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Welcome to this week’s unSeminary podcast. I’m honored to have you with us today as we speak with Mitch Harrison, executive pastor at Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas.
Canyon Ridge has been around for about 20 years and has two locations, as well as church online. It is a contemporary church that has experienced both incredible growth and then loss during the 2008 recession, learning to reinvent themselves in the process. Mitch is with us today to share some of Canyon Ridge’s learnings on how to get through the tough times.
- Find the cracks in your ministry. // Someone once told Mitch once that a church’s life cycle typically has a peak about 20 years in. If the church doesn’t start to change and update with the new generation, they’re in danger of losing membership. Canyon Ridge was the only large church on their side of town in Las Vegas and they had been experiencing phenomenal growth over the years. But in 2008, when the market crashed and houses began to be foreclosed on, that growth stopped. What they thought was a well-crafted evangelism strategy proved to be mostly built on the fact that a lot of people were moving to their side of the city. When people began moving out because of losing their homes or jobs, the church had to reevaluate what they were doing and discovered cracks in their ministry. They began asking themselves some tough questions in order to keep the church running.
- Less staff, higher caliber. // When the staff at Canyon Ridge realized that something needed to change going forward, they began to ask themselves how they can continue to grow with fewer people. During a ten to twelve month period of time, they cut about $800,000 out of their budget. They cut everything except staff salaries and were able to move on without laying anyone off. What they realized coming out of that situation was they needed high caliber people developers, but fewer of them. As Mitch says, “Your success is really measured by the success that others are having around you.” In order to find those higher caliber leaders, Canyon Ridge looked closely for people who had built things within their ministry and really elevated others.
- Recognize frustration within the staff and church. // Another tip in developing a higher caliber of people developers is to ask yourself and your staff whether they are really in their “sweet spot”. There are people within the church who are willing to take on any job in order to help the church grow, but it may not be the job they really are called to. This gap-filling can lead to frustration within the individual or within the group they’re leading. When you see that frustration developing, Mitch recommends sitting down with the person and being honest about the issue. Maybe the person is experiencing frustration because God is calling them to move on to a new place in their ministry and this job is no longer the one they’re called to do. If the person moves on, you will need to fill that position again and so recognizing frustration within the job or the group can help you improve that position for the future.
You can learn more about Canyon Ridge Christian Church at www.canyonridge.org.
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00:47 // Rich introduced Mitch Harrison and welcomes him to the show.
01:12 // Mitch introduces us to Canyon Ridge Christian Church Las Vegas.
02:28 // Mitch talks us through some of the changes.
06:19 // Mitch and Rich highlight the importance of releasing leaders.
09:20 // Rich and Mitch talk about the ‘sweet zone’.
14:50 // Mitch talks about the communication process during transition.
19:58 // Mitch talks about the impact of succession planning.
26:25 // Mitch talks about the importance of setting clear expectations to produce the desired outcomes.
Helpful Tech Tools // Dapulse
Ministries Following // Northpoint Church
Influential Book // God Dreams by Will Mancini and Warren Bird
Inspiring Leader // Andy Stanley
What does he do for fun // Running, Golf, Family
Contact // canyonridge.org [email protected]
Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast, my name’s Rich, the host here and I am just honored that you would take some time out, to listen to us today. We know that there’s a lot going on at your church, that there’s a lot of pressure heading into this weekend and we’re just honored that you would put us in your earbuds and listen in. Every week we try to provide you great church leaders who are doing some really fascinating ministry to help inspire you and train you for what’s happening and today is no exception. We’ve got Mitch Harrison, he is the Executive Pastor at a great church, Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas of all things. There’s Christians in Las Vegas, that’s amazing, you know, it’s a great church, been about for about 20 years, they’ve got two locations plus Church Online, welcome to the show Mitch.
Mitch – Thanks Rich, thanks for having me man.
Rich – Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the church, kind of give us a sense of the flavor of your ministry, if people were to show up this weekend what would they experience?
Mitch – Yeah sure, we’re kind of like any other contemporary church, [Inaudible 00:01:15], band all that stuff, [Inaudible 00:01:17], great messages, kids’ ministry, those kinds of things. Been here in Vegas for, I think we’re 23 years old now.
Rich – Wow.
