Podcast Episode 005, 1 hr 7 min
Small Church Conferences, EP 005
This week’s podcast is a free-flowing conversation about the importance of Small Church Conferences with Dale Sellers, Chris Vitarelli and Carl & Kalani Culley.


Karl Vaters: Hi, I'm Karl, and I’m a small church pastor. My podcast guests today are Dale Sellers with the 95 Network, Chris Vitarelli with Small Church Big Deal, and Carl and Kalani Culley with Big Little Church. Yes, all four of them, in the same place, including my wife, Shelley, along with me. We actually recorded this in a trailer on the grounds of the lack of Lacamas Conference Center in Camus, Washington, because we were all there to speak at the Big Little Church conference, which is hosted by the Culley family. Because of this, the audio feels a little different than most podcast episodes, but the content is great.

In this episode, we talked about why each of them started their small church conferences. We talked about what big church conferences can do to include the needs and voices of small church leaders. And we talked about some first steps if you're interested in hosting a small church conference of your own.

And don't forget to stick around when the interview is done. I'll come back with an overview of the content and an answer to the question, “can this work in a small church?”

Why Did You Do A Conference For Small Churches?

Karl Vaters: All right, we’re here at the Big Little Church conference in Camas, Washington, and we are sitting in an RV that is actually a very nice RV. So Dale Sellers is using this RV for this week courtesy of the Culleys.

I’m with Carl and Kalani Culley and Dale Sellers and Christopher Vitarelli.

What I want to talk about today is what we're here doing. So, Big Little Church conference. You've been doing it since 2016. What was it about this? Why did you feel the need to do a conference specifically for small churches?

Carl Culley: I don't know that we felt a need as much as we felt a strong desire because of the lack of what we felt like we were getting at pastors conferences for a small church pastor. And we just felt like there was something missing for pastors that were long-term in small church settings. And so we just started looking around to see if anybody was talking about it.

Karl Vaters: Okay. So that's Carl Culley. That's the colleagues who are doing this one. Chris Vitarelli, you've also done Small Church BIG Deal. When did you start doing that?

Chris Vitarelli: That was 2015.

Karl Vaters: Oh, so you're the first on the block. So what was your reason behind doing it?

Chris Vitarelli: My reason really was a need. I just felt like there was something missing. There was a gap, I felt, in conference-dom, if that is a word. I don't know. I just felt like there was something missing, that small churches were not being served in those places. I also felt like not only were they not being served, but the message they were hearing was actually damaging because a lot of them came away, discouraged more discouraged than when they came. They went home with a pile of notebooks and ideas that there was no way they were ever going to implement because they just didn't have the resources. They didn't have the capacity, they didn't have the personnel, you know, the finances. Everything was above them. And I said, we gotta do something for everyone else.

Karl Vaters: Great. And Dale, you also do conferences. Where did that idea come from for you?

Dale Sellers: Same thing. I was a small church pastor for 12 years. And I would go to the conferences and, honestly, I want to be fair. I got a lot of inspiration in those conferences. I didn't get a lot of implementation.

I went to Willie George's Church on the Move. It was like being in a shower because I had Willie there and John Maxwell there, and they were teaching all this great stuff. And so it encouraged me and inspired me, but it didn't give me anything practical that I could do in my setting, and I, all of you know, this, you try those things, but they didn't work. And so, when I began to lead 95 Network—we've done about 30, one-day conferences all over the country. And our concept is: we prefer to do them in a fellowship hall or a family life center.

We love to do them around round tables. I don't have music. I love music, I love worship, but I don't do it because if somebody comes in and they don't have a band as good as the house band, I’ve already lost them before it starts. I don't use, like, you have all the nice LED light stuff, which you have to use in this room, but I don't let the church put the lights on. I'll make them do the fluorescent lights. I don't use a microphone if I don't have to. I want it to be …

Karl Vaters: So you're in the basement on linoleum with metal folding chairs.

Dale Sellers: In Albany, New York, it was just like that. But I do that intentionally because I want them sitting around tables. We are very, very strict on our schedule. So, the speaker has 40 minutes and then there's a 20 minute breakout to where those pastors who meet each other for the first time are answering the same questions from the breakout. And it's the coolest thing in the world because they'll take snapshots together of the new friendships they've made, which is a core value of ours.

And so we do that and we cover the topics and we try to get done on time and we try to provide them a great—we charge them 35 bucks and that includes lunch. So we don't do it for free because all of, you know, if we do it for free, they don't value it. But the concept was to help them feel encouraged. And it's because of growing up and going to those conferences when I was pastoring, I didn't feel encouraged.

You know, what we say is, people leave those big conferences with one of two things. They either leave going, “I could never do that stuff. I'm glad that church can do it, but I can’t.” Or worse, they come out and say, “I'm going to try to do that stuff.”

And so they buy a hazer, they come back and almost lose the church. And so we're very intentional about how we've designed our conferences to be encouraging and to level the playing field. So that’s kinda the mindset.

Why Is The Difference Between Conferences For Big and Small?

Karl Vaters: So, the conceit of this podcast is we want to take a look at the way a principle is typically taught, and then take a look at how it might not meet the need of certain small churches, and then how do we adapt that to the small church context? So let's start with that idea.

When we're looking at big church conferences—and not a person in this room is anti-big church. I know every one of you and anybody who knows me knows that as well. It's just simply that we have to recognize the differences so that we can teach properly from and into a different context.

So what is it about the big church conference that misses the mark for the typical small church pastor? We've already referenced that there's a lot of inspiration. How did you phrase it, Dale?

Dale Sellers: [Inspiration] but not implementation.

