Scott Cochrane on the Leadership Development Imperative in the Local Church


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Scott Cochrane is the Vice President of International Ministries at the Willow Creek Association. The WCA was birthed out of the Chicagoland church called Willow Creek Community Church and has a passion for helping leaders develop around the world. In this conversation, Scott talks about how important is it for church’s to invest in leadership development and gives us his perspective on this vitally important area of our church. We’re thankful that Scott joins us on the show!

Episode Highlights

00:38 // Rich introduces Scott and welcomes him to the show.

01:11 // Scott talks about the Willow Creek Association and his role in The Global Leadership Summit.

02:50 // Scott talks about the importance of leadership and leadership development.

04:09 // Scott talks about Thailand’s connection with The Global Leadership Summit.

06:31 // Scott offers advice to church leaders on how to improve leadership within their churches.

07:50 // Scott talks about the importance of the resources behind leadership development.

10:19 // Scott talks about development plans and allowing teams to take responsibility for their own leadership development.

12:02 // Scott shares how he encourages his team to take responsibility for their leadership development resulting in a leadership culture within his church.

Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools // GoToMeeting, Skype, Online communication tools

Ministries Following // The City Movement concept

Influential Book // Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan King

Inspiring Leader // Tony Blair

What does he do for fun? // Read, Run and Relationships


Episode Transcript

Rich – Well happy Thursday everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. My name’s Rich, the host around these parts. Thank you so much for trusting us with the next few minutes of your time. I know you’re a busy church leader, you’ve got a lot of things you could be investing in right now, so we’re just hoping that the next few minutes will invest back into you.

Today super excited to have Scott Cochrane with us from the Willow Creek Association. He’s the Vice President of International Ministries, which I think that means global domination for the WCA. So Scott welcome to the show.

Scott – Thanks Rich, it’s so good to be here with you today.

Rich – So glad to have you. For folks that don’t know, Willow Creek Association is associated with Willow Creek Church in Barrington Illinois or really in Chicagoland. A fantastic ministry that’s doing all kinds of great things around the world, you really should get to know them a little bit better. But Scott why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at the WCA?

Scott – Willow Creek Association is very much a global ministry. We’re focused on Christian leadership development. One of the main ways that we achieve that is through a conference we do every year called The Global Leadership Summit. That conference really began in 1995. Bill Hybels, who’s the senior pastor of the church and he’s the Chairman of the Willow Creek Association, he really just wanted to talk about leadership with some leaders. He believed, as many of us do, that leadership is the ball game, humanly speaking, when it comes to the ministry of the local church.

So in 1995 Bill gathered up a few hundred leaders at the campus of Willow Creek Church and they talked about leadership for a couple of days. 20 years later, this past year, we had more than 200 thousand people take part in The Global Leadership Summit, both here in the United States and all around the world as well.

So my little part of that is helping to lead our efforts outside of the United States. So I actually began with the association in Canada, you might hear a little bit of a Canadian accent. We have affiliates around the world and for many years I helped to lead the Canadian affiliate of Willow Creek. Then as our growth continued globally, I came down here to Chicago a couple of years ago and I helped to lead what we’re doing, essentially outside the United States.

Rich – Very cool, well obviously leadership development and leadership is critical to, as you said, local churches. I’d love to dive into that, why don’t we explore that a little bit more? Why is it so important, why is leadership and leadership development so important to a local church?

Scott- Well I know for me and I’ll answer that very personally Rich. In addition to my years with the Willow Creek Association, I also spent a number of years in Canada as the executive pastor of a large church. The way we were structured at that time, as many churches would be, there was the senior pastor and I was his only direct report. So all the staff, about 35 staff answered to me and so on. I think I very quickly came to realize that the primary value that I can add to our ministry is to build a team and from a leadership point of view.

At the end of the day, I wanted to make sure that year over year over year, the leadership capacity of our team was improving, because I knew if that was happening, then all the other ministries would be flourishing as well. Again humanely speaking, you see the Holy Spirit can only do what the Holy Spirit can do, but humanely speaking, I’ve just always believed, as does I believe the Willow Creek Association, that is we can increase our capacity as leaders, everything under our watch, in a sense, is going to flourish.

