Danny Anderson on Assuming the Leadership of a 29 Year Old Church When He Was 28
Jim Devney founded Emmanuel Church in 1977 and Danny, who was originally the church’s high school pastor, took over in 2006 at the age of 28. The church continues to grow and became a multi-site church in 2013. Emmanuel’s message is about life and how the bible intersects with our lives. The transition from one pastor to another at Emmanuel was supposed to be a two year period easing the church into this new phase, but things didn’t work out that way and Danny took over as senior pastor more quickly than originally planned. Danny talks with us today about the bumps along the road in church transitions and how to address them.
- Honor the pastor who came before you. // If Danny could go back in time to the transition phase, he says he would honor Pastor Jim more. The previous pastor has fought for the congregation and led them, whether it be for months or years.
- Have a plan. // “Most senior pastors who are transitioning don’t have a plan,” Danny says, “and that’s a big part of the problem.” What are the steps your church needs to take in order to make this transition as easy as possible? Without a written plan that both pastors agree on, things can quickly get ugly both behind the scenes and within the church as a whole. It causes confusion for the congregation and people begin to take sides once the tension builds between the old pastor and the new. As a result people can begin to leave the church during the process.
- Lean on your elders. // Danny encourages any pastors going through the transition of taking over as senior pastor to get buy-in from the elders and lean heavily on them. “Without their strength and support, you’re just not going to make it,” Danny says. Talk to your elders about your vision for the church and the path you plan to take. Their belief and support in you can ease the transition for the rest of the congregation.
- Make communication and evangelism clear. // When Danny took over in 2006, things seemed to be heading downhill as a large number of people left the church. But in 2008, they noticed that people were bringing their friends and the numbers were growing again. Danny believes the reason for this is because they were communicating openly with the congregation about their vision for the church to reach people in the community. Danny was practicing evangelism in his personal life and he showed others how to do it themselves. This allowed the congregation to feel connected to the church and really want to bring other people into it. Additionally Danny sought to be authentic in how he lead the church. As he explains, “People today are looking for the pastor to be authentic…you have to open up your life.” People want to invite their friends if the communication from the platform is inspirational and transformational.
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01:10 // Rich introduces Dany Anderson and welcomes him to the show.
01:47 // Danny introduces to us Emmanuel Church.
02:51 // Danny tells us how he became youth pastor at Emmanuel Church.
04:06 // Danny talks about the transition phase to becoming senior pastor.
07:57 // Danny highlights the initial struggles.
09:53 // Danny shares his reasons why he decided to continue as a pastor.
12:33 // Danny talks about the new vision and the people that influence him.
16:13 // Danny talks us through the steps they took to regrow the church.
20:13 // Danny highlights the impact of relationships.
23:47 // Danny talks about leveraging the talents of people to help further the kingdom.
24:41 // Danny talks about authenticity and honesty.
26:51 // Danny states, “Teach to the heart.”
Helpful Tech Tools // Podcast and Audible App
Ministries Following // North Point, Craig Groeschel, Elevation
Influential Book // Essentialism by Greg McKeown
Inspiring Leader // Craig Groeschel
What does he do for fun // Family, playing basketball
Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast, my name’s Rich, the host around these parts. Thanks so much for serving at your church, we know that you’ve got a really busy week this week and we’re just honored that you would take some time out to listen in. Every week we try to have church leaders that had shared some unique situations to try to help us learn and grow in our situation and today I’m just honored so much to have Pastor Danny Anderson with us, he’s from Emmanuel Church. This church was founded by the founding pastor Jim and you’ll see why that’s important here, Jim definitely in 1977 and Danny Anderson, who originally was Emmanuel’s high school pastor, took over in 2006. This church continues to grow today, in 2013 it became a multisite church. So Danny, welcome to the show.
Danny – It’s an honor, thanks for having me Rich.
Rich – I’m so glad you’re here today. Why don’t you give us a sense of Emmanuel Church? If people were to arrive this weekend, what would they experience and kind of give us your connection, your story with this church?
