Bob Russell is the former senior pastor of Southeast Christian Church (Louisville, KY). By the time he retired in June 2006, the church had grown to an average of 18,300 weekend attendees. Southeast Christian Church was started in 1962 and primarily reached college-educated, upper-middle class whites during Bob’s tenure.
10Q WITH BOB RUSSELL
1Q = When you were the pastor of Southeast Christian Church, what was the chain of command from the senior pastor to the church volunteers?
Our flow chart showed:
- Christ as the Chief Shepherd
- the elders as the undershepherds
- the senior pastor as a paid elder whose task is preaching and teaching
- a leadership team consisting of 6-7 team leaders
- and about 30 ministry heads
Among the thousands of volunteers were what we called 401 volunteers who were responsible for recruiting and training other volunteers.
2Q = For big decisions, what was Southeast Christian Church’s decision making process?
Major decisions were made by the board of elders – made up of lay leaders within the church and the senior minister. Probably most recommendations for ministry came from the staff to the elders by way of the senior minister. But we acknowledged that the elders were the overseers of the ministry and had the ultimate authority.
3Q = What was the most effective thing Southeast Christian Church did to reach people during your time as the senior pastor?
Most evangelism that took place was simply one-on-one evangelism. We tried to make each program so effective that church members would find it easy to invite others to come and participate. This included the worship service as well as support groups, sports activities, children’s ministry etc.
Two of the most effective evangelistic outreaches were:
- The annual Easter pageant that drew over 70,000 people each spring.
- The radio ministry. WHAS radio, an 80,000 watt station, carried the previous week’s sermon at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday morning for 25 years. WFIA, the local religious station carried sermons daily at 7:30 a.m. (drive time). Radio proved to be a very effective outreach for us.
4Q = How did you maintain quality control while pastoring such a large church?
One of our core values from the beginning was to try to do everything with excellence. In the book When God Builds A Church, one of the chapters is on the importance of excellence in every phase of ministry.
Maintaining excellence became more difficult as the church became larger. I felt I did a pretty good job of passing down that value when the staff was one or two tiers. But it became more difficult for us as the staff became larger and there were 3-4 levels.
We included this theme in staff meetings and sermons. We tried to honor those who did well by giving, “Second Mile” awards in staff meetings, sending thank- you notes, voice mails, emails to volunteers who did well and mentioning them in sermons. We had entire staff meetings discussing examples of places where we encountered poor/great service and why it was meaningful.
I sometimes felt like I was a chronic complainer because I took notes of little things that had been neglected and would pass most of these on to the senior administrator at our weekly meeting on Monday morning. Sometimes I would call the team leader responsible for that area and draw attention to it. I’m sure they thought I was “nitpicking,” but I believe if you take care of the little things, the big things won’t be a problem.
As a church gets larger it is very difficult to practice discipline and hold people accountable for their behavior – although small churches don’t do this well either.
We tried to be proactive and get as many people involved in small groups as possible so they would be accountable to other believers and grow. We had a very active discipline committee made up of 3-4 elders who tried to confront and correct flagrant sin in the camp.
With the erosion of values in the culture and the addition of many young Christians who have a long way to grow, it presents a myriad of challenges for the leadership to know what needs to be tolerated and what needs to be confronted and corrected. My preaching focused more on what is expected of Christians than it did just reaching out to seekers.
5Q = What is your leadership style?
My leadership style is high trust.
I believe that 90% of effective leadership is hiring the right person or recruiting the right volunteer, giving them basic guidance and making clear expectations and then turning them loose. I found gifted people would use their creativity and be more eager to do well if they “owned the program” and felt freedom and security than if they were trying to please me because I was hovering over them or micro-managing their efforts.
We did ask people to set personal and team goals and scheduled semi-annual reviews. If a staff member was not doing well, they were confronted with the issues during the review and notified of expectations. Occasionally some would be dismissed, but only after every opportunity to succeed.
I believe in the church we ought to/have to be more patient than in the business world. One reason for that is harmony is tremendously important in the church. Every staff dismissal creates some degree of disharmony and that has to be taken into consideration.
6Q = Who has influenced you the most as a leader?
Different people have influenced me at different stages of my life.
I believe that my influence stemmed from my preaching gifts more than from my leadership gifts. As I gained people’s confidence through preaching God’s Word they trusted me. That thrust upon me the need to lead by necessity. But I would not list “Leadership” as one of my primary gifts although it developed a little over time.
Therefore the people who influenced me most as a leader were those who impressed me with their preaching gifts. Bob Phillips, Olin Hay, J Wallace Hamilton, Charles Swindoll, Fred Craddock. As I grew older, I observed the leadership gifts of Bill Gaslin (a camp dean), Marvin Rickard (a megachurch minister), and President Reagan and learned by observing them.
7Q = What resources have had the biggest impact on how you do ministry?
Marvin Rickard’s book Let It Grow! influenced me considerably early on.
Joel Gregory’s book Too Great A Temptation and Jim Collin’s two books Built to Last and Good to Great influenced me about the need for a transition plan later on.
Twenty years ago when Southeast was running a little over a thousand I felt the need to network with other preachers of large churches in our movement. So I invited all the guys I knew who pastored large churches to come to Louisville for three days. They did and we had such a rich experience we decided to do it every year. That annual conference now invites about 125 ministers and their wives. Over half come each year and it was a rich time of fellowship and a great venue for sharing creative ideas and learning from each other’s leadership.
About 15 years ago, I attended a three day conference of seven megachurch ministers (Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Bob Moorehead, Walt Kallestad) that proved to be influential in that I was encouraged to take a major risk involving 90 million dollars and relocate. It also underscored once again that God used different leadership styles and I shouldn’t try to emulate anyone else.
8Q = What is the greatest ministry lesson you have learned?
That God uses ordinary people in extraordinary ways if they honor His Word and keep their egos in check.
9Q = What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the church today?
To maintain a healthy balance of being culturally relevant and Biblically based. There is such a strong temptation to become so focused on reaching people where they are that we neglect telling them the tough truths of God’s Word – truths that potentially can turn them off because they are not politically correct.
10Q = What is the best advice you have for church leaders?
Determine where God has gifted you and stay with your strengths. Gather around you the most gifted people you can find and delegate as much to them as possible. Especially delegate in the areas of your weaknesses and get out of the way.
Trust that the Biblical organizational structure can work effectively. God ordained elders to be shepherds for a purpose – the combined wisdom of the group is greater than any one individual. So develop in-depth relationships with the elders so you are consistently on the same page. When you disagree be humble and submissive to their oversight.
Stay in one place as long as possible. There is a time to move, but make sure you are moving because of God’s call and not running from problems. Every place has problems. There is tremendous value in long-term ministry. If God is blessing where you are, be content.
Learn to keep the big picture. 95% of Southeast Christian Church is great. 5% is not so hot. In fact, 1% is downright nasty. My challenge as a leader was that 50% of my time was spent on correcting the 5% that wasn’t right, and I could lose the big picture. Step back periodically and see how God is blessing and give thanks. One of the reasons Ronald Reagan was an effective president is that he could deal with the most awful problems and yet be positive about how great a country America is. The preacher has to remind members of all the wonderful things God is doing even though we are confronted daily with disappointments.
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