Episode 60: “How to Be a Hero Maker” featuring Dave Ferguson

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 60: “How to Be a Hero Maker” featuring Dave Ferguson

How can you activate the gifts of others and multiply the impact of your ministry? In this episode we speak with Dave Ferguson about becoming a “hero maker” by focusing on making those around you great leaders.

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How can you activate the gifts of others and multiply the impact of your ministry? In this episode we speak with Dave Ferguson about becoming a “hero maker” by focusing on making those around you great leaders.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary. And I’m pleased to be the host of this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. I’m visiting today with Dave Ferguson who is the lead pastor of Chicago’s Community Christian Church. And he is co-author with Warren Bird of the book Hero Maker: Five Essential Practices for Leaders to Multiply Leaders. I’m so excited to have the opportunity to talk with you today, Dave, about this important subject.

Dave Ferguson: Thanks for having me, Ann.

Ann Michel: So before we get into the specifics of what it means to be a hero maker, I want to begin with a more general question. I’ve been working in leadership studies for a long time. And I’m aware of a paradox. Almost every church leader that I talk to tells me how urgent the need is in their church for more new leaders and better energized leaders. But yet, at the same time, my sense is that there’s very little attention given to the subject of leadership development. I think that’s beginning to change. Your book obviously is a step in that direction. But I wondered if you could help me think about why the church has so often ignored this need of leadership development? Or when they do it, they do it in ineffective ways, at least in my opinion.

Dave Ferguson: No. I would agree unfortunately with your observation, Ann. I think maybe we’ve made leadership development more complicated and more of a mystery than it actually is. Because I think if pastors and other church leaders begin to understand that really leadership development is just another expression of discipleship, that we are doing as you’re growing, but multiplying probably someone who has a leadership gift or at least some influence. I think if they begin to see it as a simpler version of that, I think it wouldn’t seem so daunting, so intimidating, or so “Oh my gosh, that’s another thing I have to do.” No, it’s actually the primary thing you have to do. Except it’s just at a leadership level.

Ann Michel: I think that’s helpful. Because I often talk in my work about the need to institute more organic approaches to leadership development, as opposed to, I think, so many ways the church has come at it in the past that have been very rigid and institutionalized. But not as effective.

Dave Ferguson: Oh, I concur a hundred percent. I mean that’s — and we’ll probably get there in our conversation — but that’s why I’ve been such a big advocate of apprenticeship. And I would say apprenticeship and the idea around apprenticeship not only works — let’s take a step back again with discipleship — but it also works with leadership development. And I do think it is a much more organic — and by organic I’m not saying you do whatever you want — but I’m saying it is a much more relational kind of approach that almost anyone can be involved in once they understand that.

Ann Michel: So can you define for our listeners what you mean by a Hero Maker approach to leadership or discipleship.

Dave Ferguson: Yes absolutely. I so love, love, love this topic. I think that the idea around a hero maker is that the focus for a particular leader is not just to be a great leader. I think mostly people who are leaders, they want to do a good job. They want to serve well. They want to steward their talents in the right direction. But there’s a tweak here and it’s really significant. It is instead, they want to make the leaders around them great. So rather than just trying to be a great leader, you want to make the leaders around you great. I think that’s one of the biggest differences.

Ann Michel: Yeah. So my colleague Lovett Weems, who’s the founding director of our leadership center, often says “that a good leader makes heroes of others” rather than trying to always be the hero themselves.

Dave Ferguson: Exactly right. Or one of my mentors — you knew Bob Buford. Bob would say “My fruit grows on other people’s trees.”

Ann Michel: Oh wow.

Dave Ferguson: And I think that’s great. If you have time for an example of a hero making.

Ann Michel: Sure!

Dave Ferguson: This one doesn’t really come from the church world. Sometimes we get examples from other places. I think it helps us kind of to see in a different light. You don’t happen to be a runner do you?.

