Building a Strong Senior Leadership Team: A Conversation with Tony Morgan of The UnStuck Group

February 12, 2024 Rodney Cox Episode 38 Podcast
Building a Strong Senior Leadership Team: A Conversation with Tony Morgan of The UnStuck Group
Show Notes Transcript

What separates a church that’s just getting by from one that’s thriving and making an impact in people’s lives? Strong leadership – and specifically, a strong senior leadership team. 

My guest on the podcast this week is Tony Morgan, founder of the Unstuck Group, an expert on team development and alignment. Tony consults with churches to help get them “unstuck” and move forward into their God-given potential and purpose. He’s worked with over 650 churches of all sizes. 

In this conversation, Tony and I discuss:

  • Why singular leadership falls short and senior teams are essential, especially as a church grows
  • Common questions churches ask that lead them astray in building their team  
  • The right criteria and questions to use in selecting senior team members
  • How a high-functioning senior team should operate and empower those “downstream”
  • Navigating transitions when a current team member may not be the right fit  

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Welcome to the Strong podcast where we help leaders build strong teams built on empathy, understanding and trust where every team member feels valued and contributes at the highest level possible. Welcome to the Strong podcast. My name is Steve N Smith and I'm Rodney Cox and Rodney. Our guest today is Tony Morgan. Tony is the founder of the Unstuck group. The Unstuck group is a consultancy that helps pastors clarify where God called their church to go in the future and then helps them get there. He's also the author of over a dozen books about leadership and church growth. Today, we're gonna talk to Tony about how and why it's important to build a senior leadership team in your church. We heard Tony cover this on the Unstuck church podcast and we thought his insights were so interesting that we wanted to bring the discussion to our audience. Tony, thank you for joining us today on the Strong podcast. It's so good to be with you and actually, this is fun for me because I don't know if Rodney knows it, but we have used a lot of his resources through the years to help churches take a look at staffing and structure and I'm sure we'll expound on that a little bit in today's conversation. Yeah, Tony. I, I'm grateful you're on the broadcast as well. And yes, I know, uh, your team uses a lot of our tool sets and tools and, uh, we're grateful for that. Uh, Amy and I have a great relationship. She's been to some of our trainings and, uh, I, actually, we had her on the podcast and she just, uh, knocked it out of the park, uh, last year as well. So Tony, we're grateful for your team. We're grateful for the unstuck group and our partnership. Thank you for mentioning that. But today it's all about you. It's all about the unstuck group and, and, but before we get down to business, what I love to do is help our listeners, uh, learn a whole lot more about you personally. You know, what you tell us a little bit about your family and your background and kind of how you got to the unstuck group and what you do today. Well, I, I always like to mention the most important, um, aspect of my life first. And that's that Emily, my wife, we met when we were in middle school, we started dating when we were in high school and then we got married right after we both finished college. And so, uh, we've known each, I'm not gonna say how many years because that's gonna give a give away our ages. Uh, but we've known each other for a long time and we have four kids and, and it's a great season because all four of our kids live really close. Um, and so people ask me, will you eventually move from Atlanta? And I cannot imagine moving from Atlanta as long as my four kids are here. So, uh, yeah, it's, um, it's a fun season for us at the Morgan household and it's actually a great season for us at the unstuck group too. So, I'm looking forward to talking about that as well. Yeah. So, uh, four Children. Are you empty nesters yet? Do you still have kids in the nest? We, we essentially are empty nesters because our youngest is a freshman at the University of Georgia this year. So, uh, yes, she was home for a few weeks for the holidays, but for the most part Emily and I are enjoying our first season of empty nesting. Yeah, that's great. That's what it's like. Life really does begin again, doesn't it? When the, when the nest empties? It's pretty amazing. So, uh, any of your Children married? Do you have any grandchildren yet? Well, uh, something unique about the Morgan household is our three older kids. Um, after February, all three of them will have gotten married within a span of 14 months. So, no grandkids yet. But three new newlywed couples. So, yeah, it's been a fun season. For us, the kids are vacating the nest. You're getting some in-laws. Uh, and uh it's gonna be uh all bliss from there. Right. So, uh we have two daughters, um, and they're both married and they've given us 55 grandchildren and Elizabeth and I celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, February the sixth. So, um, m