Exploiting Limits for Church Growth: Insights from A Better Theory’s Nathan R. Elson

Welcome back to the unSeminary podcast. Today we’re talking with Nathan R. Elson. He is the founder and chief theorist with the organization, A Better Theory.

Every ministry, every church, and every leader has problems they have to deal with. Regardless of the size of your problems, it is possible to develop a pattern of behavior around solving them and continue to push forward in your mission. Tune in as Nathan provides a framework through which you can tackle your problems and accomplish more from less.

  • A framework for problem solving. // A common misconception in problem solving is the belief that our problems are unique. While the nuances may differ, the underlying issues are often universal. By recognizing this, we can apply proven frameworks to address our problems in better ways.
  • More from less. // There are two things that underpin the framework Nathan has put together: the idea of exploitation and the idea of limitations. We often don’t make full use of the resources God is giving us, whether it’s time, talent, treasure, people, and so on. The result is we end up throwing more at a problem trying to overwhelm it rather than solve it. The idea of exploitation puts the focus on challenging ourselves to do more with what we already have. God also created us with limited capacity so we need to look at how to maximize those limits.
  • Think creatively. // Look at your situation and ask: What do we have? What are we limited by? Problem solving is a creative endeavor. Outlining our parameters allows us to exercise creative problem solving more effectively.
  • Three maxims in problem solving. // The framework in A Better Theory’s methodology has three maxims: Be realistic, seek simplicity, and remove friction. Being realistic is important because you have to be honest with God, yourself, your team, and your congregation about where you are and what specifically you need. Ask yourself if you’ve really taken the time to think about what it will take to achieve what it is you want. Often leaders start building before knowing what is needed.
  • Complex yet simple. // As you approach problem solving, the solution needs to be complex enough to solve the problem, yet simple enough to be replicated. If you can’t replicate what you’re doing and teach it to someone else then it won’t be sustainable. Lastly, identify where you might be introducing friction to your problem and how you can stop that.
  • How A Better Theory helps. // The team at A Better Theory can help you identify the problems your church is facing, and find a better solution by doing more from less. To get the free e-book that dives deeper into Nathan’s problem solving framework and start applying it in your church, visit www.abettertheory.com/unseminary.

Learn more about A Better Theory and contact Nathan at www.abettertheory.com.

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Thank You to This Episode’s Sponsor: Risepointe

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Episode Transcript

Rich Birch — Well, hey friends, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. So glad that you have decided to tune in. I’m really looking forward to today’s conversation. I’ve been looking for this for a while. You know, oftentimes on the podcast, I’m interviewing somebody who maybe I’ve just met, but Nathan’s actually a friend who we’ve had a chance to do a number of a bunch of work together over the years, and I am just super honored that he’s come on today to talk about his role with an organization called A Better Theory.

Rich Birch — These people are theorists and problem solvers. They’re not consultants. Don’t call him that. He doesn’t like that. As a theorist, they focus not just on the state of things as they are, but they offer solutions of what you want them to be really looking to the future. They look to take a broader view and apply, you know, how they solve problems to really look for a specific outcome. They offer fractional leadership, personalized help, and really a different way to approach the projects that your, your organization, church, obviously today. So Nathan is the founder and chief theorist. Nathan, so glad that you’re with us today.

Nathan Elson — Thank you, my friend. I really appreciate it.

Rich Birch — Why don’t you tell us a little bit about, about yourself? Kind of give us a bit of the background. Obviously that’s the that’s like the corporate, you know, who-is-Nathan bio. But tell us a little bit more about yourself and then a little bit about A Better Theory.

Nathan Elson — Sure. I could go into a lot of different aspects of myself. But in regards to your audience in the church world, there’s a couple of things that I think are pretty relevant. I’ve been in and around either serving in or helping churches since the late 90s. And, and really, I got my start in ministry really early on after becoming a Christian when I was in college. And, just really interesting. I had a background in Near East History…

Rich Birch — Okay.

Nathan Elson — …so I have a minor in Antiquity Studies is what it used to be called.

Rich Birch — Yep.

Nathan Elson —And so, my I guess it would be my senior year in college is when I, found my way to Christ. Or rather, I finally listened to the knock on the door that God had been knocking most of my life. And because I understood the geopolitical framework of the Near East at the time Christ was alive, I helped the college pastor at my church teach people what was actually happening as we’re going through the book of judges. That was the very first Bible study I ever participated in as a leader.

