to have the right people involved in this process. So Tony, who do you think should be involved in the planning process? And also maybe I can ask later, but who also should drive this planning process?
Tony (06:18): Yeah, so I think actually we did an episode on a creative planning process several months ago. Maybe while we’re talking, Amy, you can help me figure out what episode that was or we’ll put it in the show notes and we’ll make it easier. But let me just say this up front. If you’re a church planning weekly services, which every church is, you need a documented creative process to drive not only the services themselves, but hopefully the series that you’re planning into the future. All that to say, in your creative process, I would think about three kind of key buckets that you need to consider. One is the teaching bucket, one is the creative process bucket and one is the actual execution of all of the elements bucket. For the teaching, when you’re developing a teaching plan, primarily that’s going to be your teaching pastors, obviously complimented maybe by one or two other people who can think strategically about how the teaching helps drive the overall ministry strategy. And I can just think back to some of the previous churches I worked with. I’m going to call out my good friend, Troy Page. Troy was a gifted teacher, but his biggest strength I think for us when it came to not only teaching strategy but our creative process, is the support with his strategic mind of how to lay out a teaching plan and then drive the creative process itself, and though he wasn’t doing most of the teaching, his was an important voice to have in the teaching planning that we were doing. The second bucket that I talked about is the creative process itself. So think about your creative plan, and here I think you need to have a leader, usually this person would be titled creative arts pastor or worship arts director or something along those lines, but I want to emphasize the leader part of this. It’s a leader that has a creative bent, but they may not necessarily be the most talented artist on the team. What they’re most talented at is leading the artists and the creative process and then driving the execution of the creative elements that we’re going to be talking about in a moment. And so that person, when we get to the creative planning, needs to drive that part of the process. And then I would say compliment that part of the process with a mix of creative people who understand the mission of the church and the values that shape the weekend services. And I don’t necessarily think that group of people needs to be the same group of people every time. In fact, one of the churches I was a part of, depending on whatever the series was, we would pull in different voices with different perspectives. And again, these weren’t necessarily the artists themselves. Some of them were, but they were the people that could help us think creatively about the elements that would support the message, the topic that we were trying to present. The third bucket is execution, and you’re going to need a plan for that, too. And again, most commonly this would be the creative arts pastor or director that would drive this. But now it’s the team of artists. It’s the team, it’s the worship leaders, it’s the tech directors, it’s the producers, it’s the media team and so on. These are the folks that are actually going to make it happen, and there needs to be a planning process around that as well. Now let me just say this because I’ve seen this work and I’ve seen challenges as well. When things get messy, it’s when people get outside of their lanes. And so, as an example, some teachers are very creative. Some teachers are great teachers and how to bring the creative process to support that is not their gift, but when they think that’s their gift and they try to drive some of the creative process, it gets messy. Likewise, I’ve seen this. People that are good at singing and good at creating media and good at the technology side of worship arts sometimes aren’t the best brainstormers for our creative process either. They’re good at their specific art, but they’re not good about their contributions to the creative process overall. And so it’s partly figuring out who’s the right people for the right conversations here to make sure we’re leveraging everybody’s gifts and strengths in the best way, Amy.
Amy (10:55): Yeah, that’s really good. The one thing I heard as you went through those three teams, the teaching plan, the teaching team, excuse me, the creative planning team and the execution team. There is a sequence to that. Teaching plan has to come first. Creative plan comes second, you know, obviously and then execution.
Tony (11:12): Absolutely, and I’ll admit it. In my days of full time ministry, and that lasted close to 15 years, there were one or two times, unfortunately, that I think we let the creative process drive the teaching plan rather than the teaching driving the creative process. And I’ll just tell you, it failed miserably in both instances. So, thanks for calling that out, Amy. At the end of the day, it begins with God’s word, the truth, and then how we can help people apply that truth to their daily lives. So, Amy, I’d like to ask you a question here because you drove the planning process at your church for many years. From your experience, what are some of the challenges that failing to plan in advance creates for churches?