my story is a little like your story except we knew each other in school. She's four years older than I am. Yes, she's the one that robbed the cradle, Tony. It was not me. Uh And um uh I took her to the county courthouse, Tony when I turned 18 and I married her in less than 15 minutes. I'm not kidding. I, I can't go into that story now. But um it, it, it really actually is the genesis of our story about helping people understand God's divine design for differences. And boy, we had a real rocky first seven years and uh uh we had some mentors come alongside us, introduce us to temperament and it changed my life, changed her life and um changed our, our trajectory for life. And so, uh you and I would not be talking here together if it wasn't the pa for the pain of that story and how God has redeemed that to help lots and lots of people around the world. So, so uh our stories are powerful. So tell us about your professional journey. Uh You know, what, what did you do before you founded the Unstuck group. And how did you get to, you know, why did you found the Unstuck group? Well, I won't share all the details, uh, because I'm old enough that there are a lot of them. But before, before ministry, um, I actually have a couple of degrees in business administration and public administration. I was actually in local government way back in the day. And then about 25 years ago, I transitioned into full time ministry. I had the opportunity to serve at a few great churches through the years in Indiana and South Carolina and here in the Atlanta area, but it was, uh about 15 years ago that I started the Unstuck group. And, uh through those years, we've had the opportunity to be on the ground working with now, over 650 churches of all different shapes and sizes, uh, whatever you consider to be smaller churches, we've worked with those churches, whatever you consider to be large, I think the largest we've worked with was over 40,000 in attendance on a, on any given weekend. Uh We've worked with all those churches, single location, multisite churches. Um, and it's been a fun journey and basically what we do. I mean, it's why we call ourselves the unstuck group. We want to help churches get unstuck. Um, the nuance in that is that very few churches that reach out to us are legitimately stuck, stuck. Um They're not in decline, they're not really struggling uh where they are stuck though, is trying to figure out what does the next step look like for their ministry. And because of that, uh we help churches design future direction um and then help them uh put together a structure kind of taking a look at their staff team or their volunteer teams to figure out how they can structure around the direction, the strategy, the vision that God has given their ministry. And honestly, that's, that's where uh Rodney you and your team kind of uh fit in because we through the years have been leveraging the leading from your strengths assessment to help make sure we get the right people and the right roles with the right strengths and, and the right giftedness and the right passions and personalities. And that tool has been instrumental for us making sure that we can help bring uh you refer to them as those, those uh key differences that really strengthen our team. And then honestly, it's just a real reflection of the body of Christ, uh leveraging all the gifts and wirings and personalities and experiences. And what we find of course, is the strongest teams reflect that diversity that God puts in the body of Christ. Well, Tony, let's dig into our topic for today. Uh First, why does a church need a senior leadership team as to, as opposed to say, a singular leader? Well, again, it kinda just goes back to the reference I made to the body of Christ. I mean, God designed the church, the body not to be an individual, but it's bringing together every individual that's following Jesus in the context of a local church. Um And I don't know why that was God's design. I can um I can speak to myself. I know that I have some natural strengths and gifts, but I also have some strong weaknesses. And so I need others around me to compliment. Um And I also know that when I get too isolated um in my own kind of get in my own mind, uh it kind of gets me to an unhealthy place um in ministry and leadership and in a life. And so there's, there's certainly value to having a community around me, having people, a team around me. Um but um again, it's just the model from scripture that we see in the New Testament Church as well. So we're just following um really the guidance that Jesus modeled for us as he started to establish the church. Um But uh what we see, of course, then as churches grow, um if it's just a single pastor and we're not thinking in terms of a senior leadership team, all of those attributes and, and um maybe weaknesses um that I identified in myself, we see that play out in church church context as well. And it's one of the reasons why uh we just uh every church we work with no matter what size by the way, uh We're encouraging them to think about not just a senior pastor but a senior leadership team. And of course, in smaller churches, that team includes um several lay leaders typically, but as the church grows, um m most