Mitch – Started in the early 90s with that kind of whole movement of churches, came up watching Saddleback, watching Willow Creek, you know, and learning from those guys. You get out here 17 or 18 years or so, you start realizing, “Hey, maybe things need to change a little bit,” so really in the last few years have kind of been through that kind of process of change. Build a big campus, took on a lot of debt, we have stuff like that to worry about and two years ago launched our first satellite campus from here and finally kind of stepped into that, looking at potentially doing another one this coming year as well.
Rich – Very cool.
Mitch – Yes, so it’s kind of where we are.
Rich – What were some of those changes that you started to make four or five years ago? A lot of church seem to, they push up against that 20-year mark, somewhere around there, something happens where you’re like, “Um, we need to think about changing.”
Mitch – Yeah, right. I think there really is that lifecycle of churches, you know, somebody told us somewhere along the way that a typical church’s lifecycle is about 40 years and you go from startup, accelerating, booming and then somewhere around the 20 year mark you kind of peak and then if you don’t do something different right around then, it starts a slow decline that can turn into a really accelerated decline if you’re not careful. In fact, the church I grew up, a traditional Southern Baptist Church went through exactly that pattern and they ended up selling their buildings and bulldozing them and it was not fun to watch.
Rich – Wow.
Mitch – No for us, we started realizing that a couple of factors had kind of collided and you could feel it. About 2008, you know when you economy crashed, we were 16, 17 years old, 18 years old right around that period of time and so when the economy crashed here, I know everybody felt it all over the country, the zip code that our church sits in was really at the epicenter of the foreclosures.
Rich – Right, absolutely.
Mitch – They said, one in six homes were vacant in our area all of a sudden, after years of off the charts growth.
Rich – Right.
Mitch – So one of the things that we noticed was probably a lot of our growth that happened over the years had happened because we were the only real large church on this side of town and so when you have 7 thousand people a month moving to your city and a large portion of them moving to your side of town, people are going to find your church and they found ours. So what we thought was a really well-crafted evangelism strategy was probably fueled a lot by people just moving here.
Rich – Interesting.
Mitch – So we started recognizing a lot of our church growth had come just because people moved here.
Rich – That’s amazing.
Mitch – When all of that slowed down and started actually going in the other direction, people began moving out of this area and leaving because of it, the jobs and the homes and all that stuff, we started really seeing some of the weaknesses and the cracks in our ministry and having to ask ourselves some tough questions. We though we knew what we were about and I think we did, I mean I think we legitimately did some good things, but then having to really examine, what are we going to be about going forward from here?
So we started taking a look first of all at our staff and asking, “If we’re going to go further from here what kind of staffing are we going to need?” Not that the people that had brought us this far weren’t good people and helpful people, but are we all still kind of in our sweet spot, are we all still really operating at our optimum when it comes to our roles on staff and that kind of thing?
Rich – Well before we jump into that, I just want to underline. You know, I think this is one of those stories right, I think we’ve heard so many times, through the kind of great recession, we all heard about Vegas right? It was always at the top of the list, it was like that and Miami kept coming up in those conversations, about just the absolute kind of implosion. The thing and I don’t want to give the punchline away, but the thing I love about this conversation is, that’s a terrible situation obviously, incredible, to find yourself in the midst of one of those situations, it’s like you can’t control the economy or the subprime mortgage, but God used a really negative situation and I think has turned that around, has used the pressure that that created to shift and make some changes, which ultimately, in the only way that God can do that, has ended up using those changes to see what the difference makes.
So what were some of those changes upon the staff side? You talked about, “Hey, we need to kind of reengineer some of those structures,” what did that look like?
Mitch – Yeah, well I think the first thing that we started thinking about was, how do we do this with less people? Because in over a 10 or 12-month period of time, we cut about $800 thousand out of our budget. We cut everything except staff salaries. We didn’t do a lot of rehiring when there was attrition, but we were able to make it through that season without having to lay anybody off, but what we realized coming out of that was that we were going to have to go after higher caliber leaders that could be people developers and then have less of them, you know, pay them more and have less of them.
Rich – Right.
Mitch – Really that was one of the shifts and I don’t want to make it the dirty little secret of church ministry, but I think there is a time in your church’s ministry when you have to say, “We have to go after a higher caliber of leaders and that’s going to cost us more, which means we’re going to have less staff and have to really get on the job of developing people on the backend of that.”