Danny – Yeah, so I feel like, if people walked into our church this weekend what they would experience is a welcoming environment, it’s very warm, it’s a place that makes sense to people, we hear that a lot and our message is about life and how the bible intersects with our lives and the music is contemporary, so it’s relevant to what’s going on in our world today musically. Yeah, it makes sense to people and the message is transformative, so we’re all trying to help people move from where they are to where God wants them to be.
Rich – Very cool. Well one of the things that caught my attention was, at the age of 28 you ended up taking over from the founding pastor, who had founded the church 29 years before. So the church was actually older than you and he had been there longer than you had been alive. Man, I want to hear that story. Kind of, give me your connection, how did you get connected originally as a youth pastor and let’s try to talk through that transition?
Danny – Well, my story goes back to a woman; I met my wife at Liberty University.
Rich – Yes.
Danny – At that time I was a Communication’s major, it wasn’t even in seminary at Liberty. When we got married, we got married at Emmanuel because she grew up at the church in the Center Grove, Greenwood area and kind of met the pastor at that time and 6 months later they were looking for a youth pastor and I actually went back to Liberty, to kind of finish up a class and they called and they said, “Hey, would you come back for an interview for the youth pastor position.” So I said, “Goodness, I’m 22 years old, why not give it a shot?”
Rich – Right.
Danny – I had done some youth ministry stuff on the weekends at Liberty, some Discipleship Now stuff and I really loved it. So I gave it a shot and one thing led to another and I really enjoyed it and God used the ministry there to reach a lot of teenagers for Christ. So that’s kind of how things started as a youth pastor there.
Rich – Wow, that’s amazing. Now at what point did the conversation begin to shift as your senior pastor started to think about his transition, what did that look like?
Danny – Well it was kind of abrupt. Honestly, I was sitting in my office one day, he walked in and he’s a great guy, God did wonderful things through him in the 29 years and the church was running like over 2 thousand people at that time, but you could tell that he was starting to have feelings of, at least to those close to him, he was starting to have feelings of wanting to move on, retire. So one day he walked into my office and just kind of shocked me without any prep, he said, “I want you to pray about this. I think I want you to replace me.”
Rich – Wow.
Danny – “We’re going to do like a 2 year, kind of an overlap transition period,” and just kind of, boom, he dropped that.
Rich – Straight on you.
Danny – So that kind of started the process and yeah, from there.
Rich – Wow, so now what did the transition phase look like? Did you follow some steps, what were the ups and downs of that process?
Danny – You know we wanted to and we intended to and we kind of had a plan that was put together and it was supposed to be this nice smooth thing that happened, but I don’t know if this is normal in churches, it doesn’t always kind of work out that way.
Rich – Right.
Danny – So our plan kind of fell apart and things ended up getting a lot more condensed, so I ended up taking over as the senior pastor more quickly than the plan was designed. So it got a little messy and there was a struggle there.
Rich – Okay.
Danny – Church transitions can be a little bit ugly.
Rich – Yeah, well let’s unpack that a little bit if you don’t mind, I’d love to hear a little more about that, so we can try to help some other folks that are going through this, obviously a huge issue for churches. What was some of those things where you feel like, “Hey, this was a good step, it was kind of heading in the right direction,” or were there some potholes that you were like, “Okay, if I want to talk to other church leaders who are going through this here are some potholes to avoid.”
Danny – Well you know, as a young guy, at that time I was 27 years old and I guess a lot of it I would put on myself. If I were to go back and do it again I would have honored him a ton more, you know, the founding guy, people loved him, they adored him, he is the guy that fought the battles, he is the one who’s bled for all these years and won these victories and led the church to do great things. I wasn’t as honoring to him as I should have been, so there are some things that I had said that hurt feelings and things happen like that. So that kind of caused him to kind of drift away a little bit and kind of unplug and not really support me, but the thing was already going. So we had to keep things looking good on the outside but behind the scenes there was this tension.