commonly that's paid staff, uh staff leaders that are complimenting, complimenting the senior pastor and are a part of that senior leadership team. And, and Tony, what exactly does a senior leadership team do? I know that may be a basic question, but there might be pastors out there that think, you know, I got everything pretty well covered. I um you know, we're having a good year. We've had a number of good years uh without a senior leadership team. Uh you know, growth is uh good. We got new folks showing up. What exactly does a senior leadership team do and how, how does the church benefit from that? Well, um there are a number of key functions. Let me just share a few of those. Um Quickly here, the first is just modeling team based ministry and I just alluded to that. It's God's design for the church uh for us to reflect the body of Christ beginning with the senior leadership team. But if the senior leadership team is modeling that, that then hopefully will become the way we carry out mission throughout the church. Um It uh another key role is to identify and implement strategies for accomplishing vision. And that's key because I think a lot of times senior pastors are actually very capable of hearing uh from God um engaging a vision. Um but then strategically, they know how to cast vision. But strategically, the senior leg leadership team, this is the team that's gonna actually make sure that vision becomes reality. Um That this is the team that essentially leads the rest of the staff and the volunteers. And so every, every person connected to the ministry and actually engaging the mission somehow connects back to this team. Um The team provides alignment and focus on priorities and where, where this team isn't carrying out that responsibility. What we've seen in churches is the, the the ministry starts to almost divide as people kind of run after passion areas within the context of the church's ministry that are important to them. But it kind of everybody, especially the strongest leaders kind of goes runs after their own priorities rather than um us being aligned and focused around the priorities that God has for our church. And the senior leadership team really needs to protect that. And then they through their leadership may, may make sure that that alignment and focus continues to be there. Um This, this team considers the opportunities and threats that might impact the chur church's future health. Um They facilitate communications with staff, volunteers in the congregation. And then um they also just make sure that we're experiencing wins in ministry that the church is actually accomplishing its mission. And so it's a, it's a combination of all these factors that really set the senior leadership team aside from other ministry teams in the church, because these are kind of those roles that this team they need to be responsible for. They really can't delegate to any other team in the ministry and where there isn't a strong, healthy team many times, some of these key roles, they fall through the cracks. And as a result of that, what we've seen is many times that can lead to division in the church. But more importantly, it, it, the church doesn't have the opportunity to fully maximize the impact the kingdom, impact that it could be having. Yeah. And uh you know, the only thing I didn't hear in there, but I think is a given, if you wrap everything together that you just said Tony is accountability, accountability to execute on what it is that we said that we're going to execute on. And if for some reason or another, we need to make a course correction, you know, man plans, but God orders our steps and, you know, if we need to make a course correction, that's a collective course correction. It's, it's not an individual course correction. And I think that's really, really important to teams staying on track and, and uh not finding themselves in a rut, uh you know, but, but staying on top of the rut, you know, uh Tony, I've heard you say that when considering who keyword, who should serve on your senior leadership team, many times churches try to answer the wrong questions. And so can you clarify a little bit about what you mean when you say that church is trying to answer the wrong questions? Yeah. So, um it's not unusual when we, when we first start to talk about who should be on the leadership team. Um uh Someone might say, well, what positions should be on the team and what we've learned is that, um you know, structurally, every position in the church does need to connect directly to the senior leadership team, but every position doesn't necessarily need to be represented on that team. And just because somebody has a specific title doesn't mean they need to be on that team. And, and I say that because, and larger churches, there could be several people that have a pastor title. But what we've seen is for the, for the senior leadership team to be at its healthiest. Every pastor doesn't necessarily, uh they aren't necessarily on that team. They still have important pastoral functions, but they don't necessarily need to be on that senior leadership team. And then another maybe question that we've heard pop up is, well, should we consider who's been on the team the longest? Maybe those