Rich – I appreciate you underlying that, highlighting that, because I think that’s one of those things that operates in the background. We may think about it as Executive Pastors, like, “This is a part of the reality,” but this is so true, I’ve said it to so many young leaders, the way that you increase your value and frankly the way you’ll get paid more in ministry is by being a releaser of leaders.
Mitch – Yeah.
Rich – People who are able to build teams, structure them well, release leaders of those teams all day long. I remember my dad when I was a kid, he used to say, “A good salesman always has a job,” and it’s the same thing. In the church world, if you can develop and release leaders and do that all day long, you’ll be fine, and you’ll be super valuable to the kingdom for sure.
Mitch – Yeah and we heard that echo in my last year leadership summit, so many of the speakers talked about how more success is really measures by the success that others are having around you. How are you helping others to have success and could we go out and find leaders who led like that, who levered their success through other people? Then for those of us who wanted to stick around here, we had to ask that question of ourselves, “Am I that kind of leader who really cares about the success of others and elevating others and developing their leadership?”
Rich – How did you go about kind of defining that, or really working that out, just practically even? How did you kind of benchmark like, “Here are some leaders that are doing a great job on our team, here’s what that looks like. Here’s some people that maybe aren’t on the right seat in the bus,” how do you deal with that? What were the list tests that you were using through that process?
Mitch – Yeah, I wish I could tell you man that we had this really carefully crafted document that spelled all of that out, one that I could pass on to everybody.
Rich – Bill Hybels is the only guy with that stuff, so it’s fine.
Mitch – Okay, okay. So if I said we went like this, “Huh?” and kind of did this number. It was maybe a little more sophisticated than that but we really tried to look for people who were building things and who had built something. Who could take in a pocket of leadership and really expand it out to a pocket of ministry and expand with that, who really had elevated others and who kind of were knows for that. We started asking our staff the question, “Are you really in your sweet spot?”
Rich – Right.
Mitch – A lot of times I think in church staff, as you grown, as you try and be efficient with what you’re doing, especially with money, you find people on your staff who can do what you need to do, but maybe they’re not necessarily specifically called to that or gifted. I mean, they’re just there because they want to help the church grow, they’re enthusiastic, they bought into the cause, they bought into the organization, they’re good people, they’re solid people and they’ll do whatever. So you take people like that and as needs arise you kind of steer those kind of people towards needs.
I think there came a point where we started having to say, “That’s great for a while, but if you want to go beyond that what you’ve got to do is start asking, “Is this person really in their sweet spot of what this particular role is about in our organization and are they really called to this or are they just filling it because they can?”
Rich – Right.
Mitch – So really having to get honest about that with ourselves and honest with the people who are sitting in those kinds of seats, again, who are the best people? They’re usually the most willing people because they will take on anything, but that kind of is the problem.
Rich – Right.
Mitch – They’ve taken on anything that they can do but not necessarily in the spot where they’re doing what only they can do.
Rich – Oh that’s good, that is a good insight. I hope you’ve caught that if you’re listening in. I know one of the practices we do in our church is at the end of every year we ask people to really rewrite their job description, to actively say, “Okay, what is it…” and we try to call out over time and move people closer and closer to their sweet spot, where they’re doing more of where they are thriving and then less of the things… how do we move that stuff around? Now the interesting thing, we had a woman that was with us, she was only 19 and in a lot of ways she was like my right-hand, she was incredible. A year ago she got married, her husband lives away and so she had to move on.
It was interesting in that process, over the years her job description had evolved so much and she was totally in her sweet spot, when we stepped back and went, “We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to move on from here,” I was like, “Well we have to start over again,” because we had so customized a role to her, which was a win, I think that was a positive thing for her and she ended up thriving and it asked us to go back to some of those fundamentals again and say, “What do we actually need in this?”
Mitch – I think, I can tell you, it is a difficult process to do this because you’re talking about people that you love, people that you care about, people that have contributed to your ministry. I will say this, we didn’t go about it with a hatchet, I mean we didn’t come with a chainsaw and just start cutting people out and moving on and things like that. I think really before you start into this process, you really have to examine your values, both personally and corporately and really have this value set in mind that these are people that God dearly love and that God has a plan for and that God has intended their life to thrive in some particular area and you don’t have the right, as a church leader, to mess that up.
