The CE Interview: Adam Hamilton

Adam Hamilton, Senior Pastor, United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, Leawood, KS

By Richard Young

As the teenage son of parents who were Roman Catholic and Church of Christ, Adam Hamilton is not the stereotype one would imagine of a megachurch pastor. Attending an Assembly of God church as a teen and graduating from Oral Roberts University did not enhance the image. After attending Perkins Seminary he was serving as a youth pastor in a United Methodist church.

At age 26 the bishop asked him to plant a church in a rapidly growing suburb. The bishop was optimistic about his opportunity. He told Adam he could possibly have 500 worshippers within 10 years. But 18 years after beginning the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, KS, Hamilton is pastoring the denomination’s largest church in America with a weekend attendance of 7,000. Today, at 44, he believes God is just starting with him. He has plans for the future as far as he can see, and he shared some of the more immediate ones with Church Executive:

You seem to be a very “strategically planned guy.” You have an architectural model that has your first sanctuary, the one you are in now, and next one on the drawing boards. You seem to know exactly where you are headed.

One of the strengths of this church is that we always try to think two steps ahead. Whenever we build a building we are always doing a good job of master planning. We always try to think, “How will this building be used in 20 years that’s different from its current use?” We had a master plan for this facility that showed our permanent sanctuary where the student center is. It had a beautiful 75-foot high glass wall with trees growing out of the chancel area, a building that we never built because it was designed for a congregation of 1,500. We never realized we would grow this much.

The permanent sanctuary will probably not look like the master plan because we have it designed to hold 7,000 people. Because we are starting these different venues, the final sanctuary will probably hold about 4,500. That is one of the big changes we are seeing in large churches. We think the next generation is not going to be drawn to a 7,000-seat sanctuary. We think the next generation is going to be drawn to a building which is more intimate, in all likelihood to a venue of the main sanctuary. We’ll build a 4,500 seat sanctuary with a balcony that gets people closer and more intimate. The student center is one venue, the gymnasium on Sunday morning becomes another venue, and we’ve got multiple styles of worship and multiple ways for people to worship. That’s a major change.

Just how far out do you plan your personal life?

I’m the guy who has everything semi-planned out until I retire. God willing, we recognize that these plans could change and it’s okay if God changes them. But we are going to think about what that might look like. In my mind we’ll move into the permanent sanctuary in December of 2014, and we’ll do a capital campaign and pay down debt. We’ll build the final wing in 2018 and pay off the debt in 2021. We start doing massive infusion into missions, capital, and building churches and other things and in other places.

When I retire in 2032 my hope is that all the buildings are paid off on this campus. We have turned the corner and a great many of our resources are going toward missional causes. We’ve been doing a lot but we can do a lot more.

How does this strategic plan permeate down to the staff and the organization as a whole? Are they thinking that far out?

We have an overall strategic plan that is just focused on next year and maybe the year after that. At our top level we do a strategic planning process every year. We stack hands on a strategic plan for the next year. Then we will look ahead to the next year and start thinking about what we are going to do then. We will have some ideas for farther down the road. Every ministry area does a planning process that’s designed to set their goals and strategic objectives for the coming year and make sure they tie into our mission, vision and strategic plan.

The staff knows I plan my sermons two years in advance. Right now (October 2008), we have pretty much agreed on next year’s sermons through the end of the year. I’ll change them a little, I’m open if things change. We might throw out a sermon series and bring in another one. Then I have a plan through 2010, about half of it which will stick.
Some of the staff is working in the same way. Part of what we ask them is, three years from now, five years from now, what do you hope that you have accomplished? Where do you want to be then? Now how do you work yourself backwards to where you are today? It’s like building a house, you’ve got an idea of what you want this house to be, you have blueprints, once you know where you’re going you have the starting point and it’s a process along the way. The pastor’s job in part is to help people identify the ultimate goal. The senior pastor has to say, “What is our vision, our ultimate picture of the future, a year from now, three years from now. Let’s talk at least about the next few years and what that looks like.”

When was your first serious strategic plan where other people were involved and you knew you had an idea where you were headed?

Originally I just went out and dreamed and just came back and said, “I think this is where we are supposed to go next year.” In the early years we had some folks who were with Hallmark and other companies. I asked them, “How do you do strategic planning”? I asked them to show me. I never learned a strategic planning process in seminary. We hired a consultant who led us through a strategic planning process for a couple of years. Even now we bring in an outsider who can help ask the questions and lead us.

You’ve mentioned that you are very corporate. Where did all of the input come from?

Some of it is intuitive. Not as much as I would like. In year three or four I started reading business books. I had not done that before. They were very helpful. One of our church members passed on a book to me, something she had gotten where she worked. Our structures were breaking down and the book showed the warning signs. I was reading this book and I was eating it up. We were seeing all of these warning signs. It was hugely helpful to me. I began to subscribe to Harvard Business Review. There were hosts of other things I did at the time. I spent a lot of time studying and reading.

There was probably a five-year period when a large part of my reading was in the business area. Then, too, it was just being around great leaders. I have tried to spend time with some of our folks who have done a great job on our staff parish committees and others. I found people who are really exceptional leaders. Sometimes I would sit down with them and ask them, “How do you handle this down at your workplace?” It is different in the church world but there are a lot of similarities, in leadership and management, with business. We can learn from the best practices in a given field and adapt them to our setting.