Ann Michel: No. But I think I’ll still understand a running metaphor, so …

Dave Ferguson: Okay. Well, there is probably one the premier runners, and she just recently retired in the US, is a woman by the name of Shalane Flanagan. And Shalane Flanagan won the New York Marathon in 2017. And the reason it was a big deal was because she was the first female American to win it in 40 years. And she did it an unbelievable time. Now, there was an article written about her in the New York Times. And it’s fascinating. I’ll just read a brief clip from this. It describes her accomplishment. And I think it gives us a glimpse of what it means to be a Hero Maker. The writer, The New York Times says “Perhaps Flanagan’s bigger accomplishment lies in her nurturing and promoting the rising talent around her. Even bigger than her winning the New York Marathon,” it goes on and says “a rare quality in the cutthroat world of elite sports. Every single one of her training partners, all the 11 women in total on Team Nike, have made it to the Olympics while training with her.”

Ann Michel: Wow.

Dave Ferguson: And it goes on. And they call it the “Shalane Effect.” You serve as a rocket booster for the careers of the women who work alongside you while catapulting forward yourself. Wouldn’t it be cool if they had something called the “Ann Effect.” Because everybody knows you’re up to big stuff and you want to do great things for God’s kingdom. But they also know that anybody that gets close to you is gonna do great things. And I think that’s the idea behind a Hero Maker. But it’s not just you. But you’re trying to make everybody around you better and help them become the best they can be. That’s the focus.

Ann Michel: Yeah. And I think that approach to leadership development is why the Christian movement was able to get off the ground in the first place. I mean this is how Jesus developed leaders. He brought a group of other people around him and spent a lot of time in helping them grow and develop. And by the time we get to the Book of Acts we can see the amazing leadership force that Jesus put in place. So I think you’ve really given a contemporary label to a practice that is as old as the Bible.

Dave Ferguson: One of the great things about the terminology, the nomenclature of Hero Maker when you’re talking about leadership development is that it’s a new term. And sometimes when you talk about leadership development, the people in your church or the people you’re working with, they assume they already know what you’re talking about. But when you say “Hero Maker,” what I’ve found — and actually I had a friend in Norway who taught me this — that language creates the paradigm. And the mental paradigm helps create the future. And so when you introduce new language, all of a sudden, it gives people a new paradigm, a new way of thinking about it, which then creates a new possibility. So I think going back to even your original insight — how leadership development has not had a prominent place in a lot of churches — I think by introducing this new terminology, it gives you a second chance for people to see leadership development differently.

Ann Michel: Yeah. It’s a new hook to hang your hat on. And it gives you a new lens to think about it, even though it’s not really a new approach.

Dave Ferguson: Exactly right. But more importantly, it gives the people in your church a different way of thinking about it. Because when you start talking about Shalane Flanagan, all of a sudden they are going, “Oh. I never thought about that.” So I could do that with my students that are in my youth group. Or I could do that with my Sunday school teachers or my small group leaders. That kind of thing.

Ann Michel: Yeah. You know that’s a really helpful point of reference. Because I think some of us who are seminary educated, we’re busy giving biblical names to this stuff, or theological categories, and not thinking about it in plain everyday terms — which Hero Maker is. So, the first practice that you highlight in your book is multiplication thinking. And you define that as a mindset shift from thinking about ministry happening though our own individual efforts to understanding that ministry happens when we empower other leaders. And I think it’s simple to say that. But, in fact, I think it’s quite hard for most people to do this — to really step into that mindset shift. So I wondered why you think it’s so challenging for people to approach it that way? And maybe, how they can begin to embrace that new mindset?