Karl Vaters: So what is it that's missing in the implementation?

Dale Sellers: I think, if I could be fair and I don't want to say anybody's names. But there's a lot of larger church pastors who do the conferences who started in small churches. And I know these men, their heart is to help small churches, but they've forgotten what it’s like.

So they'll say things like, well, you know, you just need to spend $5,000 on this and to them, that's a drop in the bucket. I'm from the perspective . . . we literally had to count the offering on Sundays to see if I was getting paid. We had board meetings where you sit down in a board meeting and our secretary would lay the bills on the table and say, “okay, we can't pay something. Something's going to be cut off this week.”

And the church that I pastored, we had the water cut off three times because there was no money. My check bounced a couple of times. I know what that’s like. Some guy says, well, you know, you can join our membership and it's only $2,500. I'm like, that just doesn't relate to where we are. And 95%, well, 87% of all the churches in America are under 200 [people]. And most of us can't afford to even implement those ideas. And I just think sometimes the disconnect is—sometimes people forget just how broke we are. And that sounds horrible, but it's just true.

Karl Vaters: And the word is “broke” not “broken.”

Dale Sellers: Yeah. Financially.

Karl Vaters: There's a difference between the two.

Dale Sellers: Oh yeah.

Karl Vaters: And one of the things I've noticed as well. You're right. You have a lot of big church pastors who really do have a heart to want to help a small church. They've been there. They get it. This is not a lack of desire or a passion on their part, but it's really different to have been a pastor of a small church who blew past certain numbers in a very quick succession and got big in a very short period of time, as opposed to, okay, I get that you were at a hundred for three weeks, right? I've been under a hundred for 10 years. And unless you've been at those spots for a long period of time and know the frustration of staying at those static places numerically, that's simply a different viewpoint that they've never lived in, they've never experienced.

So there's nothing wrong with what they're teaching from their context, but it doesn't match the context of people who are sitting in a place for a long period.

Christ Vitarelli: Yeah. And if I could just add to that, I think the other thing that I noticed in a lot of those conferences is they would sometimes bring someone to the platform who would say, you know, “I planted this church” and you know, “our first year was really rough, but then people started coming and they came so fast. We didn't know what to do with them all. And we were trying to find this property and we were trying to do this, and God did all these miracles.”

And it's like, you know, almost to say like, you can have this same trajectory, like this could happen to you. It'd be like you standing up in front of a group of pastors and saying, “If you follow my plan, you too can have a book deal with Moody” or whatever.

That just wouldn't fly in a group like that. They'd go, “Well, that doesn't work for me. I'm not that person,” you know? Because your circumstances are very different from theirs. God did something unique in your life and in your life, just like you did in that pastor’s life to grow their church at that rate. That's not something you duplicate.

Can you imagine if Joseph was to write a leadership book and he was like, “This is how you take second in command in a country and feed all the people.” You know, “this was how we did it.” Who is he going to sell that book to? You know? That's a unique move of God.

Kalani Culley: When we were driving away from conferences, often, I would say to Carl, can they just not give us five minutes of their worst day? And what I was trying to articulate, I think, was just some relatability. Please. Just some relatability. Because, like Dale was saying, we came away inspired, we came away encouraged a lot of times. The Lord would speak things to us, absolutely, through these speakers. And, much of it was very, very good, but we came away discouraged at the same time.

Dale Sellers: I have a great story that goes with that. So, John Maxwell, when John first started, he started this small church and it grew and it developed, and he told this story back in the eighties.

He was at a conference where he was the keynote speaker. He was at the second church that had grown so big. And he said he sat in the balcony and he was the keynote speaker for the final night. And he watched body language. He sat in the balcony and he said he watched as they paraded the star churches. So, you know, “Our church grew from 500 to 1000 and you can do that too.”

And all the churches were in the thousand range, but he said he literally watched the body language of the pastors just diminish. So he had planned this big hurrah message he was going to preach and he said, God spoke to him and said, “I want you to can your message and I want you to teach a message called ‘Fumbles Failures and Flops.’ And I want you to get up and tell all the things you've done wrong.”

So the fun part of the story was he was going to lunch with his wife, Margaret, and he tells her about it. And she's like, “oh, that's a great idea.” And he says, “look, I've made a list of my 12 top failures.” She goes, “oh, no, there's a lot more than that.”

And so he said he initially got mad at her as they were riding to lunch because she came up with like 25 things. But he said he got there and he got up and introduced that sermon. And he said, when he got through the place went nuts. And guys are high fiving each other and all this because he here's, here's a guy who's “made it”, who didn't forget where he'd come from.

And you know, if the big conferences would do that, you know. Again, I'm thankful for success, but nobody's always successful.

Karl Vaters: What you're talking about is really real because, all of us have come into the ministry we're doing now through the doorway of our own feeling of our own failures, or at least feelings of failures, and the greatest ministry that God has given us for the healing of others comes out of those times of failure.

And we've seen it. I mean, anybody who's watched or spent much time at conferences, or in watching sermons or whatever has recognized that the greatest connection you're going to have with people is not talking about your mountain high, but it's going to be a talk about talking about your valley low, and how the Lord brought you through that.

And that's where we really resonate with people. I think that's something that we need to be thinking more about because that's really where a lot of us are coming from. The same thing you mentioned, I watch, Shelley wil see it when she sits at the back of the book table often, we can watch the body language shift as we get to certain parts where we start sharing out of our losses and out of our failures and our challenges. And you start seeing a look of recognition in their eyes going, oh, okay. Me too. I guess I'm not the only person in the room.

