Adrian Schoonmaker on Developing Leaders in a Fast Growing Church



I’m super excited to have Adrian Schoonmaker from Grace Community Church in the Hudson Valley, New York, with us today. We’ll be talking about what it takes to develop spiritual coaches that can go out and really spread the church’s message and bring people to Christ.

About Grace Community Church

Grace Community Church started about 30 years ago. About 5 or 6 years ago, they started to see rapid growth through adult conversions in an area where you don’t typically see a lot of churchgoing among the population. It’s a multi-site church and they like to say they’re a small church learning to become a big church.

Adrian talks with us today about the Spiritual Leadership Development Experience—or SLD Experience—that has been going on at Grace Community Church. What exactly is Spiritual Leadership Development and why should we be focused on it within the church? Adrian explains today why they decided to take this time to develop new leaders.

Leadership can be found anywhere in the church. // Where do you start with shepherding people who are new to the faith? Many times, the best way to lead people to Christ is through people who are on the same level they are in life. Grace Community Church saw a need for this and so they asked their church leaders for names of people within the church who could possibly walk through a leadership experience and then go out to bring people to Jesus.

Don’t be afraid to take the risk. // It can be a daunting task to set up a program like this and find people willing to go through it. Talk to current leadership in the church and ask them to recommend names. From there, draw up a description of what the experience will be like. Adrian says that they set a really high bar on the level of commitment and even tried to scare people off to make sure that they truly were committed.

Be open to development as you go. // The first year of the SLD Experience at Grace Community Church was very general leadership development that can be applicable to different paths, with some people who want to be a pastor one day and others who are happy being an usher at the door, but want to help bring people to Christ. In the second year, there will be different areas offered to focus on certain paths within the ministry experience. Adrian tells us that they are also open to hearing from the people involved in the experience and what they’d like to do or learn more about. How open are you in letting your students help guide the experience?

You’ll make mistakes. // The SLD Experience program lasted about 8-9 months. They focused first on the heart of a leader, then habits, and then skills. This framework worked well for the introductory experience, but they did not have enough help to really get deeper with the students and give them one on one feedback and guidance. Learn as you go and grow.

Have a focused goal for the guidance the students have learned. // At Grace Church, they focused on Easter Sunday, which would come during the third trimester of the SLD Experience. They hoped and prayed that there would be new people coming into the church that day and would be turning toward Christ. So the lead pastor invited during church services that there would be spiritual coaches available for anyone who wanted one to help guide them toward Christ. The people who had been taking the SLD Experience classes were these spiritual coaches and they used everything they’d learned to help guide these people toward a better life in Christ. Having a real, focused experience to use the knowledge gained during these classes is a great way for the students to continue their learning while moving forward in becoming teachers and leaders at the same time.

You can learn more about Grace Community Church at their website. Or if you want to contact Adrian about the SLD Experience or any other questions, you can reach him by email at [email protected] or at his website.

Episode Highlights

00:36 // Rich introduces Adrian and welcomes him to the show.

01:11 // Adrian introduces himself and talks about Grace Community Church.

04:10 // Adrian talks about spiritual leadership development.

06:05 // Adrian talks us through their process of recruiting.

08:25 // Adrian talks about the second year leadership program.

10:19 // Adrian makes the connection between leadership and discipleship.

11:35 // Adrian tells us his learnings from the first year program.

13:14 // Adrian give some examples of what he would now do differently based on his learnings.

Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools // Voxer

Ministries Following // Allison Park Church in Pennsylvania

Influential Book // A Work of Heart by Reggie McNeal

Inspiring Leader // President Obama

What does he do for fun // Bicycling with the family

Contact // [email protected] –

Episode Transcript

Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. Thank you so much for tuning in and putting us in your earbuds as we say. My name’s Rich, the host around these parts, I’m so honored that you would take some time out of your week as you prepare for this weekend at your church, to spend some time with us today.

Today we have, you’re in for a real treat, we have a friend and a great church leader, some fascinating things are going on at this church, from Grace Community Church in upstate New York. I guess you’re probably not considered upstate New York there, Adrian Schoonmarker, Schoonmaker, I knew I was going to butcher his name, Adrian welcome to the show.

Adrian – Oh thanks Rich, thanks so much for having me on.

Rich – No I’m so glad that you’re here. Now Grace Community is a multisite church, rapid growing, we’ve kind of got to know each other over the last few years, but why don’t you tell us a bit about the church and a bit about yourself?

Adrian – Sure. Well Grace is an exciting place to be. The church started about 30 years ago and then it was, about five years ago, about five or six years ago that we’ve just started to see an amazing, rapid and for a while there exponential growth in the church, largely through conversions, adult conversions, which has truly been amazing to see.

So the church, like I think a lot of other multisite churches around the country have experienced and doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size over a short period of years. So we often say around these parts that we’re part of a small church learning to become a big church. So yeah, it’s exciting to see all that God’s doing here in Orange County here, the Hudson Valley.