Rich Birch — Wow, that’s a great way to jump in.

Nathan Elson — Yeah. So, you know, it’s the shallow end of the theological pool there.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Nathan Elson — But I I had the pleasure of working with denominations, working with churches since early on in my Christian walk. So right around 2000, I started working with a Christian denomination at the headquarters, and I got to just work with a ton of churches through that. Went on to help churches and some consulting aspects after that, and most of my career, up until a certain point, I was a full time minister, did children’s ministry, youth ministry, college and career ministry, executive pastor work as well as a full time employee. And that took me to places like I was up in Washington. I worked at Logos Bible Software, but eventually I made it down to San Diego and was executive pastor over production, communications and marketing for Rock Church in San Diego for a number of years. And that was the first time I had one job, which was ministry and and work at the same time. And I kind of been in that space since, and that’s over a decade ago when I was down there.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson —And so my background is really been in the marketing communications, business development, sales space as far as career, but also in the ministry space. And so I’ve always had this kind of dual viewpoint of everything I did. Is it helping people? Not for any other sake, then the fact that we’re called to help people. That’s why we do ministry, because God’s calling us to help people. Is it helping people? And is it achieving goals that push the kingdom forward? And those have been the two big things about my career. So whether it’s been my own company, whether it’s been working for a group like CDF Capital, one of your main sponsors, or whether it’s been working for denominations or churches, those have been the two overriding questions that I’ve got in my career. Am I helping people as individuals? And I helping advance the kingdom forward through what I’m doing? So that’s kind of my background…

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson —…have been everything from project manager to C-suite along that particular pathway.

Rich Birch — Love it. So good. Well, the part of what I love what you do at A Better Theory is you is if you stated so, so plainly, we help solve problems; you help organizations. And today we’re obviously we’re talking to churches, solve problems. And so I’d love to kind of take advantage of the fact that you’re the expert in this area and kind of pick apart a little bit, help it to really sharpen us as we’re thinking about, problems. I’m sure everybody who’s listening in can think of one problem or another that they’re facing in their in their church or maybe nonprofit or business if they happen to be listening in. So let’s let’s talk about it. When you think about problem solving, I’m sure you end up interacting with lots of different organizations, and they have various things that you’re trying to get done, stuff that they’re running into, you know, barriers that they have, what would be a common either mistake or pothole that they, you know, end up in or, you know, some common way that we go off course when it comes to solving problems where we kind of head in the wrong direction. It’s like, gosh, we’re already kind of, you know, we’re doing the wrong thing even right from the beginning. Is there a common something common we could think about to try to avoid when we think about problems?

Nathan Elson — Yeah, actually, the biggest thing that I deal with in conversations with people around the idea of problem solving is that their problems are somehow unique. And I’m not saying that they’re not nuanced.

Rich Birch — Oh, that’s good.

Nathan Elson — What I’m saying is that a problem is a problem.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — And the reality is, if you believe in Scripture and diving back into theology for a moment, there we have Ecclesiastes tells us there’s nothing new under the sun.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — It tells us a time for all these different things. And it ends by saying, vanity, vanity, it’s all vanity, like a passing wind…

Rich Birch — Yes. Yeah.

Nathan Elson — …like a vapor and a wind. So what’s left? To fear God and obey his commandments. The Bible makes it very clear if you in certain areas where there’s a simplicity to the theological thing, and that’s really that nothing we deal with has not been dealt with before.

Nathan Elson — Now, the circumstances, the nuance, and the environment it takes in is unique to your situation. But the problems you want to solve aren’t unique. And…

Rich Birch — That’s good.

Nathan Elson — And that’s what that’s what underpins the framework that we use as an organization is because our, our framework isn’t geared towards a marketing problem or a business development problem or any of these classic consulting constraints that people look at and look at consultants. There’s nothing wrong with consultants. In fact, quite often the solution to the problems we help solve are consultants. But what I’m saying is that, if you look at it, take a step back, a problem is different than a challenge and it’s different than an obstacle. Right? A challenge is something that, your cost you’re asked to rise to. Can you rise to this challenge? Can you can you meet this thing head on and can you overcome it? An obstacle is something you want to avoid. Like, is there an obstacle to what you’re doing? If you’re marching down the road and with your church and you have this mission, and then there’s something in the middle of the road, well, can you go over it? Can you go around it? Can you shift your course? Those are different.

