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There’s No Magic Formula to Ministry but There Are Ingredients That Make It Successful

Matt Steen and Karl Vaters have a paradigm-shifting conversation that every pastor needs to hear to keep momentum after the Pandemic.


A Chemistry Conversation with Karl Vaters


Matt Steen, Co-Founder of Chemistry Staffing, and Karl Vaters, Teaching Pastor at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship have a paradigm-shifting conversation that every pastor and leader needs to hear if they are struggling to keep momentum after the Pandemic. 


There’s no magic formula to ministry, but there are important ingredients that can make ministry successful. In this Chemistry Conversation, Karl Vaters focuses on his observations from coaching churches.


Watch the conversation or view the transcript.  


About Karl Vaters:

Karl has been in pastoral ministry for 40 years. He is the teaching pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, a healthy small church in Orange County, California, where he has ministered for over 28 years with his wife, Shelley.


Karl produces resources for Helping Small Churches Thrive at KarlVaters.com. His heart is to help pastors of small churches (up to 90 percent of us) find the resources to lead well, and to capitalize on the unique advantages that come with pastoring a small church – something virtually every pastor will spend at least some of their ministry years doing.




As always, we are here for you, and we're praying for churches and teams all over the United States!



Read the Full Transcript

Matt Steen: Well hey, it’s Matt Steen, Co-Founder of Chemistry Staffing, and this is yet another Chemistry conversation. I’m really grateful to have Karl Vaters with us. If you don’t know Karl, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. Karl is a pastor, author, and frankly in my opinion one of the voices that the Church needs now more than ever. Does a lot of great work, especially working with smaller churches, maybe not the trendy, sexy churches that we hear all about. I think Karl’s voice is super helpful for the Church today. So Karl, thank you so much for taking the time to talk.

Karl Vaters: Oh, you’re welcome. Thank you. After that introduction, I don’t know how I can do anything other than let you down, but I’ll try.

Matt Steen: Nice. Well, we’ll try to throw you some softballs.

Karl Vaters: Alrighty.

Matt Steen: So you’ve been pastoring for approximately forever I think, according to your biography.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, forever minus a day.

Matt Steen: Minus a day. So what are you learning these days about the Church?

Karl Vaters: My main thing that I would look at would be this. The pandemic hasn’t changed anything, but it has amplified and accelerated everything. So whatever changes were in the air, they are now at a hurricane pace. So before, there might have been a slow breeze of change coming through. And now, batten down the hatches. It’s coming through with gusto. But it’s not different. It’s not new. It’s just accelerated and amplified. When that’s the case, one, it helps you understand these are not new things, these are not unheard-of things. As an example, when the pandemic first hit and we had to go to our virtual online, our church had not been online before. Because even though we live just eight miles south of Disney Land, our facility is in a weird black hole for Wi-Fi service. We can’t anybody to service properly. It’s really strange. But we had to figure that out. So all of the sudden, this idea of going with livestream - which we knew was a good idea. We knew we were behind the curve on. This is no longer kind of a good idea. This is now an absolute necessity. So a lot of the things we thought we had time to adapt to, we either have less time now or we have no time now. We’ve got to get on the ball. So that’s the biggest change I’ve seen is we’ve gone through maybe a decade or more of change in the last 20 months.

Matt Steen: Yeah, I’ve said it’s closer to 30 years, but that’s just my humble opinion and what do I know.

Karl Vaters: You’re probably closer to accurate than that. Because yeah, a decade would just mean five times and it’s sped up faster than five times. Yeah, yeah, it’s a lot of change.

Matt Steen: So amplified and accelerating. Where are you seeing this be the most profound? Do you understand what I’m asking?

Karl Vaters: Yeah. Right now, it’s happening in our ability to respond. I’ve noticed a handful of things about - I’ve talked in the last 22 months, whatever it’s been now, to hundreds of small church pastors. That’s my area. These are the people that got a hold of me right away. And as I’ve been talking to them, I’ve noticed some real clear distinctions between churches that are not just surviving but in fact are thriving and responding well to this and those that are collapsing into real problems. The couple of things that I’ve noticed that make the biggest difference right now - I wish that I could say those that are sticking closest to the bible and the gospel are surviving, and those that aren’t aren’t. But the fact of the matter is, there are some very good biblical churches that are in trouble. There are some very bad, unbiblical churches that are thriving. Those aren’t the factors for surviving and thriving right now. The handful of things that I’m seeing right now that are making a big difference are, one, adaptability. Churches that have been adaptable over the years and kind of had their adaptability muscles strengthened already were able to do it. Those that had to start from a dead stop weren’t able to do it. It was too fast for them. It bowled them over. And then secondly, those that had teams, small churches especially, those that I talked to, churches where the pastor was already doing everything, they are right now struggling and some of them have collapsed because it is overwhelming the pastor. I’ve actually had emails from small church pastors who have said, “I now have people volunteering in my church who have never volunteered before. Where do I put them? I don’t know what to do with them because I do everything. And I can’t train them right now because everything is urgent and emergency.” Those that had that already were doing well. And those that already had resources on reserve. Not just financially, but with margin. I’ve always taught small churches you need a pastor for the size you are now, but you need to have systems and processes in place for double the size that you are now. So the churches that did that, they had some margin. They weren’t already running 100%. So when the urgency increased and when the need for change increased, they had the margin to be able to do that. So those are some of the key differences that I’m seeing right now playing out in real time. It’s really extraordinary.

