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Darren DeLaune on Empowering Decentralized Teams at Your Church

Darren DeLaune on Empowering Decentralized Teams at Your Church



Darren_DeLaune_podcastThanks so much for taking the time to listen to the unSeminary podcast today. I’m honored to have Darren DeLaune from New Life Church in Arkansas with us today.

New Life started in 2001 and now has 10 locations with 12,000 people. One of the fastest growing churches in the country, they describe themselves as a relational church—their ministry and the way they work is all centered around relationships. Darren is the senior executive pastor at New Life and serves as the second chair to the lead pastor.

  • Think about the team. // One of the most important concepts to the staff at New Life is to think about what’s best for the team. “When I think about ministry, it’s always been a team concept,” Darren explains. Keep that focus in mind within your own church. What is best for the team as a staff and as a church? Don’t wrap anything around one individual, instead keep the whole team in mind.
  • Get rid of “a” leader and “the” leader. // New Life works with a lot of different leaders in different positions. One way they’ve made that work is by getting rid of the thought of “a leader” or “the leader.” Instead it’s a leadership culture. “I think it’s very important that we understand that ministry is not built around an individual,” Darren says. “Especially when you’re building a team concept.” As an organization grows, leaders who won’t share their “territory” will become bottlenecks and can even bring things to a standstill. You must be willing to share leadership roles in order to keep your church growing, rather than letting one person take complete control of an area.
  • Who is your Timothy? // It’s easy to want to have control all the time in order to build security. But New Life teaches their staff to work themselves out of a job. They encourage the staff members to train others to do their job and to lead in their place. “I think that’s very important that we’re always identifying who’s next, who’s coming up, and have we given them an opportunity to lead in any way?” Darren says. The staff constantly looks for their “Timothy,” the person they can train and guide and pass the baton to.
  • Allow them to lead and fail in their area. // After identifying your leaders and empowering them to lead, you also need to allow them to lead in the area they’re most passionate about. The way New Life does this is by giving staff members room to fail. New Life has a very round-table culture where if someone brings an idea to the table, everybody starts collaborating to help put it together, but then people step back and allow the new leader to go forward with their idea on their own, which includes giving them the opportunity to fail and learn from that process. New Life can have confidence in this approach because they know they already have a shared value base and vision with these new leaders. Their relational mindset allows them to build trust with each other so that they are comfortable giving power away and giving someone new the chance to lead.

You can learn more about New Life Church at their website or reach Darren at

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Episode Highlights

00:35 // Rich introduces Darren DeLaune and welcomes him to the show.

00:35 // Darren gives us a flavor of New Life Church.

00:35 // Darren tells us about his role within the church.

01:57 // Darren talks about the team concept at New Life Church.

02:54 // Darren talks about the church’s leadership culture.

05:48 // Darren talks about the next generation of leaders.

07:19 // Darren talks about empowering his team to be great leaders.

09:49 // Darren highlights the importance of allowing people to fail.

11:45 // Darren talks about the challenges decentralization.

15:37 // Darren explains how he stays connected with the campus pastors.

17:56 // Darren highlights the importance of building relationships, setting clear expectations and communication.

Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools // Hootsuite

Ministries Following // Adizes Institute

Influential Book // A Sense of Urgency by John Kotter. The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom

Inspiring Leader // Thomas Haggai

What does he do for fun // Gym. Sports

Contact // Twitter: DDeLaune

Episode Transcript

Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast, my name’s Rich, the host around these parts. Thank you so much for taking time out from your busy week, we know you’ve got a lot going on at your church, so we’re honored that you would take some time out to listen in to today’s conversation.

Today it’s our honor, really our privilege, I’ve been looking forward to this podcast for a while, to have Darren DeLaune with us from New Life Church in Arkansas, this is a fantastic church. Darren welcome to the show.

Darren – So good to be here with you guys.

Rich – For folks that don’t know New Life, New Life started about 15 years ago, or 14 years ago, 2001. 10 locations. If I’m doing my math right and keeping up, 10 locations, about 12 thousand people, one of the fastest growing churches in the country. Darren why don’t you tell us about New Life? Kind of give us the flavor of the church.

Darren – Yeah New Life Church, we started, like you said, in 2001 and if you want to know a little bit about the flavor more than anything, I guess you would say we’re a relational church and I think that’s key to who we are. Our DNA, the way we do ministry is all centered around relationships, that’s a key point of who we are.

Rich – Very cool. Now what’s your role there at the church?

Darren – I’m what we call a Senior Exec Pastor. Basically what I am is second chair to Pastor Rick Bezet, he’s our Lead Pastor and I’m responsible mainly for our team, you know the Christian values of the church.

Rich – So you get in trouble if stuff goes wrong, that’s what it comes down to.

