No-nonsense Leadership

By Rez Gopez-Sindac

RobertCizekFullLengthCE Interview: Rob Cizek, Executive Pastor, Northshore Christian Church, Everett, WA

“Surprisingly smooth” is how Rob Cizek — executive pastor and an Emmy Awards-winning TV news director — describes his transition from the newsroom to the church world. Adeptly skilled in the competitive field of broadcasting, Cizek brings professionalism, collaboration and a good sense of judgment to the daily operation of Northshore Christian Church in Everett, WA.

Cizek says he had reached a point in his television career where he had accomplished most of what he originally set out to do. So, he started praying for God’s next move for his work life. After two years of praying and waiting, Cizek met an executive pastor whose corporate experience was similar to his. He told Cizek that large churches need people with business backgrounds to run the church organization. Encouraged by the conversation, Cizek began talking with senior pastor Ken Long. In 2005, Cizek became the executive pastor of Northshore, a 1,500-member nondenominational church.

Cizek says the church board, staff and congregation were welcoming and graceful, and allowed him to lead from his strengths, without placing unrealistic expectations on him for teaching and shepherding.

What skills have you developed in the newsroom that proved handy in the church world?

Decisiveness: Newsrooms are filled with constant deadlines and the demands of live television. A newsroom leader easily makes more than 200 decisions a day. Whether in television or in church, the team needs its leader to make decisions. Make the best decisions you can on the spot so your staff members can do their jobs. You’ll get it right 98 percent of the time; for the 2 percent of the time when you’re wrong, simply ask forgiveness. Overall, your staff will see that it’s far better to make decisions quickly than to gum up the works with slow deliberation.

Authenticity: Viewers have a relationship with news anchors. The strongest anchors are those who share bits of their lives, humanize news stories and humbly own their shortcomings.

Viewers become loyal. They will love and forgive these anchors when they occasionally make a mistake.
Conversely, viewers give the egotistical and pompous anchor a very different treatment. They may watch, but they pounce hard when a mistake is made. They like to see the blowhard take a fall. The same holds true for relationships in the church, especially with pastors. People want authenticity and humility from their leaders.

Directness: Newsrooms are high-productivity environments. Things move fast towards the common goal of producing the next newscast. There’s little time to waste. As such, journalists tend to speak in a very direct manner. When people are direct, they always know where they stand with each other. The relational “air” is clear.

Focus: Different news stations focus on different segments of the community. Some are soft and friendly; other stations are tabloid. Our station chose to focus on breaking news and weather coverage.

In church, we don’t have to be all things to all people. The community is served by a huge number of churches. While every church should fulfill all the functions mandated in Scripture, there’s no need for it to be “all things to all people.” Focus equals effectiveness.

What’s your take on balancing ministry and business in managing church staff?

In church leadership, it’s tempting to see every problem as a spiritual challenge. This hinders our ability to see problems correctly. I try to categorize what kind of challenge we’re facing and provide a corresponding solution.

For instance, business problems require business solutions. People problems require people solutions. Spiritual problems require spiritual solutions. We’re most effective when we tailor the nature of our response to the nature of our challenge.

How can churches be more effective in the area of communication?

The first step is to honestly evaluate a church’s existing communication strategy. In what era was it implemented? Many churches still cling to printed methods, primarily — bulletins, ads in phone books, handouts, door hangers and mailers. It’s possible these tools may still have some role in today’s strategy, but churches need to be brutally honest about how their people communicate now.

The next step is to consider which electronic tools will best reach your congregation. More people read texts than any other form of communication. Email is largely getting ignored because of overuse and spam. The majority of people have smart phones and appreciate having an app with which to connect to their church.

People expect their church service to be podcast (and, preferably, streamed live, as well).

Websites aren’t special anymore; but, people expect to easily find a wide range of current information on your church’s site. Most people first find your church through search engines, and they check out your website before visiting in person. To make sure your website is search engine-friendly, hire a search engine optimization consultant. Make sure the site makes a great first impression. Strongly consider using ads on search engines (Google AdWords, for example).

People also expect to be able to follow your church on Facebook and Twitter. Social media feeds should be both informative (the latest events/updates) and interactive (relational) in nature. Typically, this requires that a “digital native” — a person who has grown up with social media — handle your church’s social media strategy. These individuals think differently and intuitively use the medium well.

What makes strategic planning fail — or succeed?

Strategic plans work when they involve the team from day one; people support what they help design. Other success factors include proper resourcing, constant reinforcement of the vision, empowering people to act on the vision, and having organizational structures in place that support the plan.