Amy (12:03): Oh, there’s a lot. Maybe the headline here is just that quality suffers, and when we don’t plan well, it is hard to have high quality elements and creative moments in our services. As you mentioned, there’s lots of last minute energy that usually have to come from a lot of people when this process is short-cutted. The example I just gave of our videographer, I mean he was capable of a project 10 times the quality that he actually got to produce when we didn’t have a good process. I think about graphic transitions, designs, all those things, those packages that help us manage transitions in our services. Those quality elements are really low when we don’t have good planning time. But outside of that, I’d also say, man, a lot of great ideas are just left on the table because by the time, you know if it’s Wednesday and we just came up with a great idea, there were times we just couldn’t jump on that grenade. We couldn’t create something in those three, four days. And we missed a great opportunity to really take a biblical concept off the page in a new, fresh way. So, you know, I would just add, when people listen to a message, man, we’ve got gifted communicators out there, but when you don’t have creativity in your message, you know, that 35 minutes, it’s just losing energy. Even the best communicators, it’s just a slow decline. And so I also think when we fail to plan, we don’t optimize those 35 minutes to engage people and to really help them apply what’s being taught in a memorable, meaningful way. So I think just engagement goes down.
Tony (13:40): That’s helpful. So can you get a little bit practical for us here, Amy, and kind of walk us through the basics of what a solid series planning process should look like.
Amy (13:49): Sure. And we talked about this back in episode, I think it was 105, and I would say if you don’t have a good planning process right now, take that whole thing in. And I also want to say when I started, you know, we had no process, and this is the one I’m just going to walk through briefly, is really where we ended up, and it carried us for a decade of just remarkable experiences on the weekend. So first I would say big rock number one is that you’ve got to have a teaching plan for the year. It doesn’t have to be penned in, inked in, that kind of thing, but at least penciled in what’s the roadmap for the series for this year? And then out of that, identify what are the couple of series that you’re going to put a lot of energy, even budget behind because it’s going to be high invite, it’s going to be something special. Maybe we’re gonna you know, do some marketing efforts behind it. What are the B series? You just alluded to it a few minutes ago, but there are some series that really lend themselves towards integrating ministry with it. So creating a small group study or creating some other thing that’s going to happen as a result of it. Easy example is always if you’re, you know, doing a series on, you what God says about our money, great time to build something like Dave Ramsey’s program around it or some way to help people who are in debt. And then the rest of them are C series, which are all great, but we know those A’s and B’s are going to be some plussing, either through marketing budget or through ministry. Third, you gotta schedule who’s going to teach then, so you start getting ownership of what those series are going to be, who’s going to be teaching in the messages, so they can start to ruminate and start to plan. And then what I would say is every month you have a meeting. Every month you maintenance this plan, and you just kind of tie the bows on the next four weeks. But you’re really looking out month two and month three to go, what opportunities are out there for us to leverage and begin to do something more creatively. And when you identify those, then you’re actually able to release your artists. Just like your teacher, when you assign who the teacher is. Once you get like, we’re going to do this type of creative thing, you give your artists time to think about what is the branding going to look like, what’s the storyline for the story we wan to tell, what stories are out there and they have time to ruminate and create as well. So again, that’s kind of a synopsis, but episode 105 will go into much more detail.
Tony (16:15): Yeah. Again, I just saw Clay Scroggins, the lead pastor at Buckhead Church, teach a message. It’s been two or three weeks ago now. Throughout the message he had these video screens behind him, not only complimenting the key points, but visuals too, pictures and other graphics to support what he was teaching. It was very effective. I mean the message itself was incredible, but just the visual impact of how that was presented was incredible. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, but, he could not have just finished this message on Friday or Saturday to present on Sunday. They had to have had that weeks in advance in order to compliment the message that the way they did. But by doing that, the impact was huge. So I totally get that. You kind of referenced a schedule a little bit, but just like if we’re planning a new series, how soon in advance should we be thinking about that new series, Amy?
Amy (17:22): Well, again, I think if you do the annual roadmap, we’ve already got it out there, and we’re already talking about it in our monthly meetings every time it gets in that three – four month window, but I think a minimum of three to four months out, we need to know what’s coming up.
Tony (17:34): Okay. All right.
Amy (17:35): Well, Tony, you’ve worked with a lot of senior pastors. And man, they have big jobs, a lot of responsibility. We’re advocates for our senior pastors out there, and we’ve talked a lot on this podcast about those four roles a senior pastor can’t delegate, and of them is being the primary teacher for their church. How big of an impact does a senior pastor’s focus and development of their teaching, do you think, have on creating compelling services?
