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Josh Whitehead on Leading from the Second Chair



josh_whitehead_100x100We’re happy to be back and talking today with Josh Whitehead from Faith Promise Church in Knoxville, TN. Faith Promise has been around for 20 years and started in Oak Ridge, TN, without a pastor. The original group wanted to impact the unchurched in their community by being a different kind of church. The church now has 5 campuses and reaches over 6,000 people at its locations.

Listen in as Josh chats about reaching the unchurched and how executive pastors can deepen their work and relationships with their senior pastors. Here are a few of the tips he gave in today’s podcast.

  • Previous church experiences can hinder a connection with Christ. // As Josh says, a lot of people have had a church experience at some point in their lives, but still they may not have really walked with Christ. Their lives are broken and they need to be reached and shown that their previous experiences are not what connecting with Christ is all about.
  • Support your senior pastor. // Josh now works as the executive pastor at Faith Promise and has learned a lot of things working in that position. The biggest lesson he’s learned is how important it is to have a relationship with the senior pastor. This allows both the executive pastor and senior pastor to trust each other on a deep level.
  • Figure out what your senior pastor values. // As executive pastor, Josh’s job is to implement the vision set forth, not to create it. So it is vital that the executive pastor understand and know what it is the senior pastor wants most out of his ministry and how to spread those values. That allows the executive pastor to do his job effectively.
  • Work to be ahead of your senior pastor. // The executive pastor needs to be able to look around the corner and see what’s coming up. Leaders want the people under them to be one step ahead of them. “They’re looking for us to elevate valuable ideas to solve unrealized problems,” Josh says. “Visionaries see things that are 75% done as done.” That last 25% is often the hardest part of the whole project. Show your leader that you support him by helping to solve that last 25% and get it done.
  • Make it collaborative. // The hardest part of growing a church is to have people in the room that can make decisions. It can be difficult to get things moving. So make it a collaborative effort between different groups.
  • There is a season where you’re a learner and a season when you both teach the other. // It can start out with the senior pastor doing all of the teaching and you as the executive pastor absorbing 100% of the time. But after a while, this changes and you both develop each other. As your relationship deepens and you move forward, you both grow and learn from each other.

You can learn more about Faith Promise Church at their website or reach Josh directly by email at [email protected].

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Episode Highlights

00:35 // Rich introduces Josh Whitehead and welcomes him to the show.

01:09 // Josh give us the history of Faith Promise Church.

05:03 // Josh talks about reaching unchurched people in the community.

07:07 // Josh talks about his role within Faith Promise Church.

09:05 // Josh talks about his relationship with his senior pastor.

11:06 // Josh details how he supports his senior pastor.

15:15 // Josh shares his perspective of what a supporting role should look like.

18:29 // Josh shares a story with us resulting in a $1 million offering in one weekend.

20:23 // Rich highlights the responsibilities of those in ‘second seats’.

22:36 // Josh likens good leadership to Paul in the New Testament.

24:23 // Josh talks about ‘dual relationships’ where both help each other to grow.

Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools // Evernote

Ministries Following // Life Church

Influential Book // Team of Teams by Stanley McChrystal

Inspiring Leader // Andy Stanley

What does he do for fun // Home life with family. Travel with the family.

Contact // [email protected]

Episode Transcript

Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. This is Rich Birch your host around these parts. We are back from a hiatus, we’ve been off for almost two months now. Well we’re up over 100 episodes and I am so honored to have Josh Whitehead with us today from Faith Promise Church, he’s the executive pastor there, he’s a friend, a great guy, it’s going to be a great learning today. Josh welcome to the show.

Josh – Hey Rich it’s so good to be with you man, I love the unSeminary podcast and I can’t wait to get into the thoughts that we get to be a part of today.

Rich – Oh nice, I really appreciate that. So why don’t you tell us about Faith Promise, you guys are in Knoxville Tennessee. My dad used to work in Knoxville, I was thinking about this this morning, he used to work in a company where he’d go down to Knoxville and so I have some sense of that part of the country, but why don’t you tell us a little bit about your church?

Josh – Yeah, Faith Promise, we’ve had the opportunity to be here just a little over 12 years and came here to actually start a work for young adults believe it or not.