Nathan Elson — A problem is, hey, Houston, there’s a problem.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — I mean, it’s not an obstacle and it’s not a challenge. There’s something inherently, foundationally that needs to be addressed in what we’re trying to push forward in order to see the most come to Christ. And how then can we view that problem as something to be solved? And most often we don’t think about it in the simplest terms. And the reality is, is that everyone has problems. Every ministry, every person, every leader has problems they have to deal with.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — And some of them are small, some of them are big. But if you look at them all the same way, it you begin to be able to develop a pattern of behavior…

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — …around solving them. And and you work out your problem solving muscles.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — Which most of us in the Western Hemisphere, who with American and Canadian style educations are taught basic problem solving in school.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — It’s just not reinforced as you grow in your education, and especially not in the in the workforce. It’s just really isn’t.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — We have a workforce that’s becoming increasingly specialized, and it has devalued the idea of general problem solving, which is kind of where kind of we sit…

Rich Birch — That’s the space you fit in.

Nathan Elson — Mainly because, you know, I like doing it.

Rich Birch — Yeah. That’s great. Well, and I love this idea what that reminds me of is like, hey, how do we get back to the first principles? What’s the thing behind the thing that we’re trying to solve? What’s the kind of irreducible piece of this puzzle? I remember years ago hearing Elon Musk, he was talking about this was before they kept land… they, you know, they, you know, now we see their rockets land and it’s just like, well, that’s just a normal thing. Before he had done that and he was talking about how this is really, you know, how we need to go forward and what we, you know, if we’re going to really make space accessible, we need to reuse these.

Rich Birch — And people thought he was crazy, right? People are like, there’s no way. And and they said, well, space is just inherently expensive. And he was like, no, the reason why space is so expensive is because we blow up the engine every time we go. And he’s like, imagine how expensive a cruise ship would be is at the end of every cruise we blew up the cruise ship. It would be… And I remember when he first said that, I was like, yeah, that’s wow. That’s like a really, a searing insight, right? It’s like a… So how do you help a leader or how could you help us think about our problems? You know, in that way that kind of pushes back to first principles, that gets it to, you know, kind of up underneath. What’s the thing that, you know, could help unlock for us? Okay, what is the principle behind this? What is the thing that I’m kind of missing here? The problem behind the problem, the irreducible piece of this that I should be thinking more clearly about?

Nathan Elson — Yeah, I think that’s a really great question because, you need some sort of framework in which to attach these ideas to.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — And I developed this framework over the years. And well, before we get into the methodology that we use, this framework is crucially important. And I, I call it more from less, because one of the hallmarks of my career has always been getting a high level results by spending less money to get there. And so a long time ago, I was asked, well, how do you…

Rich Birch — All the executive pastors just leaned in. They were like, what are you talking about? More for less? That’s crazy.

Nathan Elson — Absolutely. One of the first things I do when I walk into an organization and help them is tell them to stop spending money.

Rich Birch — Love it.

Nathan Elson — To stop.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — Because you don’t know, most of the time, the effect of spending that money is in the first place. So, like, whatever you can stop spending money on, just don’t spend it. Let’s figure this out.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — And then spend money well. And and so when I first started pondering this and trying to articulate it, I came up with this framework. And and there’s two things that underpin this framework. This is idea of exploitation and this idea of limitations.

Rich Birch — Okay.

Nathan Elson — Right? In the human language, this idea of exploitation has become really interesting, especially in English. Because we hear this word exploit, especially Me Too Movement, especially in the current cultural environment. Exploitation is not a good thing. But if you actually look at the definition of of exploit, it’s actually comes into two batches. One to use a resource for the benefit of something else.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — Which is where the negative implications come when it comes to human interaction.

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Nathan Elson — Or a grand adventure. And so…

Rich Birch — Okay, that’s cool.