And you can start seeing burdens lifted, which is, I think, one of the reasons why it's so important for small church pastors and ministries to get together, to share these things that we have in common. Otherwise, we feel like I must be the only one who's failing like this when you're at the, you know, onto better and better and better things conferences.

So, let me shift from that and just kind of segue into the next thing. So what are some of the things, if there's somebody listening who is maybe overseeing a bigger church conference and maybe they're even wondering, how can we get more small church pastors to come? Why don't they come?

I've heard some people in some big church conference settings say, “If the small church pastors really cared, they'd figure out a way to get here.” And I just, you know, I roll my eyes and that's my most polite response that I can give to that kind of thing.

What would you say to people who do organize big church conferences about what they could change or what they could adjust? What lens could they see things through differently? One, to get more small church pastors to be there. And then, if and when we do arrive, to recognize our differences while we're there? What would be some of your advice? Any thoughts?

Dale Sellers: First thought would be to honor them when they arrive. Treat them special, encourage them. In my mind, I'm thinking of several of the big church conferences and they usually have people in the parking lot greeting everybody. Make a big deal about these guys coming because they don't get that.

I have the gift of encouragement the Bible talks about in Romans. So I'm a natural encourager, but I don't ever get encouragement. Very few small church people ever . . . we hear whatever we do wrong, but very seldom do we ever get any encouragement. I would do that. And then I double back on what I said earlier. I would love to hear some of the most well known there are talk about some of their fumbles failures and flops.

Karl Vaters: That encouragement . . . I mean, all you guys do that well, but the first one that I went to that really overwhelmed me with that was Small Church BIG Deal. When you guys did that in Fenton and I walked in the room and it felt like, okay, this does not feel like a small church conference.

It was the size of a small church conference, but the quality level of it, from the people who greeted, to the way the tables were set up, to the room and the way it was used. I think it was a relative of yours who went to a local Christian bookstore and went to the 75% off table and said, “If you’ll give me everything in your 75% off stock for 90% off I'll take it.” And there were tables and tables and tables worth of books and CDs and all kinds of other things for free, pick whatever you want, walk out with your own swag bag full of stuff.

Everybody in that room walked out that day feeling just elevated and really treated special. And you guys followed up with the same thing, but Chris, you guys did it, the first one I remember doing it at that level of quality.

Chris Vitarelli: We wanted to roll out the red carpet, you know? We love these guys. And I know you guys, Culleys, do too. We wanted to let them know how important they were and that we saw what they were doing. We saw their heart, we saw their ministry and we wanted to honor that.

So, I think I would agree that needs to happen at some of the larger conferences. I think that it starts even before that though. I don't see why a large-scale conference like that couldn't scale the cost for churches of a certain size. Say, “hey, you got 75 people in your church in regular attendance. We know you're going to have trouble with this. Can we take the cost down a little bit?”

That's simple.

Dale Sellers: Some of them, honestly, if they had the thought they would, people in the church would help scholarship pastors.

One of the things I think happens is there's this mindset that exists, that the big churches think less of us. I don't think they think of us. I don't think they think less of us. They're so busy doing their thing, that they just don't think about what we're dealing with out here.

And so, but if they made a presentation, I'll give you a great example. We did this thing. We used to do this thing when I was at a church and every year we would do, I called it “youth for truth.” It was a thing we did in January to start the year off right. And I would have to buy 400 pizzas. And everything that I did, my pastor made me pay for it, it had to cover its cost.

So I went to the Domino's guy and got him to sell me large pizzas for $4.25. Then I got in front of the congregation and said, “how many of you would buy a pizza to help a kid?”

And so, again, every year we always sold the pizzas. Same thing is true with this. If the larger churches would just present to their congregation, “we've got these small church pastors coming in, some of them need help to offset the costs with travel. We can take care of reducing the cost of the events itself.”

But again, I don't want to overdo this. Because it doesn't need to be free. The one thing that I have seen is if you do it for free, it is not appreciated. So there needs to be some kind of skin in the game from the small church pastor. But again, especially with travel or hotels, I'm convinced in the larger churches there's people who would help pay for this stuff. We just don't give them a chance.

Chris Vitarelli: There's a conference I know of that actually they asked the congregation to house some people, you know, and that's a great, that's a great idea too. I think also, it's something that a big-scale, large-scale conference could do that would at least acknowledge [that] there's some amazing small church pastors out there, amazing preachers, great servants, guys that have so much experience. And I think it would be awesome to make that a part of some of these conferences to have a guy, hey, so-and-so has been in ministry for, you know, 50 years and just kind of sit at his feet. He's been 50 years in ministry in a church of like a hundred people. And, and to hear what that's like, cause there's, I mean, there's guys that they, they hop from church to church to church to church, you know, and I would love to just, I'd love to sit at the feet of a guy like that and just pick his brain and hear about that.

What would that look like in a large-scale conference? What would that track be like? You know, if you said, “hey, this is the longevity in ministry track” or something like that, or “this is the small church track.” And I think they have done some of that because you've done some of those haven't you?

Karl Vaters: Yeah, that's beginning to grow. And I think it's really important. I think what you platform you promote. Yes. And so if we don't see anybody who looks like us on the main stage, and I've been grateful to often been invited to do a breakout or whatever, and that's great, but recently I'm getting invited to a couple where I'm on the large stage. And that changes the perception of people.

Being in the workshop, that's great. I'll take any time I can do that, but it still kind of says “that’s secondary.” But we're not demanding anything. We're not asking that the conference have only small church pastors, but give one slot to somebody who's coming from a small church perspective to share what 90% of pastors are going through.