So on my side of things I would have been a lot more honoring to him, but we didn’t really have a mapped out plan, like we should have.
Rich – Yeah.
Danny – We should have had steps. I’ve done a little research on this and most senior pastors who are transitioning, they don’t have a plan and that’s a bit part of their problem. What are those steps that we need to take? So I would encourage pastors who are thinking about transitioning, or younger pastors who are about to transition, to really work on a step by step plan because it is absolutely essential to have that or else things can really get ugly.
Rich – Right, did you bring any kind of outside help with this process, or did you kind of just dream it up by yourself? What did that look like?
Danny – You know, at that time we did not.
Rich – Okay.
Danny – It was kind of created by the founding pastor and he had an idea of wanting to kind of stay on staff. Now this was really the point of tension, he wanted to kind of stay close and maybe have an office in the building and I knew enough about leadership at that point that that’s just not going to work, especially as the founding pastor; people would never fully be able to look to me as the new senior pastor. So that was really the rub there and our elders kind of decided with me on that and then he felt pushed out and he wasn’t, but that’s the feeling that he got.
So what ended up happening was, he ended up taking a church 13 miles up the road.
Rich – Okay.
Danny – That made things very interesting for Emmanuel moving forward. So that caused all kinds of struggles, but in the long run it ended up being a good thing, because we had a different vision, so the people that didn’t want to be part of a new vision had a place to go. At the time it hurt like heck, because we went from about 2 thousand to 9 hundred, because a lot of those folks followed him to the new church and some didn’t but they were confused about the whole situation and who to believe and who to trust and did I do him wrong or what? So it just got real messy.
Rich – Now, kind of take me inside at that point, kind of attendance is in a bit of a freefall, people are shifting, there had obviously been a change in plan, it went from like, “Hey, I’m going to retire,” to like, “Well actually, no I’m going to go to this church 13 miles down the road.” What was going on in your interior at that point and what did you learn, how did you kind of process through that experience?
Danny – Yeah, inside I thought, “I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m failing, maybe this is not for me, maybe I’m not called.” You know, every Sunday I’m watching attendance go down, I mean literally every Sunday I’m looking behind me and there’s less and less people and I’m thinking, “Am I destroying this church?” I was thinking that from time to time. I’ve never had a major failure in my life that like, it felt that like, “I’m totally blowing this.”
Rich – Wow.
Danny – So I leaned heavily into our elders and I would encourage any pastor, who’s going through a transition or taking over for a senior pastor to get the buy in of their elders because without their strength and support you’re just not going to make it, you’re going to quit, you’re going to give up. So they were very affirming to me, very supportive, they said, “Hey, we believe in this new vision, stay the course.”
So I did a lot of that, but also in my personal life, my prayer life deepened. I really had to ask myself the question, “Do I want to make disciples, because this is really difficult and if I don’t really want to make disciples, I’m going to quit because there’s nothing good about this right now?” It was like that for about a year and a half.
Rich – Wow.
Danny – It was a long time, so it was a good thing for me because it made me look into my heart and ask the really hard questions of, “Do I really want to be a pastor and make disciples?” and the answer was yes. So that made me stick it out, I said, “I really want to do this, regardless of what happens, if the church grows or if we reach thousands of people and blah, blah,” because I had all of these dreams, you know when you’re young, you’re 26 years old and you’re thinking, “I’m going to take over and the church is going to go from 2 thousand to 3 thousand in a year,” and none of that happened.
Rich – Right, exactly. Wow that’s amazing. I think a lot of times we think about casting vision or kind of articulating a kind of preferred future, we do that when we kind of cast a vision and the assumption is like, “Oh things are going to go great, I’m going to cast this vision and people are going to rally.” What were some of the differences in vision that you were trying to cast and what was happening in the midst of that, you’re in a bit of a freefall, you’re casting a vision, looking to the future, how were you able to kind of stay on that path, even in the midst of some tough times?