Rich – Okay, nice.

Josh – In that season Faith Promise was just a church, about 800 people. It had started in a community called Oak Ridge Tennessee and a lot of people know Oak Ridge believe it or not.

Rich – Infamous.

Josh – Yeah, the technology and some of the things that have come out of there.

Rich – Yeah.

Josh – So the church started there without a pastor.

Rich – Interesting.

Josh – A group of people came together and a guy who became the executive pastor, led the church for almost 18 months, until Dr. Chris Stephens, our senior pastor now, was hired to be their lead pastor. So they started with a really cool vision that they said, “Hey we want to impact the unchurched to the world for God, beginning in the counties around us,” and they had identified about 200 thousand people that they said, “These are unreached people, unchurched people in this area.” So they said, “We’re going to look for a pastor who has that same heart and then we’re going to roll out and be a different kind of church.”

Rich – Interesting, that’s cool.

Josh – Just a few months ago we celebrated 20 years of ministry at Faith Promise and it was really amazing to hear that people who are still here, I don’t know, probably 125 people who still a part from that original core group.

Rich – Wow.

Josh – So they shared just some amazing stories about how they valued change and that’s still a part of our DNA today that we change to be more effective and to reach people more effectively. So it’s really been an incredible journey. We came to do young adults, the church shifted and the church really became a church for young adults about the same time.

Rich – Interesting.

Josh – I really figured out that I was going to lose my job because there was really nothing that I could do to compete with the weekend experience that we had. I started looking to leave and in that season our senior pastor came to me and says, “I want you to be the executive pastor.” I had been an administrative pastor at a church and thought, “Man I never want to do that, now I really know I have to leave.” So my wife and I start praying and just seeking what God would have and lo and behold we took the role here about ten and a half years ago and it’s been absolutely amazing.

Since that time we’ve become a church of five locations, physical campuses. We average just a little over six thousand in physical attendance across those campuses and just have a real unique opportunity to do ministry in a culture in Knoxville that’s a little bit behind. You know, we’re not quite as progressive as other cities, we lag behind and keep kind of coming to those milestones, but we’re a college town, the University of Tennessee is here.

Rich – GoVols.

Josh – Well I guess, that’s not my team.

Rich – Oh oh.

Josh – But nonetheless, so we just have a unique opportunity to do ministry in an area that’s the Bible Belt, we’ve been noted as a community where the Bible’s really valued and you go out to lunch and you see people pray to bless their food. But the reality is that the largest majority of people in our community don’t attend church on a regular basis.

Rich – Right. Yeah I’d love to hear a little bit more about that. I think one of the things I appreciate about Faith Promise, if you’re not following Josh and the ministry at Faith Promise you really should, I think you guys are doing some really innovative, really cool things. I think sometimes there can be, particularly… and I’ll just say it, I’m from the North East, people in other parts of the country they’ll be like, “Come on, they’re all Christians down there.” Tell us a little bit about, you are so focused as a church on reaching unchurched people, what does that look like in the middle of the Bible Belt, how does that work itself out?

Josh – Well I think the key thing about Faith Promise that’s unique is what I said earlier, it’s that we are not nearly as progressive. When we came here 10 years ago, we have moved from the Dallas Fort Worth area, you know, 12 years ago. So the church was doing things like live drama and early on I’m like, “Why would you do that?”

Rich – It’s like 1980’s Willow Creek.

Josh – Yeah doesn’t everyone know that went out?

Rich – Right.

Josh – But in our culture that’s something that churches hadn’t done.

Rich – Right.

Josh – So we really engaged in that opportunity as a ministry and it allowed us to see people come back to church.

Rich – Right very cool.

Josh – That’s the thing here, I think many people, like you said, they have a church experience.

Rich – Right.

Josh – People in Knoxville and the surrounding areas have been to vacation Bible school with their grandmother, but a lot of those people have left the church, but even more so, most of the people who have really separated themselves from the church, their lives are broken. So even though they may not be coming to an initial place of faith and relationship with Christ, they’ve really never grown or walked in a relationship with Christ.

Rich – Interesting, yeah very true.

Josh – So I think that’s the same in a lot of places around the country as well.

