Tim Stevens on building a positive team culture in your church.


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timstevensTim Stevens is a team leader with the Vanderbloemen Search Group, an executive search firm that helps churches and ministries find great leaders. Previously he was the executive pastor at Granger Community Church in Indiana. During his twenty years there, he helped grow the church to more than 5,000 gathering weekly in three locations and saw a worldwide impact, which included a community center in downtown South Bend, Indiana, and more than 1,800 new churches in southern India.  In this interview Tim talks about what he’s learned in building strong local church leadership teams. This interview is perfect for church leaders looking to build and release effective teams in their ministry.

Episode Highlights

00:39 // Rich introduces Tim and welcomes him to the show.

01:20 // Tim talks about his background and moving to Vanderbloemen Search Group.

04:52 // Tim talks about how he gets great people on his team.

06:56 // Tim talks about the advantages of hiring from within the church.

09:19 // Tim talks about building a culture within the church to retain current staff and that will attract others.

12:17 // Tim recommends finding great leaders and then allow them to lead.

15:04 // Tim talks about the segments in his book: Fairness is Overrated:  And 51 Other Leadership Principles to Revolutionize Your Workplace.

17:25 // Tim talks about the importance of getting the hiring process right and choosing the right candidate.

Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools // Wunderlist

Ministries Following // Harvest Church, Billings, Montana – Crossroads Grace in Manteca, California

Influential Book // The New Gold Standard

Inspiring Leader // George W. Bush

What does he do for fun? // Tennis, handyman projects


Episode Transcript

Rich – Alright, well hey every, welcome to the unSeminary podcast, happy Thursday. Hopefully you’re having a great week as we get ready for this weekend of ministry at your church. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to take some time to invest in your own leadership today, to put us into your earbuds and to listen in on this conversation.

I’m super excited to have Tim Stevens with us today. Tim is a part of, I think your title is like Team Leader or something like that, at Vanderbloemen Search Group. Before that he was at Granger Community Church in Granger, Indianapolis. Super excited to have Tim on the show today. Tim welcome.

Tim – So glad to be here, thanks for giving me a few minutes to talk to your friends and your audience.

Rich – Thank you so much, I’m glad to have you today along for the ride. So obviously you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about teams and leadership and that sort of thing. I wonder if you could give us the Tim Stevens’ story, kind of who is Tim Stevens for people who don’t know and a bit of your background and where you are today and that sort of thing.

Tim – I’ve been in ministry now for almost 30 years, but I started my career at a non-profit organization called Life Action Ministries. I spent 9 years there and had a tremendous run there. I started attending a little start-up church when I was working there called Granger Community Church, meeting in a movie theater in South Bend area, South Bend Indiana and I was just like, “Okay this is where I’ve been working with churches for 9 years but this is different, this is a church that’s reaching people that I have not seen a lot of churches reach.” It was very appealing to me and I was asked to come on staff. The church was about 5 or 6 years, I think I was the 5th staff member at the time. So meeting in a very small room, around a table basically was how we did it. 300 people in the church.

I did a number of things in those early years and within a couple of years was asked to be the executive pastor. It was just a fun ride. I was there for 11 days shy of 20 years, I don’t want to exaggerate, and we saw the church grow into the thousands. We were able to see significant ministry done both in the community and around the world. A lot of work that we were doing and the church still continues in Southern India. So our 18 hundred churches start there.

So just a fun and exciting ride, to be able to be a part of that. When I left, just early this summer, we had 129 staff members, several multisites, a pre-school. We were doing a restaurant that was an outreach out of the church campus there to reach people during the week and just a tremendous team.

But God led me away from there, said “Your season is done, your time is done,” and I just felt great peace about that. When I made that decision I didn’t know exactly what that meant; where I’d be going. But about 3 years prior I had hired Vanderbloemen Search Group to help us find a campus pastor, it was a positive experience and I didn’t think much about it after that. Then as I was kind of concerned what the next chapter is, it just seemed like a natural fit. I get the opportunity to work with pastors and churches still, which I love. I get the opportunity to find great talent, which was one of the most favorite things I did at Granger and I get the chance to lead a team. So that’s exciting as well. So it’s a great fit. I’m all of like 3 months old here now, so still very new, I’m still very much in the honeymoon season.