Matt Steen: Yeah, we’ve been talking a lot around here. We’ve had people asking us how staffing has changed. We’re seeing so much of the same of what you’ve been talking about. We’ve been talking about how churches, their next hire needs to be pastoral, needs to be agile, needs to be a developer. They need to be developing the teams. Lord knows, they need to be flexible. We’ve got to get out of this specialist mindset.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, that’s exactly the same thing.

Matt Steen: Really be so much more pastoral in this. So as you’re looking around, as you’re talking to difference churches, as you look at the horizon, what are you seeing? What comes next? We’re not done with this, but what do you see out there that we need to be thinking through next?

Karl Vaters: Whenever this is over, and who knows when - so right now we’re in a spot where it’s kind of like one foot in the canoe, one foot on the shore, and we don’t know how long we’re going to be in this weird spot of trying to get to the next level playing field. We thought it would be over by now, but even today I got an email from a conference I’m supposed to be doing over a year from now, and they’re already considering maybe we’re going to have to go virtual because we just don’t know how long we’re going to be in this place of stasis. So that’s the reality of it for now. But when we do eventually come out of it, it reminds me of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe where at the beginning of the book it’s always winter, never Christmas. Everything’s frozen over. Then Father Christmas is coming, the thaw begins. As they’re traveling across Narnia, yes, they’re seeing the buds appear between the snow, spring is coming, it’s wonderful. But then they get to a river that they used to be able to cross and it was just sheer ice before, and now the thaw has actually brought a new danger. And now because the river is breaking up, it’s actually an extremely hazardous thing to cross. So we’re in a place of frozen right now. We’re in a place of stasis. We don’t know what’s going on. We’re not sure what’s happening. There are a lot of pastors who are like, “I’m not going to leave a church during the pandemic.” And there are a lot of husbands and wives going, “I’m not going to leave my spouse in the middle of a pandemic.” Employees and employers going, “I’m not going to leave my job or close my business in the middle of a pandemic.” Everyone’s just holding tight. But as soon as this shifts, we are going to see a season of 2-5 years minimum of more divorces, bankruptcies, evictions, homelessness, pastoral resignations, church closures than we’ve ever seen in our lifetime. And I think it’s going to roll in waves for minimum 2-5 years, probably about a decade of fallout. So the challenge for us as pastors and leaders is we really don’t know when those waves are going to come or how frequently, but we can brace ourselves for them by doing some of the basics, like we talked about earlier. Get your team in place, become more adaptable, those kinds of a thing. It’s like when my kids were little and we brought them to the beach. I live just three miles from the Pacific Ocean here in California. You can feel bad for me. So we’d take the kids. And it’s a surfing area, which means the waves are coming in pretty hard when the surf is up. They’re little kids. They’ve got their little floaties on, and daddy’s standing next to them. And every time a wave comes in, even a small one, they’re getting knocked over. One of the first things you teach them is how to brace yourself. Set your feet apart, one foot slightly in front of the other. The waves are coming from different directions at different times, but if you’re braced for them, no matter which direction they come or what time they come, you’re more likely to stay standing. So that’s where our congregations need to be right now.

Matt Steen: So what I’m hearing you say is it’s not going to get any easier.

Karl Vaters: No.

Matt Steen: But at the same time, you’re just describing we’ve got one foot in the canoe, one foot on the shore, and that’s an uncomfortable and exhausting place to be as well. There’s some preparation that needs to happen, even right now and in the immediate future, for us to be at a point where we can brace ourselves for those waves. So as you’re talking to pastors who are exhausted already, how are you coaching them? What kind of insight are you giving them to be able to prepare to be able to brace when this next wave comes?

Karl Vaters: Probably my most frequent piece of advice is take a nap.

Matt Steen: [laughing] Hey man, Peter took a nap so we could eat bacon. That’s the holiest thing ever.

