Brandon Cox discusses the tension between growth and control for church leaders.
Brandon Cox is a church planter, author, church communications expert and all around great guy! In this episode Brandon talks about the “tension” between “growth vs. control” for church leaders. He gives some great insights for senior leaders looking to make an impact in their community. I appreciate Brandon bringing this mindset alive with lots of examples that we can relate to!
Interview Highlights //
00:53 // Brandon shares his spiritual and vocational history
01:30 // He worked at Saddleback on pastors.com
02:08 // Planted a daughter church in Rick Warren’s mom’s hometown
03:24 // Growth at Grace Hills encouraged the Growth and Control conversation
05:38 // Growth and Control in volunteer expectations
07:18 // The question of influence
08:22 // Rich recalls his experience with Control too tightly wound
10:08 // Growth and Control in small groups
11:56 // What motivates your desire for control? Fear or Love?
14:25 // Seek balance in Growth and Control
Lightning Round Highlights
Helpful Tech Tools // MindMeister
Book Worth Reading // The Father, the Son and the Other One by Jeff Kennedy
Inspiring Leader // Wayne Cordeiro (10,000 people in a portable church)
What does he do for fun? // Walking Dead, playing with kids, writing about things that don’t matter
Interview Transcript //
Rich – Well, hey! Happy Thursday! It’s Rich Birch from the unSeminary Podcast. Thank you so much for tuning in. We’ve got a real treat today. We’ve got author, pastor, communications guru, great guy today. Brandon Cox from Grace Hills Church from Bentonville, Arkansas. The home of Walmart. Brandon, welcome to the show.
Brandon – Thanks so much for having me. Great to be here.
Rich – I’m so glad you have taken some time out today. Now, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself, your church? Just give us a little sense of your background.
Brandon – Sure. I grew up in Kentucky. Met my wife in high school in a time when I wasn’t involved in the church whatsoever. Started attending with her. Felt a real calling to ministry. We went to Bible College together in Arkansas and got married in the middle of that.
Rich – Nice. Bridal College.
Brandon – Ya, went back to Kentucky. Pastored a church for about 8 years. Started with about 50 and grew it to 100, that kind of thing. Spend 5 years in Arkansas pastoring a more traditional church. Got a call out of the blue from a guy at Saddleback church and they invited me to to help redevelop pastors.com. So I spent one year doing that in Southern California. While I was there, the conversation kind of revolved around church planting. We were bringing on staff to ask the question ‘How does Saddleback plant more churches?’ I had a conversation with my boss and the church planting pastor at the time, Jeff Durrant, and eventually Pastor Rick, about ‘I think God has called us here about this conversation about church planting, we’ve talked about this for 10 years.’ So Saddleback said, let’s just send you back, or send you out and Rick said, ‘Where do you want to go? We’ve got Tokyo and Chicago, and all these places?’ I said, ‘Have you ever heard of Bentonville, Arkansas?’ And Rick said, ‘Ya, my mom grew up there.’
Rich – Really?!
Brandon – Ya, a neat tie in. So we came back here. And he spent time here with Walmart when Purpose Driven Life was selling, that kind of thing. So sent us back here 2 and a half years ago. Been planting Grace Hills, a daughter church of Saddleback. And I still do the pastors.com role from a distance. So I get to be a pastor, love on pastors and that’s kind of the great loves of my life. So that’s where we are at.
Rich – That’s very cool. I wondered, one of these things doesn’t belong…Tokyo, New York, Bentonville…I think it might be New York. That’s the one that doesn’t belong.
Brandon – Exactly.
Rich – That’s fantastic. There’s a lot we could talk about today. You are one of those guests where I am like, ‘Gosh, there’s so much we could cover.’ You are obviously a great resource for the church. One of the things I would love to talk about is this whole idea of Growth and Control, something that you’ve talked about before. What is that tension, or that dichotomy, what does that have to do with church leadership?
