Today’s podcast is a conversation with the Executive Pastor at a fast growing church in the North West called East Lake Church. Sprouting out of the one of the least “churched” communities in the country, East Lake gives some fascinating insights into reaching out into a “post-Christianity” culture. During this interview George talks about how they launched a campus … and then closed it because it wasn’t meeting their needs … but then went on to launch more. It’s a fascinating conversation and full of insights for all kinds of churches!
Interview Highlights //
01:45 // George started attending EastLake with his wife when it was 300 people
02:10 // Ryan Meeks started the church for friends who might have a hangover on Sunday morning
03:10 // Launched their first multi site campus and later closed it down
04:40 // Rich points out that growth to 5000 people in the North West is unheard of
06:25 // George serves as ‘Executive Pastor’
06:53 // Decided to go multi site again in 2011 with a new structure
08:20 // EastLake didn’t want to have a glorified overflow in it’s second campus
11:45 // Two ways EastLake avoids ‘main campus’ thinking
14:30 // George talks about the mistake of the hologram
15:55 // Staffing at EastLake is only 30% of budget
17:40 // Resources made available to be a generous church because of high value on volunteer ‘priests’
Lightning Round Highlights
Inspiring Leader // Pope Francis
What does he do for fun? // wife and two kids, vacationing, legos, tea parties, golfing, hiking, reading
Interview Transcript //
Rich – Well good morning. Happy Thursday everybody. It’s Rich Birch, the host of the unSeminary Podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in. This is the podcast where we try to provide kind of practical insights from amazing church leaders from across the country. Today we have a great guest on our show. In fact this church, EastLake Church, I think has been listed more than any other ministry as a ministry that people are following and looking at, which is amazing. I am super excited to have George Mekhail on the phone with us today. George, thanks for being on the show.
George – Ya, thanks for having me Rich.
Rich – Ah, I’m super excited you are here. Thanks so much for taking time out. George, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself and EastLake.
George – Ya, sure. My story kind of started all the way back in high school when I started rebelling a little bit against the church background that I grew up in. I started to ask some of the deeper questions of life…what am I doing here? How am I going to invest this life that I have. Really started down the path of I don’t believe in God. I don’t really think there is a point to this whole thing. After some time, and after talking to my dad who was really always harping at me, you got to take your life more seriously and that kind of stuff, I made the turn and just kind of started to take things more seriously. Since then it has been a fun journey. Got married really young. My wife and I found EastLake when it was a year old at the time, in 2006. And we fell in love with it. Started going every week. It was about 300 people at that time and meeting at a Junior High. It was an interesting season. There was a lot going on in the Seattle area. EastLake was started by our lead pastor Ryan Meeks. They moved up from San Diego. Ryan had a lot of friends up here, went to high school up here with his wife Michelle. And really there was nothing up here as far as churches that existed for people who didn’t have a church background or didn’t have a church so to speak. Ryan described it, he wanted a church for his friends who had a hangover Sunday morning and who have anywhere to go. So that’s kind of how EastLake started. About a year and a half into EastLake we were really just blowing up. About 1400 people by I think 2 and a half years in. Outgrew the space we were in in 2007. Relocated about 5 miles north to a town called Bothell which is about 25 miles north of Seattle. Ever since then things have just taken off. In 3 years since moving into Bothell we were running at about 5000 and once again had a space issue. And had to decide what are we going to do? Are we going to try to raise 3 million dollars and try to renovate this building or are we going to try and dabble in this multisite thing that we keep hearing about. So 2010 we decided that we were going to try multi site so we started a campus in Bellview, the east side of Lake Washington. So we have two sites, the Bothell location and Bellview location but really realised pretty quickly, about 4 months in, that we weren’t ready for what this was. We weren’t a multisite church. In month 5 we did something that surprised a lot of people, we closed the Bellview location and went back to being a single church. And that was interesting because Bellview was actually really successful. There was 800-900 people attending.
Rich – Wow.
George – It was successful by all standards. It was financially self sustaining, but there was something not there. Close it and decided hey, we will decide some other way to solve our crowding issue so we started more services, just really tried to find a way to manage it until we had a better plan.
Rich – Well there’s a lot there. There’s a lot to unpack. That’s fantastic. On EastLake, I know when it’s your own story, ‘we grew and it’s 5000 people’, this isn’t in the South. You are in the North West. I know you know this. The kind of place where people don’t attend church. It’s just not, there’s not the cultural assumption that you would attend church just normally. So what is it do you believe God is using to draw people to EastLake?