Nathan Elson — So I have this concept, it’s like, okay, I like grand adventures. How does this work.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Nathan Elson — But as I dive further into that word, I use it on purpose because I want us to shift our thinking, and I want us to be challenging our presumptions from the very beginning. So we have to learn how to exploit what we have. And this is why I, I’ve always challenged myself to get more results from less spending less or doing with less resources. Because if we don’t make full use of what God’s giving us: time, talent, treasure, people, whatever the resource is you identify, then we are just throwing more at a problem trying to overwhelm the problem rather than solve it. So that’s the first thing we have to understand is that it’s okay to exploit yourself. It’s okay to exploit the resources that your organization currently has. That’s okay.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Nathan Elson — The second part, when it comes to problem solving that you hear often, is this idea of thinking out of the box. Now, I’m a kid in the 90s. I’m square Generation X, so I’ve been hearing that my entire adult life…

Rich Birch — Yes.

Nathan Elson — and I’ve always drove me nuts.

Rich Birch — Okay.

Nathan Elson — Because you can’t think of the box if you don’t know what your boxes in the first place.

Rich Birch — Oh, okay. Nice. Love it.

Nathan Elson — And the reality is, is that human beings were created for limitations. God created us with limited capacity. We are not fully an image of God. We were a reflection of the image of God. We can only show parts of the body of Christ, the part that we assigned, the part that God created us for. So we all have limits. And I always tell jokes about this, but I usually when I talk about this, I’ll put a picture of a baby or a little puppy trying to lift a barbell and saying, that dog’s never gonna lift that barbell. He’s got limits, right?

Rich Birch — Sure.

Nathan Elson — So we have to understand that those are the two foundational philosophical things we have to keep in tension.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Nathan Elson — It’s okay to exploit what you have.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — And we all have limits. So how do we maximize those limits? And in the creative space, if you’re going to an art graphic designer, an artist and say, I need X and say I need your best flyer for an event. And you come back a week later, there’s going to have nothing or the artist is going to have nothing.

Nathan Elson — But if you say, I want a 8.5×11 trifold flyer with six different panels, and this panel, I want this on this panel, I want this. On this panel, I want this. On this panel, I want this, so and so forth. And I want it to look similar to this. Here’s the color schemes I want to look for. And here is the reason why we’re doing this, and the audience that we’re trying to reach with this. You’re going to come back and they’re going to have four things for you to look at. Because the limits that are placed on the creative process allows us freedom in order to overcome a lot of things.

Rich Birch — Oh that’s good. I like that.

Nathan Elson — I’m a video game guy. Some of the best video games were on a system called the Commodore 64, and what they’re able to do with 64 bit processing, which, by the way, 64 bit processing is so limited that there’s nothing in the current environment for anyone who’s younger than 30 listening right now to tell you what 64 bit computing looks like…

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — …other than to, say, get 64 matchsticks and move them around with your fingers, and that’s just a slightly below 64 bit computer.

Rich Birch — Yeah, totally. Love it.

Nathan Elson — But some of the best video games came out of that because there were severe limits…

Rich Birch — So much restriction. Yeah…

Nathan Elson — …on the environment. And people had to come up with creative ways to overcome it. And that’s the underlining thing

Rich Birch — Right. Love it.

Nathan Elson — Problem solving is a creative endeavor.

Rich Birch — Yes, yes.

Nathan Elson — It’s not an intellectual endeavor as much as a creative endeavor. And so if you start there, if you look at, okay, what do we have. What are we lim ited by…

Rich Birch — Right. [inaudible] our own resources. Yep, yep.

Nathan Elson — And what are we limited by. Start there and start applying that type of thinking to whatever problem you’re trying to engage with.

Rich Birch — Yeah, I love that. That’s so good. I know in the in the church growth space that I, you know, the work I do on that side, that idea of exploiting what you already have, man, that’s like a power that definitely undercurrent is under a lot of what we talk about. So many churches have lots of avenues to communicate, to encourage people, to, you know, to grow their church that are, that they’re under exploiting, using the language that you’re using, you know, they’re not taking advantage of it.

Rich Birch — And even just the core idea of, have we done everything we can do to encourage our people to invite their friends? People are always looking for the like, well, there’s some magic Facebook ad campaign. Or there’s some magic…and I talk about it being silver bullets. We’re always looking for the one thing. But actually it’s like, hey, how do we exploit what we’re, you know, we already have access to?