Dave Ferguson: Yeah. Great question. I think part of the reason multiplication thinking, this first practice of the Hero Maker, is so difficult is because what it requires for most of us to get the motivation is, it is catalyzed by a big dream. That we need to have a big dream to kind of force us and push us into multiplication thinking. And the reality is that most of us kind of live in the tyranny of the urgent. We’re kind of stuck in what we have to get done right now. I had an experience that I think really illustrates how this big dream pushed me into multiplication thinking. I was at a workshop and I remember the gentleman who was teaching the workshop. And he said “I want you to name your dream for your church.” And I was a church planter. And my dream, and it’s embarrassing, my dream for my church was that I wanted to see it be a thousand people. I thought, “Okay, if I had a thousand people that would be a really big deal.” And then he said, “I want you to take your current dream and multiply it by a million.” And so I thought, “Okay, a thousand times a million. I mean that’s a billion, right?” And then he said this “Now, I want you to figure out how can you make that happen.” Now confession here, Ann. As a young church planter I probably thought “Okay. You know what? I could teach well enough that maybe I could attract a thousand people. Or I could organize things well enough that I could get people in small groups and have a church of a thousand people.” But now he said “I want to dream about a billion,” right. I knew I could never do that. In fact, not only could I not do that. I knew that my church couldn’t do that. I knew my denomination couldn’t do that. I’d have to help start lots of churches. I’d have to work across denominational lines. I mean it literally just kind of blew your mind. You’re going like, “Wow. How would I accomplish that?” And what happened for me in that moment is, it pushed me beyond my own capability and pushed me into multiplication thinking. Because I had to begin thinking like “Okay. I’d have to start lots of churches. And I’d have to release lots of church planters. I would have to start networks of churches. I’d have to work across my denomination in other denominations.” And I think the reason that most of us don’t get the multiplication thinking is because we don’t have a big dream that pushes us. So one of the things, rather than a million, which is audacious, I will challenge leaders and say, “I’ll tell you. Take your current dream, whatever it is, and just multiply it by one hundred.”

Ann Michel: I’d say two. Multiply it by two, even.

Dave Ferguson: If you do that, all of a sudden, and then you ask the question, “Now how would I accomplish that?,” it puts you in a place where you go, “You know what? I know I could not do that on my own. I’m gonna have to invest in other people, who will also have the value of investing in other people, in developing other leaders to do that.” And so I challenge leaders. I say. “You know, if you don’t have a dream that makes you dependent on God, you need to get a bigger dream.”

Ann Michel: Yeah. That is such a good point. Because, you know, I hear two theories of thought on this. I hear people who think like you do. Who say, “In order to inspire people and get other people motivated and involved we have to have God-sized visions.” And I personally ascribe to that theory. I think that is so true. And I think one of the reasons that your everyday church has had such a hard time engaging people is the things they’re asking people to do frankly aren’t very exciting. They’re asking them to sit on a committee. Or, you know, someone once said to me “If your church’s biggest dream for the next year is renovating the downstairs men’s bathroom, the really bold leaders in your orbit don’t really care to devote that much time to a project like that.” And I agree with that. I think we often under-challenge people. And so they’re not really inspired to engage as they might. But on the other hand, I hear a lot of people say, “No. You have to start real small. You need to give people small tasks. And then if they do well in a small task then maybe they can do a little bit more. You know, a very small and incremental approach to trying to get people involved. I kind of see those as opposite of each other.

Dave Ferguson: You know what? This will be fun. Let’s try this on. And I because what I often do, I will challenge leaders with both of those things. I would dream big but start small. Yeah. So dream big. So like for me, one of the values that I have is, even though I have a larger church with lots of other locations across Chicagoland and I get a chance to lead a global church planting network , I lead a small group on Tuesday nights. And I try to always have an apprentice leader that I’m developing in that small group. Because literally when we planted our church 30 years ago, that’s where we started. Every one of us all. There were five of us on a team. All of us went and started groups. And we had an apprentice leader. And we started multiplying leaders that way. And that’s been the outgrowth of that. And so when I’m talking to young leaders, especially, “Yeah, have the big dream. But start small.” So that the smallest component has this multiplicative effect to it that that can create a movement.

Ann Michel: Right. And that’s the Jesus approach, too, right?

Dave Ferguson: Well. I hope so!