Rich – So true.
Mitch – You’re dealing with something holy when you’re dealing with a person and if they’re in the wrong spot and if they’re in a place where they’re not thriving, you have a responsibility. If their place of thriving is somewhere beyond your church, to help them with that process, but that can’t be some kind of tongue in cheek euphemism for, “We just want to get rid of that dude.”
Rich – Right.
Mitch – I really believe that as a church we have to treat people with the same value and honor that God does and their calling and if their right path is for them to tradition outside of your church, to give enough time for that to happen, arguably we have probably given too much time sometimes for that process to happen. There are those inside who have transitioned out who have said we didn’t give enough time. I mean, we didn’t always get it write, we did not always get that right, but to make sure that that kind of heart is in the process of those kinds of conversations.
Rich – Could you kind of pull that apart a little bit for us? Walk us through, it doesn’t need to be an individual person, but kind of the structure… let’s say you come to the point where you’re like, “We’ve made the decision, we need to move this person on. We need to help them find their next place and it’s not with our church?” What did that look like, how did that go down, what was that communication process like, what did you learn through that process?
Mitch – Well first of all I think it starts back before that, at beginning to identify that and I will say that most of the time that process begins with frustration.
Rich – Right.
Mitch – You begin to see frustration develop either in that person or in their team or probably both is really when it shows up. What we try to do often times is we try to smooth out that frustration, “Let’s adjust, let’s tweak, let’s fix the job description, let’s rearrange a process for the team,” whatever. But sometimes I think you’ve got to have a sensor somewhere along the way to go, “If there’s frustration there there’s probably a reason, let’s dig in and find out what that is.”
Rich – Right.
Mitch – Then when you get to the point of saying, “This frustration seems to mean that this person is really in the wrong seat or they’re doing the wrong thing or God has grown them and they’re moving onto something else, honestly the first part of that is sitting down and just having an honest conversation about that issue and just be willing to say to a person, “Have you considered, because I’ve considered that this frustration that you’re experiencing is because that God is beginning to move you onto your next place of ministry?” and just starting having an honest conversation with that person about it. What I try to say in that conversation is, “I don’t have a date in mind, I don’t have a timeline in mind, I have a question that I don’t know the answer to but let’s go and find the answer together,” and then what I do is try to set up a series of just consistent meetings with that person over time, to help them walk to the place of seeing what we’re seeing and then from that point it’s somewhere along that process to set a date and say, “Let’s make this a target date for you transitioning into your next thing.”
Then even from that point, what I’ll do, if I can, if I’m enough connected to that situation and I try to be as connected to those as much as I can. To give you context, we have about 70 people or so on staff, but I still want to be connected with those as much as I can to help that person walk through the personal part of that process of, what is it that God’s doing in this person’s life? and try to help them understand what that might mean for future ministry roles? Then down in the organization help their ministry to identify, what is the new role specifically that this person is kind of separating from? So to use it as an opportunity to really get clear about what the role is becoming that’s causing the frustration and why this person isn’t a fit anymore because eventually we’re going to have to rehire that role.
Rich – Right.
Mitch – The more clarity you can get about what that new role is, it will help you when you go to rehire the next time. So I think those things kind of happen at the same time and then as we get down to it we try to do a couple of things. In the communication cycle, allow that person who’s transitioning to first of all communicate with their personal inner-circle. So they may have friends in the ministry, people, volunteers that are closest to them, people who would want to hear from them personally about that. We give them a period of time to talk to those people personally and tell that story and then they talk to their ministry team, their larger ministry team after that and then to our staff and then when appropriate to the larger ministry, to the church at large.
Rich – Don’t miss that church leaders, there’s a cascading of information and people get hurt if you don’t cascade that information correctly and you’ve got to think through that well and articulate that and make sure everybody’s aware of what that process looks like. I’m assuming, just to tease out one thing you said there, in that situation where ultimately you’re kind of making a public announcement, you’re talking about it publically, that always kind of matches the level at which this person has influence in the organization, so there isn’t in the bulletin on Sunday morning, “Here’s the list of people who transitioned this week,” because a bunch of those people, they’re not known by the vast majority of staff, so it would be kind of by-ministry area, is that kind of the general principle that you followed?