Rich – You have a really unique position, obviously seeing a lot of churches around the world that are doing this well, that are developing leaders and obviously you’re trying to help them do an even better job. What’s a handful of those kinds of things that you’re seeing in churches that are developing leaders well?

Scott – I think most of us who’ve been involved in the local church, we’ve seen our skills developing, whatever our particular role might be. So for a children’s ministry then we want to get better as a children’s pastor and learn the latest tools, learn the latest techniques and so on. I think the movement that really God has been fostering around the world is, just as you’re saying, to actually take the leadership side of it up to another level.

I was recently in Thailand, working with a group of leaders in Bangkok and I had a conversation with them basically saying, “What is your vision for the church in Thailand?” I’ll just unpack this a little bit, because you’ll see, I think a taste of how the leadership side fits into this and they’ve got a masterful strategic plan for the church in Thailand. Thailand is a country that right now has about 400 thousand Christians in it, in a population of about 6.5 million. Sorry 65 million. So 65 million and about 400 thousand Christians. Now they have a goal to see if by the year 2030, they want to see 10% of the country Christians. So that means that by the year 2030 they want to go from 400 thousand Christians up to about 7 million Christians by that time.

Well when I asked them about this, you could just see their passion coming out as they were talking about this. They’re already out there chancing everything and they’ve got a strategy around evangelism and they’ve got a strategy around church planting and so on, but they said, “Right at the heart of this, we need new leaders to be developed, because none of this is going to work if we don’t have leaders in place who can now, more effectively, lead our churches and lead these strategies and so on.”

So for them, the way they tie in to us is The Global Leadership Summit is at the heart of that. But in a bigger scale, I think Thailand serves as an example of what we’re seeing all around the world, that as Christian leaders get more developed, that everything that they’re doing, everything that God is trying to do with them is going to accelerate.

Rich – Absolutely. So let’s say there’s a church leader listening in and they’re saying, “Okay I want to raise the temperature of the leadership development culture at my church,” what are a few things they could be thinking about or doing, some steps they could be taking to solve that to say, “Okay there’s a few things we could be doing,” coming this next year even?

Scott – Sure, I always view it this way, to break it right down into some very practical steps. Every year on January 1st, or whenever your church leadership calendar begins, I would always… again I’ll think back to the days when I was an executive pastor. I would always look at my team and realize that my goal over the next 12 months is to elbow, a phrase from Bill Hybels, I want to take them from here to there, I want to see them develop. In other worlds, 12 months from now, I believe it’s the responsibility of the senior church leader to realize that the team I’ve got right now must be a better team one year from now. Their skills must be sharper, their leadership abilities and capacity must be better, there must be a healthy routine culture in all of those kinds of things.

So I believe the first step is to simply recognize that’s the responsibility, but then you’ve got to follow that up and actually start to instill that in very practical ways among the team members themselves. But I think the first thing is simply declaring that, gathering up your team and saying, “Gang, one year from now you are going to be better in your leadership individually and as a team we are going to be a stronger team, now let’s get at it.”

Rich – Now as an organization that does a lot of leadership development, I would image there could be a temptation that church leaders look at you and say, “We’ll just to The Leadership Summit and that’ll do it.” Is it possible for churches to completely outsource leadership development?

Scott – Great question Rich and the short answer is no. I think we all need to… There’s two extremes that are often seen and you’ve just nailed one of them and that is that the job of leadership development, that falls on some other organization, whether it’s the Willow Creek Association, whether it’s Catalysts, whether it’s all these wonderful ministries and organizations that do that.

