For this month’s Sunday| Mag articles, we asked some of our favorite writers this one question: What’s one thing you’ve been learning all year long that you’d like to share with Sunday| Mag’s readers? In this article, Whitney George talks about the thing he’s learning in his new role at Church on the Move—focusing on pastoring people over demanding excellence.
When Jonathan asked me a couple of months ago to write about the one big thing I’ve been learning lately, I immediately and enthusiastically said yes.
For one, it’s a great topic. I hope to always be learning something new, so an article like this allows me to really talk about something fresh. The second reason, however, is a little more interesting because, for those of you who don’t know, a lot has changed for me this year. I’m no longer the Arts Director at Church on the Move. I’m now the Executive Pastor, and while the change has been wonderful, it hasn’t been without its challenges.
I’ve learned a lot in these past few months, but (and there’s always a but, isn’t there?) the assignment was to focus on the one big thing. So that’s what I’m going to do, and in order to do it, I need to tell you a little more of my own story.
I never wanted to be a pastor.
I grew up in a pastor’s home. And while technically, I am a PK, I never really thought of myself as one. My siblings and I just thought of ourselves as normal kids.
I guess we were fortunate. We were never forced into any sort of public ministry spotlight. We didn’t have to sit on the front row every Sunday. We didn’t have to dress up any more than anyone else did and we were never told that we couldn’t do something we wanted to do because “the church just wouldn’t understand.” We were allowed to be normal. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my parents gave us all an incredible gift—the freedom to be who God called us to be.
For that reason, the thought of becoming a pastor never even entered my mind. It just wasn’t for me. Growing up, I was always more interested in the arts, and although I went to work at our church right out of high school, I never considered myself a minister. I wanted to be in a band or I wanted to be a filmmaker or a graphic designer, but the thought of wearing a suit and tie and preaching just seemed so foreign to me.
Somewhere back in 2004-2005 all that changed.
I remember sitting at Fellowship Church in Dallas, Texas listening to Ed Young speak. To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember what he was speaking about. But as I was sitting there, I realized that all of my thoughts about what it was to be a pastor were based entirely on a particular style—my dad’s.
Now, let me just pause for a second here and say that I love and respect my dad more than anyone else on planet earth. But (there it is again!), I knew I was supposed to be different. So I had always ruled out the notion of ever becoming a pastor. But on this day I saw, for the first time in my life, that I could be me and be a pastor. I knew I could do it. Even more than that, for the first time ever I wanted to do it. I believe this was when I was called.
So for the past ten years I’ve been working in the arts world knowing all along that eventually I’d move into more of a pastoral role. That finally happened this year.
So, what have I learned? Well, I could probably write a book about all the stuff I’m learning, but if there’s one thing that sticks out above all else it’s that I’m learning to balance my pursuit of excellence with a love for people.
Maybe it sounds arrogant, but at Church on the Move we have a thirst for excellence that I rarely see when I travel to other churches. It’s not that nobody cares about excellence, it’s just that excellence is our secret sauce at COTM. It’s what we love and it’s what makes us who we are. We eat it, sleep it, and breathe it. It’s our top core value.
We like to say it this way: it can always be better. We truly believe that. We don’t do an event, big or small, significant or insignificant, where we don’t ask, “How can it be better?” We just believe in constant improvement, constant evaluation. We love it. We thrive on it even though it drives some people crazy (I know because those people tell me about it in the comments of my blog posts).
But…(didn’t I tell you, there’s always a but!) I’m finding it can be taken too far.
As with any personality trait, excellence has both a good side and a bad side that must be managed so that it doesn’t go toxic. Here’s what I mean by that. I realized that the people I had spent so much time working with felt as if I cared about the result that they produced more than I cared about them! I’m sure that sounds ridiculous to some of you because you’re wired in a much more relational way than I am, but for those of you who have a high achievement meter, you know what I’m talking about. We want to get it “right” so badly that we’re willing to do whatever it takes. I’ve had to face the reality that sometimes my leadership left people feeling like they mattered to me less than the job they did.
To be sure, the work people produce is important and the church at large is definitely guilty of avoiding tough conversations about how a job is being done because the people doing the job have a “good heart”. But we can never forget that the best resource we have is our people.
To me, this is what it is to be a pastor. To care for the people you lead. Duh.
Think about it, when Jesus came and modeled perfect leadership for all of us, he didn’t leave behind a building or a program or even a service structure. In fact, there’s very little in the New Testament to tell us how a church service should be run. So consequently, we each do it our unique way. What he did leave behind was a group of people that he had poured into over the three-and-a-half years he was with them. Yeah, one of them went rogue and betrayed him and another denied him. It happens. But his objective was always the same—to empower them!
Look at what he said to them in John 13: “Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another.”
Here’s the point: Now that I sit in the seat of a pastor, I feel a much deeper responsibility to care for the people with whom God has entrusted me. Honestly, it’s a lesson I wish I would have learned a lot sooner. But in my drive to achieve, I pushed it too far.
Looking back, it wouldn’t have been hard. Just saying “thank you” and “good job” and “I’m glad you’re here” a little more often would have made a big difference. Basically, I should have spent a little more time on mentoring instead of directing.
So, here’s my goal: I’m not giving up on excellence and neither should you. In fact, I want it as badly as I ever did, but perhaps I’m not as willing to achieve it at as high of a cost as I was before. We have a great team, and God has blessed me in that I work with many of my closest friends. So my prayer is that I would love them as I have been loved. It was this kind of radical, self-sacrificing love that changed the world. I have to believe it can work with my team… and yours.