Shifting Paradigms Impacting Growing Churches with Sean Morgan

Welcome back to the unSeminary podcast. We’re chatting with Sean Morgan, founder of The Ascent Leader, a year-long development program structured around relational cohorts which is designed to engage ministry leaders in transparent conversations and one-on-one coaching with world-class leaders.

As we transition from COVID being pandemic to endemic, there are paradigms church leaders have carried for decades that need to change. Listen in as Sean talks about where we need to shift our thinking and adopt new mindsets to be able to reach our communities and move forward in the future.

  • Redefine “full”. // One of the things Sean believes we need to reexamine in the church is the 80% rule that says if the room is 80% full, then it’s “full”. With everything that’s changed since covid and the social distancing people were encouraged to do, Sean believes today that “full” number is around 70%. However, you don’t grow your church by reaching your current attenders, you grow by reaching the unchurched. And Sean believes unchurched people who visit your church will feel like the service is full when it’s at 50% capacity. People who are new and visiting your church don’t want to be wedged right in between two other people.
  • Get back to some of the normal. // As church leaders, we have to get out of the mindset that we want to see the room 80% full before offering another service. Get back into some of the normal rhythms of your services before COVID. If you had two services before, but are now offering just one, go back to the two scheduled services as before. If you don’t create more space for people, they won’t come. Cast vision to your team not about filling the room, but rather reaching people. If you wait to hit the 80% mark in your service, it will create a bottleneck both physically and mentally.
  • Have focus to lead your team. // In this season, leaders need to continue caring for themselves and developing themselves by creating margin in their lives. Margin fuels focus, and in return focus fuels more margin. A great leader has focus and their team knows what their focus is and what success looks like. That leader can say no to things that aren’t their focus. When a leader doesn’t have focus, the team is on edge because they don’t know what to expect or how to measure success.
  • Listen to those close to you. // To create space and margin without being so busy, listen to your spouse and others close to you. Give your team permission to speak to you on what’s working and what isn’t. Ask and listen to your spouse about where you’re spinning your wheels, and do the same with your team. Those closest to us can see things that we can’t, and can identify our weaknesses. Create a culture where you can openly talk about these things.
  • Coming together to grow. // Leadership is lonely and it takes work to be transparent and vulnerable. This is why The Ascent Leader developed cohorts. Church leaders have an unlimited amount of content at their fingertips but it’s just noise until they can process it. The Cohorts bring a small circle of peers closer together for support, feedback, and learning as they grow in their leadership. Here church leaders can meet physically and process curated information together through facilitated conversations.
  • Shift gears when needed. // At times you have to shift gears in leading a team. What got you there on the team won’t always get you to the next level of your leadership. The Ascent Leader offers three cohort tracks to serve ministry leaders where they are. One track is for pastors navigating the transition into a new leadership role, one is for leaders seeking to grow in preaching, and another for planting pastors looking for the key relationships, tools, and resources for their new season of ministry.

You can find out more about The Ascent Leader at https://theascentleader.org/ and on Instagram @TheAscentLeader.

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Thank You to This Episode’s Sponsor: CDF Capital

Since 1953, CDF Capital has helped Christians and churches embrace their part in this story by providing the 3 kinds of capital every congregation needs for growth—Financial Capital, Leadership Capital, and Spiritual Capital. CDF Capital’s XP Summit Cohorts provide an exclusive, year-long experience that brings together hand-selected global ministry leaders and your peers in an intimate, small-group setting. Visit http://cdf.capital/UnCohort to learn more and enroll today!

Episode Transcript

Rich Birch — Hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. So glad that you have decided to tune in today. You know every week we try to bring you a leader who will both inspire and equip you and this week is absolutely no exception. Super excited to have my friend Sean Morgan with us. He is the founder of an organization called The Ascent Leader. If you do not know Sean, I don’t know where you’ve been, but you really should lean in on today’s conversation. I think you’re going to find this really fruitful. The Ascent is they do they do these one year long (that really become multiple year) development programs that really do these incredible cohorts with leaders in transitions, with communicators, senior leaders, all kinds of fantastic folks. Sean has his pulse on ah so much that’s going on in the local church. Sean, welcome to the show.

Sean Morgan — Yeah, it’s great to be here, Rich. Not only a huge fan of you, the unSeminary podcast, but I do track what you’re doing often, and shoot emails every now and then with questions on stuff I heard that you you spoke on when you so when you pop up on other podcasts. Those are ones that I always highlight to listen. So It’s a joy to be here.