George – Ya that’s a good questions. For me at least, sort of that rebellion and discontentment that I was feeling, what I loved about EastLake that struck me right away, and I think my wife would identify with this, you get this overwhelming sense that people are real. People are authentic. Friendly, warm, they are not faking it as much as you can not faking it to a stranger on a Sunday morning holding a cup of coffee. I think it starts there. Accepting people right where they are at. I know that’s how I felt. I know that the thing that allowed me to give God and faith and the spiritual journey a shot. “Oh, there’s normal people that actually do this.’ And I think that was a turning point for me and I’ve heard that story repeated over and over again. You are right. Not a lot of church around here, not a lot with church background. People would say that we are the least churched city, or we were the least churched city, not sure if that is the case anymore but it certainly was the case years ago.
Rich – Now what’s your role at EastLake? What is your day to day there. So I am the Executive Pastor. That’s just the easiest way to explain it. We don’t really use titles on a business card or anything. I’ve found that saying that is just a lot easier.
Rich – So now, let’s go back to that unique story. You were one campus, you went to two, it was growing, succeeding, paying the bills and then you compressed back. But you have subsequently gone out and launched campuses. What was it that helped you to turn the corner and be able to do that?
George – I think it was just really admitting that A, we weren’t really ready the first time. We did it all wrong. And trying to analyse why. What wasn’t working? And that sort of describing that intangible sense that we weren’t ready. But I think what it really came down to was that we were trying to just import what we had at the first site to this other place without really caring about this other place. So it was like you have this main campus mentality where they had all the bells and whistles. They had all the best staff. Everything was at the main campus. This other campus down the street, they got some of the best staff every other week maybe. And they just had like, it was just subpar really. And it was close enough that it was just kind of noticeable to people. I wasn’t even on staff at this time so even for me and my wife, we would go to both depending on which one our friends were going to or whatever. So that sense existed there. So going multi site again in 2011 we knew that we had to do it differently. It started with how we approach our structure, how we approach our staffing, what commitments we were going to make to all of our sites to basically try to keep them as uniform as possible and not have this glorified overflow room feel. Multisite in that way which is what it felt like the first time around.
Rich – OK. So now tell me a bit how you structured. What does that look like? Obviously one of the realities of multi site it’s constantly evolving and changing. Why don’t you tell us what you’ve done and what you are learning that is kind of transferable to other churches, so that other churches don’t do the same thing. Kind of have to close down a campus.
George – Ya, definitely. Well, I mean I’m actually really surprised that you started this off by saying that a lot of people are looking to us to kind of see how we are doing it. That’s scary because we don’t know what we are doing so geez, people who learn from us have got some problems. Basically what we’ve done is really tried to approach structure by thinking ahead to where we want to be and not so much what our current realities are. If we would have done that from the onset we could have avoided some issues, but I think just the awareness that the structure was going to need to be flexible and bend at every iteration of multisite, and every staff member that you add, and every department you are trying to improve. So for us it really was, and this was one of the main reasons I was brought on staff. It was two months before we went multisite the second time I was brought on staff and my role was very vague. It was to figure out central support. Whatever that means. Here are some books to read. Some people are doing it. Go figure it out. And so, that was really kind of how we started. What are some things we can centralize? What are some things we can have localized? And really what is the goal of multisite. Is it to be as efficient as possible? Is it to have as many campuses as possible? Is it to have big campus? What are we really trying to do? I think where we have landed or landing, we change our mind quite a bit, is that really the most effective use of multisite is to be able to replicate resources as efficiently as possible, in multiple locations so that we don’t have to build that 30 million dollar building and be a regional site. There are so many ramifications just within that. Being one regional location, for us, people were driving 40-50 minutes sometimes just to get to our one location. One of the things that we say or we’ve heard is that it is hard to be the church where you don’t live. If you had to drive out to 50 miles, it’s really, really hard to do ministry in your normal life. Outside of Sunday, how are you going to invited your friend to drive that long with you. So that was our big critique, we wanted to take the church to the communities. Not just be that overflow room. So consistency across all sites is something that we’ve really tried to adopt. We have tried to be intentional about killing it in our main campus because we don’t want it to be, we don’t want this mothership feel. We want to avoid the main campus language. All that stuff is out of our language. It’s our biggest site, it’s our original site but it’s not our main campus. There is really nothing about it, other than it’s size that makes it our main campus.
Rich – Ya, what are some of the other kind of practical ways that you have tried to live that out. So language is one of the ways. Are there other ways that you try to enview, ‘Hey, this isn’t like the step child to our other locations.’?