So myself, my wife Joyce and I, we live up here in Orange County, New York. We’ve got five kids that we’ve met and another one that we’re going to meet at Christmastime. So our oldest is ten and they range on down from there.

Rich – Nice, nothing like having ten kids, or six kids under ten or eleven years old.

Adrian – That’s right.

Rich – That’s great, that keeps you out of trouble.

Adrian – Yeah there was a time when we had three in diapers at once.

Rich – Wow that’s a significant amount of diapers, that’s incredible. So for folks that don’t know Orange County, that’s kind of New York facing, would you consider that suburbs there or is it even kind of a little further out? What would you consider that to be part of?

Adrian – Yeah it’s even further out. I mean if you drove around Orange County, New York it feels like lots of farmland and hill country, but it’s a bedroom county of New York City, you know the trains run out there. Probably maybe 50% of our folks commute into the city, but it definitely feels rural.

Rich – Yeah, yeah it’s a beautiful part of the world for sure. The few times I’ve had a chance to come out and visit you guys it’s been fantastic. Part of what I love at what’s happening at Grace is, this isn’t the Bible Belt, people don’t wake up on Sunday morning in Orange County and feel guilty that they’re not going to church, you’re reaching a part of the world that, you know, it can be challenging, not the kind of place where you’d anticipate rapid growing, like you were saying, an exponential growing church. So I think we have a lot we can learn from you.

So kind of off the heels of that, one of the things that I think has been great about your church is you’ve not only, you’re seeing a lot of growth there but you’ve been able to raise up leaders and are doing that from a group of folks who are relatively new to the faith. How are you doing that? What does that look like for you at Grace?

Adrian – Well it is definitely an experiment in progress but you know the [Inaudible 00:04:16] is, you’ll get some great results. It’s tough to know like you said, you’ve got so many folks who are newer to the faith and where do you start, because there’s so much shepherding that’s needed, there’s so much leadership and whether it’s group ministry or even just support ministry that’s needed and people with a great deal of passion and enthusiasm about their walk with the Lord and now understanding purpose and calling and so forth.

So you know, we do it in a number of different ways, but one of the vehicles that we’re most recently excited about is, we just call it a spiritual leadership development experience. We call it SLD experience and that’s where we started, simply by saying to our pastors and elders, “Who would you recommend?” We wrote up a little profile, a few sentences and said, “Who meets this kind of criteria and what do you sense about them that you’d recommend would walk through a leadership development experience?”

So we kind of started from there and we actually just finished the first cycle last weekend and it was very moving, I mean it was very moving to see how moved they were.

Rich – Right.

Adrian – In sharing their experience, talking about how it was actually. I mean the words they used were things like, “Life changing,” and “My perspective on the gospel and on leadership will never be the same,” things like that. So that’s been a recent, really powerful vehicle that we’ve been using.

Rich – Very cool. How do people get into that? Give us the process by which someone heard about this and got plugged in.

Adrian – Sure. We went round and round on this for a while because the thought was, okay if we just say to this body of believers at Grace, “Who wants to be developed as a leader?” we knew we just could never manage the response, I mean there’s so much hunger for that kind of a thing in the church.

So yeah, we went back and forth and what we landed on was saying let’s simply talk to our current leadership in the church and ask them, “Would you recommend some names to us?” and then knowing that there’d be folks who didn’t get involved in the first cycle and knowing that we’d miss all kinds of people, but just thinking we’ve got to start somewhere.

So we asked that question, we drew up a description, just one page, “This is what this experience will be like,” and we got probably, I don’t know, maybe 250 names recommended to us.

Rich – Wow.

Adrian – And we just decided, let’s invite them all but let’s try to scare them off too. So we set a really high bar, I mean the level of commitment was very high to the process and we probably had about a quarter of those folks who said, “Yeah I’m very interested.” We had an application process that was intentionally discouraging.

Rich – Right, right, right.

Adrian – Yeah.

Rich – Sometimes adding friction is actually a good thing right?

Adrian – Yeah.

Rich – It can slow it down and it also, just simply by gating it like that you’re ensuring that the people who end up in the program or end up in the ministry, you know, they have a high level of commitment.

Adrian – That’s right yeah, it was exactly like that and even the very first day, when we kind of had orientation, we just continued to communicate that, that this is, “Hey after this session, if you just think this is too much then just let us know and no hard feelings, you can bow out.”

Rich – It sounds like the Marines ring the bell thing.

Adrian – That was our hope.

Rich – Yeah that’s great. Well that sounds very [Inaudible 00:08:06] to me, he’s the kind of lead communicator there, he’s a kind of straight shooter communicator, so that’s fantastic.

So where do you go from here. So you’ve had this now, what is the kind of next step, what’s the process look like?