Because if they don't see it, [it’s] like you said, they don’t look down to us. They don't think about us at all. But once it's platformed, it starts to be recognized. There's somebody at this conference who came to me and said they are here because they saw me at the Rethink Conference, just outside Atlanta, a couple of years ago. This massive conference, you know, 8,000 people that had me on a couple of workshops, and they had me onstage in front of 8,000 people in this huge auditorium. I was only on stage in the interview process for about 10 minutes. But when they saw the name with me connected here, they came here because they saw me on the big stage.

And it gives a credibility to what we do. What you platform, you give some credibility to.

Dale Sellers: I think that to make that work, the promoters that we're talking to, or the organizers, have to get a new definition of success.

They don't have the person you just mentioned on the stage because they don't view that as success. I recently worked with a church up in Chicago Heights, the pastor is 74 years old. I honored him because he's been doing it for 50 years. He would never be on the stage at something like that. And not saying he should, but, but we need every, all of us need a new definition of success. I’m going to leave it at that.

Carl Culley: Not just success, but health. The thing that makes you guys magic to me to speak to a small church pastors is you can see a guy, or a gal, absolutely killing it in a situation doing a fantastic job, pastoring, a church of 70 people. And that church being on fire and electric and healthy. And it's not always numeric. Sometimes, oftentimes, you know, after decades of going to conferences, that the main theme was, church growth, church growth, church growth, church growth.

“If your church is healthy, it's growing,” and “here's how to break the 100 barrier,” “here’s how to break the 200 barrier.” It literally was all the conferences were about. And nobody wants to go to a conference that the speakers are some dude you’ve never heard of in some backwater situation. You want to hear the guy that's knocking it out, you know, And, so I get it. I understand why it works that way. But if these guys, themselves, who are developing these conferences would understand that the definition of health is not “big.”

Dale Sellers: From a promoter's perspective, let me even go deeper with that. When Promise Keepers first started, everyone was A-listers speakers. They were all sold out. It was huge. They made an intentional decision to just go to B and C-list speakers and it collapsed.

So, I get it. I'm not saying it has to be all . . . the mistake they made was they went all B and C-list. And again, I hate using that terminology, but it communicates what we're trying to say.

So all we're saying is, “just throw us a bone. Just throw us a bone.”

Karl Vaters: When I was very first starting out in the church where Shelley and I met, my dad was the pastor. And my dad was a great missions pastor, just amazing. And he put me in charge of the missions convention the first year that we were at this church. And he said, “I want every single missionary in our denomination, in this section of our denomination, who is off the field or who is on home mission, I want you to invite every single one of them. And we're going to figure out how to put every single one of them somewhere, but you're going to get these two people.”

And he named the two people and they were really well known, big name, missionary speakers that everybody wanted to show up for. He says, “I'm going to give them the main two spots on the platform because we're going to advertise that these two major missionaries are here, but then we're also going to figure out…” — this was a larger church at the time I was an associate pastor — “but we're going to figure out how to put every single one of them in as many venues as they're able to be here for it. We're going to hold it for an entire week.”

So what happened was the big names brought in and built up the excitement, but then we had constant opportunities for you to hear — in Sunday school classes, as a devotional before the choir, we had a school and every single class, every single class, every day had a missionary speaker.

At one point, it was over 150 speaking slots that week that I coordinated. Only two of them were these two big name, missionary speakers that everybody knew. The other 148 were missionaries that nobody knew, but they were thrilled because they got a chance to speak.

And we said, “how many days can you be here? You can be here for five days? I'll give you five slots. And if you, and if you show up on Sunday, you can't speak on Sunday morning, but we're going to put you on the platform. We're going to introduce you and the people who saw you speak all week will see you again on Sunday.”

And so we used the balance of the two. And I think that's something that, you know, big church conferences could do quite easily. We're not asking, you know, we get it that you got to pay your bills. So you're going to have to have a name that people recognize and want to show up for, but just have us included in the conversation.

It's important for the people we represent—the small church pastors that we represent—to see themselves represented at these things.

Dale Sellers: They're not coming if they already know you look down at them.

Carl Culley: Being recognized can't be, “we're going to pray for all the pastors that are pastoring these small churches that God will bless them and bring breakthrough.”

And look, there are a lot of us out here they're thrilled and happy doing what we're doing, loving it. And experiencing breakthrough. And don't need to be worried about.

Advice For Starting A Small Church Conference

Karl Vaters: Let's shift to that, then. So we've talked about the big church conference. Hopefully we’ve given some help with that as to how that can include us and include the folks that we represent. We're not talking specifically about us.

But what about the small church conference. For anybody who's out there, who's thinking, hey, you know, I'd like to have a small church conference. I'd like to put one on. Because at this point it's going to have to be somebody who's probably either never done a conference before, or who's done them maybe regionally who decides, yeah, that's going to be a thing I'm going to want to do.

All of you have experience in doing this. All of you do it very, very well. So what would be a handful of the first couple of pieces of advice you'd give to people who are thinking of starting a small church conference.

Dale Sellers: They need to already be connected. So when we book one of the 95 Network conferences, we don't charge the hosts. So there's no cost for the host. All we ask them to do is just provide lunch and then we charge 35 bucks a head for who shows up. But what we do ask them to do is “you are the main promoter. Nobody knows who we are. Nobody knows who 95 Network is. And so if we come to a town we've never been to before we are completely dependent on you to get the people there.”

So, our thing is, you know, if you want to host a conference . . . I'm going to, we're doing a conference in June near Dayton, Ohio. Indiana area. And this pastor is part of a network of pastors, a pastors group that already meets, multi-denominational thing, and then he's also part of a group within his denomination. So the particular host pastor is very well connected with probably 40, 50 other pastors. That's the kind of host that you need.