Ann Michel: I just mean I am so struck by the fact that Jesus spent most of the three years of his ministry investing in 12 other leaders.

Dave Ferguson: Exactly right.

Ann Michel: So that leads me to apprenticeship which was another aspect of your book that I wanted to lift up. And I think you have some interesting things to say about how apprenticeship can happen in simple ways. I mean you’ve already described it in terms of a small group setting. But what are some other ways that an apprenticeship approach to developing others can work in a congregation or other ministry setting?

Dave Ferguson: Sure. I mean let me check a little bit of what you said there, too. I co-wrote the book with Warren Bird. And if you know Warren, Warren’s a terrific researcher. And Warren actually went through the Gospels. Or he had somebody go through the Gospels. And they took all the different events in the life of Jesus. And what they found is that he spent 73 percent of his time — or 73 percent of the events at least in the Bible — were in a small group kind of discipleship or apprenticeship context. Often times we think of him at the Sermon the Mount or the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the big events. So I challenge leaders, “Well, what if you took your energies and you put 73 percent of it into apprenticeship, developing people, developing leaders, which is basically what happens during the week, and only 27 percent gearing up for the Sunday service, the big event?” Kind of like Jesus did. And the thing of it is, too, back to your original question, this idea of apprenticeship works in every experience of church. So for example, if you came to Community Christian Church, you could walk into one of our Kid City areas. And you might see one of our Kid City leaders. And there’d be someone who’s shadowing them who’s their apprentice leader. You might walk into our auditorium and in the back of the room there’s a booth that has all the tech — the audio visual and all that kind of stuff. And you might see someone who’s actually running the IMag and the PowerPoint. And there will be someone looking over their shoulder. And so that person is literally being apprenticed to run media. You can do this in the arts. You can do it in kids’ ministry. You can do it in student ministry, in adult ministry. You can do it for church planting. Anything that you’re doing, if you can show someone else how to do it, you can apprentice them.

Ann Michel: Well, that’s a good example of something that’s so natural and organic. Just inviting somebody to come alongside and do something with you, as opposed to some formal process of leadership training or something like that. I mean the apprentice model is so organic, really.

Dave Ferguson: Well, and to your point too, that’s what Jesus did. Right? John 3:22. There’s this little phrase there that says, “Jesus spent some time with them.” And it’s my understanding the little phrase is a Greek word diatribo — which is a composite of two different words which literally mean “to rub off.” And so it’s like Jesus said, “You know what. The next three years I’m just going to rub off on these guys.”

Ann Michel: Yeah, I loved that in your book. That taught me something new and it really gave me something to think about. I sometimes think about the Story of the Transfiguration in that way, too. About how Jesus took the two disciples up to the mountain top. And the little words, “It is good that we are here.” You know, just the importance of being together. Of him having them with him in that moment. I’ve always felt that that was really a leadership development text and nobody ever reads it that way. But I think that it is. Another practice that you lift up in the book is you talk about commissioning as a way of affirming people’s gifts. And I wondered if you could explain what you mean by that? And how you do that in your congregational setting? Because I thought that was such a powerful, but I think easy thing, that a church could adapt into their practice.