Rich Birch — How do you help an organization? You know, sticking with that idea kind of assess what they are, what they have? Because I can imagine that they’re, you know, there’s a forest for the trees issue there. You can’t even sometimes see what what your you’ve actually got. It’s hard to understand even what your limitations are or even the potential resources you have. You know, how do you help organizations actually just even define what they do have that they could exploit?

Nathan Elson — That’s a great question, because actually this means what I want to talk about next anyway. So this is kismet here.

Rich Birch — Oh bam!

Nathan Elson — This is divine providence, whatever you want to call it.

Rich Birch — Love it, love it.

Nathan Elson — So part of the framework that underpins our methodology are three maxims. Be realistic, seek simplicity, and remove friction. And these are key fundamental things. You can apply these not just to problem solving but to most things in business dynamics. And the first one—be realistic—is really the answer to that question. You have to be honest with yourself, your team and your direct reports. Everyone around you. You have to be honest with your with your congregation and you have to be honest with those your volunteers. You have to be honest. This is what we need and this is why we need it. And here’s where it becomes really, really powerful. On the book of Numbers, God counts the entire nation of Israel that left Egypt. And it teaches us that God is a God of numbers. He tells Abraham, your descendants will outnumber the stars in the sky, or this or the sand, the grains of sand on the ground.

Nathan Elson — Right? God is always referring to numbers, so God likes numbers. It’s one of the first things I do when I work with a church or a Christian organization. And this is even before I get into the exploitation limitations, I have a conversation say, have you ever really sat down and figured out the difference between where you want to go and where you are right now? Have you counted that difference?

Rich Birch — Oh good, good, good, good. Yeah.

Nathan Elson — May I ask him a simple question? Have you prayed to God to fill that gap, instead of praying to God: God, we want to accomplish growth. We want to grow by 10%. Well, if you have a church of 100, 10% is ten people, why don’t you pray to God: I want to grow by ten people. You have a church of 10,000 and you want to grow by 25%. Why don’t you pray to God: we want to grow by 2500 people. Count the difference and be realistic about it. This is where we are and this is where we want to be. We don’t know how we’re going to get there yet and we’re trying to figure that out. But God, this is the difference. Let’s pray for that. Have realistic ideas in your mind.

Nathan Elson — And one of my favorite questions to ask any leader in in the totality of the process is this: Have you spent time really trying to figure out what it’s going to take to achieve what you’re trying to achieve?

Rich Birch — Oh that’s good. Have you counted the cost?

Nathan Elson — Have you counted the cost?

Rich Birch — Have you have you measured the size of the tower? Have you. Yeah, exactly. That’s cool.

Nathan Elson — Because quite often leaders start building before they have an idea of what’s needed. And again, go back to Scripture. Nehemiah, I love Nehemiah because he did this, right? And he sat down and said, this is what I need, King Xerses, this is what I need. Can I have this?

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson —This is what’s going to take to rebuild the wall.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson —And the king said, sure, I can give that to you. It wasn’t some theoretical thing for the king. It was a very specific ask. And so the first thing you have to do is just have to be realistic about where you are, where you want to be, and count the cost of what’s going to take to get there.

Rich Birch — Right, yep.

Nathan Elson — Because sometimes it may not be worth it, and sometimes it’s going to be a whole lot simpler than you believe it’s going to be.

Rich Birch — Yeah, that’s good.

Nathan Elson — Which leads in the second piece, which is Seek Simplicity.

Rich Birch — Yep.

Nathan Elson — Now, I was a debater in college, and when I went to seminary…

Rich Birch — Hey, I was in debate and the debate club, too. That’s why I knew I liked you so much.

Nathan Elson — I talked about my wife. We met on the debate team.

Rich Birch — Dude. Oh, wow. Well, yeah. My wife, she doesn’t. She’ll say, stop debating me. I’m not I’m not in your debate club. You know, that has happened at some points in our marriage.

Nathan Elson — I’m sure. So

Rich Birch — Less now. Less now.

Nathan Elson — So shout out to Cal State Long Beach where we went. They just won the national championship.

Rich Birch — Yeah, love it. Oh great, good.

Nathan Elson — That’s great for the club. So I have a philosophical bent into how I do everything.

Rich Birch — Sure.