Danny – Sure, so the differences in the vision, your first question there, was we were a very traditional inner-focused church. I mean it was a good church for a Christian, they got good biblical teaching, the music was geared towards Christians and I learned from Bill Hybels, you know, “Let’s turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Christ. Let’s reach people who are not Christians.” So our vision was different, we were more focused on those who weren’t there. So that was a big turnoff to a lot of people.
Rich – A huge difference.
Danny – Rich, sorry what was your second question there?
Rich – The second question was, how did you kind of stay focused or maybe a little crisper question, how did you kind of cast that vision, even in the midst of a bit of the shrinking and the refinement that was happening?
Danny – Yeah, so I really am a big Andy Stanley fan and he wrote a little book called, Making Vision Stick and he had 4 or 5 really good points. I don’t know if you’ve seen that book?
Rich – It’s awesome.
Danny – Yeah it’s fantastic and one of the first things he says in that book is to state it simply, “State the vision simply. Cast it convincingly.” So we did that, we came up with this vision, “To see people come to Christ and grow in Christ,” and we would say it, and we would say it and we would do series on it. Then we would tell stories about how it was happening and Andy in the book he says, “You have to celebrate it, live the vision,” and the best way to do that is to tell people stories. “This is a person who wasn’t a Christ follower and then became a Christ follower, here’s their name, here’s how it happened,” and we just started doing that over and over and before I knew it, people were getting it, they were starting to buy in, even though all this other stuff was going on it was like, “Wow, people’s lives are being changed.”
One thing I realized, you cannot argue with life change.
Rich – So true.
Danny – I mean, when it’s happening, you could say this about this person or this about… but people start to pay attention, they start to invite their friends. So I just kept beating that drum and then we got kind of creative with it. One time one of our staff members had this idea to pull out all of the pages out of a phonebook, I mean thousands and thousands.
Rich – Right.
Danny – We covered the entire floor of the foyer and we had people step on them during the service and we said, “What are those pages representative of and they’re all the names of the people that lived in our area and they are the people that we are trying to reach?”
Rich – Wow.
Danny – Then another thing we did that is still with us today is we said, “Take 2 or 3 names of people that live in your neighborhood, your friends, your family, your co-workers and let’s write them somewhere in our auditorium. Literally in our auditoriums, we have 3 campuses, one is in a high school and a middle school, so we can’t do it yet there, because of evangelism, we challenge our people to write the names on the stage and on the walls of the auditorium, so that every weekend they know who we’re here to reach. So it’s a visible reminder.
So we just get creative and we cast that vision and we make sure it’s simple. Andy talks about it’s got to be memorable.
Rich – Very cool, very cool. Now, obviously you’re still there, so something happened right? I’m assuming at some point the leakage, the shrinking stopped and then it turned around?
Danny – Yeah.
Rich – Tell us about that story, what did that look like?
Danny – Yeah, so around 2006, in 2006 I took over, things went downhill. Around 2008 we started to notice that people were bringing their friends and it was because we were talking about everything I just mentioned, you know, we were casting that vision. I personally embraced the vision, you know, I tried to lead people to Christ in my personal life, that’s so important for pastors to do. Man, if you’re not a pastor doing personal evangelism, you can’t expect your people to do it. So I would just throw that in there.
So, I was leading people to Christ and then I would tell their stories. So momentum started to build and at that point we realized we needed to expand our auditorium; we needed to remodel. So we engaged a builder, I don’t know if people have heard of Aspen’s, I’m sure they have, they build church buildings and the president, his name’s Ed Bahler, he’s a good friend of mine now, we brought him in and he came in and he said, “You’re still not ready to build, you have to get an understanding of the psyche of your people. There’s momentum but you’ve still got to figure things out in their hearts.”
So we hired a consultant organization called TAG and they came in and they basically did a survey, a church wide survey, of where are the hearts of our people, like what are they struggling with? What happened was, there was still a lot of pain left over from the transition.