George – Ya, so from day one, Ryan or whomever was speaking left the main site and went to our Seattle location from Day one. And then from there about 10 months into multi site, we started to catch wind of this new thing that was happening thanks to Life Church in Oklahoma, and that was prefilming the message. Something that they do periodically depending on the schedule and what not. We wanted to take it further and say what happens if you do this every week? So probably one of the more unique things that we do is we pre-film all our messaged. So every Thursday Ryan comes in, or if it’s a guest speaker, they come in and they film the message for Sunday. So by the end of day Thursday we will have the message ready to go to play and all of our locations are video. So on a given Sunday you cannot find a live speaker at any given EastLake location which is great. It gives us so much flexibility. It’s one of those things where we can be, like right now, we are about a month and a half ahead so we have church in the can for the next two months! Which give us flexibility. SO when you show up to the main campus and there is no ‘dude’ up there speaking live, that pretty much is a big hint.
Rich – That’s huge, have you found….the church I am in, Liquid Church, we were actually doing that for a while, that we found that at the campus that we originate from, when we switched to video it felt like we were taking something away. In your case, Ryan used to be here and now he’s not. It’s almost like we are punishing that campus. Have you found those dynamics?
George – Totally.
RIch – That’s on purpose.
George – I don’t know if it’s on purpose but it’s definitely a learning. So first of all, when we went multisite, Ryan did a great job of preparing us for the inevitable. Which was, we are going to lose people. People are used to a certain experience, a certain commodity when they come to church that depending on the level of buy in, they aren’t going to be ok with a dramatic change like this. One of the unfortunate things that happened when we went multi site was we tried to overcompensate for this fear, this impending reality which was, we are going to take something away from Bothle, and the way that we were going to compensate for this was we were going to give Bothell a hologram experience, because we wanted them to have somthing. We were taking away their live speaker. True story, we bought a hologram and projected an illusionary hologram image in our Bothell location so that when you showed up it looked like something from Star Wars. It was not fun. We killed that in about 3 months and just kind of decided to land on the fact that they are going to have to be ok with losing something.
Rich – So if anyone needs a hologram projection system, you’ve got one for sale.
George – We do. Absolutely. Just call me. We would be happy to sell it to you.
Rich – Nice. That’s fantastic. Now one of the words that I have heard describe your campus is ‘unconventional’. Or that you kind of think about things in a different way. Can you think of a couple things, maybe one way, that you think you kind of approach things in an unconventional manner. What you are doing on video I think is unconventional. It does push against the natural wisdom even in multi site you need to have somebody somewhere preach in front of a life audience somewhere.
George – Definitely. That’s probably the main thing pragmatically. I would say the other thing that has always been kind of in our ethos is a low staff participation as fars as whose carrying out the ministry. The idea of priesthood of all believer we actually try to live out as much as possible. We have a very high volunteer culture. We run about 30% staffing, 30% of our budget goes to staffing.
Rich – Oh my goodness, that is low.
George – Most books will tell you they are running 45-60% but across the board we are simple, very low budget as far as what we spend money on to carry out the ministry. Other spending resources that come to help Charity Water which helps bring clean water to nations all across the world. But this idea that volunteers really do a lot of the responsibilities that staff traditionally do has really helped shape everything about us. It helps people feel like they are needed and therefore it helps establish community, these really deep routes I think. People believe in EastLake because they help pull off EastLake. When I think unconventional I think ‘Man, if we didn’t’ have volunteers we really couldn’t pull off a Sunday. It’s just that simple.
Rich – So you know what your staff to attendance ratio is? What does that look like to your Sunday attendance?
George – We have 38 full time staff and average about 4200 across all campuses. So whatever that ratio is.
Rich – Wow. That’s amazing. I’m not good at math so…that’s fantastic! The thing I don’t want people to miss there, what that has allowed EastLake to do, if you have journeyed with EastLake, followed them, they are a very generous church. You have done a very good job motivating your people to be generous, but then just out of the normal offering you do a lot of work, which is incredible. That resonates, that’s attractive to the community.
George – That actually goes along with the way that we go about it is unconventional. We have thrown two parties in the last three years called drinks for drinks. Which is basically a giant kegger, we invite local cover bands, the last one we had about 1800 people come and actually most of those people don’t even go to EastLake. We promote it in the community and ended up in one night raising $850 000 that ended up going to Cambodia.
Rich – Fantastic! Anything else you would like to share with our listeners before we jump into the LIghtning Round?
George – Ah, no, I think we covered a lot there. Hit me with the Lightning Round, Rich.