Nathan Elson — And so there’s this idea of simplicity has been simplified in Western culture as keep it simple, like K-I-S-S. And that’s a misnomer about a common idea of simplicity. So there’s two philosophical concepts of simplicity. One was from someone named Ockham, a medieval philosopher, and someone with my name, Einstein. You may have heard of him. He did some physics and math stuff in the 20th century.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Nathan Elson — Ockham’s razor says it’s not necessary to multiply things more than they need to be multiplied, or do not multiply things unnecessarily. And what he meant was, when we solve problems, when we do things, we have to make the solution complex enough to solve the problem, but not too complex. Conversely, Einstein said, whatever you solve for, make this solution as simple as possible, but not so simple it doesn’t do its job.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — So we have to attack simplicity from both ends. So as you approach problem solving, you have to say, how can this be complex enough to do its job, but simple enough to be replicated?

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — And that is a fundamental key about church dynamics.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — If you can’t replicate something you’re doing, teach someone else and have it be transferable, chances are it’s not going to be sustainable.

Rich Birch — Yes. Well, and this is for the system side of us. I’m so glad you’re talking about this. For the people who love systems and love, you know, thinking about the world from a systems point of view, we can, geek out on making the checklist so many steps. We can make the process so complex, that you have to have a degree in, you know, project management to get anything done, which then ultimately slows down growth. It ultimately slows down the effectiveness of that tool. I think that’s a great, super great insight.

Rich Birch — You also talked about removing friction, you know, making things, you know, beyond simple, just actually removing friction. I love that that’s I’ve seen, you know, many times in my, leadership and ministry career just focusing on reducing friction on a process, on a, you know, something we’re doing, man makes it can make a huge difference. Talk to us a little bit about that.

Nathan Elson — Yeah. So this one, when I do talk about this I usually put a a picture of an old medal slide.

Rich Birch — Okay [inaudible].

Nathan Elson — I talked about how in in the winter they were really fun because they were ice cold and you flew down them. But in the summer when you’re wearing short shorts back in the 80s.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Nathan Elson — You went down that thing in the summer, you’re a hero…

Rich Birch — Yes.

Nathan Elson — …because chances are you can leave some skin on it. But friction is ideal when you have two two objects that rub against each other energy is transferred from one object to another. That’s friction. And anytime two human beings are involved in anything, transfer of energy is involved. So sometimes some form of friction is involved. Now friction can be good and it can be bad.

Nathan Elson — And so what I usually encourage people is to think about areas where they’re introducing friction into whatever they’re trying to solve, and to stop doing that. Whether it be a relationship, whether it be a way of communicating. Because that’s the simplest thing – you can look at removing friction, but that’s a down the pathway constant thing. The easiest place to start is where my creating friction, and how I can not create that friction anymore?

Rich Birch — Yeah that’s good. What would be an examples, it may be from a from a church, you know, that you’ve worked with, or I’ve seen you know that that we, we have we there’s more friction in a process that there should be?

Nathan Elson — Well how about example from my leadership.

Rich Birch — Sure, yeah.

Nathan Elson — When I was at Rock, I had a sufficient number of departments underneath me that I had to have a certain level of knowledge. So when the lead pastor would ask me what’s going on, I can I can acknowledge things. So I had to induce artificial friction into the process where I had to get reports weekly about what all my, all the teams were doing so that I can speak to them intelligently.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — Well, over time, this necessary friction became unnecessary friction because it created a culture where people are afraid to make decisions without running it by me first. So I had to undo good friction I introduced because it became bad friction. And I said, I don’t here’s your guardrails. Make decisions. Just tell me the decision you make.

Rich Birch — Oh that’s good.

Nathan Elson — So I had to go go away from a formal reporting process which initially worked great to more of an informal process because by, by introducing a little bit of friction it, became a lot of friction down the road. And so…

Rich Birch — Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Nathan Elson — And so I had to remove myself as a choke point in a process, more than once.

Rich Birch — Okay.

Nathan Elson — And so kind of the arc of this is you have a process. It’s simple, repeatable, sustainable. It gets more complex over time. Because it gets more complex over time, it introduces new sources of friction. The new source of friction causes it to be ineffective. And then you have to go back and be more realistic, make it more simple, and remove the friction as possible.

Nathan Elson — So the key to this is understanding that once you think you’re done with something, you’re just starting over again. You’re not done. It’s just go back to the beginning and…

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — …and look at it again. So so that’s an example from my own life where I introduced friction because I needed to. And that friction became so sticky of a point, it became a hindrance to moving forward.