Dave Ferguson: This has probably been maybe 10 years ago. We realized that we had a conviction again about the priesthood of all believers. And we were teaching from 1 Peter 2:9 where it talks about “we’re a royal priesthood.” And so we were teaching that. And particularly in the Chicago context – you’re in Washington D.C. so it’s probably similar — most everybody here, if you have a church background, your church memory is probably Catholic. And so I’m teaching, “You know what the Bible says? We’re all priests.” And you could see them look at me. And we begin to unpack that what that meant for us to be a royal priesthood. And I said that, “As a priest you have a parish.” And their parish is wherever you live or you work or you play. The people you influence. And then we went on and we said, “You know what? And if you feel God’s calling you uniquely to reach and help grow up and disciple the people where you live, work, and play in that which is your parish, we want you to come forward. Because we want you to know you have the full blessing of our church. And we want to commission you. Okay? Just like it says in the Bible. To go and do that work.” And so we had people come forward. And we prayed for them and we anointed them with oil as a sign of blessing. And we had so many people come forward. In fact, I’ll tell you what, Ann. It was one of those weird times where I was going like “Okay hold it. This is going too well.” There were too many people that came forward. And we had people say things like “Yeah, I think I’m supposed to go and start a Bible study where I work.” So we prayed for this and you go. We had one couple that came forward and said. “I think we’re supposed to go to Haiti. I think God’s calling us to Haiti to work in an orphanage.” And I knew they had two little kids. And to be honest with you, my cynical side is like “You’re not going to Haiti.” A year later I was in Haiti with them and they moved there. And we had one person after another. And so that’s become something that we do on an annual basis now, where we give that challenge. And people maybe who already served in ministry roles, but people who are brand new, we have them come forward. It’s a big deal to come forward like that. And we pray for. They know you have before full blessing of our church. Then you go. We call that a commissioning.

Ann Michel: Yeah, as I hear you describe it, it seemed simple to me in the book. And it is simple. But on the other hand, it’s not a small thing for people to commit themselves in that way. And so I think that’s part of the power of it. That it’s so empowering. Sort of a permission giving posture.

Dave Ferguson: And I think for those of us who spend a lot of our time on the stage or upfront like that, for them to have the ability to come up front, which happens once a year or however often, it’s a really holy moment for them. And they take it very seriously.

Ann Michel: I read something just recently that really caught my attention — the observation that North American Christianity is so event based. And we almost take it for granted that our expressions of Church are so built around the Sunday worship events or the weekend worship event. And then, whatever other kinds of ancillary programming is connected to it. That leaders put so much of their attention on making sure that it happens the way they think it’s supposed to happen that there’s not a lot of space for the kind of work that you’re describing in small groups or in interpersonal settings.

Dave Ferguson: Yeah. Well I think it goes back to what you introduced earlier. We talked about how Jesus spent so much time with just The Twelve.

Ann Michel: Right.

Dave Ferguson: One of the things that we do say at Community Christian Church, the church I lead, is that if we only got to have one event in the life of a church, it would be a small group. Because it’s in a small group you get to experience the complete fullness of every experience of the church. I mean I love when we get to have a large celebration service. That’s great. But the experience of community, the ability to be with one another’s. It doesn’t happen in that setting.

Ann Michel: So one of the things I found quite interesting about your book — and it goes back to the point you made earlier about needing big dreams. You argue that we need a different scoreboard to measure the impact of ministry. So I wanted to ask you to explain what’s the problem with the way that we’re measuring our ministry impact? And what we need to be doing differently?

Dave Ferguson: Yeah. I think the average pastor probably has a chronic preoccupation with the question “how do I grow my church?” Which is kind of a good question. But I think what that ends up with is the kind of scoreboard we have right now, which is just we count Nickels and Noses, Bucks and Butts, or whatever terminology we use. And I think we spent some time in the book talking about how we ask the wrong questions. And I think the reason we have that scoreboard is because the question we’re asking, which is “how can I grow my church?,” which is, I think a good question. It’s just not a great question. And certainly not a Hero Maker question. I think the Hero Maker question and the great question is “how do we, which would be not just me but we. like me and others, like other churches, just grow but multiply God’s kingdom. I think we get a preoccupation with just what’s happening in our church, the one that if you’re a pastor on staff they’re the one that writes the check for your salary or the steeple that you’re under instead of the bigger kingdom. And I think we have to get a kingdom scoreboard. And if we don’t get a kingdom scoreboard, we’ll never see movement because we’ll just be preoccupied with that one little square inch on the corner of Main and Elm.