We’ve had the flip happen where we had someone try to book a conference because they loved what we did. He was not connected and we had to cancel it because he couldn't get anybody to sign up. So they've got to be connected.

Kalani Culley: I was talking to Dale a few weeks ago and I was telling him, “I think promotion is hard.” now, he says, “promotion is easy.” I don't believe you.

Karl Vaters: Promotion is easy for guys who do promotion naturally and that's him.

Kalani Culley: Yeah. So this is something that I would say. Be prepared for the fact that nobody from your town is going to come. Because not only do sometimes pastors of big churches not define success the way we would define success. Pastors of small churches don't either.

And so if you're a small church pastor and you're putting on a conference, their expectation is that it is going to very definitely be a B film. It's not going to be something that they're going to want to attend and that they're going to get a lot of. So it's a push.

And we have pastors here this week from New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan. And we literally have a small handful of local.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, when you had people stand up from various states, there wasn't more than two or three more people who stood up for Washington, which is where we are, than for other states that had come from a long distance.

Kalani Culley: Carl is very much connected here in our area. He attends a pastors meeting twice a month and prays with these guys and has developed relationships with these guys.We gave them all gift cards and nice flyers and these little rubber bracelets and Carl talked to them and I think one, I think Adrian's here, and I think that's it.

Carl Culley: And he's probably pastors the largest church.

Kalani Culley: Yeah. So, I would say, just be prepared that that’s a little hard plowing in your own . . . Just like Jesus. It's a little hard plowing in your own town.

Dale Sellers: Yeah. Let me ask you this, though. Is it possible that some of the people locally don't haven't come because they've been before? Is that a possibility?

Carl Culley: No, we've never had hardly any turnout. I'll tell you one thing that I think would be magic and I've not been successful in making this happen yet, but I still believe in that five fold ministry of Ephesians four. And I believe that a lot of these really influential churches, the larger churches in a region, that those guys have apostolic role in a lot of local churches, small churches. And I think if these guys would see the value in a conference that is geared towards those guys, that this is something that can be really easily provided for these guys, that this guy's trying to mentor and feed and bring up. And they would promote it.

Dale Sellers: Can I lean in here? This is actually happening for us now. We have some megachurches in a sense who are literally doing our conference because, “here's what they said. Look, we want to help small churches. We have no idea what to do. So we're going to bring you in.”

Carl Culley: That's magic. That’s fantastic.

Dale Sellers: And the other thing I want to piggyback on what you were saying is, for now, because this podcast will air pretty soon, right now people are looking for help. So if you've ever thought about doing a conference, even the experiences that we've all had with the local people, there may be just a new twist for awhile because nobody knows what to do.

I had dinner with a very large church a few weeks ago with a pastor, and he was like, “you know, we want to help small churches” and he literally said, “we don't know what to tell them. We're going to bring you in.”

Carl Culley: I would love to see more of that . . .

Dale Sellers: I think it’s going to happen.

Carl Culley: ...if you could keep what makes the small church conferences we've done so great. And that is the time around the table and that interaction. And I would say if anybody wants to do a small church conference, I think if you're not the person that can make schedules and handle registration and do all those details, get someone who can. Because I'd rather not do a small church conference promoted by a small church, than do one that's really poorly done.

You know, if you're going to do it, make it top notch, top quality so that you don't burn a whole bunch of small church pastors on an event.

Dale Sellers: If they book us, we offer all the promotional help. We've got it all. We do a Facebook page for them. We walk them through how to do it. And our friend who's bringing us in is already wearing me out ‘cause he wants more. And that's great! We'll get it to him.

It’s incumbent upon who you're bringing in to also help you because . . . the Culleys, they're big time concert promoters, so they can do this stuff in their sleep. But most people who bring us in are just pastors who want to help and they don't know how to promote anything.

Kalani Culley: Well, listen, practically speaking, I would say liken it to planning a wedding. You know, what are the main pieces? I mean, you need the preacher, you need the cake, you need the dress. Most people don't stop there. They plan special things that are for their guests. And so that's kind of where you can expand that and make it a little bit more your own, your own flavor, and just think of ways . . . they don't have to be super innovative. They can just be typical, you know?

Karl Vaters: So find the people in your life who have the gifts of hospitality, administration, and those kinds of things. Because quite often they feel, they're trying to figure out how, how does, how does what I do fit into ministry? And they'll come out of the woodwork for something like this because it will really feature their gifts. It doesn't just need it. It really features their gifts.

Dale Sellers: We consider a conference successful if it has 30 people. If we start getting up in the eighties, we’ve done one at 120, we can do what we do, but we never want to lose the heart of the conference.

So, one of the things we want to make sure that people listening understand is: the success of these types of conferences. They don't have to be huge. You know, we're all still young. We don't mind traveling, you know, we'll do as many as we can right now. The day may come and we've even talked about doing this where we do some regional things together, and those might get a little bit bigger, but the heartbeat of what we do is exactly what we're doing here with you guys.

Kalani Culley: The impact is there. Because, like I said, we've got people from all over the country here.

Dale Sellers: There’s some idiot from South Carolina that showed up!

Kalani Culley: [laughter] yeah!

Dale Sellers: I can’t say oil.


Karl Vaters: For those of you listening who have no idea what just happened, Dale pronounces anointing oil as “anointin’ ole.” Even when he’s trying to tell us what he’s saying he still can’t wrap his lips around it.

Dale Sellers: I think I should stay away from the whole oil thing.