Rich – Yeah definitely.

Josh – But nonetheless, I think we have a larger majority of people in our culture that come from that perspective.

Rich – Yeah in some ways I could imagine, in that kind of context, people might actually, it’s not that they’re starting at zero, they might actually be starting at minus three because they have some church experience and because maybe it’s very pervasive in the culture. In some ways we all know that that can actually, ultimately hinder people’s understanding of Christ, it can become more of a cultural experience for sure.

Well that’s cool, now tell us about your role there. You’re the executive pastor, there’s a lot of executive pastors that listen in to the unSeminary podcast, that’s part of why I love having you on the show today. Tell us a little bit about your role, give us a sense for people who don’t know, kind of how do you frame out what you do at Faith Promise?

Josh – Sure well our senior pastor would put it this way as he would rib me, he would say, “I do the supernatural and he does the natural,” which is a joke. We have a great friendship and relationship, we just love each other and he would give me a hard time about that, but that’s true. We have the unique culture where our senior pastor is really committed to having very unique messages for the weekends, writing, praying. He’s taking a real burden that his job is to be the intercessor the ministry and the people of Faith Promise.

Rich – Very cool.

Josh – Actually he has delegated the authority of leading the church, from a day to day perspective, to me.

Rich – Yeah.

Josh – So my job really is the point person for everything that happens and I see the real role that I take on at Faith Promise is, I’m the implementer of the vision that God gives him as he seeks what God has for us. We do that collaboratively and collectively at moments, but really that’s what most of us are looking as we’re saying, “Okay he’s the person who every day is spending hours interceding on behalf of our church,” and he recognizes that that’s a huge weight that he carries as well.

So for me, I oversee all of the staff hiring. I oversee all of the teams, the teams of our operations teams for multi-site campuses, for each of the direct reports from our leadership team and then some of the folks that are on our management team as well. But I’m just the point person in the ministry of Faith Promise Church.

Rich – Very cool. Now let’s dig inside that relationship a lot. I’m sure you’ve learned a lot from being inside and there’s some environments that could be a prickly relationship, I’m sure you’ve learned about what that looks like. How would you say, for people that are listening in, whether they’re in that executive pastor role or if they’re just in another role where they’re supporting their leader, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned from supporting your senior pastor?

Josh – Well I think the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is that you have to have a relationship.

Rich – Right.

Josh – It’s so important that everything works better if you like each other.

Rich – Right.

Josh – I started that way before I was the executive pastor. My senior pastor likes recreational, outdoor activities and my family had a farm in Louisiana. Early on before I was ever exec pastor, I just went to him and said, “Hey, would you like to go down and spend some time at my grandparents, they have a farm and hunting and things like that.” So we took a trip down and just spent some time, eight hours in a car talking. In those seasons, I think what many of us don’t realize is that there’s an incredible opportunity to influence and to build a relationship. We just shared our hearts with each other and even looking back, that was the season that God began to do the work that I would be the executive pastor at Faith Promise.

Rich – Right, right.

Josh – At Faith Promise, I really, Rich I believe this, they would have never hired me at 28 years old, to be the executive pastor.

Rich – Right.

Josh – I became exec pastor when I was 29.

Rich – Right.

Josh – So they would have never hired me for that role but the reality of it is, because of the relationship that I was able to build intentionally with our senior pastor, he was able to trust me in a way that he never could have. So we developed that relationship really early on. It was an incredible opportunity for us to really trust each other before we had any insight into doing some type of executive pastor/senior pastor role together.

Rich – Right absolutely. I know, as I serve longer in ministry, I know for me that kind of chemistry test gets more and more important as I’m involved in hiring. There’s a lot of times there is just a gut sense of, “Do I want to spend time with this person?” Because we’re going to spend a lot of time together and in some ways competency you can teach and learn but the chemistry thing, you can’t make that up for sure, that’s got to be developed.

Anything else? What else have you learned through that process?

Josh – Well I think, there’s several things related to that. That’s where you start and I think with this relationship, the next that really happened here is that I figured out what my senior pastor valued. It was really a turning point because, you see my job is to implement the vision set for us, not to create the vision and I’m really comfortable with that.