Ann Michel: Yeah. So that actually really leads me to the last question that I want to ask. Because I do think that the beauty really of your book, and the beauty of your approach, is that it’s grounded in a much more expansive understanding of church than I think many people in our pews — or even pastors and church leaders — typically operate with. We tend to have a very parochial view of church and think about it only in terms of our own buildings and what’s under our own roofs. And so I wanted to ask practically, how did you get your people to think bigger about church and the potential of what could be?

Dave Ferguson: I think particularly as we’re talking to the church leaders and we’re talking to church staff and pastors, I think we have to see part of our role is we are the culture creators. We create the culture. And candidly, if you don’t like the culture and if you’ve been there more than four years, it’s probably your fault. And I would suggest that if you want to have a culture that helps in your church, where they don’t just see church as this the small “c” , what’s happening in my particular local expression of church, but the bigger “C” church. A couple of things come to mind. One is, I’d encourage you to join a network. Or in many of your cases, how do you actually lock arms with people in your denomination? And for something that’s bigger than just your church. So I’ll just use our church as an example. One of the things that we’ve recently done is we now are part of a larger network across Chicagoland that has about 35 churches that’s committed to planting twenty five churches in the next two years. And we talk about that regularly at Community Christian. And because the senior leadership has locked arms of those folks, I think that gives them a picture of the bigger “C” church, the Kingdom of God. And I think it also gets expressed in areas not just like church planting, which I love, but also in areas like social justice. One of the things that one of our church planting partner churches, a friend of mine Watson Jones from Compassion Baptist on the South Side of Chicago. He gave us a call and said “Oone of the things we’re discovering the middle is this COVID pandemic is that of all the people, of all the deaths, 70 percent of the deaths in Chicago were happening in the African-American communities. And they made up only 29 percent of the population.” And we began to explore that a little further and what we found is a lot of the folks that are on a SNAP food assistance program. Well that’s great. They’re able to get food assistance. But they don’t bring the food to them. They have to go to the grocery store. And so some of the most vulnerable people in the African-American community are making the most trips to the grocery store which actually then is where they were actually contracting the disease that way. So Watson said we had to come up with an idea. We’re gonna do something called Chicago Delivers. And we’re going to make sure that the food gets delivered to them. But it’s going to cost some dollars. Would you partner with us in it? And so we chipped in money. And other churches chipped in money. And we launched this thing called Chicago Delivers to help fight against that. To lock arms with other churches. And I think when you do those kinds of things together with other churches outside yourself, and then you tell the stories, that’s what helps your churches go like “Oh, Okay. It’s not just the 50 of us in this room. Or the 500 of us in this room. Or however big your church is. No. We’re a part of the broader kingdom of God across Chicagoland and around the world that is trying to advance the mission of Jesus.

Ann Michel: Well, thank you for sharing that story. I particularly took note when you talked about the importance of shaping culture. I think that is such an important leadership function –to understand how what a leader does and says, and how you frame things, and how you present ideas, and how you communicate — how all of that helps to shape a culture. I work a lot in stewardship ministry and I am convinced that generosity isn’t something that’s taught. It’s caught. And it just is something that has to become part of your culture. And there are ways that leaders can work and that helped to shape that. I really appreciate you mentioning that important leadership role of shaping culture. Dave, this has been a fascinating conversation and I am really grateful that you’ve taken the time to talk with me and talk with our listeners today. And I’m also really grateful for this book as I think a very needed contribution in the area of leadership development. So thanks so much for talking with me today.

Dave Ferguson: No thanks. Thank you. You’ve been a Hero Maker. Because one of the things we talk about Hero Makers is that they build platforms and let other people stand on them. So I would say thank you for letting me stand on your platform. I’m grateful for that.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with Debi Nixon about the art of hospitality and why hospitality is a critical part of vital ministry.

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About Author

Dave Ferguson Head Shot

Dave Ferguson (daveferguson.org) is lead pastor of Chicago’s Community Christian Church, a multisite missional community. He is also the visionary for New Thing, an international church-planting movement, and president of the Exponential Conference.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.