Some of our staff have complained about being too corporate. That was a way of saying we don’t like the structure. We would ask them, “What do you mean by that? If by that you mean that we are losing our spiritual focus, we think you’re wrong. But if you mean by that we are trying to learn everything we can from the corporate world and apply it in leadership and management, then guilty as charged. We are going to do that. We are trying to keep that balance. We know why we are here — the spiritual focus — while learning everything we can from the corporate world in the terms of management and structure.

Organizationally, how have you worked with people at other locations. What is your management structure with multiple locations?

The way that Resurrection West works is the pastor there leads that staff. She may come here for one or two meetings a week. Part of the advantage of this is she is at a church of 500 in worship on a weekend. She has all of the benefits of the back of house operations that are here. So she does not have to hire accountants and HR and IT people. Because all of that happens over here. If she were hiring someone she would be spending $60,000 of her limited resources to get someone where she has a whole team of them here.

We are able to have this because we are one church in two locations. Every part of their ministry is stronger because they have access to a larger pool of help. She had a recent staff change there in the children’s ministry and we sent one of our best staff members to be a part of their team. Dave Roberson, who heads up our discipleship there, has been with us for more than 10 years. She could never have hired him away from Church of the Resurrection if they were a new church start with 500 people. But he went because we are one church at two locations.

You recently went to a conference in Atlanta with 80 pastors of the 100 largest United Methodist churches in the country. What was that about?

Part of our vision from the beginning of this church was to be a catalyst for renewal within the United Methodist Church. It sounded silly when we were a church of 90 people but somehow God placed this on our hearts and gave us a platform to do something. We saw that some of our finest leaders in our denomination are in the largest churches but they may feel isolated. Sometimes they feel sidelined within the denomination.

They have not invested their energy into revitalization of the denomination. They do a good job at their church. Revitalization was a passion of ours and we thought, what could we do to get it to become a passion of 100 pastors? It was already a passion of some but for some not. We thought if we could be a catalyst to get the top 100 pastors to say that we are going to do our part to revitalize the United Methodist Church, this would multiply our effort.

We started a couple of years ago and invited the 10 pastors of the largest Methodist churches to come here. We spent a day and a half together. It was the first time that some of them had met each other. They came to my house and had dinner. We heard each other’s stories about how we came to faith and what God is doing in our churches.

We were really jazzed about that so we said let’s take the next step and get the pastors of the 25 largest churches together. We met in Houston and 25 of the 30 largest churches were represented. It was there we pitched the idea of the 100 largest churches getting together. The goal is to have the pastors of the churches of 3,000 or more mentor or be a resource for the churches that have 2,000 in attendance on a Sunday. Those churches would in turn work with the churches with 1,000 a week in worship and be a resource for them, helping them move to that level. Then the pastors of the churches of 1,000 reach out to the churches running 500 or more, helping those churches envision ministry differently.

But the big part is how can we become a positive influence for change in our denomination? How do we raise up young leaders? How do we start new churches? How do we encourage other people? How do we help them become effective leaders? One in 20 people in the United Methodist Church attend one of these 100 largest churches, in a denomination of 32,000 churches. We hope they’ll see themselves as reformers, as encouragers, as people who come up with ideas and give them away. We think this will do nothing but help the rest of the churches.

Different businesses focus on specific times when they build their businesses. Many businesses point toward Christmas, a florist may point toward Valentine’s Day; Church of the Resurrection seems to focus on Christmas and Easter. How did this come about?

I tell people we really built this church on candlelight Christmas Eve services. The first year we were going to send a direct mailer out and invite people to come to a Christmas Eve candlelight service. It seemed like an opportunity to draw people to this little funeral home chapel where we then worshipped. That first Christmas the mailer said, “Give your children the gift they can never outgrow.” The place was packed! Children sat on the floor, the choir stood in the hallway. This said there was interest in this even from non-religious and nominally religious people. So every year we have focused on inviting our friends for Christmas Eve. Last year we had 22,000 people at Christmas Eve, more than twice our weekly worship attendance, almost three times. Some years back USA Today ranked us as one of the top 10 places in America to hear the Christmas message.

As an Assembly of God teenager with the background you have with your parents, did you ever dream you would be sitting in that chair?

No. I remember as a teenager in high school I had these big dreams that whatever I did I wanted to be the best. I had this yearning to be the best. I remembered that when I felt called to the ministry, I wanted to do this well. I wondered how I could influence the largest number of people to come to faith or help other pastors grow? When we started the Church of the Resurrection, I had never been to a church that had more than 300 people in worship. Even at the beginning I had this feeling that God was going to do something remarkable. I thought I had a tiger by the tail. I even said in some of our early stewardship videos before we built our first building. “I just know that God is going to do something amazing here. I can’t see it yet.”

I remember thinking, if I was a better pastor I could see what it was that God was going to do. I couldn’t articulate it but I just felt it. I had a touch of anticipation that something was going to happen. On the one hand if you had told me I wouldn’t have believed it, if you had told me I would not have envisioned it. On the other hand, there was always the sense that God had something remarkable in store and I was getting to be a part of it. I needed to thank God for it and my job was to get out of the way of what God wanted to do.

Interviewer Richard Young, Oklahoma City, OK, author, consultant and strategic planner, has authored The Rise of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen (2007) and The Journey of T.D. Jakes (2008), both published by Whitaker House. He is working on a new project profiling 10 megachurch pastors. []


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