Rich – Right.

Josh – Actually I tell him all the time, “Hey God’s going to hold you accountable one day, you know man? So I hope you’re getting it right.” But here’s the thing, I remember when I became exec pastor and as we were talking one day, I was surveying what was going on at Faith Promise and things that needed to change and decisions that needed to be made and one day I was sitting in our senior pastor’s office and I looked at him and I said, “Hey, you value reaching people, you want to reach more people, you’re an evangelist at heart Pastor Chris,” and he stopped and he looked at me and he said, “Who told you that?” I said, “Well no one told me that, it’s obvious right. We’ve had a friendship, we’ve done ministry together, it’s obvious that that’s what you value.” He said, “No one else here realizes that I value that at the level that you realize that.”

Rich – Interesting.

Josh – I recognized again a turning point, because he said, “Hey this guy knows what I value and he wants me to be successful.”

Rich – Right.

Josh – I told him that, when I started out, “Hey as long as you never ask me to do something immoral, unethical, whatever right, it’s the vision that God’s giving, I’m going to push back but I’m going to support you man, I want to see God do a work that you feel like he’s called you to do.” I felt like I could support him. We don’t agree on everything.

Rich – Right.

Josh – We don’t even always value the same things, but I can support the work of God, the expression of God in his life. So I really did man, I was like, “Okay I know what you value, therefore I know how to do my job at Faith Promise.

Rich – Right.

Josh – So it gave me such credibility that in that season there were all of these things that needed to change and I laid them out. I said, “These are the things that need to change,” and he argued with me.” So it wasn’t like this beautiful, everything’s perfect, “Yeah let’s just do everything you say.”

Rich – Yeah, so amazing. Right.

Josh – But what happened was I just said, “Hey, you value reaching people. These are the things we have to do to reach people. When you decide it’s time to do some of those, I’m good, just let me know, it’s no problem, until then I think it’s going to be really hard for us to move forward.” He received that because I was saying, “This is what you value,” not “Hey this is what I value as an exec pastor. Let me tell you what we need to do,” I was saying, “This is what you value as the leader of the church and here’s the things I think we need to do to accomplish that vision and I’m willing to wait until you’re ready to accomplish those things.”

Rich – Yeah I love that. I think the reality of it is, for whatever reason, God has chosen whatever. Throughout scripture we see God wants to get something done and it’s like he looks around and says, “Okay who can I work with to make this happen?” and the reality of it is, senior leaders in our organization, they’re the people that God has chosen. This season it’s a stewardship, it’s not forever, but for this season God’s choosing to use them and I think what you’re saying there, I think is really valid. It’s a good heart check for us, particularly in those second seats, to say, “Listen our job is to support what we believe God is calling that person to do, what is the mission that’s running out through their lives?”

With my own senior pastor, multiple times I said, my lead guy, I’ve said, “Tim listen, this church literally started in your living room, it runs through your living room. No one else has that story.” As passionate as I am about this church, as passionate as I am about seeing great things happen, my job is to support what it is that God’s calling him to work out, for sure.

So anything else as you think through? I know one of the things I find, as I wrestle through with my senior leader, is trying to be helpful to them and really look around the corner, peak around the corner a little bit, think about what’s coming up in the future. Have you found yourself in a similar role there at Faith Promise?

Josh – No question about it. I think these things almost build on each other right?

Rich –Yeah.

Josh – You have this relationship, you understand what that person values, then really in the next step, you’re working to be ahead of that person.

Rich – Right.

Josh – I’m looking down the road. One of the things that Chris Stephens values about our relationship and I think this is any leader, this is an exec pastor/senior pastor, this is any church leader, whether you’re an assistant, a ministry assistant or something like that, leaders want you to be ahead of where they are. They want you to be looking down the road and then elevating these valuable ideas to solve these unrealized problems.

Rich – Back up, back up, that was a great little pithy phrase you said there, back up, one more time, say that one more time.

Josh – I said they’re looking for us to elevate valuable ideas to solve unrealized problems.

Rich – That’s so true.

Josh – I say this, visionaries see things that are 75% done as done and the challenge of that is that that last 25% is really the hardest work.