Rich Birch — Oh thanks so much. I’m I’m honored that you’re here. Why don’t you tell us kind of give us the Sean Morgan story – tell us a bit about your background and then how that connects with The Ascent Leader.

Sean Morgan — Yeah, so I never had a strategic plan for ministry or a call into ministry at a young age. Like I was really interested in airplanes and followed that passion into the air force and ended up flying airplanes which ah, shifted gears from a full-time job to a part-time job when I left active duty air force and joined the reserves. And a big part of that was I fell in love with a local church plant outside of San Francisco and that was really my call into ministry was there. And it wasn’t just a call into ministry, it was also focused on that town, that church, and serving that lead pastor. Like I felt a very distinct piece of the call was identified in serving, complimenting, that lead pastor for a season. Um and I felt like that from the very beginning. I thought it was actually, foolishly, I was like oh yeah, this would be 6 to 12 months, you know then it was almost 8 years.

Rich Birch — Nice. Love it.

Sean Morgan — Um and then God blessed that that church – we had some highs and lows in the church plant. A guy named Thom Rainer, who was CEO at Lifeway and has written a ton of great books, wrote a book about that church that other leaders wanted to come in and glean from us. And that turned into ultimately what I’m doing now which is discovering ways to engage with leaders relationally and conversationally, to figure out what their next steps are for what I would call whatever channel in their world is going to bring the most ministry fruit, low-hanging fruit would be a concept, or the most everybody has 3 or 4 or 5 key things they could be working on. But if you can really build relationship with people you probably can figure out what’s the one that’s the most important – that’s going to be you know, take them further faster in Andy Stanley terminology – so that’s what we’re able to focus our ministry on now is figuring figuring that out. And we do that at The Ascent Leader in a cohort environment.

Rich Birch — Love it. Well one of the things—there’s a lot that I appreciate about your leadership—one of the things I appreciate about your leadership is you are in the corner of local church leaders. You really are the kind of person that’s a friend of leaders, you come alongside of so many different leaders. I know so many people through the years have been um, really helped, honored, blessed by your your cohort work. And so I wrangled you, I twisted your arm, and I said listen, I want to I want to tap your brain about what you’re hearing as you’re talking with church leaders across the country. You’ve a lot of relationships with church leaders – would love to kind of hear kind of what’s the headspace that you keep running into, the kind of issues or where people are at. I was kind of joking earlier it’s not this isn’t really the like 2 year covid anniversary show, but there is like ah you know that’s an interesting milestone. We find ourselves, you know a lot of things have changed in the last two years; a lot of things are exactly the same. What what do you find yourself running into as you’re talking with leaders across the country?

Sean Morgan — Yeah, that’s great. As you were asking that question I’m so glad you said, you know, there’s this phrase – a lot of things have changed, and a lot of things are exactly the same. And that’s absolutely right – we’re still us. Through through all of the turmoil of 2020/2021 and to whatever we are now – endemic? Who knows?

Rich Birch — Yes, yes.

Sean Morgan — Um, we’re still us. We still bring our stuff. And so we still have things that we do well naturally and things we don’t, and then that bears fruit in our teams and our organizations. But I would say from from the where we are here and now – one of the things that I see is leaders are are still… even though I think the language is changing not everyone’s comparing themselves to precovid, and say oh we’re yet precovid and I think that’s healthy, you know it’s like where are we now? And what do we need to do to go forward? But I do think there is a sense of, from a standpoint of how many people can we reach, there’s still a big argument that is you know going to take years to really conclude is the nature of tracking church size by Sunday morning attendance not being helpful to true transformation, right? True discipleship.

Rich Birch — So true.

Sean Morgan — But I do think there’s some elements of that that are like well how many people can we reach and serve? And what I’m seeing, one one thing that’s definitely a theme for right now in ministry is there are paradigms we have carried with us for decades that need to go away. So it’s it’s not just the precovid attendance thing but there is ah a thought of a little bit deeper than that. So one of the questions I always try to dig into with leaders is the why? Okay you said that. But why is that? Why do you think that’s true? And if it’s true, why is it actually true? And um one of the things that I think we need to really reexamine in church is what we used to call was the 80% rule. Do you remember that?

Rich Birch — Yeah, absolutely – if the room is 80% full, it’s full. Right? Yes.