Rich – So you’ve found the bathroom in the office, that’s basically what you’ve done.

Tim – I know where to park my car, yeah. That’s about as good as it gets.

Rich – Well with a hundred and some odd staff on your team at Granger and obviously with what you’re doing in your day job now, obviously you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how you get great people to come onto your team. What have you done on that front? What are some of those things we should be thinking about when we’re trying to bring great people onto our teams?

Tim – It’s interesting in that, if you think about when people want to join your team, often what they do first is they give you a résumé. In my work now we see hundreds and hundreds of résumés, we get probably 4 to 5 hundred résumés a week.

Rich – Oh my goodness, wow.

Tim – Now résumés tend to contain your education and your job experience, which are both valuable pieces of information, but in the realm of everything that I’m looking for when I hire someone, those two are probably the smallest pieces of the puzzle. So in some cases résumés are worthless. I actually have a chapter in my book called, Résumés Are Worthless, a little bit of an overkill, attention getting chapter title. But it kinds of speaks to the fact that there’s so much related to hiring staff that is beyond experience and education and that would be character. Character’s so huge and so important, especially when we’re hiring for church ministry. We don’t have time to help someone learn not to steal or learn to keep their pants zipped, or learn to do the honest. They have to come on staff with a certain level of that.

Other things such as chemistry is huge. Both chemistry/culture fit with the church, every church has a unique DNA and I’m finding that more in my current role. I think it’s a God given DNA most of the time and it’s not a right or wrong, it’s just kind of a thumb print; it is what it is, it’s what makes them unique. So culture fits huge and chemistry with the team. You can have someone with great experience and with an amazing pedigree, who even kinds of fits the culture, but you just don’t love going to lunch with them, you know the chemistry just isn’t there. So that’s huge.

Rich – How do you test for… moving back on a couple of those things. So you’re interacting with someone, you see a bunch of résumés on your desk and you’re trying to figure out that both those issues, either the character or culture fit, how are you trying to test for those and understand those? Even on the early end, trying to make some assessments as you’re weeding through those résumés?

Tim – Two answers to that. One will be as a pastor as I was for 20 years in a church, then the second part of that would be as now, a search consultant, helping churches find…

As a pastor you’ve got such an advantage because you have a congregation with dozens or hundreds or thousands, depending on the size of the church, of people that you see their character and you see their fit. You know the culture whether they get the culture or not. So it’s really an advantage that most employers, corporate employers or whatever, don’t have, they don’t have that advantage, they just see your best in an interview, or see your best in a résumé.

So I think digging into that, when you’re hiring somebody, boy if you can find someone and I say this as a search consultant, but if you can hire someone from inside your church first, it’s always the best way to do it. You know so much about their strengths and weaknesses, you’ve seen them lead teams, you’ve seen how they interact with the team, you’ve watched their life, you know, how they handle their marriage, you know all that stuff. So the 129 staff we had, 123 of them had been hired from within the church. So a big fan of that.

The second part of that answer then, is now as a search consultant, we really dig in. One of the things that we try to do really well is dig in and understand the culture and understand exactly what it is that makes, when you cut that person and they bleed Harvest Church or Grace Chapel, whatever the name of the church is, what is that, what is that secret sauce that makes them who they are?

So we spend a lot of time on the front side, trying to figure, not only what position are they trying to fill or what kind of person they want but what’s the culture.

Rich – Interesting. So let’s assume for a moment that we’ve got this great team of people around us, they’re incredible folks, we’re just so glad to have them. We’ll build them up, they’re qualified, they’re making a big difference, they’re kicking whatever and taking names. How do we build the kind of culture that will keep those folks? For anyone that’s had any size of team, that’s a real issue, you think about that; how do we retain the people we’ve got and ensure they feel super happy and fired up, then ultimately build the kind of culture that will attract other folks?