people should be on the senior leadership team. And what we've seen is if it's just about longevity, sometimes you don't get the right wiring in that person. In other words, they've been around for a while and they're important, they make an important contribution to the ministry, but they don't necessarily have the right wiring that we're looking for, for someone that would be on the senior leadership team. Uh So it sounds like, you know, a natural transition here would, would be to talk about the right questions. And I know that um you know, just listening to you speak and knowing you for years that you really focus on seven key questions that uh you should be asking that are the right questions. Could you briefly go through those seven questions? And then there's one I want to camp on a little bit if we can. Absolutely. Yeah. And so all of this, of course, within the context of the church is with the assumption that whoever you're considering for the senior leadership team already meets all of the biblical qualifications for leadership in the church. That aside, that's very important. But that aside, these are the unique attributes that we're looking for and uh they're reflected around these seven questions. Does this person actually have the leadership gift? And in other words, I do believe leadership is a spiritual gift that God gives some people and some people, he gives other spiritual gifts, but it's not just do they have the spiritual gift of leadership? It's do they are they a high capacity leader. And here, I mean, a good example from scripture, uh when uh Moses is engaging with his father-in-law Jethro, they uh Jethro is is encouraging Moses to really give leadership away. And he talks about raising up leaders of tens fifties, hundreds and thousands for this senior leadership team. This we probably are talking more of leaders of hundreds and thousands rather than leaders of tens and fifties. And that doesn't mean they're necessarily leading specifically that many people. But it's a reflection of the leadership capacity that that person brings to the team. Another question is, are they a big picture thinker? And the key difference here is are they able to take off their ministry specific ministry hat and put on the hat of the church as a whole? Are they think, can they, can they help us think big picture about the overall health and direction of the church along those lines? Then are they a strategic thinker? And so there are many people on our team that are really good at just getting ministry done or managing teams and those roles are important in the context of ministry. But here on this team, we need strategic thinkers, people that can think about future direction and the steps and strategies it's gonna take to get there. Um Another key question, can they build teams and the key here is have they demonstrated that they can build teams? And this is maybe the biggest difference between what I've seen in marketplace, leadership and people that have the capacity to lead in the context of ministry in the marketplace. And I experienced this, I I it was pretty easy for me to get people to do things because we were paying them to do things in, in the context of ministry. We have to be able to build teams of people that are volunteering their time, they're, they're willing um to do it because of the influence that we can bring and um encouraging people to actually engage the mission with us. And so the key question is, can they build teams and have they demonstrated that they can do this? Another question is do they share the vision and values of the organization uh our ministry? And uh this is because in, in the context of our, our senior leadership team, we don't need checks and balances. We don't need the devil's advocate. We need everybody that's completely aligned with where we're going as a ministry and the values that shape our ministry. Uh This is, this just may be me. But I think this is a key question. Are they lifelong learners? And the key thing here is not, do they have the right answers? But do they know how to ask the right questions? And the reason why is ministry is changing constantly, our culture is changing. The people that we're trying to reach are changing. And if I come in with what I think are all the right answers. Those answers may be right today, but they're not gonna necessarily be the right answers for tomorrow, but we still need to be able to ask the right questions. And then lastly, it's as we're considering who should be on this team, we just need to ask this key question. Do they help us reflect the diversity of our ministry and the diversity of the people that we're trying to reach within our mission field? And can you unpack that a little bit for, for us, we ascribe to the principle that in First Corinthians chapter 12, verse 17, it says we're all eyes where the sense of hearing all ears, where the sense of smell, we believe that if you are putting people around you that just act and think the way you do, they, that they're really not bringing any diversity to your team. This, the scripture tells us that you're gonna lose something of incredibly great value. So camp on this for a minute. What do you mean by the word diversity? Cause diversity