Sean Morgan — Yep, yep. Yeah I think that number for your church attenders today is between is is down 10%.

Rich Birch — Yeah, okay, interesting.

Sean Morgan — So I think average church attenders want more elbow room. We’re all in the we’re all coming out of 24 months of social distancing and just being a little further away. So I think that that that’s changed, whether it’s a tiny little bit or a couple percentage points, I’m going to say for the average regular attender in your church today I think that’s 70%. Now here’s where here’s where the rub is. You don’t grow your church by reaching your current attenders.

Rich Birch — Mmm-hmm.

Sean Morgan — You grow your church by by reaching unchurched right? People who aren’t there. I think that number for unchurched is 50%.

Rich Birch — Oh oh this is okay – I’m just taking notes here. There’s a bunch I want to loop back on this.

Sean Morgan — So yeah, okay.

Rich Birch — So you think it’s lower for folks that don’t normally attend church. Why is that what? Why do you think that is?

Sean Morgan — Well, they don’t know anybody.

Rich Birch — Right.

Sean Morgan — So if you go to church—and and I love your church by the way; I get you know have a privilege of being sort of an insider there in some ways—but you know, you go there. It’s a great church but you know people and you you…

Rich Birch — Yep.

Sean Morgan — …Generally, you know, Willow Creek years that ago had the sections mindset of trying to connect people in communities based on where they sit in the room because they’re they’re frequently in those same parts of the auditorium at the same service times. And I think there’s some truth into that or creatures of habit. So you don’t mind going in and there’s somebody from your small group and you guys sit up next to them. If you show up in that room and you’re already feeling timid about, why am I even here?

Rich Birch — Yes.

Sean Morgan — Like I talked myself into coming here. I talked myself into getting out of the car and walking in here. You don’t want to sit in a seat between two people. If you go into a movie theater and look where people sit before the show when the lights on and you can actually see, people don’t sit together. If they come together, they sit together.

Rich Birch — No, it’s so true.

Sean Morgan — If they don’t, they want their own row. And so there’s just this mindset of of… Now as the room fills up obviously that that social distancing space narrows, and there are concerts and venues that are filling up every seat, but in general I think the feeling of people when you’re unknown and you feel unknown, you just don’t want to be wedged in between two people. And I can tell you what, nobody likes my singing so they don’t want to sit next to me..

Rich Birch — Love it. Yeah, so there’s a lot of implications there. I think you’re I think you’re definitely on to something there. You know I know even just as ah as an individual—and you know I do this for a living – I think about church for a living—when I go to a new place where I don’t know anybody. There is that just natural kind of like pushback around just like a little more space around me. So what would be some of the implications of that? I guess that’s driving towards more services, smaller services. You know I like I would say I’m a fan of multisite – to me that what I hear I hear more campuses, more smaller campuses. That does resonate with some of the conversations I’m having with church leaders out there, thinking about hey like it two years ago three years ago we might have deemed a campus successful if it was five hundred or seven hundred people. Maybe maybe a campus of 200 is successful. Maybe if it’s it’s fewer people and we’re going to do two of them or three of them. Where we used to just do one – kind of cram people in. Is that the kind of thing you’re seeing or or bumping up against?

Sean Morgan — Yeah I think it um, it’s multiple things. So like if I talk to a church and they say you know here’s where we’re here’s where we’re at and we do get—I try not to ask first but like where were you at before covid—just getting a sense of the size of your room, and how many service times you had, and those types of things.

Rich Birch — Mmm-hmm

Sean Morgan — Most of the time if somebody tells me, they’re 50% full and I say, well how many services are you running? Well we had one. How many did you run before covid? Two. Um, why don’t you start a second service? Well because we’re not quite full now. And what they mean by that is we’re not at or near 80%. And I’m like, there is a sense of um, we like the room full.

Rich Birch — Yes

Sean Morgan — If you’re preaching. It is so awesome to walk in and see standing room only, like you feel great.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Sean Morgan — We got to get out of that mindset; we have to just we have to readjust. So there is a sense of—I can tell you I’m going to say a phrase, which is like—if you build it they will come. That’s not entirely true, but you know what is true? If you don’t build it, they won’t come.

Rich Birch — That’s so true. Yes.