Brandon – Sure, well I’ll give you the conversation that that topic arose out of. At Grace Hills we had a wave of growth, and when I say growth, we are not a mega church so we are not talking on the scale of thousands, but in the last 3 months an influx of about 100 new attenders on a regular basis. So my wife and I are sitting around saying, ‘What do we do with that? How do we plug everyone in?’ And sometimes the new people who attend might ask crazy questions, or have crazy opinions, have different ideas about church and leadership. Many of them don’t come from a church back ground at all and so they come with a very secular, humanistic way of thinking. And so with all of that, we are sitting around asking the question of how do you control this. How do you harness what’s here and how do you make sure no one slips through the cracks. And so in the middle of that conversation we took a trip to California, spent a little time with Pastor Rick and my boss at Saddleback, David Chrzan. David just made this comment. He said, ‘You are either going to have growth or control.’ He said, ‘You need to have an little of each, but you can’t have all of either?’ He went through the history of Saddleback and said, from 0-300 there was a lot of control, there was a lot of control because it was slow growth. From 300-500, 600, whatever it grew fast and so we just kind of walked through this idea, that if you try to control things and create too many tightly bound systems, you kind of restrict the flow of the Spirit. You constrict the organic nature of growth. At the same time, if you abandon systems, if you get rid of control, then you growth spins out of control and becomes chaos. That’s how it all arose.
Rich – Now what would be some of the ways, some kind of control systems that you think might be too tightly wound? Obviously every church is going to be different. What are some areas that you think people might just control too closely.
Brandon – Well, a good example might be for us. We are a new church plant. We know that we are going to stabilize and grow more in the future. And so, we have to ask the question, ‘What are our expectations of people who volunteer and lead?’ And so with this kind of question, the leadership ladders can look different for everybody. I’ve served at churches where in order to volunteer, you needed to be a member living a lifestyle that we knew was consistent with our teaching and our churches doctrine. So three kind of requirements that are controls. So in our situation, we have opted instead to say, ‘There are a lot of levels in which you can serve without being a member. Now you may not lead a team without being a member, but you can jump in and get your feet wet without being a member. You may not understand our doctrine yet, and there may be things in your life that are inconsistent and we might need to have a conversation about some of those things, but we are going to be a little more lenient.’ So that would be an example where we usually create systems with agreements and parameters and covenants, and those are good things, but if we are not careful, and if we start them to early at the lowest level, we really restrict growth and stop the conversation that we have with people.
Rich – So now, how far, if you are sticking with that example, or a different one, how far is too far to release a bit of control? How would a church leader diagnose things are just a little too loose, we are allowing a bit too much to happen?
Brandon – I think you have to come back to the question of influence. Who has influence in the church? So anytime you give away a position to someone and that position carries a bit of built in influence. So if we call that person a team leader or a staff member or a pastor, those are roles and titles we might assign someone along the way. Well, each one of those comes with new set of parameters that we would look at. So if you want to be a greeter at the door, we really just want you to be alive, breathing and happy. But if you want to work with kids, we are going to do a background check. If you are going to teach kids, we need to have a conversation about your doctrinal understanding. So thats kind of how we begin to look at it is, as you move from to go back to an old Purpose Driven example, as you move from the community, to the crowd, to the congregation to the committed to the core, the expectations go up along the way.
Rich – I remember the first church that I served in, this was when I was right out of school, associate pastor kind of role, I would say it was a fairly high control environment. I remember even at the time there was that, you had to be a member of the denomination and had been around for I think it was a year. So I was a young pastor thinking, this is crazy! I couldn’t articulate it, I just rode against it. It just didn’t feel right. The thing that I appreciate about what you are saying, I just hope church leaders pick up, is what you are really saying is a more nuanced approach to control or who has influence, rather than just blunt forced tools like we did early in our ministry career. Like I did in my early ministry career. Because we did that for any volunteer position. If you wanted to be an usher, you better be a member of our denomination, which came with a whole bunch of other stuff, and had been there for a year. So functionally it was very difficult to get people plugged in because we would say to people, ironically we would say to people who had been here just new, loved the church, so fired up to serve, we would say to them, ‘Great. You can stay here for another year and then jump through these hoops with our denomination….’ Ultimately it made it very hard to not make them feel like we were trying to push them out. Are there any other areas you have seen the Growth and Control dichotomy at work in your church?