Rich – Yes.

Josh – If you’ve built a facility, anybody on the podcast, and probably even in setup and teardown environments, I’ve been in those as well, the last 25%, it’s the hardest part.

Rich – Right.

Josh – So for most of us, many times [Inaudible 00:16:35] they’re not looking ahead, they’re thinking, “Well I’ve got to wait for that person to tell me what to do, my leader to give me direction,” and my perspective’s the exact opposite. I’m saying, “Hey I think these are the next barriers. I think these are the next challenges that we’re going to face and I think here’s some ways that we can work together to solve those but let’s bring that to our team. Which one of those do you think are important?”

Through that, what I think you gain as well Rich, is you gain the support that you show your leader, “Hey I support you and I really want to push forward what God is doing.”

Rich – So how do you do that, because I think you’ve hit on a very good tension here? I think a part of our role in supporting is kind of helping them see what they don’t see, but how do you do that and not be the naysayer, not be the negative or the person that’s always like, “Well, I know you want to do this crazy thing but we don’t have the money and the budget for that and the kids’ ministry people will kill us and…” How do you do that, how’s that worked out?

Josh – Well I think the way that it’s worked out best in our context is to really make it collaborative. One of the things that we’ve tried to do, although it becomes a greater challenge as the church gets larger, is to have people in the room who can make decisions.

Rich – Right.

Josh – Our senior pastor, what I love about him is that he doesn’t just say always, “God said we’re going to do this,” and then that’s what we do, he brings it to me and says, “Hey pray and process about this,” and then we bring it to our team and we talk as well. Sometimes things elevate up, it’s not always just top down, sometimes things elevate up, “Hey I think we should do this.”

Rich – Right.

Josh – Here’s the thing, our senior pastor, our senior leader, he respects when those things are elevated up, so we respect when things are pushed down. Now listen to this story, this is a crazy one. Several years ago we were in this season where capital campaigns did not work for us, okay? We couldn’t figure it out. Like we tried and tried and it wouldn’t work. So one day, our senior pastor is journaler man, he writes, you know his time with the Lord he just journals and journals. One day he flips his journal out on his table in his office and he says, “Hey God told me that we need to work to raise a $1 million in one weekend.” “Excuse me?” I’m like, “Are you sure that God…” and he flips out his journal and goes, “Read right there, I just sense that that’s what God said,” and he said, “I don’t know how we’re going to do it,” and I said, “Well let’s build a four week series, let’s prepare the church and let’s take an offering in the last weekend.”

Rich – Right.

Josh – Lo and behold we took $1 million in an offering and we’ve done that for four years since.

Rich – Praise God, that’s incredible.

Josh – So again, sometimes those things come from the top but he said, “This is what I want to do, I don’t know how we’re going to do this.”

Rich – Right.

Josh – So our team comes together and we say, “Hey we collectively believe this is what God’s saying and it’s…” You know, exec pastors, even staff members were scared to death when senior pastors say things like that, you know like, “Oh my goodness, what’s going to happen to God’s work and people’s lives if God doesn’t bring that $1 million? What if we missed it?” We really struggle with that faith balance often.

Rich – Yes.

Josh – But you know, those are the type of things where sometimes he’ll just come in and say, “I really believe God said this.”

Rich – Yeah.

Josh – But then other times we elevate things up, or we put all of it together with our team collaboratively.

Rich – Very true, I’ve had those similar experiences where I think there is a symbiotic relationship with our senior leaders where, and most of the time our hope, I think for growing churches, churches that are thriving like yours, the senior leader is very good at delegating, is very good at being open handed, but there are those moments when the senior pastor will say, “No actually I think this is what we should do, this is what God’s calling us to do.” I think particularly for us in those second seats, our job is to remind our people of that.

Josh – Yeah.

Rich – Hey there’s a lot of times when we’re being really collaborative and at the end of the day, the way I’ve articulated that is I’ll be like, I’ll say to my guys, “At the end of the day Tim’s the only guy that’s going to have to stand up on stage and say this. None of us are going to end up doing that.”

Josh – That’s right.

Rich – So our job it so support that, not blindly but to support it when there’s that conviction level there.