Karl Vaters: I’m telling you, man. Take a nap. Take sabbath. And take vacation. We have to shift. When this first began, we all went into sprint mode because we were convinced this would be a few weeks we would have to adapt to the technology, and then it would be over and we’d be back to normal again. Obviously for over a year now we have shifted from sprint to marathon, but some pastors have not actually changed their pace from a sprint pace to a marathon pace. When you’re running a sprint, you don’t stop for water. When you’re running a sprint, you just go full bore for the whole thing, [00:10:41.12] but when you’re running a marathon you pause for water, you pause to change your shoes. That’s just part of keeping the pace going. So right now, even in my pace as I’m doing things, and because of the adaptability - because things change, it actually takes more energy to put in the same amount of hours. So before when I used to teach a conference, I knew how much energy expenditure it was going to be. Now, when I teach a conference, it’s going to be a higher level of energy expenditure because of the challenge of travel - or even for me, staring at a camera. Like right now, you and I are doing this and we’re seeing each other on a screen, which really helps so that I’m not just talking to a disembodied voice. But I’ve done webinars, I still do webinars where I’m not actually seeing anybody. I’m just starting at that little dot on the camera like it’s my best friend, and it’s an exhausting process. So I need more rest now than I did before because the learning curve is severe. This is something I discovered from a friend who has some training in neural biology. Our brains actually consume on an average day 20% of the energy expended by our bodies. Our brains alone And on passive days where we’re sitting and thinking, where we’re not actually up and running around. Have you ever had a long day of work but it’s not actually physical work but you’re completely exhausted? And we think that’s just emotional exhaustion, and it is, but it’s not just. On those days, our brain can be consuming over 50% of our actual physical energy of the day. Our brain is just like an electromagnet. It just has electrical signals going back and forth. That’s energy. Our brain is almost pure energy. So when we’re thinking new things especially, when we’re having to learn new things constantly, that is an energy expenditure of our brain that is absolutely exhausting, both physically and emotionally. So we have to keep our bodies healthy, we have to keep our relationships strong in order to compensate for the extra energy expenditure of a time when we’re having to do everything and we’re learning it as we go.

Matt Steen: Wow. So take a nap.

Karl Vaters: Yep. Take a break.

Matt Steen: Take a nap. Get your sabbatical now.

Karl Vaters: Yep.

Matt Steen: And for the love, take a vacation.

Karl Vaters: I heard an interview a few years ago, I think it was with LeBron James’ trainer. Somebody asked him, “How do you train LeBron James to be a basketball player?” He laughed. He says, “Nobody does that. He’s on the court, he’s LeBron, he’s fine.” Then what do you? He says, “My entire job is to regulate his recovery. Everything is about making sure he recovers properly. Because once he’s on the court, he’ll be fine.” And most of these pastors are the same way. We’re good at our energy expenditure. We know how to preach, we know how to pastor, we know how to do those things. We need to really regulate and really pay specific attention to our recovery so that we can go long term.

Matt Steen: Yeah. We need somebody to help us turn off.

Karl Vaters: Yeah.

Matt Steen: Karl, that’s a good word. And that’s something that I pray for our crowd that that’s something that we learn to do because that’s not taught in seminary.

Karl Vaters: It’s not, and it’s hard for us to even do it without feeling guilty. I’ve gotten past the point of feeling guilty when I take a nap. I’m good with it now.

Matt Steen: How did you do that?

Karl Vaters: I learned how important rest is for my long-term effectiveness.

Matt Steen: And that was through your own burnout I’m guessing.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, when I went through the burnout, I realized I almost took myself out of ministry entirely. So it’s better to take myself out of ministry for two weeks than to lose my place in ministry completely. And in fact, as pastors we need to be doing that with our volunteers. Right now, your best volunteers may be burning themselves out because there’s so much to do. And I think in our congregation we have gone to our volunteers on a regular basis and asked, when did you last have a day off? When did you last have a day of vacation? And if we look and we see they’ve been on Sunday after Sunday without a break for an extended period of time, we will take them out of the rotation for a Sunday or two. Better to lose them for a week or two than to lose them permanently. And when you do that and you take care of each other that way, there’s an appreciation for that that also has long term trust built into it, long term teambuilding built into it. So that’s how I learned. I saw the negative effects of not taking proper breaks and then I began to understand that taking a nap, taking a sabbath is not a pull away from productivity. It is an essential part of productivity.

Matt Steen: That’s awesome. Karl, thank you for that. That’s some wisdom. That’s some things that we need to have soak in. Karl, really mean what I said earlier. I’m grateful for the ministry that you have in the church, the voice that you bring, and the work that you’re doing with normal churches and the conversations that you’re having there. Love that your tribe and our tribe seem to overlap so much. If you are unaware of Karl and haven’t dug in, you can go to karlvaters.com. You can buy every single book that he’s ever written there. I think the most recent is The Church Recovery Guide.

Karl Vaters: It is.

Matt Steen: Might just maybe be appropriate for this season that we find ourselves in. So we’ll link off to all that down below. But Karl, thank you so much for your time, man.

Karl Vaters: You’re very welcome, Matt. Good to be with you.

Matt Steen

Matt Steen

Matt has served the local church for over two decades as a youth pastor, church planter, and executive pastor. Originally from Baltimore, Matt currently lives in Orlando, with his wife Theresa, and has a B.S. in Youth Ministry from Nyack College and an M.Div. and MBA from Baylor University. Certified as an Urban Church Planter Coach by Redeemer City to City and as a StratOp facilitator by the Paterson Center, Matt has made a career of helping churches thrive through intentionality, clarity, and creating healthy cultures. He is convinced that a healthy church is led by a healthy team with great chemistry, and loves partnering with Chemistry’s churches to do great things for the Kingdom.

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