Adrian – So it’s been morphing as we go. So one thing we’re going to do is we’re going to offer sort of a second year experience. This first year was very general, it was the kind of leadership development that could be applicable and relevant to somebody who… we’ve got folks now who feel called to homeless ministry, we’ve got folks in there who feel called to be a pastor one day, we’ve got people who say like, “Basically I’m an usher at the door but I know in my workplace I want to lead people to Christ more effectively.”

So it was intentionally very broad brush strokes in its orientation. The second year experience we’ll be going into, we’ll be offering tracks, like a selection of five, kind of a menu specific to the church world of areas you’d like to drill down on in your development. For example, one would be in area of discipleship, kind of one on one, life on life discipleship, another in lay counselling, another in teaching and preaching and so forth. So there’s that for those who would like to continue.

Then I’ve encouraged many who walked through the experience this school year to say, “Come and help me make this thing much more robust next year,” and think how much more effective it could be if I had ten people at my side that basically they’ve been through it, they get it.

Rich – Absolutely. Now you’re using kind of leadership development as the language, what’s the connection between leadership development and discipleship? Are those related? Are you specifically using that language because it’s more, you know, is it just easier for people who maybe haven’t journeyed in the church for a while to get their head around? Tell me about that.

Adrian – Sure, well you know, I don’t know how to speak really to the… I think leadership development, it just seemed that language… I don’t know, I don’t know what else we would choose that would make sense to folks right off the bat.

Rich – Yeah.

Adrian – But to your point of the discipleship and leadership development, I guess for me personally I just see that as being so much hand in hand, you can’t really separate the two, especially when that whole conversation that we read about and talk about in the church world of finishing well and leading authentically, leading from your heart, all of those kinds of things, it’s so intrinsically connected to discipleship.

So I think any, and this has been for me in my whole life, any time I’m developing somebody as a leader, my assumption is at least 50% of what I’m doing is just plain old discipleship, you know? It kind of goes back to that Jesus is called to the fishermen right? It’s “Come follow me and I’ll make you a leader,” right?

Rich – Absolutely. So you’ve kind of gone through one cycle. If you were going to do this again, you know, were there any places where you kind of miss-stepped, you were kind of, “Oh gosh we’ve got to fix that for the future.”

Adrian – Oh yeah, yeah for sure. So the way we framed this out, it was about the length of a school year, eight or nine months. The way we framed it out was focusing first on just heart issues, the heart of a leader. Second on the habits of a leader. Third more on just plain old skills, leadership skills. So I think that framework worked well for this kind of an initial introductory experience. However, you know, we had a lot of people in the room and to give them effective personal feedback, to work with them, you know, to kind of deploy them into leadership experiences and to debrief one on one, all of that, we did not have nearly enough hands, minds and hearts involved in that. I knew that to a degree walking into it, but you really realize it once you’re there.

So what to do better, how to change that? I’ve got to multiply the ranks. We had a few folks leading the way, including myself, but I’ve got to multiply that and even if we had the same numbers, never mind if it grows.

Rich – Right, which you’d anticipate it would grow, because just as it gets out there, people thought that was a great program, it was effective, it made a difference, people are going to start talking about it, yeah for sure, interesting.

Now how did people… there’s kind of the classroom component and then there’s getting connected to some real life experience stuff, how did that work within this?

Adrian – Yeah that would also be a second area for improvement.

Rich – Okay.

Adrian – Well we did have some of that.

Rich – Right.

Adrian – Really, I’d say probably the clearest, the one that’s easiest to talk about was we looked at Easter Sunday which we knew would be the third trimester so to speak.

Rich – Yeah.

Adrian – We looked at that and knowing, just Easter Sunday being what it is and so many new folks in the building, so many folks we hope and pray who’d come to Christ. So that and the week following, what our lead pastor did was to make the invitation the week following for those who would like to grow and develop in their own walk with Christ, just be a disciple, early baby steps. So the term that he used was a spiritual coach.

So we basically took this entire leadership cohort that had been walking through this experience and we said, “Okay, you’ve been doing assignments and exercises every week, some was on paper, some was experiential, for the next six weeks here’s your assignment and basically you’re going to take all of these folks who are indicating professions of faith and they want a spiritual coach and you guys are it.”

So we assigned that for six weeks to them and paired them up with some other folks in the church to be able to lead that out. So that was a great experience for them.

If I could change something about it, it would just be that debriefing and processing and kind of sharpening them through it, I’d do a whole lot more of that.

Rich – Very cool. Anything else you’d like to share with people that may be listening in before we jump on to the next part of the show?

Adrian – No, I think that’s about it, except I’d just say, man I can’t overestimate the import of taking the time, you’re never going to have it, but taking the time to develop folks, especially if they’re saying they’ve got a hunger and are willing to commit to something. Don’t look at their prowess or their potential, just if they’ve got the hunger and they’ll commit to it, just go there with them and take the risk and develop them.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.