The CE Interview: Josh Whitehead

By Ronald E. Keener

“Because Christ should be the head of the church, the church should be the model of organizational integrity for the business world,” believes Josh Whitehead, executive pastor at Faith Promise Church, a nondenominational church of 3,300 in attendance in Knoxville, TN. “Unfortunately, churches daily use the modern amenities of the world while calling best business practices ‘unspiritual.’ I believe most of this stems from the perceived loss of control by parishioners if these best practices of business were implemented,” Whitehead says.

Whitehead says he grew up around a small business that his grandfather owned. “He would take me to work with him in the summer or during school holidays. I began working for him in middle school and he allowed me to manage the business while I was in college.

“I learned so much about how small businesses work from being in that environment that it really became a part of my life,” he reflects.

Can you share about the demographics and economics where the church is located?

The church is located in West Knoxville, which is 97 percent white and a middle to upper middle class area. However, one of the most interesting things about the church is that it is diverse for the area — both demographically and socio-economically. Although you would not know it today, our senior pastor, Chris Stephens, grew up in the projects as a drug dealer. His transparency has created an environment that is appealing to people in every walk of life. It’s amazing!

When the church’s attendance began to pleateau, what specific strategies or analysis did you undertake in looking at the situation and getting back on a path to growth?

I came to Faith Promise in 2003 as the young adult pastor. Between August 2003 and May 2004, the church grew from 900 to 1,550 in nine months and was one of the fastest growing churches in the country. However, everything came to a screeching halt. The church had outgrown all of its structure (the little that existed). So, in 2004 I was asked to be the executive pastor. The senior pastor and I went through an extensive time of defining the position and in February 2005 I took the job.

We had been stuck for almost a year, and I began to evaluate three things: structure, staff, and environments. First, we recognized that we had experienced vision shift. Many of our ministries began to function on their own, apart from the church’s vision. Although we had not started lots of new things, we truly had ministry silos. We were not working together as an organization and were at times working against one another.

This began to change as staff began to change. Initially, staff transition was needed but happened in ways that were less than ideal. We lost a staff member to moral issues, one to disagreement with the vision and another to church planting. But, this allowed us to begin re-staffing the organization.

Finally, the worship environment and schedules were evaluated. Although at that time we had a worship center that would seat 750, we had decreased it down to 550 seats with stage extensions and other renovations. We also battled issues with parking because of one and a half hour (or longer) worship services — we could not transition the campus and have optimal hour service times. We made almost immediate changes to all of the renovations and added 200 seats back to our worship center. Then, we began shaving time off of the services, finally landing at 65-minute service periods.

Each of these changes created momentum. After the first year, our attendance had decreased by an average of 15 people per weekend — 1,598 in weekend worship attendance. This year we will average more than 3,300 in weekend worship attendance.

I’m interested in the goal setting processes that the church uses with staff. I take it that the church is very performance driven?

In 2010, we will make our final shift to make the entire goal-setting process align with the calendar year as we change each person’s review date from January 1 to December 31.

Each year in September, our teams work to create four objectives for the next year along with strategic steps to accomplish those goals. Our Senior Leadership Team retreats in late September and evaluates the objectives. We look at themes from these objectives that may influence our overall church goals for the following year as well. The process has worked very well for us.

How does the goal setting part work?

Every person in our organization develops four Ministry Objectives for their position (from intern to senior staff member). Obviously, some of these may be shared within a department. Then, each person creates two Strategic Steps for each of their objectives. These are the more detailed plans or the “how” showing the plan to accomplish each objective. In development of the Strategic Steps, we use the SMART acrostic — Simple, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Tangible. After these are completed and reviewed by the team leader, they are submitted to our Senior Leadership Team. In late Fall of each year, our Senior Team reviews the objectives for the entire organization. Then, we set entire church goals that are linked to the Ministry Objectives. Reviews are given based upon achieving Ministry Objectives as well as church goals — so a person can be successful in their area and not receive the highest possible salary increase because the church goals were not met. We have seen this decrease ministry silos in the church.

What do you mean that this process decreases ministry silos in the church?

If a staff member can always be successful, even when church is struggling, that creates a silo, which is an area of ministry that functions alone without regard for the entire church. In my experience, if you link a portion of performance to working together, people work harder at being a team player.

Are the staff goals driving the church goals or are the church goals driving the staff?

Both. Each year there are areas that we naturally focus on as a church and there are areas that we focus on that are driven by departments. For instance, yearly we focus on a goal for weekend attendance, small group attendance, mission trips taken, financial health and the number of new leaders to be recruited.

However, in 2010 we may focus on an initiative to implement a Family Ministry strategy through our preschool, children and youth departments. Our Family Ministries pastor will lead this and will ensure that it is integrated into our church culture. So, it really is both.

Let’s take the goals for the pastor of small groups, just for an example. What might be his goals for 2010?

In 2010, he will focus on goals related to increasing the number of leaders in the small group ministry, the number of small groups and the number of people attending small groups. He will also focus on creating a strategy to develop an individual discipleship plan for each person within a small group. Finally, he will be evaluating our current affinity groups model and assessing the model’s viability in a multi-site environment.

How do those mesh with the church’s goals for the year?

In 2010, the church will look at the number of people attending group based upon the weekend attendance and set a goal. The pastor of small groups will be involved in that. His team will then develop or refine the strategy to achieve that goal. Again, the simplicity of our structure allows high levels of influence for ministry departments.

What were a few of the church’s goals for 2009?