Rich – Right.
Danny – So we got this church wide survey, we got all these answers back and it gave us, as leaders, the opportunity to know how to lead our people. Before we started saying, “Hey, give money to this, give money to that. Let’s build this,” you know, we want to jump to that as church leaders.
Rich – Exactly.
Danny – But we understood the heart of our people and the biggest thing we got from that survey was that our people thought, “You’re not communicating with us. You’re not telling us what’s going on,” and they wanted to know more. So we just ramped that up.
Rich – Right.
Danny – We ramped the communication up. You always think you’re saying it enough inside, but we never are.
Rich – No.
Danny – So we just ramped it up even more. So then we ended up doing a project after that with Aspen and we remodeled our auditorium, replaced the pews with nice stadium seating and we redid out lobby and our children’s room and that brought a surge of new people, the excitement, people were proud to bring their friends and couple that with the vision. We saw a surge in attendance so we probably went at that point from where we were back up to 2 thousand and beyond that.
Then we saw a steady growth for about, I would say 2 more years of about 5 hundred people or so and that led us into the next phase which was the multisite phase, those discussions.
Rich – Wow. Yeah, so now this is incredible, that’s an incredible turnaround. There may be listeners who are listening in today that are in that phase where things are maybe in decline and I’m hoping you’ve listened in on some of the things today, I love that you’re talking about clarity and you personally were living the vision. I think so many times, church leaders, we love to import our vision on other people but it’s not impacting us, it’s not really integrated into our lives.
So then you kind of ended up in this new phases, you’re looking multisite, you’re having to, I’m assuming, raise resources in the midst of all that.
Danny – Yeah.
Rich – How did that happen? I’d love to hear that story because you went from a little bit of a leader that people were having trouble following, documented evidence they’re saying, “Hey, you’re not communicating to us,” to then having to raise money and send volunteers out to launch a new campus. What was that process like when you stepped out to raise some additional resources?
Danny – Well you know, we really are a learning church, like we just take a learning posture. We’re honest enough to say, “We don’t know how to do things.”
Rich – Right.
Danny – I’ll never forget, I read a book called, Humilitas by John Dickson and he said, “What you don’t know far outweighs what you do know,” and I just love that quote. So we hired a consultant again, we said, “Hey, we don’t know how to raise money.” So we found Generis, which is a great company, I’m sure a lot of the guys have heard of that.
Rich – Yeah.
Danny – They helped me understand and walked through the process of how to do a capital campaign and raise a couple of million dollars for a project. So I’ve got 3 things here that I would say to that: Number 1, hire a consultant you don’t know. The big thing about that was it gave me courage.
Rich – Right.
Danny – I mean it absolutely gave me this, “Okay, I can do this,” kind of, because it gives you the practical know how.
Rich – Yeah.
Danny – Then you have to execute the plan and, I mean, it’s one thing to get a plan…
Rich – Yeah, but someone’s actually got to do the work.
Danny – Yeah, so I remember our first capital campaign, there was probably a 3 or 4-week phase there where I was with a small group every night of the week, casting this vision to the small group leaders and the small group members and then we did the series and then we did the pledge card and it was a ton of work you know?
Rich – Right, yeah.
Danny – So you’ve got to be ready to execute on that, and then the third thing, I think this was so invaluable for me, the guy I was working with, his name’s Brad Leeper, he said, “You have to build personal relationships with your high capacity donors, in fact you would have to disciple them, and it clicked, it clicked with me, like these people, they need to become my Christ, just like everybody else.
Rich – Right.
Danny – So I engaged in that, I threw myself into that and I’ll just tell you this really quick and I don’t say this to brag at all, this is God’s story. But we’re getting ready to build our third site, a temporary site, now it’s meeting in a middle school and it’s going to be about $7 million or something.
Rich – Wow.
Danny – So I’m engaging these relationships that I’ve built over 7 years, already given gifts.
Rich – Yeah.
