Life Lessons from CEOs

By: Dale Buss
December 21, 2007

When Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam was recently researching America’s challenge in forging a common identity amid demographic diversity, he visited fast-growing Protestant churches–and was surprised by what he found.

“In many large evangelical congregations” in the United States, Putnam wrote in the obscure but academically credible journal Scandinavian Political Studies, “the participants constituted the largest thoroughly integrated gatherings we have ever witnessed.” His team concluded that such “megachurches” have become “substantially” integrated, in racial terms.

Solving the thorny diversity problem? What CEO wouldn’t give his vested options to do that in his organization? It turns out CEOs may have a lot to learn from their counterparts running evangelical megachurches–those congregations of several thousand believers, in cities from coast to coast, that are among the fastest-growing institutions in America.

These “megapastors” are essentially CEOs who successfully address many of the same issues that challenge their business brethren. “There are a lot of similarities between growing and running a megachurch and a business,” says Timothy Hoeksema, CEO of Milwaukee’s Midwest Airlines–and a megachurch member. “We can all apply a lot of the same principles.”

And anyway, many CEOs try to improve their leadership through precepts that ultimately have a biblical basis. “In the past, the church would go to secular leaders for leadership lessons, but now, it’s vice versa,” says Doug Schmidt, senior pastor of Woodside Bible Church in Troy, Mich., one of the nation’s fastest-growing congregations, where attendance is more than 4,000 each Sunday. “The secular books I’m reading on this sound a whole lot more like the Bible.”

To be sure, the idea of significant commonalities between directing big companies and big churches runs into some complications. For one thing, Christians are supposed to be wary of “mammon,” and it takes a lot of that to operate any megachurch; this is one reason the financial dealings of six major televangelists–some of whom also head megachurches–have been under investigation by the U.S. Senate. And, of course, corporate CEOs are ultimately beholden to a non-divine, but nevertheless, “higher power”: shareholders.

But the Bible calls Christians to be good stewards of their resources: The New Testament talks of money more than just about any other topic, and the scriptures warn the church’s earthly authorities to be scrupulous. So actually, successful megapastors must be ethical executives, skillful managers, inspirational leaders and competent speakers.

Ray Johnston illustrated the relevance while at lunch with a leading CEO who was also a member of his megachurch. “He told me, ‘Running my company requires everything I’ve got, but I could run a church with one hand tied behind my back,'” recalls Rev. Johnston, who heads the 10,000-member Bayside Church in Granite Bay, Calif.

“Then I told him: ‘Imagine what it would be like if, on Tuesday, you had to meet with everyone in your company and tell them that you had to stop paying them–and yet, you had to be so motivational that you could attract them to work for free. And you could get thousands of them to your campus once a week to sing songs and give you money.’ We have to attract and motivate people without financial reward being the ultimate ‘carrot.'”

Here are eight lessons CEOs could learn from the pastors who manage the healthiest big churches in America:

Casting A Vision
Compared with CEOs, megapastors have the advantage of promoting better lives and eternal salvation instead of mere appeals to help build profits or market share. “They mobilize members to become ‘brand ambassadors,'” says Jordan Rubin, founder and CEO of Garden of Life, a West Palm Beach, Fla., nutrition supplement company. “They can connect with and motivate their employees and volunteers better than any corporate CEOs.”

But CEOs can learn from megapastors how to cast a motivating vision. “They need to learn that employees aren’t just financially driven–that they like to serve a greater good,” says Jonathan Walton, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of California-Riverside, who has studied megachurches. “There are principles and values and belief systems that companies can embrace, and for them, maybe the greater good has to do with humanitarian efforts–or the environment.”

Some megapastors suggest CEOs also could tap into dormant employee motivation by allowing them to import more spiritual values to their jobs. “If I’m in a corporate environment and feel I can only bring part of me there, then you’re missing half of me,” says Claude Alexander, senior pastor of Park Ministries, a Charlotte, N.C., church of about 10,000 members. Change this “not by creating an environment where people can proselytize, but just by recognizing that people have values, some of which are undergirded by religion.”

Modeling “Servant Leadership”
“Jesus Christ has given us a direction for the church,” says Doug Schmidt, senior pastor of Woodside Bible Church, in Troy, Mich.

“That helps create a culture for expectations. People come with a thousand different expectations, most of them unrealistic–and we try to create a culture to meet them.”

Megachurch member Jordan Rubin says he learns from megapastors how to “sew into the lives” of his employees. “In that way, I need to be the pastor of my company–not a priest, but a shepherd.”