Tim – Yeah some quick thoughts on that and these might seem over-simplistic, just because we only have a couple of minutes but I think they’re important. One thing is just creating a culture where you have fun. Where it’s not just all business, it’s not just all transactional, it’s not just all, every time that you’re face to face with your staff that you’re getting stuff done, but you’re actually creating space to have some fun, to hang out and not just required fun, the party that everyone has to go to.

Rich – The Christmas party.

Tim – Exactly. Create space just for people to kind of let down and be able to have some of that important community time together. I think probably one of the most important ingredients of building culture, that we did at Granger for years ,that we started doing early on is a staff meeting and that’s going to sound like, “Oh great, so everybody has a staff meeting.” It wasn’t the fact that we had a staff meeting, it was the ingredients of that. So there were 2 or 3 things that we did in that every week, our staff meeting, and I’m talking about all staff, so everyone’s in the room. Our staff meeting had nothing to do with getting stuff done, it was really a culture building hour every week.

So we would spend 15 or 20 minutes together as a staff, just telling stories; where have you seen God at work in the life of the church in the last 7 to 10 ten days? Everyone from facility care people to the leadership team, and everyone in between can tell stories and can hear stories. It just kind of breaks you out of your… sometimes we get just so focused in a specific area, we’re doing students and it feels like we’re the only one doing anything and nothing else is getting done. It just kind of breaks you out of that. You might be in a position where you don’t see as much actual fruit, like facility care, like grounds or maintenance or the receptionist or whatever, so being able to see it, “Oh wait, what I’m doing is important,” and just hearing that God’s doing stuff.

Sometimes the numbers aren’t great, so it’s like, if you’re just looking at stats on a piece of paper, it seems like nothing’s happening but when you hear the stories then you see stuff’s happening.

So those kinds of culture building exercises…

Rich – Did you do that meeting once a week did you say, with everybody? So like the whole 129?

Tim – Yeah everyone. In fact even our part-time people that might be 10 hours a week, as much as possible, we said, “We want you to orient an hour of your week for the staff meeting and we did in on Wednesdays, middle of the day, 11:30 in the morning and tended to have 80% plus participation. It was, “If you’re in town, this is kind of what we do on Wednesdays at 11:30.”

Rich – Interesting, that’s amazing. I think a lot of churches have a hard time getting people together once a more let alone once a week. So that’s incredible. Anything else on that kind of staff culture front you’d say is important stuff to kind of wrestle through?

Tim – Yeah I’d say a couple of things. If you’re one of the ones in leadership, you have a team, whether you’re the lead pastor or you have a director that has a team, a couple of things there. I’d say one would be giving authority with responsibility. A lot of times what we tend to do is give responsibility but they have to keep coming back to us for the answers. So they have a certain amount of authority but not enough really to do any of the jobs.

That’s okay where you don’t have a team full of high capacity leaders. If you want really strong, get it done leaders that will really move the mission and the vision forward with you and really shake the Kingdom, then those kinds of leaders, they want to be able to make decisions and to have authority and to get stuff done. It’s not a power player (unclear 00:13:08), it’s just how God’s wired them. Especially a church that’s small, growing towards mid-size, they’ll struggle with this, where it’s just really hard, because one person has been in charge for a long time. Now you’re starting to grow and you’re starting to give responsibility away and that’s very difficult.

So I would just recommend to find great leaders and let them lead. You’re not letting them lead from day one because you’re wanting to grow them up into the culture of the church, especially if you’ve hired them from outside, but ultimately to hand that off.

The other thing I would say relates to that leading team, as the leader everyone’s looking to you for the answers, but don’t walk around giving people answers. I think the best leaders are walking around and asking questions.

Rich – So true.