Danny – Last week we received a gift, a commitment, it hasn’t been given yet, of $600 thousand from one family.
Rich – Wow.
Danny – And we already got a gift from another family of $500 thousand.
Rich – Wow, that’s amazing.
Danny – Two of those families, we were a seventh of the way there or more and that’s just the power of relationship.
Rich – Yes.
Danny – That would have never happened 8 years ago, because I just didn’t have those relationships.
Rich – Absolutely.
Danny – With the trust that has been built over these years, it’s so valuable.
Rich – Absolutely. You know, you just want to lean in on that, particularly that last part about developing relationships, there’s a number of church leaders who would listen in and say, “I don’t even want to know who gives what to my church. I don’t want to have any…” and they almost come at it from, it’s almost like a spiritual superiority point of view like, “I don’t need to know those things.” What would you say to a church leader who says that, because obviously, if you’re leaning in, because I absolutely agree with what you’re saying, you’re leaning in with kind of core donors then obviously you have a sense of that data and are using that data ultimately to drive discipleship outcomes. What would you say to a leader who says that today?
Danny – Sure, I would say that’s unfortunate if you’re at that position, because making money, I learned this from Bill Hybels in an audio program CD he did one time, it is a gift, it is an absolutely gift. Some people have the God given ability to make money and so Hybels said, you have to look at those folks in the same way you would look at a musician, if someone has amazing musical talent you want to come alongside of them and say, “Hey, will you leverage that for the kingdom?” and when he said that, I was like, “That’s it. I am going to come alongside of these folks and disciple them, encourage them, cast vision to them, so that they can help further the kingdom,” and it absolutely works and there’s nothing unspiritual about it, in fact, I think it’s a very spiritual process.
Rich – Very cool. Well is there anything else you want to share before we pivot into the Lightning Round?
Danny – Well you know, I love to talk about preaching because it’s one of the things I love to do and I think that our church is where it is today because we’ve hung in there and we’ve done some of these things internally, we’ve developed great teams, we’ve hired the right people, we didn’t get a chance to talk too much about that. But if the communication from the platform is inspirational, if it’s transformational, people will bring their friends.
So I would just say a couple of things about communication. If you haven’t read Andy Stanley’s book, Communicating for a Change, absolutely must read.
Rich – A great read, absolutely, 100%.
Danny – He changed the whole way I communicate, but I believe with all my heart that it’s got to be authentic, people today are looking for the pastor to be authentic. “Is this guy real?” If he’s not real they don’t connect.
Rich – Right, there used to be a time when people wanted leaders, it was almost like we wanted leaders that were aloof or disconnected, it was like something reassuring about that, but that’s not the case anymore. What does authenticity look like for you, how does that work itself out? Because I think everybody agrees, but how does that work itself out in your teaching?
Danny – Sure, so I think you can step over the line on this and share too much from the platform, but there’s a level that, it just takes discernment. You have to open up your life and my best sermons are when I say, “Look, here’s how this truth is working itself out in my life.” Or, “Here’s how I blew it when I was supposed to do this the way Jesus said to do it and I totally messed it up but I’m working on this.” So people can see that, “Oh yeah, he’s talking with me here, he’s not preaching down at me, he just shared a story about his life, how he’s struggling too. I can listen to this guy,” and they’re engaged.
So I try to tell stories. I try to be very honest about where I’m struggling on an issue and that’s how I try to do it and that’s our culture now at the church.
Rich – Very cool. Anything else on the teaching front you’d love to share?
Danny – You know, I really do feel like the teaching has to be transformative and Dallas Willard is somebody that’s shaping my understanding of Christianity over the last couple of years and the heart is where I go for. I feel like the teaching’s got to be at the heart level, because we live from our heart right? Proverbs 4:23 “Out of the heart flow the issues of life.”
So I feel like a message has to be geared towards changing the heart of a human being and if we’re doing that we’re going to see disciples get made. So I would challenge pastors and myself included, to continue to go for the heart.