means uh a lot of different things to a lot of people. Now, I know we're talking about the diversity of gifts and strengths but, but talk more. I think about what you're trying to say when, when you use this word diversity. Well, some of the obvious things that come to mind and this is particularly for churches that are thinking about their mission field is you, you need people on your senior leadership team that reflect some of the uh uh diversity of races and ethnicities and ages and so on. Um But more specifically when we're helping churches, we wanna make sure that um there's also diversity of experiences, generational diversity and diversity around just the wiring of people on their team, their strengths um using your language. And the reason why is we've worked with uh several churches through the years where they just didn't pay attention to the diversity of strengths on the team. In fact, I I recall one church um if on your strengths wheel with leading from your strengths, everybody on the senior leadership team was in the lower left quadrant of that strength wheel, everybody. And um as you can imagine, um because there was such a relational connection on that team, um They all loved each other, they loved being with each other, but because there weren't the other strengths represented, people thinking more about the analytics of what, how the details of how things get done. People that were more thinking about how do we influence other people and kind of to move the mission forward and then maybe the top right quadrant, those folks that tend to be the drivers who there wasn't anybody on the team that was trying to drive the mission of the church forward. And so it was just one example and we've seen several of other examples through the years where, because there wasn't a diversity of strengths. Um We just the mission of the church wasn't fully being accomplished. Ok, Tony. So now that you have a solid senior leadership team in place, how does that se uh cut? Ok, Tony. So now that you have a solid leadership team in place, how does that senior leadership team connect to the ministry downstream downline, help us understand kind of the flow of information and, and kind of how they connect all the way through the organization. Well, again, well, you have your senior leadership team and then the rest of your structure needs to be connected to that. And so that may include clue to other staff uh need to be connected to that team. Um and other ministries or you can think about volunteers that are actually carrying out the ministry need to be connected to that team. But the key thing here is it's a, it's a team that's trying to empower people to carry out the ministry. In other words, they're not making every decision about everything that needs to be done in the church. They're not doing everything that needs to be done in the church. Instead, they're empowering others to do that. It's, it's, it's as if we're actually carrying out God's desire for us to equip people to do the work of God. And so to do this effectively, though we as a senior leadership team need to have a great, we need to have great clarity around kind of our core framework of vision values the strategies that we're going to engage. But then we can empower people to actually carry out those strategies. And so that's one way that we make sure that we're kind of leading effectively downline. Uh Secondly, just being more focused on the outcomes rather than the execution itself. Um Once the vision, the values, the strategy is defined to effectively empower others, we're, we're kind of a little bit more hands off on how they get it done as long as they get it done. And the focus there then uh needs to be on the win. It's the outcomes, the priorities. Uh Let's let's set up other leaders, other managers, other people in our ministry to know this is what the win looks like, how you accomplish the win as long as it in alignment with our values and our strategies, we want to empower you to do that. But this is at the end of the day, we just wanna make sure our mission gets accomplished and these are the wins that we have in mind in order uh in order to accomplish that effectively. And then maybe one last thought here is we really need to give leaders ownership and accountability. Um And it's both, we need to, we need to give ministry away. We need to empower God's people to do the work of God. But at the same time you mentioned it earlier, Rodney, we need to offer accountability, we need to give clarity on direction and make making sure that the follow through actually happens. And the reality is I think people crave that. I think other leaders crave that because when you have good accountability, it actually helps us know as individuals, as leaders are we winning or not? And so, um I think in all of these and I could go on and on about opportunities for effective communication and cascading communications throughout the organization in order to make sure that what we're desiring as a senior leadership team continues to cascade cascade down through all of the ministries of the church. But those are some of the key things that come to mind as you ask that question. So Tony, I'm, I'm under the firm belief that whenever churches