Sean Morgan — And so I think we have to get out of that mindset of trying to get toward 80% full. I think we have to go back to, hey people are ready for some of the normal rhythms of their life. like if you had an 8 am and a 10 am but right now you’re running one 9 am; get your 8 am and your 10 am back. Create the space and then work your team with the vision, not to fill it as the goal but to be reaching people. I think there’s a whole new opportunity here. And so yeah I would say that’s definitely something that we’ve got to think about that different. We have to create space, so we know that, right? When we talk about just welcoming new people into church, like from the experience from the curb in, like is this a positive experience? Do people feel welcome? Well part of feeling welcome is having room.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Sean Morgan — And their needle for what feels right with how much room is needed… like here’s another one that I think maybe might be like 1980s/1990s old church advice was um…

Rich Birch — Sure.

Sean Morgan — …only put up half the chairs. And then when people come in and you’re pulling chairs out of the back, they’re like whoa, this is magical…

Rich Birch — Yes.

Sean Morgan — …like we’re we’re you know like this room’s filling up. Do you know who that feels good to? The people that work there.

Rich Birch — Yes, yes.

Sean Morgan — Do you know who you know what that feels like when it’s your first time or your second time? It feels like nobody prepared for me. I’m not welcome here.

Rich Birch — Right. Yeah yeah.

Sean Morgan — Like if you go over to somebody’s house and there’s a dining room table with 6, and you walk in to their house and 6 people are sitting down seated sitted seated down and and they’re all talking and enjoying the dinner table, and you stand there and then somebody has to oh oh yeah, yeah let’s let’s go get an extra chair for Sean.

Rich Birch — Yes, yes.

Sean Morgan — Or let’s go get an extra chair for Rich. You don’t feel the same as when you walk in they thought about you before you got there and there’s your chair.

Rich Birch — Yeah, welcome.

Sean Morgan — And so I think some things like that we just have to reexamine. Those aren’t difficult things for for church but they’re all paradigms that have carried with us over the years that we have to reexamine because there is some huge opportunity from just the standpoint of we have the opportunity to reset some things.

Rich Birch — Yeah, absolutely.

Sean Morgan — And and we can choose which ones those are. So that’s that’s one area where I feel like um, it’s going to be uncomfortable for leaders to do that. Nobody wants to preach with a 50% full room, but my guess would be if you start that now you’re gonna see it grow a little bit by the time you know, May rolls around and then by fall you’re going to see it grow even more. But if you’re so if you stay with one service instead of two, or two instead of three and you’re waiting for that 80% mark, I think it’s the bottleneck in a lot of ways. It’s not only the bottleneck physically, but maybe even for your psyche and your mental thought process, and that of the team.

Rich Birch — Yeah I love that. The other piece of that that I love from a ah church growth, multiplication, leadership point of view is more services requires more leaders. It requires us to get out and find more leaders, which we know ultimately does drive growth. That as we engage more people in the mission and as we force ourselves to find people and say, hey can you get plugged into what God’s doing here – that does drive growth in our churches. That does. Because all those people’s lives change and then they end up telling their friends like oh I’m I’m volunteering at the church now. Why are you volunteering at the church? Oh you should come. All of those those are all positive um, you know, kind of outcomes of new services, new volunteers, where I think sometimes in this season there’s a bit of like, well we we feel the overwhelm of not having as many volunteers, and so it’s like we back off from that. We let’s well make it easier for ourselves. Let’s make it easier so we don’t have to find those people.

Sean Morgan — Yeah tail wagging the dog. Right.

Rich Birch — Yeah absolutely. We got to go the other way around. Yeah I heard a leader say recently said you know we’ve got to stop thinking about rebuilding, and we’ve just got to get back to building. Like we we’ve got to stop focusing on, well let’s try to get back to where we were before…

Sean Morgan — Right.

Rich Birch — …and just get back to we’re reaching people. Like we just got to get our head around, okay, we’re outreaching – gonna reach a whole bunch of new people. Yeah I love that.

Sean Morgan — Yep, yeah, that’s a beautiful statement.

Rich Birch — Now when you’re thinking about leaders as individuals – a part of what I love is you have like the pulse on on people at you know, at the at the level of you know, I’m an individual leader – not even necessarily outside of even you know, them leading in their um you know, in their community – what would you say the need of leaders that’s maybe stayed the same – that was their precovid, that’s still there now, that we have to kind of as as individuals – what what should we be thinking about? How should we be kind of caring for ourselves or developing ourselves in this season, that again was maybe their precovid, but is still there now today?