Strategic plans fail when leaders don’t create a strong enough sense of urgency about the necessary changes. Other factors include under-communication, creating teams that lack the necessary horsepower, failure to remove obstacles, not pruning old systems/programs/ thinking to make room for the new, and not infusing the vision into organizational culture.

How do you build a trusting relationship with your senior pastor and elder board?

Building trust starts with setting expectations. I ask them what they both expect — and don’t expect — of me in my role. Then, I ask if it’s OK to “keep short accounts.” This means they have permission to immediately speak with me about any concerns they have about me, and that I have their permission to bring up difficult subjects with them. It’s critical that difficult things be discussed immediately when they arise. This allows you to develop healthy working relationships and a reputation as someone who’s honest, intuitive, courageous and trustworthy.

Another key to developing trust is to implement a “no surprises” policy. This means that you make extra effort to keep people in the know about what’s happening — good and bad. When you speak with your board and senior pastor, use a direct-yet-respectful style. They should be able to count on you for timely, factual and unbiased information presented in a no-nonsense manner.

When you mess up, tell them immediately, and take responsibility for your actions. Explore difficult topics behind closed doors; then, publicly support the direction set by your board and senior pastor.

Live every aspect of your life with integrity. A consistent track record of good personal and professional decision-making builds trust.

Provide rationale for your decisions. This way even if people don’t agree with you, they understand why you do what you do. Trust is built by consistently doing the things you say you’ll do.

What’s your strategy for building a culture of innovation?

The best way to innovate is to take an existing concept and use it in a different way. The guy who invented “sticky notes” simply took an existing notepad and added sticky glue on each note so the notes can be used in a different way.

Additionally, smart innovators study history, because “everything old is new again.” Just look at the fashion industry and the way it recycles 50-year-old ideas.

Innovation is helped when your team members know they have permission to fail. It’s also fostered when your team works outside of its usual environment (goes on field trips, meets in different/inspiring places).

I urge churches to use discernment in the area of innovation. Certain organizations, such as technology companies and car makers, are expected to be innovative. Other organizations (accounting firms, for instance) aren’t. The church lies between these two extremes. The primary functions of church, as defined in Scripture, haven’t changed in 2,000 years; there’s no need to innovate here. What does change are the methods we use to achieve these functions. Cutting-edge innovation with church methods can be desirable; but, if we get them wrong, they can also waste precious budget resources and turn people off of church.

I believe the best approach to innovation is for a church to survey the new methods being successfully used by other churches. You can then figure out how to adapt those innovations to your specific church context and location. Find out where the Holy Spirit is going, and get on board. To put it in business terms, on the technology-adoption lifecycle curve, don’t be among the 2.5 percent of innovators; be among the 13.5 percent of early adopters. In practical terms, this is the way to gain the most from innovation and to minimize the risks associated with trailblazing.

How does the presence of Boeing in your community affect the culture at your church?

Boeing has nearly 30,000 employees in the city of Everett (100,000 residents). People who work at Boeing tend to be well-educated and well-compensated. The values of Boeing employees affect how our community thinks and what it values. There are engineers, fabricators, designers, test pilots, salespeople and airplane software designers. They value intelligent conversation, education, precision, giving and programs executed with excellence. When Boeing employees come to church, they bring their culture with them. As leaders, we get a lot of scrutiny from engineers at our church who want to make sure we’re doing things right and with credibility. That’s just their culture: Every plane that comes out of Boeing is as absolutely perfect as they can possibly make it, because lives are at stake. As a church, we have to be sensitive to that.

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‘Be you,’ and other tips for new Executive Pastors

Rob Cizek offers some words of wisdom to new executive pastors who are coming into the ministry from the corporate world.

Don’t let anyone devalue how God prepared you for ministry. God taught you how to administer your church in the business world because he believes it’s the best place for you to learn such things. Seminaries are great for academics and theology, but their focus isn’t on teaching people the nuts and bolts of running an organization.

Don’t pretend to be something you aren’t. Just because you were called to a job with the “pastor” title doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a spiritual superstar. People know you came from the business world. They don’t expect you to have the same gifting and background as the senior pastor. Work diligently on your relationship with God, and be transparent. People will accept you even if you didn’t go to seminary.

Find a mentor. Before starting as executive pastor, I asked the executive pastor at my previous church if he would mentor me for one year, long-distance. He did so, gladly. His insights and support really helped me make the transition well. After the first year, I developed relationships with other executive pastors in my church area. They’ve been an ongoing source of information and support for several years.

Use training podcasts, DVDs, books, blogs and Twitter. The church world has an incredible number of resources from which you can learn leadership. There are excellent podcasts, conference DVDs, books and blogs for church leaders. I find following church leaders on Twitter of particular value — so much so that I started posting resources every day (@RobCizek).

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