Senior Pastor | Church of the Highlands | Birmingham, AL
By Rez Gopez-Sindac
In February 2001, Chris Hodges founded Church of the Highlands with a launch team of 34 people. Today, nearly 15 years later, around 30,000 attendees gather to worship each weekend in its multiple locations throughout Central Alabama.
By “multiple,” we mean 12 church plants — with several more in the pipeline. That the campuses are built with cash — without any capital campaigns or fundraisers — is just one of a number of things that makes Church of the Highlands different.
“We’re not trying to break any records; we’re simply leading people at the speed of their participation and generosity,” says Hodges. “Church of the Highlands is totally debt-free, allowing us to do everything with cash and to be very aggressive in our generosity around the world.”
Hodges, 52, is cofounder of ARC (Association of Related Churches). He also founded GROW, a coaching network for pastors, and Highlands College, a school that trains and launches students into full-time ministry careers. Hodges is the author of two books: Fresh Air and Four Cups.
When you started Church of the Highlands, what kind of church did you foresee?
From a missional standpoint, we wanted to be different. We focus on helping people fulfill what God has intended for them. What we do well is take a person on a spiritual journey. And it’s not ambiguous — we make it very clear, simple and doable. People are excited because their spiritual lives are continually growing. Since the beginning of time, God has always wanted for people to know Him, find freedom, discover their purpose, and make a difference. These steps are what we track — and we track them well.
From a business standpoint, I’ve always thought that things could be done differently in church, particularly when it comes to money. I never liked campaigns. Instead of asking people [for money], we model stewardship in our church finances in the same way that we should operate our individual finances. We should never spend everything we have. We’ve always operated with a margin. Our current salaries are at 23 percent of our budget; whereas the national average is about 40 percent. When people see that, they actually give more. They trust me to steward our funds wisely, and I want to do it in a way that earns their respect.
I’m not against debt, but I’m against getting addicted to it! There are times when debts can be beneficial. There was one time when we did a $30-million construction project, but we only had $16 million saved, so we borrowed some money but we paid it off as soon as we could. We don’t believe we’ll ever do it again. Now, we’re debt-free and we’re able to build with cash. Because we have a margin, when tragedy happens — such as when a tornado hit Alabama in 2011 — we are able to give to support recovery efforts. Margins give you a lot of breathing room.
What systems, structures and strategies did you create to make your “dream church” a reality?
Systems are just what you use to deliver your vision; they either work or they don’t. Our systems for helping people know God, find freedom, discover their purpose, and make a difference is our life-giving church services. Our strategy for pastoring people is the small groups. We have 37,000 people who attend our small groups — more than the number of people who come to our Sunday services. We have a four-Sunday growth track that help people discover their purpose, and then we have our Dream Team to help people make a difference.
On the business side, we wrote it in our bylaws that the budget of our church would be 90 percent of the previous year’s income. In other words, we automatically have a 10-percent margin coming into the year. We also wrote in borrowing restrictions. We have systems that ensure the business side of church is run according to our values.
In what areas of your life have you experienced the biggest growth since founding Church of the Highlands?
Honestly, I had to continually grow in all areas of my life. I constantly learn from churches that do things better than us. In fact, I require every person on my team who leads a ministry or department to connect with three people in the nation who do their jobs as well or better than them. I had to grow in my speaking and leading. I had to grow spiritually. I had to grow biblically. What may surprise some people is that the greatest challenge has been to keep growing. I could see how someone could just sit back and put things on cruise control, but that’s not my personality. If you study any successful product or business in America, you’ll find that they usually never get bigger than what they were around year 12 to 15. In the same way, most churches never get larger than their size around those same years. They just stop growing. That’s why we intentionally try to grow through all seasons.
“What we do well is take a person on a spiritual journey. And it’s not ambiguous — we make it very clear, simple and doable.”
Each time you launch a new campus, it gets filled right away! What strategies can you share with other church leaders in this area?
When we launched our church, we also formed a church-planting organization called ARC (Association of Related Churches) that now has planted 540 churches across America. At ARC, we teach church planters eight things that make a great church plant. We use the same checklist when planting new campuses. These eight things are:
1) You have to prepare the area spiritually through prayer and fasting.
2) You have to build a great team. We’re very good at building a team; in fact, we won’t even plant a new campus without a very strong team.
3) The location is absolutely critical.
4) How you communicate the launch
5) Timing — some seasons are better than others. Not all months and weeks are the same.
6) You can’t give people a lesser product than what they get from the “main campus.”
7) If you finance it heavily on the front end, it actually ends up being cheaper.
8) Do fewer things extremely well.
We’re not acting like God doesn’t have a role in church growth — we definitely give Him glory and we definitely pray. But there’s definitely a “formula.” In 12 cities we’re considering right now, all of these factors have to a “yes” before we do it.
“I think what other churches can learn is how patient we are! You can become anxious and build too small, and you can have so much money put into it you can’t afford to do any good ministry.”
You built Church of the Highlands and all succeeding construction projects with cash. What can other churches learn from this?
What we like to do is grow the church in a portable venue where the overhead is very low. It takes only about 20 percent of the church income to run that church, so all that other money can be leveraged toward its future. We stay portable within six years and grow to five services or to about 4,000 people before we build a permanent location.
I think what other churches can learn is how patient we are! You can become anxious and build too small, and you can have so much money put into it you can’t afford to do any good ministry.
From year one, your church has continued to surpass expectations. How do you explain this?
We do things well, we pray, and we fast twice a year. There are four things that I think cause churches to grow exponentially.
1) The God factor — what probably surprises people the most is what a praying church we are.
2) Life-giving systems to deliver your mission.
3) The right team — if you have the right people, you can do some great things.
4) The right culture— if your culture is not life-giving, nothing is going to work.
How do you think straight and stay grounded in times of stress and even amid success?
I don’t want to sound boastful, but I’m a very disciplined person. I’m very faithful to my personal Sabbath and to my family time. I’m very intentional about my breaks. I know my limits. There are are people who speak into my life and help me watch my schedule and make travel decisions. I’m very intentional in those areas because I’ve seen so many casualties already.
One thing every leader needs to do is to stay humble. Don’t think too much of yourself and do not promote yourself. My pastor’s dad used to say that a man on his face can’t fall from that position.
What is your approach to succession planning?
We’re preparing more people than we would need. If something were to happen to me or when I retire, they could lead the church. We want to keep the church in a financially healthy place, so it’s not a burden to the next generation. And we prepare a ton of leaders.
Still, God will ultimately choose the person, and it will be clear to everyone. It will have to be someone who can handle something this large, and if there’s no financial burden it will be fairly easy. I think the future leader will be someone internally.
What practical tips do you want to share with today’s church planters?
Don’t do ministry alone. You don’t have to know everything, but surround yourself with people who do know. Be a breath of fresh air. Be empowering, believe in people, be passionate, don’t be difficult — these are the things people are attracted to.
What is the future of Church of the Highlands as you see it?
We’ll keep building life-giving churches in every community in Alabama. I see 25 to 40 campuses launched in my lifetime. Every day, I’m amazed at God’s supernatural favor.
Quick facts about CHURCH OF THE HIGHLANDS
Year established: 2001
Lead Pastor: Chris Hodges
Number of locations: 12
Number of staff: 240
Combined weekly attendance: 30,807
2016 budget: We “budget” on 90 percent of the previous year’s income. The 2015 income is $72 million, so the budget for 2016 is 90 percent of that. The projected income for 2016 is around $86 million.