The other extreme I’ve seen though is the senior leader that says, “No thank you, we don’t need any help because we are the grand repository of all leadership development and acumen,” and so on, a closed little huddle kind of deal. I think healthy leadership development recognizes that it’s our responsibility. I have a responsibility to develop myself, I have a responsibility to develop my team, however, I’m going to draw on resources all of the place. By the way, even at the Willow Creek Association, we very openly say, “We are not the soul pipeline of leadership development stuff.” Even as a team ourselves, we borrow and draw from all sorts of resources, here in the United States and around the world. We’re simply part of that piece of leadership development that I think God is raising up these days.

Rich – What are churches spending on this part of their equation? Is there any rules of thumb, can you get away with just listening to podcasts or should you actually be looking to spend some money on it?

Scott – I think the resourcing of it a critical function of this. Actually providing resources behind leadership development, turns it from a value into a plan, because you can stand in front of your team all day long and chant and cast vision about leadership development but at the end of the day show me your budget. Are you actually getting behind this?

If I can get very, very practical about that Rich, something that I always did, both in my role as an executive pastor and even now in my role with the Willow Creek Association, is I would, with each member of the team, I would work with them and allocate a leadership development portion of their budget so it looks that we’re going to get behind you to develop this kind of deal.

But there would also be a pool of resources that I think the senior leader has to hand onto themselves, because quite frankly, there might be a young leader that you want to put disproportion leadership development behind, or it might be a senior leader that you say, “This season I need to get that leader a little bit more focused,” so you want to put a little bit more there. At the end of the day you can’t just have a value, you can’t just talk the game.

Just one other important side on that, I also think it’s very important that the actual plan, every member of the team I believe needs a plan. You need to be able to sit down with your team members and say, “Let’s talk about what is your plan for the next 12 months? How are you wanting to develop? What are the areas of skills or whatever it is you need to go and work on?” The thing that I always emphasize with my team is that I need them to drive the plan, not me. Again, let me bring it right down into a local church context. I would have the children’s pastor reporting to me, I would have the worship pastor reporting to me and so on. Well quite frankly, I don’t know anything about children’s ministry, I don’t know anything about worship from that perspective. So I say, “Look you’ve got to come to me with a plan but I’ll help you with it and then certainly I’m going to help you resource that as well.”

One of the things I often found was that when you give people the opportunity to develop their own leadership development plan, it’s amazing how creative they can get in a very, very wonderful way. Every now and then… I remember I had one guy up in Canada, you can probably imagine Rich, the winters in Canada can be quite brutal. I had one guy that every year it seemed that his leadership development plan was all anchored in a conference in February in Santiago or Florida or something like that. So you’ve got to watch those kinds of things, but I want to know, “What books are you wanting to read this year? What conferences do you want to attend? What kind of mentoring networks are you going to get involved with?” and so on. Then you walk them through the plan as well.

Rich – Very cool. Well is there anything else you want to share with our listeners, about leadership development or encouraging them to think about leadership development in their churches?

Scott – Yeah I think you’ve got to walk with them is what I’d always say. You’ve got to let them know that this is a big deal. You’ve got to let them know that you are invested in them, and taking this journey with them. I would always do that in a couple of way. First of all, I’m a huge advocate of the twice a year review conversation and that was never a big scary thing. That to me added value to people to let them know that every year in July, every year in January, I’m going to sit them aside and I’m going to talk about how things are going. In that conversation I’m going to talk to them about, “You said you were going to read these book and you were going to attend these conferences, you said you were going to check our Rich Birch’s podcast every single week,” and so on. “So have you been doing that and if not why not?”

There might have been a number of reasons for them to tell me that they weren’t able to do something on their plan but I would never let them get away with saying, “Well I was too busy doing ministry,” because at the end of the day, developing yourself, that’s the value back to the local church, so we need you improving as you’re going along.

Then the other thing is, not only in those twice a year conversations, is that every week, when that person comes into my office, they knew that the first question I would probably ask them is, “So what are you reading these days? What have you been listening to? What are you learning right now?” That wasn’t simply a way to insert some accountability, I think they knew I’m genuinely interested in this. “I want to know what you’re learning. Let’s have a conversation about how you’re developing, what you’re learning,” and so on. So you end up creating a leadership development culture in your church as well.

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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.