Kalani Culley: I think that we had about 30 or 32 registrations this year, which was actually about half as many as we had in the previous years, which we did not expect because we thought COVID would maybe have a more negative impact than a positive one. But each one of those pastors is going back to a region, and going back to a region, hopefully anyway, encouraged and with more tools and just more courage to do exactly what they are called there to do. And so I see that as a huge win.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. Yeah. Bottom line is, there are a lot of opportunities for small church conferences. There are people who are doing it well, who would give you all kinds of advice, any of the wisdom that they have. And we are willing to come out for smaller groups. I mean, if somebody doing a small church pastors conference isn't it willing to come to a smaller crowd, maybe you shouldn’t invite them.

And as Dale was saying earlier, there is an inverse correlation. While certainly we'd love it if this conference was 80 or a hundred, that'd be great. But we also recognize once you get past certain numbers, it really does lose the sense of relationship and intimacy. So you have to reconfigure it.

When I go to conferences and they are larger—200, 400, you know, we've been at a couple that are a thousand or so. I'm thrilled to speak to a thousand people. I've done that two, maybe three times in my life, but the hallway is totally different. I'm standing by myself in the hallway there. But here, it’s constant conversation and connection and relationship. And so each has their value, but we lean into the idea of the smaller group, where we get to have relationship.

Lightning Round

So much great information, but I've got the lightning round and since there are so many of us, this is going to take us 75 minutes to get through, and then we'll move from Dale to the others.


Dale Sellers: That was truth. And I burned him at lunch yesterday.

Karl Vaters: So, let’s start with question number one to Carl here on my left. What are the biggest changes you've seen in your field of ministry in the last few years and how have you adapted to it?

Carl Culley: That biggest changes, I think, have been . . . they’re invisible.The stress, the anger, the animosity, the division, the fear that permeates the church has been really formidable.

And how have I changed to adapt to that? I've done some things to make myself less angry. I erased news apps off of my phone. I have re-evaluated my value system where I thought I was right about a lot of things and I'm finding out I was not, maybe, wrong, but nowhere near as right as I thought I was. And coming back to the realization of what an honor it is to just love people even if they're really unlovely. We've seen some difficult things. People angry, you know. And, hearing you talk about trauma and, I've talked too long, but, yeah, the challenges I've seen have been kind of invisible and the adaptations have been very, very internal, not practical.

Karl Vaters: Great. Kalani?

Kalani Culley: I think just this whole movement of affirming and valuing the small church, I mean, that has been delightful for me to be a part of. And so I very much have been enjoying that. I'm going to throw this in here because, and I realize that it's a little bit of a touchy topic, but as a woman leader, In the church, you know, I just, I wish God would quit using women because it's problematic. It seems to be, and I'm sure that there are some men out there who are saying “amen” right now. But being 63, a lot of the fear of that has kind of fallen off. I care less and I'm more comfortable in my skin. But, I'm just really, really thrilled to be a part of affirming small church pastors.

I didn't ever plan that or see it coming. I just had my own frustrations and disappointments, sometimes/ A lot of disappointment in ourselves. You know, because I didn't think that we were ever going to get there. And just not having that anymore. It’s liberating

It's not that I despise church growth or don't want to grow or that I'm doing things to prevent growth. My gosh, no. I'm still a pretty driven person, but just relaxing into that, you know, calling, you know, what you were saying about, God gave you the church that you've got. And to constantly go around being dissatisfied about it is really an insult to what he has given.

And I love our church and I think that it has affected the way we pastor and what we expect of our people. And our church is happier and they are more responsive to our leadership because we're not driving them, you know? And so, yeah, I don't know. I don't know if that made any sense. That's the way a woman talks.

Karl Vaters: Awesome.

Dale Sellers: The most exciting thing that has happened for us in the last three years is about 50%—and this is not scientific ;it's just a hunch—about 50% of the churches we work with just don't want to die. If we meet a church that doesn't want to die, we can help it.

And that has been great because, you know, the denominations are not helping their people very much. They keep repackaging the same old stuff. And so that's been very encouraging.

Chris Vitarelli: So one change that I noticed, and this is just in the last year, when we went strictly online for awhile and were doing all the streaming, this might be a little off topic. I don't know. We'll see.

So I noticed that people's attention spans have changed with the pandemic. And so it's made me rethink our services and their length and my presentation and even our music and everything about our service. Like thinking about it in a new way that is going online. So that's just the change that I see happening. And I'm just, I guess I'm in the midst of adapting, right now.

Karl Vaters: That's very much on topic. Absolutely. Okay. Second question. And we'll go in reverse order on this one. What free resources, like an app or website, has helped you lately that you'd recommend for small church ministry?

Chris Vitarelli: I have been listening through Craig Groeschel’s leadership podcast. I know he's a big church guy. Life Church TV or whatever.

Karl Vaters: Also a big muscle guy.

Chris Vitarelli: Yeah. But you know, his stuff’s solid, you know, I can't argue with any of it and he's just, I hear his heart and everything that he does. And I think small church pastors, small church leaders, would really benefit from his leadership counsel and advice.

Dale Sellers: Uh, Karl Vaters.

Karl Vaters: I didn’t know I was free!

Dale Sellers: Well, you are part of the thing that we created on the 95 Network in our new website, we just built, we created some kind of resource directory. And I'm so passionate about that. I’ve wanted to do it for three years. And so we have gone through and listed . . if there's an area you need help as the pastor of a small church, hopefully we've got that covered. If we don't, we will cover it.

