Interview with Dave Stone: Growth, Challenges, and Vision (Part 1)
Intentional Churches is honored to know and work with Senior Pastor, Dave Stone and the team at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY. Southeast is a large and influential church, recently listed in Outreach Magazine’s Top 100 as the 10th largest. Dave arrived at Southeast in 1989 to join the teaching team. And 17 years later, he took the baton of leadership from long-time pastor, Bob Russell, with a commitment to reach the Louisville area and beyond. Today, Southeast has four campuses throughout the Louisville area and averages over 24,000 in weekend attendance.
Doug and I were privileged to interview Dave for a workshop at Thomas Road’s Refuel church leadership conference. His humility and down-to-earth nature belie the size and influence of his church. We thought the interview was fantastic and full of wisdom from Dave’s experience in leading Southeast. Enjoy his insights on growth, challenges, vision, change and succession in this two-part transcript from our interview.
BART RENDEL: Dave, Southeast Christian is one of the largest and most impactful churches in the country. What do you feel has been the catalyst for growing its Kingdom impact?
DAVE STONE: To some extent, I agree with Pastor Rick Warren who says if something is healthy, it will grow. But on the other hand, I also know there are seasons in the life of a church and its community. Depending on what is taking place in the church at that moment, the greatest accomplishment could be just to hang on and hold your own. There was a time when I fixated on attendance and growth, but I learned the hard way not to get too wrapped up in comparing church numbers. We’re all in different seasons.
With that said, the number one catalyst for church growth is God’s blessing and the Spirit of the Lord. I never want to underestimate that. When I’m speaking at a conference, some people quickly jot down this truth and move on with, “Yeah, yeah, but what is it really?” We tend to get more excited about something WE can do to grow, when in fact, what the Lord does is the key to growth.
At Southeast we strive to remain focused on the Holy Spirit and God’s blessing, on God’s Word being taught, and on Jesus Christ being lifted up rather than glorifying our leaders. I think the greatest compliment someone can pay our church is to say, “I felt the presence of the Lord today.” I believe that’s because the Bible is being taught, and Jesus Christ is front and center. Entertainment and emotion won’t result in the same experience.
For our part, the commitment to excellence is a close second. Bob Russell, who preceded me, talks about the early days of the church. Yes, they met in a basement. But that basement was incredibly clean, well-marked and clearly communicated that someone cared about excellence. Years later, the same principle applies at Southeast. Guests who drive onto any of our campuses know we care. If you offer multi-site options, they shouldn’t be run down locations or cluttered environments, but should reflect the same DNA and excellence as the main campus.
DOUG PARKS: Sometimes people assume that when you’re leading a larger church you don’t have as many challenges. Of course, we know that isn’t true. Would you share what is challenging you most these days?
DAVE STONE: No matter the size of your church, there are tons of challenges. In a smaller church, the lead pastor is spread thin, wearing many hats. There is definitely pressure. But in a larger church, there’s additional pressure and responsibility, and the decisions you make impact more people. In a larger church, you’re typically under greater scrutiny as well. Maybe you’re on the radio, or TV, teaching to a global audience. There is more pressure to choose your words more carefully. To prove my point, let me ask a question. If you were asked to speak at a church of 200 this weekend, and delivered your message, would the pressure or your message change if you were asked to speak at a church of 10,000 next weekend? Very likely. You would feel more pressure and scrutiny speaking to a larger crowd. The challenges are real no matter the size. But again, it’s not our church, it’s the Lord’s church, and His strength when we’re under pressure grows our leadership and our faith.
My first two years after becoming Lead Pastor, we dropped almost 1,500 in attendance, after 44 years of attendance growth. Can you imagine? I was moving the church in the wrong direction! We dropped from 17,000 to under 16,000. Looking back, it was the healthiest and best thing that could’ve happened. I desperately wanted people on the team, buying into the vision. But sometimes pruning can be the healthiest thing for your church, with people as well as with programming. Rather than trying to adjust to please everyone, sometimes it’s necessary to say, “We’d love to have you here, but clearly you aren’t happy and this isn’t the best fit for you. There are many other Bible-believing churches around this community and you may want to check some of them out.” We have grown to almost 25,000 in a healthier way with others who share the vision.
BART RENDEL: Let’s talk about Vision. Sometimes we make it more mushy than we should when it’s really very concrete. “Here’s where we’re headed. We’re starting a campus there and this is why.” What’s the biggest vision you’ve ever had to cast as a leader? And what did you do to compellingly cast it to your staff? Elders? Church family?
DAVE: When I took over this role as senior leader, I met separately with two leaders in our church, both of whom led Fortune 100 companies. I asked the first leader, “What’s the best leadership advice you could give me?” He quickly answered, “Keep repeating the vision. When you think everyone is sick of it, or you think they’ve got it, keep repeating the vision. When you’re tired of saying it, keep repeating the vision.” A few weeks later, I asked the other leader, “What’s the greatest leadership advice you could give me?” “Repeat the vision frequently. Keep repeating the vision.”
Really? Yes, the vision sets the DNA for your congregation. Years ago, when I cast vision about starting multi-site campuses, the response was, “Wait, we’re going to ask people to watch a video? We built this beautiful facility and now we’re trying to get people to move out of it?”
We had constructed a very large sanctuary. That was back when big was cool. People would drive past and think it was an arena. Fast forward to today, and I’ve yet to meet a 27yr old whose driven past and thought, “Wow, that looks like a really warm and inviting place. It’s so big!” No one says that, right? So multi-site became our future.
I began by laying out the multi-site vision to our elders, then to our leadership team, then to our staff and deacons, getting buy-in from all. Then we unveiled the multi-site vision in a vision series to our entire congregation. The gist of the message to our church was: “Many of you regularly invite others to come to our church. You’re asking them to drive 30-45 minutes to get here, through a city’s humongous traffic jam, with their kids in tow. In some cases, they’re making a four-hour commitment for an hour and a half worship gathering. Your friends respond with, “Well, that may work for you, but not for me. You’ll never catch me driving across town and giving up my Sunday for that!” Multi-site offered the answer, and the vision made sense to our people.
Even though that was over twelve years ago, there was one phrase that stuck and is still part of who we are: If they won’t come to us, we’ll go to them. Our church is still committed to that – going, serving, loving and sharing the Gospel across town. And what happens? The multi-site pops up, people give it a try, and God does His work in their hearts. Now with four locations, our mission to connect people to Jesus and one another has expanded beyond the city, over county lines, across the river, to encompass an entire region.
BART: I love that one sticky prase. It is a critical part of the church catching the vision. We need vision sermons. We need a 5-minute vision story we can share. And we need to capture the vision in one sentence. And you’ve done all of that.
DOUG: We encourage every church to have a simple, memorable, one-sentence vision. At IC, ours is 1,000 churches operating with a renewable plan to double their Kingdom impact. We believe there are one million lives in the sites of those churches and we want to equip them.
DAVE: Stories that tie to the vision are so powerful too. If you come across a great story or testimony, don’t ask or expect the person to deliver it from the stage, especially if you offer more than one service. No matter what size you are, you can still have someone in your church easily capture the story on video. Maybe there’s a teenager in your church who is an incredible videographer. Then you have it forever. And as you tie those memorable video stories to your message, you are reinforcing the vision every time you teach.
Watch for Part 2 of our interview with Pastor Dave Stone as we discuss change and succession.