They were 3,500 average attendance in November, 50 percent of weekend attendance in small groups, 400 New Servants, 200 baptisms, Compassion Ministry in Western Heights, 15.5 percent budget increase, and two new worship services started and staffed.

Performance reviews are given based upon achieving Ministry Objectives as well as church goals, but does an individual staff member have that much influence on church goals?

Because we focus on so few things, my answer would be definitely. For instance, we train our staff to think of their individual ministry from the “building” perspective, not just one of “receiving.”

Most staff members look to the weekend services to build their ministries. We want to reverse that. We want staff members to create a ministry that builds the weekend services. We want their ministry area to be so impactful that it brings people to Faith Promise. Obviously,  the weekend is a huge connection point and has an impact on each ministry. But, each ministry should be looking for ways to connect people to Faith Promise. This gives ministries the chance to make a huge difference related to some of the goals.

Can a person be successful in their area, achieving their goals in a superior way, but not receive the highest possible salary increase because the church goals are not met?

They can. Because we want ministries working together for a common goal, we weight individual ministry goals and church goals so that staff members are focusing on both.

Isn’t that somewhat demotivating?

In our culture we try to make it the motivating factor. If the entire ministry is successful, you are most successful. This encourages ministries to collaborate so that we accomplish more together than we each could individually. Ultimately, that is what a winning team is about.

You say that each staff member knows exactly what they are being evaluated on because they create their objectives and steps for achievement. But is it really that easy? Aren’t there always other more subtle and subjective factors that enter into performance and goals achievement?

I think there are less subtle and subjective factors when performance and goals are being prepared for, dialogued about and discussed throughout the review year. Unfortunately, in most organizations, there is no dialogue about success and reviews are based upon a person’s previous three months work. Anytime you are evaluating something, there’s a change for subjectivity. But if we have defined what the goals are, painted a clear picture of the expected performance and put that in writing, there is less room for subjectivity.

Is there a coaching process through the year?

We are developing that more clearly each year. We initially used the Caliper Profile to set the coaching process. The profile identifies areas of needed growth that can then be addressed by the manager. Now we are trying to take that to a new level by defining the core leadership competencies needed at each level of leadership in our organization. This will become our coaching process.

You have spiritual goals too. How does that work? What are a couple examples?

Our senior pastor is a personal and spiritual growth guru. He sets goals for Bible reading, prayer, fasting, weight loss, etc. This has filtered down to the staff level. As a staff member, if you will create a personal and spiritual growth plan, he will meet with you about it as you request throughout the year. So, many if not most staff members create personal and spiritual goals.

As a part of the staffer’s review process you have other members of the individual’s team evaluate the staff member, and use that information in the review process.

Staff members (across ministries) are asked to share information about that person that would be helpful in the review process, such as the person’s strengths (appreciative feedback), areas for future improvement (constructive feedback) or something specifically requested by the team leader. This gives insight into whether the employee is working well across ministries or within their team.

You have coupled the use of a staffing firm with the use of the well known Caliper Profile ( to evaluate potential hires and developing coaching plans for each staff member. Briefly, how does that work with Caliper and what has it shown to work well for the church?

The Caliper Profile gives insight into a person’s leadership, interpersonal, problem solving/decision making, and personal organization/time management skills. They compare the proposed job description with the candidate being considered and tell you the areas of strength and the areas of needed improvement for a candidate. Because there are no perfect candidates, this tool allows us to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each person. This keeps us from making as many bad decisions and enables us to develop stronger coaching plans.
Faith Promise Church:

Deaf Internet campus

After watching the initiatives of pioneering churches like and Seacoast Church, Faith Promise Church realized the potential impact of starting an Internet campus and in April 2009, we launched our iCampus.

We started with a single service time each Sunday morning and immediately began to see groups of people collecting online each week. Among those were people who were away on vacation, disabled or physically unable to come to church, traveling for work, or at home caring for sick children. We also found that many people began to try out the ministry of Faith Promise Church online through the Internet Campus before attending a service on our physical campus.

As the weeks went by, people continued to connect online, and we continued to hear stories of the way the Internet Campus was making an impact in people’s lives. People put their faith in Jesus, others made commitments to take spiritual next steps like baptism, developing spiritual growth plans, and pursuing holiness and freedom from sin. A couple of months later an additional service was added.

It has also been our ambition to break new ground for online ministry. At the prompting of one of our Deaf Ministry volunteers, we began to explore the possibility of expanding our iCampus to include sign language interpretation for the deaf community. In August we added that functionality to the Internet Campus — providing interpretation in American Sign Language (ASL) at both of our iCampus times.

While it is very difficult to know exact numbers, some have estimated that there are about one million deaf people in the United States. Of that, there are about half a million people who use ASL in the United States and Canada.

Because of the ambiguity in numbers, it’s difficult to measure how many deaf people have no church affiliation. However, there seems to be a consensus that a large percentage are unchurched.

Compounding this issue is the following statistic: 90 percent of deaf people have parents with normal hearing. Because of this, and the fact that many parents of deaf children never become fluent in ASL, there is often a significant communication barrier between the deaf and their own family members — significantly impacting the transmission of a biblical worldview and the Gospel from generation to generation.

Fortunately, technology has hastened the pace of bridging the gap, and ministries like Deaf Missions and DOOR International are actively providing ASL resources to the deaf community and facilitating the establishment of deaf fellowships.

Kyle Gilbert is the Communications and Internet Campus pastor at Faith Promise Church in Knoxville, TN.


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