Sean Morgan — Yeah, so I love the thought of margin and focus and synergy and alignment and clarity. These kinds of ideas – man the I had a conversation with a great leader yesterday who asked me a question about some somebody I was in a conversation with, and they were surprised that this person like had time in their schedule to do these things. And I was like I’m not surprised, because the leaders that I see leading some of the biggest things in terms of just movements and and that sort of thing—is not again about church size, but but the things that I’m just taking notes on and awed by—they’re leaders that have focus, and their team knows what that focus is, so they’re focused on that which means they say no to the other things. And then their team actually knows what success looks like; their team knows, okay so a leader without focus comes in the room and their team is always on edge because this person has a high standard, but we don’t know what they’re going to measure today. Focus actually tells everybody here’s what we’re going to be measuring, and here’s the yardstick for measuring. So how do you get to focus? And I said margin is the birthplace of clarity, which leads to focus and it’s a win for you and it’s a win for your team.

Rich Birch — Oh that’s good.

Sean Morgan — And the crazy thing is is when you have focus, it actually fuels margin. There’s there’s a repeating cycle there, but it has to start with margin. So that’s my answer is, leaders need focus. They needed it before they need it now. I do think leaders are figuring it out having been… the pendulum always swings side to side, right? And so when you get squeezed, and pinched, and pressured through all the things that the last couple years have offered, you feel that more, and you react to it, and you adjust. And so I feel like people now are are coming into this next season of ministry saying: I don’t have margin. How do I get it?

Rich Birch — Right. Right. I love that. I love that margin is the birthplace of focus – that is so good. That’s going to stick with me for sure. I love… How are you finding that leaders are are maybe restructuring their lives to get more margin? to to find that space? I totally agree with you that there seems to be this… there was a time, I think in a previous generation where being busy was seen as a badge of honor, right? And our friend Carriey Nieuwhof has said this publicly, right?

Sean Morgan — Indeed. Yeah.

Rich Birch — At one point it was like hey you talked to a leader ,and it was like I’m busy, busy, busy – that was like ah propagated by who ultimately a lot of those leaders who lived in that you know unfortunately have ended up flaming out. Their lives have not it’s not worked out well in life. Where I think we’re getting to a better spot where people are saying hey I that isn’t my goal. My goal is not to be busy, busy busy, but it’s to be focused and have mission. So what are some ways that you’re you’re finding that leaders are adding more margin or getting more margin into their lives in in this season?

Sean Morgan — Yeah I think that there’s a couple things. The first one is just listen to your spouse.

Rich Birch — So true.

Sean Morgan — Husbands listen to your wives; wives listen to your husbands. Um I am always amazed when I talk to a leader’s spouse at how smart they are…

Rich Birch — Right? So true.

Sean Morgan — …and how insightful. And these leaders are immersed in ministry all day long and need you talk to their spouse for 10 minutes and they can summarize everything in a couple of minutes.

Rich Birch — Yes, yeah, that is so true.

Sean Morgan — So listen to those people close to you, and that includes your team, but there’s an additional there’s probably an additional onus with working with your team, as you have to give them permission. Like genuine permission – they have to know they can speak into things. Because I think it’s probably almost 100% true that most employees know what their boss’s weaknesses are.

Rich Birch — So true. Yes.

Sean Morgan — And most employees, like we all think we know what our boss’s weaknesses are. Um, so I I think the it’s also true that they know when you’re doing things that are going to be moving the organization forward and where it seems like you might be getting pulled, and we can all be numb to that – that frog and water concept. Which I’ve never tried that with a frog – I’m not recommending it. But…

Rich Birch — Yes, yes, yes.

Sean Morgan — …But you know you know what I’m saying. It’s like the deck chairs on the Titanic. Nobody knows that that is actually a true thing. But the metaphor works.

Rich Birch — A thing that happened ah true. Don’t let yeah exactly exactly it’s good.

Sean Morgan — So we have to build that into our teams. We have to say it and then they have to feel that we mean it when we said it. Like I tell leaders there’s no such thing as an open door policy. You can’t just say that because that puts the onus on them to come in and break the ice and enter. You you can have an open door policy, but you have to grease the skids, right? You have to create the culture that allows things to move that direction and I think as we listen to our spouses on where am I spinning my wheels? If I had to say no to one more thing, what what would that be? And we need to do the same thing with our teams, and we have to ask them and we have to mean it, which means we have to have showed them that they they really can speak into that. That’s different. There is a ah, decades old sort of like just that loneliness of the corner office and some of those things are fairly unavoidable, but some of those things I think have been created over the years of leadership isolation. And we can do some things about it.

