The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“Could Receiving Feedback Have an Eternal Impact?“
June 21, 2021
Dr. Chris Stephens
Intro: As a leader, how do you respond to feedback you receive that isn’t what you want to hear? Listen in as today’s guest inspires us to receive regular anonymous feedback from staff and act on it. He believes it will have an eternal consequence for every Christian leader.
Al Lopus: Welcome to another episode of the Flourishing Culture Podcast, where our goal is to equip and inspire you to build a flourishing workplace. As we all face today’s leadership challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe having a healthy culture is more important now than ever before. We are here to help you eliminate toxicity, improve your employees’ engagement, speed up new innovation, and grow your organization’s impact.
And before we meet our guest today, I urge you to subscribe to this podcast. As a result, you’ll receive our action guide. It’s our gift to help you lead your organization’s culture to the next level. To subscribe, simply go to bcwinstitute.org/podcast. Hit the Subscribe button and receive our free action guide.
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And now, let’s meet today’s special guest.
What if you could belong to a church with a heart for those outside of the church, a place where anyone can come and connect with God without the risk of being judged, a church that’s rich with ethnic diversity, and a place where kids love to come back each week? Well, I want you to meet the senior pastor of just such a church. Once you’ve heard his story, you’ll want to hear more, especially when it comes to the leadership and staff who make the church’s ministry possible. So, my guest today is Dr. Chris Stephens, the senior pastor of Faith Promise Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.
And Chris, your life changed forever as you laid in a hospital bed when you were 22. Tell us about that life-defining story.
Chris Stephens: Well, it was a horrible and then an incredible day. My life was messed up. I had five step dads, grew up in the project in Chattanooga, was given drugs when I was 10. So by the time I was 22, I was a dealer. I was whacked and jacked. Ended up with overdose, which was why I was in the hospital. And there, I overdosed. I remembered the Gospel I’d heard as a kid. And so that’s the Lord. After a few days, my head cleared, and I called out to Him. And I didn’t know any Bible, I didn’t know any verses, but I’d heard that Jesus loved people and forgive them. And I said, “I need forgiveness, and I need a new start; and if You’ll have me, I’m yours.” It was incredible.
Again, I didn’t know any Bible. When God got me, He didn’t get much. But what I learned was that God doesn’t need much. If He can part the Red Sea with a stick and feed 5,000 men with a Happy Meal, He doesn’t need much, but He got all of me that day. And so I’ve never gotten over it. Still excited to know Him now, almost 40 years later.
Al: That’s great.
So, given what you said, what’s the most compelling message that you want your congregation to hear and to know every Sunday or every weekend, whether they’ve come to Faith Promise for the first time or for life?
Chris: We can sum the Bible up pretty simply, and that’s God loves people. God loves them no matter where they’ve been, what they’ve done. No amount of shame or guilt, God is there for them. And life is better with God. Without God, there’s simply no peace, and there’s no purpose. Peace, purpose, and passion…
Al: Yeah, yeah.
Well, let’s turn to the 80 or so men and women who make up the Faith Promise staff, serving on six campuses around the Knoxville area. In your mind, why is a healthy workplace culture needed for a church to have an impactful ministry?
Chris: Well, one of the things I prayed for our church every day, and especially our team, is synergism. You know, in Genesis, early, we found the story of Abel. And I was watching Discovery the other day, and they have found the remnants of the Tower of Babel. And they were building a tower to heaven, and God said, “They are with one mind. Therefore, nothing is impossible for them.” So if lost people can do incredible things if they’re unified, how much more can people of God, full of the Spirit, with the truth and the Word, do if we pull in the same direction? So I’m looking for synergism.
Being in the ministry now for 38-plus years, the church is set up for an automatic divide. There’s just so much. Everybody wants more of it: resources, buildings. And so it’s set up to divide. And so if we all pull together—there’s no divide—the enemy has no door, and we can go further if we work together.
Al: Yeah. Boy, I love that message, yeah. Synergism, working together, and the power of the Spirit working through us, I mean, the power of the Spirit is what really makes Christian workplaces stand out.
Well, let’s stay with the workplace culture for a moment. And is it true that honest employee feedback can actually reveal strengths and communication, trust in teams? I mean, you’ve got experience with this. What’s your thought?
Chris: Well, there’s no question that honest feedback—the problem is that most people are not able to get honest feedback. The first year we did the BCWI, we scored off the chart. And what I realized is that people weren’t honest. They really didn’t believe what BCBI says and we said, “This is completely anonymous.” So nobody does well with “yes” men. David was one of the greatest kings of Israel because he was surrounded by people that spoke the truth into him: prophets, warriors. So people weren’t fully honest.