Practicing Gratitude
CEOs should note how megapastors who are good leaders continually deflect praise from themselves to God and others.

Andy Stanley, for example, makes a point of publicly thanking and encouraging his staff at Northpoint Church, an Atlanta-area megachurch. “He’s taught me to become a ‘Chief Encouragement Officer,’ not just a CEO,” says Joel Manby, a Northpoint member and CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment, a Norcross, Ga.-based company that operates theme parks and other attractions in seven states. Partly as a result, Manby often spends the first 15 or 20 minutes of each day writing thank-you notes to employees.

Part of this skill is learning that leaders don’t always have to be the smartest ones in the room. “One pressure of being CEO is that you feel you have to be the genius at the top of the organization, and when you throw it out there it needs to be in perfect form–or maybe someone else needs to be CEO,” says Gregg Matte, senior pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church, which counts about 5,000 members.

“But if you instead focus on building consensus, it does two things: You end up coming up with better ideas–because none of us is as smart as all of us–and people are already buying into it then.”

Harnessing Passion
Seldom has any leader done a better job of focusing the passion that is latent in his organization than when Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., wrote The Purpose-Driven Life and then got his congregation–and hundreds of others across the country–to devote “40 days of purpose” to activating his teachings. The book went on to become a huge bestseller.

And Rev. Warren also directed his passion elsewhere, including efforts to help the world’s poor. “He believes that we have an obligation to make a difference in the lives of people and society, and he’s a great role model of that to the business community and everyone else,” says Hoeksema, who has spent time learning from Rev. Warren.

And while CEOs can be driven by their own passions for their jobs and companies, they should be careful not to become obsessed with accomplishment.

“Part of being a leader is living with a tinge of dissatisfaction all the time,” says Rev. Matte. “But you don’t want to move forward at the expense of your people, and not where the cost outweighs the gain.”

Doing Things Well
One reason megachurches have grown so robustly is that their leaders care about quality and relevance to their “customer base.” Willow Creek Church, one of the original megachurches, in South Barrington, Ill., openly strives to meet professional-theater standards with its drama ministry and Disney World benchmarks for cleanliness.

As CEO of Herschend, Joel Manby has mandated big improvements in the parking-lot experience. “If I can go to a church housing 15,000 people on a Sunday morning and drive in and out quickly,” he says, “and we have 15,000 people a day at a theme park–but they’ve got to wait–then we’ve got a problem.”

Learning To Say No
Given the traditional expectations of clergy and the extra pressures of running a very large institution, megapastors may have to delegate more duties than any other leaders in America.

“With thousands of parishioners, they really need to have a system that’s well thought-out and well put-together,” says Jeremy Brandt, founder and CEO of 1-800-CashOffer, a real estate company in Dallas, and son of a small-church pastor. “They often have to manage various campuses and a large amount of money, so they have to have checks and balances in place.”

Woodside’s Rev. Schmidt, for instance, insists on “not doing anything that I’m not supposed to do. I operate within my gift mix and strengths, 70% to 75% of the time.”

Rev. Stanley focuses on sermons and other forms of communication, and doesn’t visit hospital patients or perform weddings, reports Manby. “Most people are only fantastic at two or three things–and that’s what you should focus on,” he says. “I’ve been able to say ‘no’ much more easily since [Stanley] confronted me with that.”

Taking Stock
Time management is one of the most crucial skills, says John Hagee, pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, with more than 20,000 members. “Do the most important things first; don’t waste time on worthless opportunities,” he says. “That’s something all CEOs dread.”

Good megapastors resist the temptation to work all the time; they routinely recharge their batteries. Rev. Stanley, for example, insists on working only 40 hours a week.

And they usually build multiple forms of accountability into their jobs and lives. “If you get in the spotlight, you’re so susceptible to pride,” Rev. Schmidt says. “But because of what we do, we’re forced to have balance. For instance, we can’t neglect our wives and families.” Among other checks on his attitudes, Rev. Schmidt meets weekly for early-morning Bible study with a group of about two dozen CEOs and other men of secular accomplishment.

Using The Pulpit
Megapastors have one major obligation that never even crosses the minds of corporate CEOs: writing and delivering a weekly sermon. “Eighty percent to ninety percent of my leadership comes through 30 minutes on Sunday,” Rev. Matte says.

Yet, CEOs can learn from the continual focus on priorities and the importance of communication that are demonstrated in a sermon. “Just like my pastor aligns his sermon with his beliefs and where he wants to lead the church,” Hoeksema says, “I regularly talk with my people at Midwest–about the things that are in line with our long-term plan and direction, values and strategy.”

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