Rich Birch — Yeah, that’s interesting. I love that. I think that’s so true. I think we have to it’s like we’ve got to go first when it comes to creating and a community a culture with our teams where they’re willing to call us on our stuff, right? We’ve got to show that; we’ve got to open up that vulnerability. We have to you know we have to work to be transparent. It doesn’t just magically happen. I love that. Now I’d love to pivot in here a little bit more about what you’re doing in cohorts. I just love what you’ve done here. I have had multiple friends that have engaged with you have done have just really been incredibly blessed by you know what you do but kind of tell us a little bit about that. What you know what are what are these magical cohorts that you are ah, you know you’re leading with leaders across the country. Has that worked? Give us kind of description of what that looks like.

Sean Morgan — Yeah, well we started this about seven years ago and the whole point of it was I had felt over the years, and you see it more clearly now, but you know content was everywhere. And more people were engaging in content and it’s basically free, right? Books you can get for free. Libraries. Audible. If you really follow an author most authors are blogging, like their thoughts are out there. If they’re pastors they’re preaching about some of the same stuff they’re writing about. Podcasts. So there was there was a ah, rising just as the amount of content available at your fingertips if you were hungry was was rising. It was basically unlimited then, and it’s beyond unlimited now. That doesn’t really work mathematically, but you know, um, and so I started feeling like what are what are… that that actually could feel heavy right? It could feel dizzying, so what are leaders doing with that content? And I had a theory. One: leadership’s lonely. We talked about that – some some of those things you can fix some of them you can’t, but leadership’s lonely. And two, I had this thought that you, everybody has to process the information out there. Um, in fact, it’s almost like it’s data…

Rich Birch — Right.

Sean Morgan — …and then as you process it it becomes informative. It becomes information. So it’s noise, right? And then you you capture pieces of it and then as you process it and think about it and there’s a certain amount of that – introverts do more of their processing by themselves, extroverts with others, but we all need to share ideas with other people. We all need other people to lean in and validate our thinking. And so I started this thing of there’s a lot of great conferences out there, there’s a lot of great content out there, leadership gatherings out there. What if I could do more with getting leaders around fire pits, or my podcast leaders in living rooms, at those metaphors, but I was actually literally thinking about what if I could do that and curate, not only who’s there but what they come in wanting to wrestle with, like if you could get the right who’s and they already know sort of central themes that they have in common then they’re walking in the door maybe having no relational connection. But the possibilities of tight relational connections are right there on the cusp.

Rich Birch — Mmm-hmm.

Sean Morgan — And then what if you could so you could curate that and then what if you could facilitate the conversations that begin to bring that out. Here’s what I’m seeing, here’s why I’m seeing it, here’s why I think it’s important to me. What do you guys think? Well I know you I’ve been to your church and so that all create that all that type of thing sort of creates ah, proximity and a closeness that really I would just rev revolve around the word relationship. And you’ll ask better questions of me if we’re in a better relationship because there’s trust that begins to form. And so I asked myself and we we experimented and we got some things right early on and we got some things that we didn’t get right and we and we continue to make tweaks and adjustments. But I asked could we create that and one of the things was how would we do that and the other thing was how often do you need to do it. And we came up with three, we think for all of our cohorts. We pretty much kick them off and they gather physically, typically in an AirBnB three times a year, and we come underneath ah, the tutelage of a mentor. Somebody typically we’ve studied, we all know, who open up their home, and in the inside version of their life and leadership and we usually get access to their executive team. So there’s a personal sort of thing of that in their home and then there’s a professional side of it into their executive team in their church.

Rich Birch — Mmm-hmm.

Sean Morgan — And all the while we’re doing all everything together, right? So we’re we’re doing coffee together. We’re piling around cars together. We’re doing meals together, and it just brings us closer and closer and it’s all those little in-between things that take what generally would be good and just keep adding 5 or 10% to it to where it really has become a great thing.