In the next year of BCWI, I affirmed, “If you do not tell the truth, we cannot get better. Nobody will know. BCWI won’t tell us what anybody said; I asked. It is anonymous. Be truthful because if you’re not truthful, we can’t get better.” And then we really were able to move forward after that.
Al: Yeah. Well, that’s a great story. And that does happen. You earn trust over time. People begin to trust the anonymity over time, that’s for sure.
Well, you know, Chris, as a senior pastor, you’ve seen the value and wisdom of how the Employee Engagement Survey produces highly relevant employee feedback. So give us a positive finding from your most recent Survey, that says, this is how we’re on the road to a thriving culture at Faith Promise Church.
Chris: Well, the thing I love most about the Survey, the answers is the top 10. And one of the things that our staff wrote in the last BCWI that we were fun and engaging. We have six staff values, and one of them is, we are fun. You know, every picture of Jesus, He’s scowling, maybe just straight face. I’ve only ever seen one picture where He’s smiling. I think the Lord had a great time with the disciples. I think they told jokes around the campfire. That’s one thing I love about Jesus. He just was real. And so our staff said, hey, we’re winning in the fact that we really are fun. It’s a great place to come to work. So that just affirms that in that area, we’re winning today.
Al: Yeah. It does help you identify those things. And we all know that honest feedback can also help identify culture issues babbling under the surface, if it’s not already spilling over. How about a cultural improvement that you’d like to see happen in the next six months that you’ve identified?
Chris: Well, one of the things that we saw was our front-line pastors. We have a lot of campuses, so we have a lot of kids’ pastors, student pastors, groups’ pastors, and they really scored about the lowest. And so we realized the speed of communication doesn’t necessarily move at the speed of change and ministry. And so we are trying to streamline our communication because people are you sit down on what they’re not up on. We want to help so they understand if there’s a shift to change, why. Not just an edict, a papal bull, if you will, from my office. But this is why we’re moving. This is why it’ll be better for everyone. And all that will do was increase our engagement, which, again, if you have a staff that’s not engaged, there’s no synergism. You’re not going to do effective ministry, because if they’re not cared for, they’re just not going to do a great job caring for the people who attend.
Al: Yeah. I relate to that. And I’m just thinking 1 Peter 5:2, shepherd the flock that God has entrusted to you, which is, you know, they have to be cared for just as a shepherd shepherds the flock.
Well, speaking of challenges, here we are in the midst of a pandemic. We’re starting to open up, for sure. And still, the words fun and caring were frequently mentioned in the comments of your employees. Why do you believe caring for people is so needed in a church workplace culture? It must have something to do with grace and love, but tell me what is at the base of it? Is there a story you can tell us?
Chris: There are lots of stories, but it’s the heart of God to care for each other. And the staff should be the most spiritual people that are a part of the church, and if they’re not caring for each other, there is no way we’ll create a culture of care for people that are way out. What we learned in COVID, as I’ve talked to pastors across the country, people have left churches; people are not going back to churches. There was a massive turnover of staff during and the end of COVID. If you’re not caring for them, they’re not going to stay.
Last year in the fall, our executive pastor, who’s in his 40s, lost his wife to cancer, with a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old. It was incredible how the staff rallied around Pastor Josh. We actually let a staff member go last year. He stayed local, went on a local church to a friend of mine, went on staff, and he lost his young son during a surgery. Even though he’s no longer with us, our staff rallied. Meals on Wheels before the child passed away. He had a lung defect. And we were there in the prayer meetings. We were there taking care. And really, honestly, his family could not believe that the staff cared for him, even though he no longer is on our staff.
So the staff of 85, when it’s full, there’re just issues, there’re needs, and people will stay. You know that as people leave, as you have a lot of transition, people never really become effective in their roles of ministry. And so creating a culture where people want to stay, where they want to plant their lives, even in the midst of a pandemic—you know, tribulation doesn’t make us; it reveals us—regardless of the good times or the bad, we must care for each other.
Al: Well, that sounds like a great commandment, and they’ll know that we’re Christians based on how we love one another. Those are great examples. Thanks, Chris. Yeah.
Say, I’m curious. What’s one thing that you’re learning even about yourself as a leader and as a follower of Jesus, especially over this past year? And I’m wondering if, you know, a lot of our leaders that are listening are just tired as a result of this past year. But tell us something you’re learning.
Chris: Well, it really is crazy that when people sheltered in place, they’re more tired than when they had to go to work at an office. It is critical as leaders that we care for ourselves. If you’ve ever been on a plane, the flight attendant says, “If we lose pressure, oxygen masks will fall. Put yours on, and then help others.” If you don’t care for your soul, you will never be effective in caring for someone else’s soul. Through COVID, we called everybody, but the staff was very close.