Josh – That’s exactly right and I think that’s so significant. I just feel like there’s this give and take. Pastor Chris, my senior leader, he hasn’t hired a person in eight years, he doesn’t interview people. The things that he allows the staff to do are amazing.

Rich – Right.

Josh – So when he says, “Hey I think God is saying something here,” it speaks volumes because when a person can delegate and empower in those types of activities where they say, “Hey hire the team and build the greatest team,” our senior pastor will say this, it’s an interesting statement, he’s started saying, and sometimes he backs off of it because he feels like people don’t understand it but he said, “I believe God’s called me to build the greatest church since the day of Pentecost.”

Rich – Wow.

Josh – So when he tells me to staff the church it’s like, “Hey build the greatest staff since the day of Pentecost.”

Rich – Right.

Josh – “I’m not even going to be a part of it. You go and build it.” He doesn’t work to set budgets, he has the smallest budget at a church, he doesn’t work in that process, he says, “Hey build budgets.” He empowers the team to do those things. So when he steps in and says, “I think God’s doing something here,” everyone listens.

Rich – Yes.

Josh – One of the challenges, if you give me a chance I’m going to say something and I’m going to be a little bit offensive to senior pastors.

Rich – Good, love it.

Josh – I’ve shared this with my senior pastor, when he said, “I want you to be exec pastor,” and I said, “No, no, I don’t think so,” and he said, “Why?” and I said, “If I told you why you might fire me, but you’d definitely be offended,” and he said, “I won’t be offended, we’re friends, we have a relationship, tell me why.” I said, “Most of the senior pastors that I’ve been around, they’re too insecure to let other people lead. So I want to be a senior pastor, that’s what I came here for, I came here to grow to be a senior pastor, so that I can be a leader in the church,” and he said, “Well I’m not that way,” I said, “That’s what all senior pastors say,” and he said, “You know what, if you take this role I’ll prove it to you.”

We worked through a process where he literally proved that before I took the role and some of that was baggage for me but some of that’s reality Rich. Most churches have one position, every church, 400 thousand churches, they have one position, that’s the same in every church; senior pastor. Most churches are struggling to reach people because of senior pastors.

Rich – Interesting.

Josh – Because they need to empower other people, not staff people, volunteers and developing those people. So man, if you’re a leader, if you want to see God do work you have to empower the people. Think about in the New Testament, Paul. What did he do? He empowered leaders, St. Titus, St. Timothy. He couldn’t go so he just kept sending these guys out to accomplish this work in ministry.

Rich – Very cool. Well this has been fantastic. Is there anything else about working in the senior pastor/executive pastor, in that relationship supporting your pastor that you’d like to say before we jump into the lightning round?

Josh – the last thing I would say is this. Every staff member should remember that there is a season where you’re a learner, where your senior leader is developing you and then I personally believe that there comes a season where that transitions to where you’re both helping each other grow.

When I started at 29, Pastor Chris, he’s 15 years older than me.

Rich – Right.

Josh – I didn’t have a time to offer in that season candidly. He had spiritually been walking with Christ 15 years longer than I had and he had been in ministry 15 years longer than I had, I mean, just on and on but because he spent time developing me, spiritually as a leader, I find now, today that that actually is an iron sharpens iron relationships.

Rich – Interesting.

Josh – Earlier on it wasn’t that. Earlier on he was pouring into me and I was receiving and now I get the opportunity, even though he’s my supervisor, I get the opportunity to develop him, to challenge him to grow sometimes, to say, “Hey I think God’s doing this,” and he’s like, “Man you have faith, what’s going on?” But I think for all of us, he has been a pusher of growth plans. Our senior pastor, every year he creates us a personal spiritual growth plan, that’s huge for him, “What do I think God wants me to do next year?” He’s pushed that into our entire team and now it bubbles back up to other people.

So I see that happening with our CFO, one of the people that I work so closely with that leads our operations team. He’s now challenging me to grow in areas and I’m challenging him. In the beginning, I was really pouring into him, he didn’t have ministry experience, he didn’t have church experience of our church and context, but now he is pushing and developing me as well. I think that’s a dual relationship that we forget about sometimes, that God does in relationships.


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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.