Just kidding. No that’s great. So obviously leading in a church that’s growing so quickly, team’s obviously centered at what you do. How do you think about team? What does it look like, what does it mean to be a part of a team for you?

Darren – Well I guess that’s the critical thing about, in a growing church the challenge is always, what does the team look like? We’re constantly talking about that. Who’s on the team? How deep is our bench?

So when I think about ministry it’s always been a team concept and that’s a huge principle to us, as a staff, as a church. We’re always thinking ‘the team’. So it’s not wrapped around an individual, it’s mainly a team concept.

Many of you guys know, you’ve been on a team, man it stinks to be on a losing team, it’s great to be on a winning team, but the whole team concept I think is very important when it comes to ministry.

Rich – Now obviously there’s a tension in growing churches right, where you need more leaders, I’m sure there’s church leaders that are listening in and they’re saying, “Gosh, I’m not sure how you find so many leaders.” What does that look like for you? How have you been able to kind of build a culture that creates new leaders and is able to help those leaders take steps in the ministry?

Darren – Yeah, I think a lot of it comes back, more or less, to philosophy, you know, how do we define leaders?

Something that we’ve done at New Life Church is we’ve kind of gotten rid of the article ‘A’ and ‘The’, instead of centered around ‘a leader’ or ‘the leader’, it’s a leadership culture. So I think it’s very important, if it’s a senior pastor watching or if it’s staff members watching, I think it’s very important we understand that ministry’s not built around individuals, especially when you’re building a team concept. That’s just something we’ve always talked about.

One of the challenges I think, with any growing church, is the opportunity for people to give their territory away. I think that’s a huge point there, that when you have a growing organization or a growing church, a lot of times what stops growth, a lot of times is the leadership, people aren’t willing to share that share, you know, share leadership roles and stuff.

So I think it’s critical, if you’re going to have a growing church or a growing organization, I think the concept has to be centered around shared leadership, bringing others to the table.

Rich – How are you encouraging your team to give… because I think you’re right, I think one of the core issues with growing churches is, and actually it’s what’ll stifle growth, is people will hold onto their area. It’s like the student ministry’s always got to be my thing, or the kids’ ministry’s got to always be my thing. How are you encouraging your leaders to give that up, to be openhanded, to allow other people around to lead their areas?

Darren – You know, I think one of the things is a common phrase that our staff here hears a lot of and it’s something we tell them, we don’t necessarily do ‘job descriptions’ we have a very open concept in the way that we lead our church.

We do have things that we can layout, you know, an org chart, this organized system, but that’s not the culture. I guess one of the things we challenge all of our team members to do is work themselves out of a job and that’s something we always talk to them about, and we encourage them.

We just got off of a staff retreat and the people we celebrate are the people that have brought people to the table. People that have moved away in a sense, and made room for other people.

So it’s a concept thing here of, who’s replacing you? Not in a negative way, you know, it’s not a negative thing, but it’s always raising up the next leader, the next person that’s coming along. So that’s a huge part, I think, when you start talking about our leadership culture.

Rich – Absolutely, I think younger leaders or more insecure leaders hear that and they get nervous about it, they’re like, “Gosh, I want to create something where I am so important they can’t do without me,” and the reality is the opposite of that. Great churches are led by leaders who are constantly finding other people to take over what they’re doing, they’re just constantly raising people up. That’s the kind of people we need.

Now what are some of the practical steps you’re doing to kind of intentionally create a deep bench with your leaders? Are there particular steps you’re doing? You said celebrating, are there other pieces, other things you’re doing?

Darren – Yeah I think it’s very important that, again going back to the culture. We do have more of a team concept here. We’re definitely coming from the SEC, if you guys want to know about that, that is the Supreme Football Powerhouse Conference, but we do have a total team concept. So we’re always looking at the shared leadership part, but also cross-training, do you know what I’m saying? I think it’s very important that we’re identifying, okay who’s next, who’s coming up, and have we given them an opportunity to lead in any way?

So regardless if it’s a children’s minister, a student pastor, if it’s finance, whatever area it is, it is always talking to them about, “Who is your Timothy?” That’s a big thing again that we’re always identifying. All of our team leaders, if you go all the way down to our student ministry, on a recent retreat that these guys had, as I was challenging the student leaders, one of the things I was encouraging them to do, coming up in 2016, is actually identify who’s a Timothy that they can go after.

So that’s one of the things that we always ask our team to do, is identify who’s that next person that they’re raising up, and I think that’s critical in any type of ministry, we’re always thinking about who’s next, the next generation. Regardless of age, again, it’s like who are we passing the baton to?

Rich – What does that look like for you in your role? I think there’s obviously a limited number of senior executive pastor roles in your organization, but what does that practically look like for you even?