Mitch – Yeah, the announcement ought to be as public as the person was essentially. I think that’s kind of a general rule of thumb. There’s just a lot of sensitivity about that and both what the church needs and what that person would want and kind of putting all of that together somehow. Again, I don’t think there’s like a hard and fast rule on it, because we’ve got some guys around here that’s weren’t quite as public but they had been around for so long, there’s so many people who knew who they were and it was just honoring for us to say, “Hey, these people are moving to their next thing and we can celebrate that and pray for them and all that.”
Rich – Absolutely. So now let’s talk about, kind of roll the clock forward, so obviously you’ve gone through a bunch of staff structure changes, transitions, reengineered the structures, how has that impacted where the church is at today, what difference has that made?
Mitch – Yeah well, again you’re talking about that lifecycle that kind of acts like a bell curve, and you want to catch it as it’s kind of cresting and starting a new curve. Well we have really done it with that in mind, thinking what kind of leaders do we need to begin the new curve?
Rich – Right.
Mitch – A couple of things have happened. I have been around here for almost 16 years now, so I was a part of the first slope, you know?
Rich – Yes.
Mitch – What I started realizing was, I was not going to be the guy who invented the next one and it’s not because I’m stupid, it might be, it might be, yeah, but it’s because I see through the lens of where we have been.
Rich – Right, wow.
Mitch – What my role becomes now is, I need to start asking questions that I don’t know the answer to and then finding the people who have those answers. I think there is, in looking for the next wave of staff people who are going to create that next part of the curve, can I go and find people who have answers that I have never thought of?
Rich – Right.
Mitch – Am I willing to let go enough to trust them to bring those answers to us and actually reshape the kind of ministry that we are? I think before you start bringing anybody in, you’ve got to ask that question, “Am I willing to let somebody else fill in the blanks that I used to fill in? Am I willing to let somebody else be the filter that I used to be the filter of? I used to be the expert but now I’ve got to become the leader,” and those are two vastly different roles in ministry and it’s a hard thing, I think, to let go of, especially if you’ve been around a long time and have been that expert before; everybody looked to you for the cool new ministry shaper that’s going to affect what this church becomes.
Rich – Wow. Well I hope people are leaning in and hearing that. Mitch, I appreciate you leading with humility and to say that, because I think there are a lot of leaders who don’t get to that spot, who never push through the… they always have to be the person answering every question, they always have to be the expert, they always have to be the one that all the roads lead to, but I think there is great growth and potential on the other side of saying, “Hey, I want to have open hands and be the person that brokers,” all kinds of great things that are happening, that are like you say, answering questions I’m not even asking, that’s amazing.
What would be an area, as an example, an area where you would say, “Hey, this is an area where I felt like I was the expert but now my job’s just a lead,” give me a sense of what that looks like for you?
Mitch – Yeah, well I went through that exactly. When I first came here I was in the worship arts area, in fact, the church I was at before here, I was a worship leader for eight years, I was one of the guy who stood up there, played keys and was cool and everybody thought, “Man, what’s this new music we’re doing in the church these days?”
Rich – You wore skinny jean, you had the cool hat, hair? I’m just kidding.
Mitch – Yeah, that’s what I did. But it was kind of the 90s equivalent of that.
Rich – Yes, absolutely. I totally understand that.
Mitch – I was that guy and then all of a sudden you wake up one day and you go, “Wait a minute, I’m not that guy anymore.
Rich – Right.
Mitch – So I kind of went through this identify crisis of who am I if I’m not the Worship Arts guru guy for our church; the programming creative guy for our church. It’s like you kind of go through a little bit of an identity crisis, having to let that go a little bit and go, “What is my next role then?”
Rich – Right.
Mitch – So as we were starting to make this transition, I had stepped a little bit up in terms of a kind of overall executive kind of role, another guy and I shared the role together, but I was still really heavily involved in the Worship Arts ministry and we hired a couple of guys and one of them came in and just had a lot of, this was my perspective, it was a lot of just negative stuff to say about what was going on in our worship services.
Rich – Oh wow.
Mitch – This guy that’s we’d hired on staff.
Rich – Yes.
Mitch – And we’d hired him for his particular expertise in another area, but as he was looking into our worship services he was going, “You guys are living in the past, the stuff you’re coming up with is not connecting with people.”