Rich Birch — Wow. That’s cool. That’s great. This has been, this has been fantastic. You know what can you kind of give me a sense of, like, maybe two or three examples of churches that would reach out to you. Let’s say, like, I’ll give you an example. Like maybe I’m a church of 1500 people and we’re hitting our head against what? Like, what is the thing that that I would say, you know, I should pick up the phone and give Nathan a call? What would be the kind of, you know, the neighborhood of problems that you would be, you know, very open to wanting to talk to a church about?

Nathan Elson — So a couple of areas that would come to mind would be resource maximization. Hey, we’re at 1500 people. We have a certain amount of income coming in. Things are getting paid, but we want to grow. But when the [inaudible] growth is not knowing how we’re financially going to get there. Well, okay, let’s take a look at things. Let’s look at where the specific sticking points are and how we can create a set of problems that you need to solve or identify some problems you need to solve around that. And then figure out how to overcome it. But it could also be in logistics. It can be in how do we how do we make better sense of the data that we have? Like we know we have people coming. We just don’t know who they are, where they’re coming from, and these type of things. Or maybe it’s in the sense of volunteer motivation. Like we have 1500 people, but we only have 50 people that show up on a consistent basis. How do we overcome those things?

Nathan Elson — And here’s… I’ll be I’ll be quite honest. We’ve we work best when we are in that space, in between the conceptualization of an idea and the and the strategy of how of what to do about it.

Rich Birch — Okay.

Nathan Elson — Because what we do, it covers everything that’s going to be, not seen from the surface when you’re trying to solve something. So our process that we run organizations through is a collaborative process that’s team-based, that really gets underneath and diagnoses the blocking issues. And and different challenges need to be overcome. We were one organization that wanted to grow. They wanted to grow four times their size. And…

Rich Birch — Wow.

Nathan Elson — …and currently working with them. Great organization, do wonderful things. And we’re looking at it going, okay, there’s an easy path forward. You know how to get the growth done. Why is it not happening. So we ran through our process and what we realized it’s a the senior leader’s new to senior leadership in the last few years, and their executive team, while all seasoned executives, is new to the organization. So when they converse and they talk about things, they’re not speaking the same language.

Nathan Elson — One person says one word. Another person shared in a different way. So and they weren’t aware of the misalignment that they had.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — And so as we as we’re working with them, we’re in the process of helping them overcome that misalignment. Once that misalignment happens and there’s clear understanding who’s responsible for what part of the new things, not their existing work they’re doing for the new things, it’ll move forward towards it. So the problem in their mind was we need, we can’t, we need to grow four times our size and we don’t know how to do it. But the real problem was, well we have some blocking issues that we need to overcome. And so that’s kind of where we sit in that space between it.

Rich Birch — Okay.

Nathan Elson — So it’s a we have a process. It’s a it’s a team-based collaborative process. that takes through five distinct pieces that is a, not a it’s a framework, our methodology for solving problems. And it works within any problem set because it’s not geared around a solution. It’s geared around more of a diagnostic type of understanding of what is going on. So we can remove the friction, do the simplicity, bring in some realism into it, and solve those help organizations solve those problems.

Rich Birch — I love it. So good. This is, this is fantastic. I’m sure there’s people that are listening in that are like, hey, I’d love to think a little bit more about this. Think about this framework. Is there any way, any resources or stuff like that that you could kind of point us towards that would be helpful for folks that are listening in if they’re thinking, you know, they want to learn more, they want to kind of explore this, maybe even before they take a step, to reaching out to you?

Nathan Elson — Yeah. So a book I, I recommend to everybody—it’s a psychology book—it’s called The Paradox of Choice by Dr. Barry Schwartz.

Rich Birch — Okay. Yep.

Nathan Elson — It’s probably on the shelf behind me. It’s one of these yellow books over here. I do have a couple copies. And the reason why I do that, it’s a book that’s geared towards the philosophical understanding of how consumers make choices, but it really helps us understand the different modalities of thought that people have when they make choices.

Nathan Elson — And, and, and that’s really important because quite often in what we do when we work with the organization is we help make a decision making matrix. And this is one of the fundamental things you have to understand about problem solving. In any problem, there’s probably going to be an ideal way to solve that problem.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — But the ideal way is not the best way for most organizations.