Tony (17:59): Yeah, well, I appreciate what senior pastors do so much that I could never think of being a senior pastor, Amy. And one of the reasons is I can’t imagine the load that’s required to, on almost a weekly basis, be preparing a new message throughout the year. I just can’t imagine the challenge of continuing to teach the unchanging truths of scripture in a fresh way every week. But here’s the deal. When someone doesn’t have that focus, when the teaching begins to suffer, then obviously the weekend services begin to suffer, and then people stop inviting their friends, and then attendance begins to decline because new people aren’t coming and old people don’t show up as often. And so ,this is a really a big deal. It’s one of the reasons why, Amy, as you alluded to, when I talk with senior pastors, I say there’s only four things that you need to be focused on, and you can go back and listen to our conversations on that topic. But one of those top four is the teaching. And, in fact, every time we go to a church, we go through a secret shopper type of an experience. And obviously one of the elements is from an outsider’s perspective, taking in the worship experience and then taking in the teaching. And we’re going to dive into this a little bit more in one of our upcoming episodes, but now that we can look at the data from our secret shopper experiences, we’re definitely seeing a relationship between the quality of the teaching and the growth of the church, especially it has to do with whether or not that message includes some element of life application. When that life application element is strong in the teaching that’s happening in a church, we’re seeing that leads to growing, healthy churches. And so this is absolutely critical that we give it the attention that it really deserves.
Amy (20:04): And I’m just going to pick up on that for a second. And that’s why I think from a staffing and structure perspective, you know I spend a lot of time there, Tony, we have to make sure we have the right staffing around the senior pastor because when the right staff leaders are there, they can have that time to do those four things. And it’s why we press churches you’ve got to prune some things because we need to take some more energy towards what’s going into the weekend service. The weekend services is not the end all. But if the weekend service isn’t healthy, it’s hard for the rest of the church to be healthy and effective. Hey, just maybe one other question. Have you seen a difference in the effectiveness of topical or expository preaching when it comes compelling weekend services?
Tony (20:48): Oh, I know this is a question that senior pastors absolutely love to wrestle with and have opinions on by the way, I have learned. The reality is both certainly are effective ways to teach. My personal bias is I think it’s more challenging to teach topically. It’s harder to take different scripture from different parts of the Bible and bring them together concisely with the application that’s needed. However, in both cases, I do think it’s important not only that we teach the truth, but that we also lead to providing that life application that we were talking about earlier. So we have to help people see how scripture fits into the context of their life. And then with that, I think we’re going to find if we go through a planning process like you and I are talking about here, the artists around the teacher are going to help us figure out how to, in an effective way, communicate the truth that we’re trying to teach.
Amy (21:54): All right. Well this has been a great conversation and hopefully helpful to the senior pastors and other leaders who are listening. Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up?
Tony (22:02): Yeah. You know, with rare exceptions, we’re finding that weekend services are where almost every church has its greatest engagement numbers. In other words, this is where you see more participation than small groups or serving teams or Bible studies or classes or missions engagement or men’s or women’s ministry, all those different environments that we’re trying to create in our churches. Still, it’s the weekend service where in most churches we have the most people engaged. And that may change in the future, but it’s still critical to today’s church and our overall ministry impact that we’re trying to have in our communities. So because it’s the strongest place for engagement, I think pastors tend to overestimate the effectiveness of their services. It’s where the largest number of people are going, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a strong, compelling experience on its own. And that’s why churches have told us they really do appreciate that secret shopper experience that I mentioned earlier. It’s part of our Unstuck process. Because we don’t have any relational or emotional connection to the people that are involved in the services that we’re observing, it allows us to provide an unbiased assessment of your weekend services and then provide coaching for ways that you can improve it. And so if you’re interested in learning more about that service, reach out to us at theunstuckgroup.com/start.
Sean (23:37): Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Don’t forget to take advantage of the open enrollment period for the “Leading an Unstuck Church” online course that’ll help you tackle 13 of the most common core issues that churches face. Visit us at theunstuckgroup.com/courses for more info. If you like what you’re hearing on this podcast, we’d love your help in getting the word out. You can do that by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform, giving us a review and telling your friends about the podcast. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, we hope you have a great week.