Rich – Right.
Mitch – Well what he was saying, what I heard was, “Mitch, the stuff that you’re coming up with is not connecting with the stuff that…”
Rich – Yes.
Mitch – And here’s the sad part about it, he was exactly right.
Rich – Oh wow, yes.
Mitch – I mean dude, like I had no defense. He was right.
Rich – Yes, wow.
Mitch – You find yourself in this place of going, “I can either defend myself or I can let the church move on, but I can’t do both.”
Rich – Right.
Mitch – “If I defend myself here and defend what we’re doing, the church will never get to what it need to get to.”
Rich – Stuck yeah.
Mitch – So at that point some other changes had happened and we started reorganizing the organization again, I came into this Loan Executive Pastor Role at our church and starting realizing that I’ve just got to get over that and I’ve got to let these new thinkers reshape our ministry and we began a process of hiring a guy in behind me and eventually he brought in a guy who was a young guy who looks like you, you know? But thinks of things and goes things in ways that I would never have thought of to do, but what I have found is, and I think this is maybe at the mercy of God, what I have found is that one of my greatest joys now and honestly probably one of the most fulfilling part of my ministry these days is watching these guys just run and just do it and reshape the church and watch our church respond to that and do things that we’d never thought of before. I mean, they’re not even crazy things, they’re just in ways we’d never thought of before but connecting with people again. It’s awesome.
Rich – Very cool. Is there anything else you want to share before we pivot into the rest of the episode? This has been a great conversation today?
Mitch – Thanks man. Yeah I would just say, if you’re going to launch into this kind of thing, that thing of really holding the ministry loosely and hiring guys who are going to be able to take a step up, and I guess what I mean by that is, what I realize is, I don’t think I’m that bold of a guy but I’m 51 years old right? The guys that we have hired in to kind of come and help us reshape our church, some of them are 15 years behind me and they one day are going to step up and be me.
Rich – Right.
Mitch – So they’re going to have to have leadership capacity and not to just do what they’re doing today but to one day think about doing what I’m doing, which is asking questions that nobody knows the answer to and hiring in the next group behind them, some day, down the road. I mean, it’s coming for all of us.
Rich – Absolutely.
Mitch – So I think, looking for guys who have the potential, not just to do what they’re doing today, but also have the potential to step up and use that as a criteria for hiring. It’s a big deal.
The other thing I would say too is, as you go about hiring a new role, I cannot overstate how critical it is to get super clear about what you want that person to do. What are the outcomes that you want to see from those new hires? For instance, overseeing the worship ministry is not an outcome, that’s an activity.
Rich – Right.
Mitch – I mean no offence but my mom can oversee a ministry.
Rich – Right, yes, yea.
Mitch – But I’m not lying awake at night staring at the ceiling all frantic because somebody is overseeing the ministry, I’m lying awake at night because they’re not producing certain outcomes.
Rich – Right.
Mitch – You know, oversee the band. Well he is, the band’s got three people in it and they’ll all be scrambling for more.
Rich – Yes.
Mitch – How many people do you want involved, how many people should that guy engage? Quantify it and be clear about the expectations for each of those roles and then the other part of it I would say is once you get clear about those expectations of the roles and then you start finding people that can fill those expectations, you’ve got to ask the question, how deeply do I trust this person? Do I really trust this person enough to hand something off to them and let them go and not have to lay awake in bed at night worrying about what they’re doing?
Rich – Absolutely. You know, the whole difference between activity and results is a huge deal and I think a lot of church leaders, they get that mixed up in their head. When they’re talking about what’s happening in their ministry, they’re talking about all the activity they’re doing, they’re not talking about the results that all that activity is having. The fact that you’re busy doesn’t matter, the question is, is all of that work, is it generating outcomes in people’s lives that you can actually say, “Yeah, here is what’s happened,” for sure, I appreciate that.
Mitch – Well the thing is, once you do that, you can free the guy to go after those outcomes.
Rich – Yeah.
Mitch – And you aren’t micromanaging how he goes after them, you’re not filling in those blanks but you’re pointing him in the direction of a target and then you just go, “Go, go and get that,” and they can be inventive and innovative and all the stuff they want to do to get to it.”