Rich Birch — Love this. Friends, if you’re listening in and you’re not experiencing something like this, I would highly recommend that you reach out to Sean and his team. We’re going to give you more details at the end. But but even if you don’t want to talk with him, these kinds of relationships where you’re journeying over an extended period of time with a group of people with intentions—so it’s not just like hey we’re dudes hanging out or we’re we’re leaders hanging out—it’s like hey we’re we’re we’re wrestling with the same kinds of issues and we’re in each other’s lives enough to be able to push in, I just think there’s so much value there for sure. So interestingly in a so time when—I’d love to hear why this is because it seems intentional looking out I’ve never asked you this question—in a time when everything is going online, everything is like over Zoom. Everything is digital. It’s like The Ascent Leader you’re going the opposite direction. You got to get on planes, you got to get in rental cars, you got to sit in people’s backyards. Why? What is the magic in that? Why why bother? Why not why doesn’t it just all work over Zoom?

Sean Morgan — Yeah, that it is very intentional, and I I applaud everything that people are doing to to pioneer and experiment into those spaces. And obviously during the pandemic that was life-giving to so pretty much everybody. Um. And so I’m all for that. You know the idea of of digital community and things like that like, I’ve I’ve been deployed in the air force I’ve been deployed 4 times so I’ve spent about a year of my life living in a tent somewhere on the other side of the planet. So been a digital husband and a digital dad in those moments, right? Lots of phone calls, lots of Facetimes, and all those things – it was wonderful. Um I wouldn’t choose that as my first option, I’d rather like take my kids out to ice cream than watch them eat ice cream on Zoom but that’s what was available. It was a wonderful tool. And so I feel the same way, like there are some great things there but I I do feel that at the end of the day, we talked about this or on the podcast, we’re still people. We’re still us – we are still made for community. So there’s Adam in the garden, and what did God say? Said this not good.

Rich Birch — By himself. Yeah, yeah.

Sean Morgan — But when community was created…

Rich Birch — It’s very good.

Sean Morgan — …this is very good. There’s something in us. We are hardwired to be like our creator in many ways and there is a community in the trinity. And there will be always a longing for community and so I think some of that is just physical proximity. And even you know not I’m not a mass person or a no mass person you know, do it, you need do to say safe and follow guidelines. But I’ll use that a little bit as a metaphor of like there’s something pleasing to taking your mask off—like metaphorical mask of of showing people who you are and the literal mask of kind of being able to, like I do feel like like you can hide behind that and like where I think you’re actually seeing in young people like they’re reluctant to take their mask off not because they care about Covid but because there’s some social anxiety, but once you begin to trust the people around you, you’re okay taking your mask off and um, yeah, so.

Rich Birch — That’s so good. Well I love this and you know I as ah so in my time in the local church I’ve been in that executive pastor seat, you know, two and a half decades of that kind of work, and one of the things I’ve said for years with senior pastors that I love and have a real honor and privilege—guys like Carey – our mutual friend, Tim Lucas, Bruxy Cavy in Toronto—you know for years I said to those folks particularly that they don’t have a peer on the staff team. There might be 50, 60, 70 people on the staff team, but and and I and I am a good friend of theirs and I um, love them and care for them and you know do everything we can, but I’m not a peer and a lot of times those people particularly those lead pastors or communicators, people who do that, the work of their lives is so different than the rest of their team and the thing I love about what you do is you create a place where people like that can get those kinds of relationships and so it is such a different pressure. I know a communicator is is one of the cohorts you do um where it’s obviously groups of people who you know communicate for a living and that’s such a strange, that’s a strange, weird head thing where it’s like you are the product of the organization and you’re leading at the same time. Man, that’s an odd relationship to be in, and I can kind of see it, but man to get around with some other folks. I know you also do a Transitions cohort. Tell me about that. What’s that one all about?

Sean Morgan — Yeah, that’s the thing that I spent about 80% of my time on personally, and there was a lot – ten years ago there was a lot going on about succession transition stuff, but really if you go if you go look at 95/99% of it, it’s about planning for succession. And I realized that there’s this baton pass and then what’s on the other side of that is everybody on the church kind of goes oh oh glad that’s over with. And then what’s on the other side of that is typically a 35 to 45 year old first time lead pastor, not always first time but sometimes, probably the vast majority and they’re they’re going. Um. I feel like a fake because I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m in charge and I don’t want to tell anybody because I don’t want him to lose confidence like I do believe I’m called here. So what do I do? In the axioms of leadership that I’ve been taught on the team don’t always apply leading the team, right? What got you here won’t get you there? Like what got you here on the team won’t get you there leading the team. You’ve you’ve got to shift gears in some ways as a leader in that role and just in the season of transition where everything is the way it is because somebody else decided it that way and set the culture that way. So it was this enigma and they were very lonely leaders. So that was the first thing that I began to step toward is working with post-succession, transitions leaders and it continues to be the mainstay of what we do. We just launched this week Church Planters – so there’s two ways to become a lead pastor. You either follow somebody or you go plant your own, and we just announced this week that we’ll be launching Church Planter cohorts, and I’m really pleased – that’s with Andy Wood who’s a friend of yours at Echo. He’ll be the director of that space.