Actually, nobody really in Knoxville got COVID the first round, but in the second round, it was everywhere, and half our staff got it. And I had to finally say, “Quit hanging out together. Don’t come to the office, or we won’t even be able to have church.” So what was for most people, 2020 the worst year, for me it was the best. I had more time with the Lord, which is my primary focus, the most important thing I do. And then I pick a word for every year, challenge all of our church to. And my word last year was transformation. And what I learned was, if you don’t change anything, there’s going to be no transformation.
Al: I trust you’re enjoying our podcast today. We’ll be right back after an important word for leaders.
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Al: And now, back to today’s special guest.
Chris: So, as we look forward to how the church needs to morph, how it needs to innovate, what have we learned, if you don’t change anything, nothing’s going to change. How you work, how you pray, how you spend your time, being stuck at home and then coming back. First, we should never, ever take for granted our freedom in America that we can come together for corporate worship, because we couldn’t for a while, and now we can. Let’s don’t take it for granted.
Chris: Let’s, man, let’s love God. Let’s grow, and let’s help everybody around us grow. Again, it’s why the BCWI helps us, because it literally shows us, here’s the eight, ten, three, one—whichever we choose—here’s the areas that if you’ll improve these areas, the staff will love it even more.
Al: And you’ve learned a little bit about yourself here, in this experience of getting feedback from your staff. Something about empathy, is that what I recall?
Chris: Well, yeah. I learned I don’t have any. And to say I don’t have any empathy is being a little gracious. It’s probably negative 12. Honestly, when I got the first BCWI, I spent three days, and the only thing I looked at were the negative comments.
Al: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Chris: I sat in my office, reading, rereading until I was about ready to slit my wrist.
Chris: But then, I moved to the positive comments, and then I moved to, hey, this is where you need to work as a leader because you don’t have any empathy, and everybody but you knows it, which proves I don’t have any empathy. So what do I need to do to love people and try to understand where they are when that is not easy for me, a driven visionary who wants to take the “I don’t celebrate well”? They want to have a party when we climb a mountain; I just want to go climb the next one.
So, oh, yeah, It’s helped me a ton.
Al: Yeah. Wow. That’s a great realization about yourself and about the needs of other people and how you can motivate them to move forward and still understand what needs to happen, how to celebrate, and so on, as you say. Yeah.
Well, if there’s one takeaway from the pandemic that you can put on your desk in the form of a photograph or a quote that you’d never want yourself or others to remember, what would it be?
Chris: Well, the quote that I would put on or the picture that I would never want to forget is a full church, packed out with people absolutely thrilled. And then, the one I would never really want to remember is an empty church, that I’m preaching to a camera because it was illegal for people to gather.
Al: Yeah, yeah.
Chris: And so, again, I read a lot about martyrs and people who struggled, and we have such incredible freedoms in America that we truly do take for granted.
Al: I know so many pastors, you know, looking in an empty camera, after getting feedback, while giving a sermon on a weekend as a great experience, that empty camera. Let’s forget about what that’s like. Yeah.
But, Chris, I know you to be a leader who values practice and perseverance over time, and Faith Promise Church has surveyed regularly now over five years, a number of years. What’s the difference between surveying every year or two years or maybe one and done? We’ve had some that come in and do a one and done. What advice do you have for them?
Chris: I would say if you’re going to do a one and done, there’s no reason to do it, because a survey is a snapshot in time. So there can be staff members that are—just didn’t get a raise or something didn’t go their way, and so they take the BCWI, and they’re not happy when they take it. And it may not accurately reflect the long term of who they are on staff. And so I’ve actually talked about doing it twice a year because, again, when you get a snapshot, you get some information, but it’s like attendance in church. I don’t look weekly. I look at the trends. And so if you look at a bad weekend, not knowing that it was snow and the attendance is down by 60 percent, and you’re ready to slit your wrists, but if you look at it over time, so over time, is the staff becoming more engaged?
So every year we talk about the BCWI actually all year. We take it, we celebrate the wins, and then we come together, our executive team, and say, “Okay, of all that they said, what’s the three to five things we can change this year?” One year they talked about they thought their pay was low. We did an external compensation study, created pay bands, simply due to the BCWI. We change things because of perceived reality. It may be real; it may be perceived. The BCWI has actually taught us how to be better leaders and deal with which could be, like, pay or time off. So we spend a lot of time talking about how we can fix it. And again, one snapshot, I just would challenge people do it every year. Where are you on the graph? Are you dropping? Are you increasing? Are you keeping your staff longer? because everybody knows the longer staff stays—we’ve now learned from the BCWI when we’re most likely to lose staff, and that is between years three and five.