But it's to point people to you [Karl] or to point people to Chris, to find the resources. Because our vision is to bring healthy change to every church in America. Well, we can't do that personally, nor do we want to, but if I could connect them to you when you’ve got all that experience, why would I not do that?

Karl Vaters: Yeah. And we'll connect to that resource guide in the show notes, as we will to all of the other ministries that are represented here today. So, Kalani?

Kalani Culley: I'm going to say, and this isn't particularly a leadership tool, but I'm going to say the First 5 app through Proverbs 31 Ministries. Because it's something that I use every single morning as my initial devotional tool. And they will send you, for a small fee, if you want it... oh, I thought you were laughing at me, but you're just choking.

They'll send you for a small fee, a study guide to go along with it if you want it, but it's just completely optional.I found it a great tool for me. It's something that I do every single morning before I do anything else. And it's something that I have been able to prescribe as a point of discipleship to women in our church. Because women are super busy. I know almost none who are just stay-at-home wives and mothers anymore. And so it's something that is very easy for them to do and takes them through the books of the Bible, you know, on a consistent basis. And, I'm all about things that we can hand our people that will make them successful in the things that we're trying to disciple them in.

And if you can spend five to 15 minutes in the Word every single day, every single day, it's accomplishable and over time, it is incredibly enriching to them.

Karl Vaters: So First 5 app. All right. Carl?

Carl Culley: Okay, this is not revolutionary, but it's been a bit of a game changer for me. Because of our involvement in doing this conference over the last few years, my wife has forced me to broaden the groups that I have on my Facebook. Okay? So I've got a senior pastor group. I've got a small church pastor group. I don't know how many. And so this is kind of like, oh, your new thing is Facebook? You’re blowing up there aren’t you dude?


Here’s the thing. These guys are pastors across the nation—one of the groups. The other is international. have this very small circle of pastors that I interact with in my town. And, I am seeing things and hearing things through this that has so broadened my understanding of the shape that the church is actually in right now. And some of it is thrilling. It's so encouraging. And some of it is terrifying. And so you get all of it, you get all of it, but, it's really broadened my scope, my vision of what's really going on.

Karl Vaters: Wow. Great. Facebook, who would have thought?


All right. Third question. We'll start with Dale on this one. What's the best piece of ministry advice you've ever received? And I’m going to you first Dale on this one.

Dale Sellers: It's really simple. So when we were on the road, we had our music group. There was a guy named Roger Breland who headed up a group called Truth in the seventies and eighties. And he was my mentor. And when we were on the road, we were dying. We couldn't pay our bills. We couldn't get bookings. And I called him at home. This is pre-cell phone. That's how old I am. So I called and left a message on his thing called an answering machine. So those are two things.

And he was always on the road, but he happened to be home that night. So I left a message and the message was, “Hey, Mr. Bruno, this is Dale. Uh, we're dying out here. Call back if you care.” And I hung up.

Well, so about two hours later, he calls me, he said, “boy, what's your problem?” I said, “man, we're dying out here. We can't pay our bills. We can't get bookings. I don’t know what to do. How do you know when it's time to quit?”

And he goes, “well, did God tell you to start? I said, “yes, sir.” He said, “did God tell you to quit?” I said, “no, sir.” He said, “do you want to honor God with your life?” I said, “yes, sir.” He says, “well, Dale, it sounds to me like if God told you to start and God didn't tell you to quit. And, you want to honor God with your life. You need to stick with it because if you quit now, you'll just have to start over again one day and you'll be further behind.”

That shaped my life. Never forgot it. And I was a 20-something year old kid. God told you to start. He didn't tell you to quit. Stay with it.

Karl Vaters: That's huge. Chris?

Chris Vitarelli: I would say, this came from multiple sources and, I’ve read this too, but setting the list of priorities in my life early on. Setting them for myself, not letting anyone else set them for me, but putting my walk with God first, my family next, and then ministry, and doing so with, with strong and healthy boundaries.

And even though I received that piece of advice before I even started ministry and throughout, it has taken me a long time to actually implement that advice. But that's what I go by now. I think it’s great.

Karl Vaters: It's particularly hard in ministry because it's really easy to equate putting the church first with putting God first.

Chris Vitarelli: Exactly.

Karl Vaters: They're not the same thing, but it's really easy for us to play that game in our head.

Dale Sellers: Growing up in the seventies, revivalists would come to our church and they would say, “God first then your ministry and then your family.” They literally verbalized that. And as a kid, I'm going, why would God have you get married and have kids if that was true?. But they literally would say that.

Chris Vitarelli: My family is my legacy. Not my church.

Karl Vaters: Kalani?

Kalani Culley: I'm waffling between two and I'm going to go with this one. We raised four boys in the ministry, neither Carl or I were pastor's kids. And so I remember asking a friend, who did grow up as a pastor's kid. I said, “is it really, is it really that different?” And he said, “oh, Kalani. He said, do not ever underestimate this.” He said, “it absolutely is.”

And I don't know if this is going to be a really succinct piece of advice, but I went to a women's conference once and it was when one of our kids was particularly acting out, which he did for some time. And it was a struggle, for me, especially, for both Carl and I, but for me, especially. And I remember the Lord spoke to me just so clearly. He said, “Kalani, I want you to worry about Daniel less and enjoy him more.”

And I know that's not . . . it might be a little hard to relate to, but what it meant to me, was to trust God with Daniel, yes. But to not worry so much about how Daniel reflected on me and my ministry. And I believe somebody out there of his got to be going through that kind of thing and needs to hear that. Enjoy your kids. Love your kids along the lines of what Chris is saying. They're absolutely your priority.