Tim – Desiring to learn and not assuming they’re the smartest person in the room, in fact assuming the opposite, assuming that there are people smarter than them, in given topics, than they are.

So constantly desiring to learn and you will gain. It’s counterintuitive because if you ask a lot of questions you think that they will think you don’t know anything, and you will think then that you’ll lose your position or your place for leadership. The opposite actually happens, people respect you when you respect them and their opinion grows and your stature grows because you’re willing to listen and you’re willing to learn.

Rich – Nice. Well you’ve got a book coming out in January, I actually preordered it right before we started the conversation here, on Amazon; Fairness is Overrated: And 51 Other Leadership Principles to Revolutionize Your Workplace. So now what is this about, give us the insight as to why you wrote this book?

Tim – So this is kind of a book just to kind of boil down my thoughts and philosophy of leadership. So it comes from probably my most recent 5 or 10 years at Granger and my experience there in leading the team there and leading the ministry through growth there with the rest of the team. So I kind of boiled it down into 4 segments.

The first segment is on being a leader worth following, all about integrity and the stuff that needs to be a foundation of our personal lives in order to be strong leaders.

The second is finding a great team, building a great team. How you find staff. Some on hiring. Some on firing. Some on conflict navigation.

The third segment’s on building a great culture and once you have the great team, how you maintain the great team and build the culture.

Then the fourth segment is on leading through crisis or transition or leading through great change. If you think of any great leader in history, you probably can think of their leadership through some transition that they led through.

Rich – So true.

Tim – So 99 days out of 100, maybe in the church it’s only 89 days out of 100, but you’ll have 10 days, 10% of the time where you’ve got something you’ve got to lead through and it just requires what’s already been built in your life and what’s already true about you to be able to lead through that with strength.

So the book is focused equal parts towards pastors and church leaders and Christian leaders in the marketplace. I really tried to balance that equally because so much of it is transferable from marketplace to church leadership.

Rich – Nice, well I’d encourage people listening in to get a chance to order it. Tim’s one of those guys I trust. I look forward to reading it and I look forward to hearing what you have to say and learning from that.

Just one last question before we jump into the lightning round. I love the fact that you’re… because you’re such an advocate for, you mentioned it earlier, I wasn’t going to say it but you mentioned it, how so many of your staff at Granger were internal rather than external and now you’re working for a search organization. Has that created internal tension in your own world or no?

Tim – That’s a great question. It really hasn’t, my experience when I hired Vanderbloemen was we had someone internally we were looking at. So Vanderbloemen came alongside of us and said, “We’ll help you determine if this person is right for the position and we’ll bring others.” There’s no skin of the game, as far as when we come alongside our church, whether they hire someone from inside or outside, it doesn’t matter to us at all, as long as we can help them find the right person for that job.

A lot of times what pastors and leaders have a hard time with, and I have a hard time of this, is Sundays are so regular, and for any level of staff you’ve got things that are just happening. So you don’t typically have the training to hire, you’re not trained as a personnel recruiter or whatever, so there’s that. Secondly you just don’t have the time that it requires to focus and you don’t have the margin to get it wrong. Any of us who have hired someone and got it wrong, we know sometimes it might be a couple of years that you lose in that process.

So we just like to come alongside pastors and help take that burden off their plate and if they have some internal candidates they want us to look at, we totally will and some churches will hire internal candidates after we’ve gone through the process and some will hire external ones that we can find.

Rich – Very cool, we’ve been through that pain of, “Gosh that was the wrong hire,” for sure.

1 Comment

  1. These are great thoughts Tim. There’s no doubt that unity has the power to fuel momentum in ministry and confusion has the power to kill it! Anything a church staff can do to bring unity to the organization is a win!

    In the event a church leader wants to see how unified his staff really is, they should consider taking our Culture Assessment.

    Not only is it a great way to see how unified a team really is, but it can provide an action plan geared around helping a staff become more unified around vision while creating a vibrant ministry culture!!

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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.