Rich Birch — Right. That’s fantastic.

Sean Morgan — So we’ll really be able to help lead pastors across the board and I’m really pleased with that. God’s clearly ordained that. And the transition site really just continues to to gain momentum and looking to develop some content that will come out later this fall to help leaders outside of what we do in the Cohort. We’ll have some digital content out there.

Rich Birch — Love it. So good. Well Sean, this has been a great conversation. I appreciate you giving us some time today to check in and and to hear where you’re at and to learn. Is there anything else you want to share just as we wrap up today’s episode?

Sean Morgan — You know, first of all, thank you. It’s an honor to be here and I know you’ve got a great following with this podcast, and it’s your 600 episodes in, so that says a lot, like you’re bringing it in. I think Carey is the one it says with podcast people paying with their time and you’re clearly honoring that, and so it’s just a joy to step in and speak into that. I mean there’s a couple other things – I think one of the things that that leaders are going to have to address and we can talk about this later or and there’s some other experts that I think we will know some is. Most leaders saw an increase in giving during the Pandemic. Um, not all churches but most of them did pretty good, but they saw a decrease in giving units, which means their major gifts were were the driver behind that which is hey that’s a blessing, but there’s there’s some stuff below the surface that’s gonna have to be you know, worked on in churches to address that. And if you didn’t have major gifts coming in your budget was probably down. Maybe even way down. And so there’s some things that have to be addressed there. So I think that’s another huge topic that’s looming in the next few months. In fact just talking with leaders in the last thirty days, I have heard this story, I’ll bet at least 6 times, and it’s December giving was the single best month we’ve ever seen. In January and February we’re as much as 30% below budget and we don’t know why. Ao there could be this that could be a more poignant conversation sooner than I than we all hope it will be. I hope it won’t be, but I do think in the next three months or six months leaders are going to have to go deep there, face the music there, and begin to take action in different ways.

Rich Birch — Yeah, that’s so good. You know I’ve been saying to friends, similarly, I’ve been saying you know if you don’t have a systematic approach on the fundraising side of what you do on the revenue generations—I literally just two days ago was talking with a lead pastor about these issues. He was you know he was picking my brain on some of that stuff and and um, you know at the end of the call I said to him I said, you know thinking about revenue needs to be a normal part of your day. Like this this shouldn’t be an exception. This shouldn’t be a like oh once a year I think about it, twice a year I think about it. It’s like every week you’re going to need to think about how are we increasing revenue. And I think a lot of our churches have skated by not having to do that, but that is odd for organizations of our size with the number of staff and the revenue that… Most organizations the senior leader—ah so a portion, a slice – it might not be all but it would be you know a third of their time—they’re thinking about revenue, they’re thinking about what… And that’s and that’s like that’s like Elon Musk, you know richest guy in the world, you know runs a big organization – he’s thinking about how are we going to sell more spaceships, how do we sell more you know… he doesn’t delegate it all that he’s actually wrestling through that. And the same is true for us, I think, but for some reason there are still church leaders out there that look at that as like oh that’s like below me or it’s like you know it’s yucky; I don’t want to think about it. So and that’s interesting.

Sean Morgan — Yeah, and I think it could be over spiritualized. Well, it’s God’s provision and all this I saying its like well yes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a plan.

Rich Birch — That’s a good that’s a good word. Yeah yeah, exactly exactly and take some action on it. Sean, so good. Where do we want to send people online if they want to track with The Ascent Leader, or track with you? How do how do we want people to kind of follow up with you post today’s episode?

Sean Morgan — Yeah I mean the best way our our website is great. We just did an update late last year which is The Ascent Leader A-S-C-E-N-T … theascentleader.org and their our social’s really through Instagram @theascentleader.

Rich Birch — Love it. Thanks so much, Sean. Appreciate you being here, and I look forward to having you back in the future.

Sean Morgan — Would love to. Thanks, Rich! Thanks for all you do.

Rich Birch — Take care.


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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.