build um strong teams, especially leadership teams around the principles in which the unstuck group um uh ascribes to and teaches when you're, when, when a church engages you. Um I believe it not only builds empathy, understanding and trust where people feel trusted and they feel like they're contributing at a high value, but I think it also builds teams that um basically, when we make a mistake, we're gonna have wins and we're gonna have losses and when we lose, when we make a mistake or when we're executing on something and it just doesn't work out right that it creates a culture where people run into the strong tower of the leadership team and where they're not afraid of those mistakes because they know those mistakes are learning opportunities and helps us just make simple course corrections in order to effectively execute on this thing called ministry as we lead God's people. And so, um I love the principles of the unstuck group. Uh I can't implore the individuals that are listening um to our podcast today. If you've never uh heard about the Unstuck group, you've never engaged the unstuck group, go do some research on them and I think you'll discover that the work they do is just absolutely amazing. And so Tony, um you know, Steve and I do uh uh do our best to try and make sure that we answer all. I ask all the right questions and that we didn't miss anything, but I always like to kind of end with this question. And that is what didn't we ask you today that, that you really wished we would have asked that you think could be really beneficial to our audience. Is there anything you'd like to share that, that we've not touched on today? Well, the only thing that I might mention is for churches that already have established senior leadership teams. So many times we've heard from pastors, senior pastors, executive pastors at larger churches. We, we, we know who should be on the team, but we think we have somebody on the team currently that maybe is not the best fit. And one of the areas where we help churches is navigating, challenging staffing questions like that. And frankly, many times what we find is, it's, it's somebody that's not a fit for the team, but there's uh for the senior leadership team, but they are still a fit for the ministry as a whole. And it's just figuring out and a lot of this has to do with figuring out where their strengths are, where can we best liv leverage their strengths and their wiring elsewhere on the team and help pastors kind of navigate transitions like that. So, um if that's you listening today and you want that type of help, that's, that's where Amy and several others on our team and I help pastors, executive pastors navigate some of those transitions as well. Yeah, that's, that's awesome, Tony. Thank you. And I, I think, uh you know, um that there are many people that are gonna be listening today that might find themselves in that position and they want to honor and they wanna help, but they just don't know the right strategy. And I think another beautiful thing about the unstuck group is is you, you get to see so many different environments and so many different churches and so many different problems and being able to, to cross pollinate your experience and learning from those other environments in order to help keep uh the church healthy as they navigate these turbulent and diff difficult times, especially post pandemic times. I, I just think is invaluable. And uh um I'm, I'm once again excited that our group is, is uh able to meet you uh formally and get to know you better along the way. So tell everybody how they can find you. How can they find the unstuck group? And uh I know you have a podcast, a regular podcast, you might speak to that as well. Yeah. So the, all the information about what our team does to help churches get. Unstuck is available at the Unstuck, the And if you're just curious to hear more of the principles that we talk about uh with pastors and other church leaders, uh you can uh download our podcast wherever you listen to podcasts and the name of the podcast is the Unstuck Church podcast. And so we'd love for you to listen in. Um And really, that'll be a great opportunity uh because I share, try to share some insightful things, but Amy on our team, she's very, she has a lot of wisdom and so you'll enjoy hearing her contribute her thoughts and wisdom to the conversation as well. She's a rock star. There's no doubt about that. You have a great team and, uh it's been a pleasure working with them and with you through the years, our guest today once again has been Tony Morgan. Tony. Thank you so much for uh taking your time. I know it took months for us to get you on the schedule. I know you're busy and we're grateful for you. Thank you uh Tony for your time today. And Rodney and Steven, thank you for inviting me to be a part of today's conversation. It's been uh uh as you mentioned, just a joy for us to work with you and your team through the years. And I believe together that partnership, we're helping churches more effectively carry out the mission that God's called us to. So thank you for allowing me to be a part of today's conversation and amen and amen, we are more together, that's for sure. So until we meet again, God bless.