Darren – I think for me, a lot of times, it is identifying the emerging leaders. I think it’s a part that I have. When we first started the church it was just a handful of us, we didn’t have many people that were, what we would call staff, most of us were volunteer staff. So from the beginning we wore a lot of different hats. I guess over the years, you know, we’ve been at this now almost 14, 15 years, it has been at a point where we’re sharing, “Who’s the best at this?”

So the way that I do that personally is, I do have a lead team and my team basically leads the different areas of the church. So we would have six different areas that we focus in on and for me, is giving that part of responsibility away to that team member. So I think a lot of it is giving more ministry away, is holding onto ministry.

So hopefully, what my team would look at and say is, “That man there definitely empowers and also gives a lot of stuff away.”

Rich – Yeah.

Darren – That’s kind of more of the structure that we do here.

Rich – Very cool.

Darren – It is empowering, but when you empower you also want to make sure that you’re relational and following up and taking care of your people. So our role is switched more to a coach.

Rich – Yeah.

Darren – That’s definitely what I do as a coach. I’m looking at what’s on the field. Do we need to move some players around? Who’s stepping up? As a coach sometimes you can’t play in the game obviously.

Rich – Right.

Darren – So a lot of times man, you’ve got to raise up that leader that’s a player, that’s actually out in the field, doing it every day and I think that’s so important that they can coach the team as well and make the decisions that need to be made and it doesn’t have to wait on senior leadership. It’s not so much, what would we do, it’s what we have done? When training our leaders, it’s something they’ve already observed.

So our style again, for me, my role is just hopefully to empower, that we’re leading and then just being a coach for them.

Rich – That’s obviously, that is a high level of leadership than just handing out checklists and saying, “Do this,” right? Obviously empowering is, I think everybody thinks that and it sounds great and you’re like, “Oh I want to do that,” but it’s a bit nerve racking, when you look to engage other people.

I have a friend of mine who says, “You know, the problem with leading leaders is they want to lead.” So how are you doing that with your leaders? How are you really allowing them, giving them some freedom, but then also creating a sandbox for them to kind of operate within? What does that look like for your team?

Darren – Yeah, I think there’s a huge tension with all of us, when we start talking about a leadership culture. A lot of times we look at what’s controllable and what’s flexible. There’s a lot of things going on in organizations right now with centralized versus decentralized. I think the key is, again let’s have a common shared value base, we have the vision, we have the DNA, but from there it’s allowing our people to lead in the area that they’re most passionate about.

The way that we do this is we give people room to fail. I think that’s so important. We have a very round-table culture. So when somebody comes to the table with an idea, we start collaborating, but once we all agree and we send out with an idea, we agree on that idea, we’re going to give people room to fail. We’ve all made mistakes.

Rich – Right.

Darren – So the way that we try to empower our people is take the risk as well. So collaboration to me is not only the reward, it’s the risk too.

Rich – So true.

Darren – That is a way that we help and challenge our guys to lead, is be willing to take the risk man.

Rich – Okay, very cool. So you guys are 10 campuses, that’s a lot of locations. You are probably in the 0.5%; 85% of multisites don’t get beyond 3, so the fact that you’re at 10, you’ve obviously done something to create an empowering culture there.

You touched a little bit on the centralized, decentralized thing. I wonder if you can comment on that, how are you structuring your relationship with your campuses? There’s a tension in multisite around creating, you know, if we just have lots of central control and then folks out in the campuses that are just like, they’re automatons, they just kind of do whatever we tell them to do, or the other way around saying, these are obviously the extreme ends of the spectrum just, “We’re not really sure what’s happening out there, but we’ve got these campuses.”

How do you talk about centralized versus decentralized in the campuses and then how are you leading there, to ensure that there’s a common vision going forward at New Life, but then you’re creating empowerment on the ground to make that happen?

Darren – Yeah, I think a lot of what we do when we’re talking about centralized, decentralized is we do meet with all of our campus pastors weekly. I think anytime we start talking about decentralizing any type of organization, the key is, are you relational? I think the tension that it creates with a lot of pastors, or a lot of CEOs in a sense is, “I don’t know if I can share that leadership role?” But a lot times they can’t do that is because they don’t necessarily know the people that are on their team.

So I think if you’re going to go decentralized, you’ve got to move into a situation where you really know the people that you’re leading and it’s more than just a task list, it’s more than a job description, especially in a church concept.

Here what we look at, it’s really knowing the people, who they are, the way they behave, their values, their DNAs. Once you grab hold of that and you spend time with them outside or just simply leading the church, that’s high-five and celebrating with them, knowing about their family, I think it’s a lot easier to start decentralizing, because there’s trust built there. You know, I know what they would do in a situation because I watched them and the way they treated their kids. We’ve done enough ministry together that I’ve watched them in a sense of, how do they react to a moment where they’re pastoring someone or sharing or correcting or whatever it is, conflict management and all of that? We’ve observed that behavior already.