Brandon – Another big area for us, a good example would be small groups. In our particular structure we take a very loose organic approach to small groups. We want groups to spawn quickly, we want them to spread fast and so we take a very loose, organic approach to that. For example, just recently we had a young believer, just was baptized within the last year, say ‘I’m not connecting in my group. I’m not understanding what’s being talked about. But I’ve got 4 coworkers, two of whom are adamant non-believers, and two who don’t go to church anywhere, but they’ve all said they would be happy to come to my house once a week to do a Bible Study. Can I take the churches curriculum?’ So we set the curriculum, we set the control on what get’s taught. ‘But can I take the video that’s available and host a Bible Study in my home?’
Rich – No.
Brandon – Well in a control environment you don’t know enough, and what if these lost people come in a corrupt the whole church. And a more graceful approach, or a less control, we say, ‘Heck ya, that fits right into our mission. Please take off and go for it!’
Rich – Now I am sure there are church leaders who are listening who are saying, man that just sounds so wishy-washy, airy-fairy, what about the truth? We are all for the truth. What would you say to the leader who’s thinking that today?
Brandon – I would say, it’s a pretty valid feeling that they would have. It’s a scary feeling to have. I would go in two directions for that leader. One thing that I would bring up, is you have to ask, ‘What motivates our desire to control things?’ Is it fear or is it love? When someone comes up with a crazy idea, we either react in fear or love. So if a lady comes and says, ‘Man, I want to start this ministry.’ And it’s a little bit edgy to us, it’s a little bit scary to us. Fear says who’s going to be involved with it? How much money is it going to cost? Those are the control questions, the fear questions. The love question however, is how can we help you? How can we empower you? How can we guide you along? And so I would just consider my motive. Look at my heart. Am I afraid of losing control? Or am I trying to empower. The other thing I would throw out there is, I use punctuation a lot to talk about these things. I think there are levels in the church where there ought to be exclamation points. If you are on staff you are going to attend, give, support, show up for work. Exclamation point. No question. Then there are levels where there need to be periods. If you are going to lead this team you need to do it faithfully. You need to spiritually lead it and pray through it. And then there is a level in which involves question marks. Someone says, ‘I’m gay, can I keep attending? I’m going through divorce, can I keep listening to the sermons?’ Well ya, let’s have a question mark. Let’s have a conversation and make this a teachable time, instead of an exclamation where you are out the door. We’ve stated the truth, abruptly without love, and you are gone. So that’s how I would look at it.
Rich – Well, I really…this has been encouraging. I think you are giving some great tools for pastors, some great handles as they wrestle with some significant nuance in life. I think it’s one of the things we like to talk about at unSeminary is stuff they didn’t talk about in Seminary. And the reality of it is, people don’t fit into nice, equal boxes. They don’t fit in binary, well they are saved or they are not. I realize they do in the grand scheme of things. That’s a bad example. They are more on a spectrum on a lot of issues and how do we help people take steps towards Christ regardless of where they are at in their spiritual background. I appreciate that. Anything else you would like to share with our listeners before we jump into the Lightning Round?
Brandon – You know, I think at the end of the day, every church is going to be different in the balance in terms of Growth and Control. You cannot give up control entirely. And please, don’t give up Growth entirely. And the balance is going to look different in a church with an elder board that has been around 100 years, than it is in a new church plant meeting in a movie theatre. And that’s ok. I think the diversity can be healthy, and we can probably learn from each other so growth thinkers need to learn from control thinkers and vise versa. Good balance is somewhere to be found.