Rich Birch — Oh yeah. Tell me more. You’ve got me intrigued.

Nathan Elson — Because organizations have limits.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — And they have issues of exploitation. So what might be the ideal one may be out of reach for an organization.

Rich Birch — Okay. Got it.

Nathan Elson — And that’s where our name comes from.

Rich Birch — Yep.

Nathan Elson — Our name comes from the fact that we’re not after an ideal solution. We’re after a better solution. And we believe that it’s just a quirk back from my debate days. Everything’s theoretical until it’s proven true. So…

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — So you don’t know if if a way to solve a problem is going to work until you try to solve your problem with that, with that way, to solve it.

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Nathan Elson — So until it’s implemented and works, it’s theoretical. So that’s what we’re after.

Rich Birch — Right…

Nathan Elson — After organizations come up with the better theory for them. Not the best solution. Not the ideal solution.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Elson — Because if you were trying to solve an organizational dynamic issue at your church and come up with a better way to do HR, you would not do it the same way Amazon does it.

Rich Birch — Right. Yes.

Nathan Elson — Amazon may have the ideal solution. You can’t afford that.

Rich Birch — No. No. Yeah. True.

Nathan Elson — So what is the better idea, the better theory for how you can solve it.

Rich Birch — That’s good.

Nathan Elson — And and that’s and that’s a space to be in. And so the paradox of choice really helps you understand how people make decisions and how you make decision, what influences your decision making and how you can reset the way you look at things so you can make decisions based on more objectivity and less subjectivity.

Rich Birch — Right, okay. That’s great. So good. And I think you’ve got an e-book, right, we want to point people towards as well. Where would we, you know, tell us a little bit about this and we’ll, we’ll link to it in the show notes. But tell us a little bit about that.

Nathan Elson — Yeah. So I actually have an e-book around the framework I talked about today. The…

Rich Birch — Oh great.

Nathan Elson — …more from less. And it’s and it hits the points, goes in deeper dive into them and kind of lays out how you can apply them to your situation. And again it’s kind of that underpinning for our methodological process for solving problems. But I’ve given this talk at church conferences and other places and so I just want to give it away. And you can get it at abettertheory.com/unseminary. Just go there and that’s where you can you can grab it and it’s free for anyone listening to your podcast.

Rich Birch — Great. So good. We’ll also link that in the show notes, friends, if you’re looking for that. So it’s just abettertheory.com/unseminary.

Rich Birch — Well Nathan, this has been great. I know there’s a lot more we could talk about. This is just the beginning of this conversation for sure for folks. If people want to get in touch with you or connect with A Better Theory, where do we want to send them online? How do we want to do that?

Nathan Elson — Well, if you want to check out our website, which a side note, our website was written entirely by ChatGPT. So…

Rich Birch — Okay.

Nathan Elson — …if you don’t like AI, forgive me. I just want to see if I could do it. I just want to see if I can create a website entirely with ChatGPT.

Rich Birch — Sure. That’s fun.

Nathan Elson — So, but it’s pretty good. We’re working on a new version of it, but it’s abettertheory.com.

Rich Birch — Yep. Love it.

Nathan Elson — There’s a phone number on there. It’s a 714 area code phone number. So if you get on there and you look at that phone number, I don’t have it memorized because I don’t answer that phone.


Nathan Elson — So one of my team will ask that phone, but if you want to reach out to me directly, feel free to.

Nathan Elson — It’s just [email protected].

Rich Birch — Love it.

Nathan Elson — And I’d be more than happy to answer any questions that you have, and listen to any stories you have or tell you stories about debate. Because [inaudible] it’s funny to talk about.

Rich Birch — Well, Nathan, I, I, I really appreciate you being on today. Thanks so much. And again, my friends, I would encourage you to check out abettertheory.com. Check out Nathan’s work. He’s a great guy and trusted friend. And you, you can, you should definitely spend some time with him. So thanks so much, Nathan. Appreciate you being here today.

Nathan Elson — Thank you, Rich, for having me. As you know, I’m a huge fan of your of your podcast and have been for a long time. So it’s an honor for me to be here.

Rich Birch — Thanks so much, buddy. Appreciate you being here.

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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.