So there’s got to be a continual understanding. And frankly, for, let’s say, 80 percent of your staff that really can’t or struggle to have an honest conversation, it gives them an outlet. “Hey, the leadership loves me. They want to hear from me. I may not ever walk in the pastor’s office and tell him stuff that I don’t like, but he’s given me the opportunity, the executive team’s giving me the opportunity.” And so that can be a one and done. I would challenge you to look. I would think maybe the people that are one and done did it, didn’t like the results, and quit. And frankly, they’re not going to be as effective.
I believe that God has gifted all of us—the Scripture’s clear—and that we’re going to be accountable for everything God gave us at the bemis seat of judgment. So we have to live with the end in mind. We have to lead with the end in mind. Where are we going? Are we achieving our max potential as individual staff, corporately as a body, the team, and then as a church? And if we’re not getting better in our leadership, then we’re never going to hit our potential.
So I would challenge people don’t do a one and done. Keep up. If you didn’t like the results—again, I was ready to slit my wrists after the first year. I was mad about it. I griped about it—let me just be raw and real—because I focused only on the negative. But as we move forward, I understand why, how, and we continue to try to use it as a tool to transform the team to make everybody better, including the people at the top and the people at the bottom, because if you have a lot, a big staff, the people at the bottom feel like red-headed step kids. They’re left out. They’re last. They get the last. It may not be that way, but they feel that way. And so giving them an opportunity to ask them, “Hey, anonymously, talk to me. Tell me how you feel. Where are you at? Let’s make this thing better,” I just think it’s better for everybody—the Kingdom of God, the people of God. It’s lost people. It’s better for everybody. When a leader gets better, everybody wins.
Al: Yeah. That’s right. Well, yeah, when a leader gets better, everybody wins.
Well, Chris, as we wind down our time, I’d love for you to give our listeners a way to remember Faith Promise Church. What is the faith promise that you named your church after that every follower and disciple of Jesus can call on and live out with joy?
Chris: Well, it began by the faith promise used to be a mission offering. They made a faith promise to give. And then actually it transitioned to, we are people of faith, and we believe the promises. So we’re raw and real. We get up in your grill. Not ugly, not judgmental. But we talk about where people are, where they’re living, where their marriage is, where their kids are, where their future is. We just believe God’s going to build an army of Spirit-filled soul winners that we’re going to impact this entire state and the world for Jesus.
Wow, Chris, gosh. I’ve really enjoyed everything that we’ve learned. I really love your points. And the challenge, really, for all leaders is to get feedback and get better, because when the leader gets better, everybody wins. I love that.
So let me ask, is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about yet?
Chris: I would just go back to my early criticism and negativity, focusing on the wrong thing. I’m grateful that our executive team really said, “Hey, let’s continue. Let’s push. Let’s get better.” I’ve said it, but we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. And if you haven’t gotten better, you’re going to end up in heaven with unused gifts, unused talents, unwon souls, and you will not have achieved. When you understand the judgment seat of Jesus, it changes the 37 parables that He taught, because He’s clear that we will give an account. Romans 14:12, then every one of us will give an account himself to God. I want to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” That means I have to get out of my comfort zone. That means I have to press in things that I may or may not like. When I’m done—I told my wife, “Put on my tombstone, ‘At least he tried.’” I want to leave it all on the field. And having a better team gives me a better option to accomplish that.
Al: Yeah. “Well done” is something certainly to look forward to.
And well, let’s just conclude our interview, Chris, with a final thought. I love your conviction. I love all that you’ve talked with us about. What can you leave with our listeners as one final thought?
Chris: As you strive to get better, the Spirit will fill you. He will guide you. He will comfort you. Show up every day. After 38 years in ministry, I’ve been hurt, stabbed, wounded, lied about. But at the end of the day, we do this for Jesus. He died for us. The least we can do is live and give our lives as the greatest offer we can. Let’s put a smile on the Father’s face today.
Al: Yeah. Amen.
Dr. Chris Stephens, the senior pastor of Faith Promise Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, thank you for being so open, genuine, and talking about things that really matter. And I have a sense clearly of your integrity and true commitment to your colleagues, you know, making it a great place to work. So thanks for your work. And most of all, I appreciate your devotion and service to our loving God. So thanks for taking time out and speaking into our lives and the lives of so many listeners. Thanks, Chris.
Chris: You’re so welcome. And be blessed. And let’s all walk under an open heaven today.
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Remember, a healthy workplace culture drives greater impact and growth for your organization. We’ll see you again soon on the Flourishing Culture Podcast.