Our kids all found places in ministry, but it has not been a bumpless road for any of them. And there have been a couple that have struggled a lot over the course of their lives. But God has been faithful and we let them be them in the midst of our community of faith. We did not fight every battle for them. We did not stand between them and our people. We allowed them to make their way in relationships with people and in their relationships with leaders that were over them. And we let them be who they were, whether it was sometimes kind of embarrassing [laughter] or not. And it, and it has proven out. It has proven out. They've lived grace-filled lives and they've continued to love Jesus.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. Carl?

Carl Culley: Ted Roberts was a mentor to me for about five years. And it was following a time of what I had perceived as very disappointing results in pastoring in my life. And he pursued me and asked me if I would be interested in planting a church in the town that we're in now.

And when I met with him, I said, “Ted, I don't think you know who I am. I've had these disastrous things, and it wasn't moral failures or anything like that, it's just, it didn't work out real well.” And he said, “oh, Carl, I wouldn't be interested in talking to you if you didn't have blood all over you.”

That sentence turned a key and opened a door for me to view the difficult things that I had been through in ministry as process instead of failure. And it turned shame into hope. It literally, it made my outlook on everything—ministry, family, everything different. And God. My view of God was different. So that was critical. And I don’t even think it was Ted talking. I think it was the Holy Spirit speaking through him.

Karl Vaters: Wow, that's amazing. Well, we're going to go from the high to the low in this next question because this has been some heavy and great stuff. What's the funniest or weirdest thing you've ever seen happen in church? Kalani you get to start because you're the only one who hasn’t started yet. I know you have stories.

Kalani Culley: I do have stories, but of course I go kind of blank, but okay. Can I say this? I'm going to, I'm going to try, I'm going to try to do this as delicately as I can. Okay. This wasn't, this wasn't so much a seen thing as a heard thing.

I got a phone call from a young gal at our church one week. And she said, “you always plan baptisms for the end of the month?” And she said, “can you plan them for a different time? ...because that time isn't working out for me.”

Dale Sellers: What did you do?

Kalani Culley: I had a stroke.


Karl Vaters: Oh, wow. Okay, goodnight everybody!


Karl Vaters: Okay, who wants to follow that one?

Dale Sellers: I will.

Kalani Culley: Of course you will.

Dale Sellers: I’ve got millions of stories. But one of my favorites of all time was, we did an Easter production every year. And if you've ever done an Easter production, you've got these stories. We had this thing where we had a winch that we'd pull Jesus up through the ceiling.

Karl Vaters: Shelley is laughing as a Californian at your pronunciation of “winch”.

Dale Sellers: It’s not the girl on a broom. It’s the thing on the front of a dude power truck.

Karl Vaters: She heard serving wench.

Dale Sellers: Well anyway, so we had this harness we built for Jesus and there's a wire over each shoulder. And so he's holding his hands out and we hazed the room really thick. And the Jesus ascends up through the roof. Well, the guys that put the winch on him twisted the cables. So when Jesus started going up, he started spinning and then he started rocking and then he’s swinging back and forth, rocking him. I mean, I'm just losing it, you know? And then he gets about halfway through the ceiling and the battery died. So the bottom half of Jesus is just hanging through our ceiling and the spotlight is on him and nobody will cut it off.

And so that's just one of a million.

Karl Vaters: Wow. The semi-ascension of Jesus.

Dale Sellers: He didn't make it.

Chris Vitarelli: I got nothing.

Carl Culley: I got a good one. Okay. When we first started meeting, we meet in a campground and, it's a campground. The best positive word you can use is rustic. But back when we first started meeting here, it was not rustic, it was a health code violation.

One year, for Easter, we had this group from up somewhere in Seattle and this, she would, I don't remember what it was called, but they had these paintings. She'd done these paintings of the different stages of the passion week. And, and then she dressed up as like Mary or somebody and she would unveil a painting. And then she would do this dramatic narration for these illustrations, and it was, you know, what? It sounds really corny, but it was pretty good.

I mean, she was good and, and she was nailing it. And it was, you know, it was a nice evening. We didn't normally do evening services, but that's when they were available to come and do this. So, we're doing this and she's going along. And we hit the time of the evening when the bats would come out.

We had bats that loved being inside our auditorium. And the eaves were not secure enough to keep them out. And so this lady is, she pulls the veil off of the painting and she's doing this very dramatic narration. And there is a bat buzzing her head, but she's not aware of it, and she's watching the crowd, go “oh, oh.” And she thinks we're really getting into this. And so she goes all the more dramatic and this bats buzzing her head and I am standing in the back of the auditorium shaking because I'm laughing so hard.

Karl Vaters: I think you’re right to bow out of this one, Chris, because none of these are going to be topped by anyone. All right. Thanks everybody.

Dale Sellers: You're welcome, dude.

Karl Vaters: We are done. I appreciate your advice and your help.


So is it possible to have conferences that include great content for small church leaders? The answer today is yes. As long as we do a few things.

First of all, small church needs must be kept in mind. Secondly, small church leaders need to be represented. And thirdly, if you have local connections so that you can get a bunch of small church leaders in the room, we will come and we will give them all the best content that we can possibly give them.

Finally, if you'd like to become a Patreon partner for as little as $3 a month and help put these resources into the hands of the ministries that need them the most check out our Patreon link in the show notes.


This episode was produced by Veronica Beaver. Edited by Jack Wilkins. Original theme music written and performed by Jack Wilkins of jackwilkinsmusic.com. Podcast logo is by Solomon Joy of joyetic.com. And me? I'm Karl Vaters and I'm a small church pastor.

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The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

July 6, 2021

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