So again, before you decentralize, you have to ask yourself, “Am I willing to do a team like Jesus did?” You know, Jesus was close to his 12.

Rich – Right, right.

Darren – They played together man, they hung out together, they played together. I think that’s the key ingredient, before we just say, “Hey we’re going to decentralize,” you better make sure you know your team, you’ve spent time with your team.

Once you do that, then I think the decentralization will take care of itself, it happens, because you already know what people would do, you know who they’re going to answer a question because you’ve seen them answer the question or how they would react in a situation because you’ve already seen them react.

So the way that we decentralize, there’s no doubt, it is empowering the guys to make decisions and I think it’s very important your team knows that hey, they can make a decision, rather than, “Hey hold on, before I go and do this Rich…” To me that’s not leadership.

The way the world is, the craziness of the world, you start thinking about military, I mean, when you’re on the battle line, man you can’t say, “Hold on, check with my superiors.”

Rich – Yes.

Darren – Do you know what I’m saying? You have to make that decision. I think that’s so important with church leadership, we allow our people to make decisions when they’re out in the forefront.

So hopefully that is a way again, these are things you’re asking me, how do I lead? The best thing to do would be to ask the people that we are leading, but that is some of the culture that we try to establish here.

Rich – That’s very cool. I like what you’re saying there, there is just a kind of… help me to understand what you’re saying. Obviously you’re increasing the relational connection with those leaders particularly, and at the same time, as you’ve done that, you’ve really opened up and given them more authority locally, which I think is a key insight for people, particularly I think that are struggling, if there’s multisite churches that are struggling at that third location and trying to figure out how to get to fourth or fifth, you are going to have to open your hands, you’re going to have to. You’re not going to be able to make all the decisions that you did when you were just one location or two locations. But I appreciate what you’re saying there, to kind of say, how do we increase the relational content.

So you’re meeting with them, how do you stay connected just practically? You’re meeting with them weekly. Is that you and Rick and kind of your team? That’s who’s meeting with those folks?

Darren – Yeah, I mean the way that we do it, Rick and I are obviously very close.

Rich – Yeah.

Darren – Rick and I meet, talk, pretty much every day. But every Tuesday we do have our staff, most of these do come in from across the state. These are our campus pastors that are leading their campuses. With that again, a lot of times our staff meetings do start off with more personal questions to them. Checking in on them, how they’re doing, but then I mean, it does get to a point where, again we’ve got to work. I mean there’s things and goals and objectives that we do accomplish.

I’m very intentional on the way that I lead, because again, ultimately we do have to execute and so it’s not just about partying and having fun, that’s a part of what we do, we’re going to celebrate, we’re going to have a blast, but it is very important to understand, what do we want to execute?

So we’re very intentional on the questions that we do ask our staff. We’re very intentional on what the win is that they’re focused in on for that week. There is a lot of accountability, there’s a lot of follow up questions that we do with our team.

So it’s not just having a blast, it’s not just this open ended thing, just showing up. We’re very intentional in the way and the questions that we do ask our team. Every week there are things that they’re working on and for us, the way that we just simplify that is, we always ask them, “What was your win for this week?” Then from there, we do look at it and say, “Hey, is there any area that there are challenges at the campuses?”

Every week we do assess the weekend services, because again, going out we do want our church to look and feel the same, it’s family. So if you go to DeLaune house and you go to my brother’s house, it’s going to look the same. If you go to my mom and dad’s house, it’s still going to feel the same because we’re DeLaune’s.

So there’s things that we do assess, that we look at, that we measure as a church and say, “Hey, at this campus, how are we doing there?”

So again, we’re laughing, we’re high-fiving, but I’m going to tell you, it’s half-time, it’s half-nine, we’re going to execute, we’re going to challenge each other’s butt off, big time and we’re going to say, “Hey, how did we miss that block, what did we do there?” So there is a lot of accountability with this as well.

Rich – Very cool. That’s great. Is there anything else you want to share before we move on with the rest of the episode? This has been just really insightful, I really appreciate it.

Darren – Yeah I just think again, when you start talking about decentralization, again we talked about one of the most important things, make sure you know your people. Again, that comes back on us as leaders. So if you are leading an area of ministry, I think it’s important for you to pursue the relationship, know your people.

But the next thing with decentralization too I think, is expectations are clearly communicated. Before you go out and say, “Hey you’re going to lead,” there has to be expectations that are clearly communicated to the team as well.

So that would just be my thing, again going back, relationship is huge and then clear expectations, communication is huge. If you’re not going to be good at communication, then you need to back to a controlled environment, because if that’s the case, I’m telling you, it will destroy everything.

Rich – Right.

Darren – So communication is key, we know that and again, just be accessible to your team. You know, we do have an open door policy here. I think it’s so important to be accessible to your team as well man.

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