Podcast Episode 13, 29 min
Small Churches In Denominational Leadership with Matt Henslee (EP 13)
Karl Vaters interviews Matt Henslee. In addition to being a small church pastor and authoring/co-authoring several books, Matt has recently been appointed to leadership in his denomination (Southern Baptist Conference) on both a regional and national level.

Matt Henslee: We need these small church pastors in leadership roles, because they do know what they're doing. They are doing incredible work. They're great preachers. They just are kind of out of the limelight.

Karl Vaters: Hi, I'm Karl Vaters and I'm a small church pastor. And welcome to Can This Work in a Small Church?

My guest today is Matt Henslee and the subject is small churches in denominational leadership.

Matt has written or co-written several books, including Jonah over Coffee and Replanting Rural Churches. Until very recently, he was the pastor of May Hill Baptist Church in May Hill, New York. And then he had a recent change of roles, which is what we'll be talking about in the conversation today. He's been recently appointed to denominational leadership on both the regional and national level, and it really made headlines recently.

So we talk about that and specifically about how he came to this position because of his small church. 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?”

Well, Matt, so grateful that you are with us today on Can This Work in a Small Church?

You have recently, or you are currently, in the process of transition from having pastored a small church for several years, and now you're heading into a position for your denomination, the Southern Baptist convention. It’s a position that has usually been—at least in my history and my understanding of it for most denominations—these kinds of positions are usually pastors of big churches or denominational executives. But here you are as a small church pastor.

So could you describe to us—particularly for those of us, like me, who are not Southern Baptists, who don't understand the environment that you're in—where are you coming from? Where are you stepping into? And how did that all come about?

MH: Yeah, sure. So, I'm coming from May Hill, New Mexico—May Hill Baptist Church—where I've been serving for the last four-and-a-half years here in rural, Southern New Mexico. We're a town of about 56 people, and in the mountains.

KV: Hang on, hang on. Did you just say a town of 56 people?

MH: Yes, sir.

KV: Okay. I just wanted to be sure I got that right.

MH: And, and so we're in the mountains. We've got elk and deer and all of that kind of stuff around us and just a great church that is growing in loving others and, and sharing the gospel as we go.

And I'm moving into a role to be the associational mission strategist, or director of missions, or associational missionary. It has had a few different terms over the years with the Collin Baptist Association and that's outside of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. And what is kind of neat in that context is that there are some big cities, suburbs, and then there's some small, tiny rural towns, and some just separated by a few miles.

So my role there will kind of be the chief encourager—to encourage our pastors, to help them and their ministry, to fill in for them preaching, to work together (maybe) for revivals or church planting, making disciples, evangelism, training, all of that kind of stuff. And so when it comes to the SBC, we've got local congregations or local churches that are autonomous, but they cooperate together in a local association, and then usually with the state, and then with the regional, you know, the Southern Baptist Convention. And so this is kind of that lowest, smallest area where you know everybody, you're working together. You're praying for one another and seeing what we can do together to advance the kingdom.

KV: Now, in addition to that, I think you have been serving and are continuing to serve on a national level. I know you were just eight miles from my house a few days ago, scouting out in Anaheim for the 2022 conference. Tell us what that role is, what that conference is, for those of us who aren't Southern Baptist.

MH: So every year Southern Baptists gather for the annual meeting and that rotates usually through major cities kind of across the country. Next year, it's going to be in Anaheim, California. In the two days preceding that is the pastor's conference. That is the time where usually just pastors and church leaders and their families come together. And hear some preaching, hear some panelists talk about, you know, ministry, in a big church or small church, whatever it may be. Our vision, our hope, is to have one that really represents pastors that are normal, just normal guys that are in small churches, big churches, rural churches, city churches, church plants, church replants, all of that kind of stuff.—and to have some representation on the stage. Where they see that they do matter and are cared for and can be encouraged by somebody that knows what they're going through. And, so that pastor's conference, will, will happen in June of 2022 in sunny Anaheim.

It was a little overcast when I was there, but sunny Anaheim.

And so we're looking forward to that. And it's just a time of just a whole lot of encouragement, worship, preaching, and just try and have something good enough that the families decide we'll go to that instead of Disneyland or California Adventure. That's my hope.

KV: Gotcha. So my question is: how does a pastor in a town of 56 people get tagged for both the permanent regional role that you'll be fulfilling and this really major national role overseeing this conference. Is it every year, or every two years?

MH: It’s every year.

KV: Not last year, because nothing was last year.

MH: This is true. This is true. Yeah. COVID took care of that one for last year.

KV: So how did that come about? ‘Cause that really is unusual.

MH: It is unusual. And what is kind of neat about it is I think in some sense, it had less to do with Matt and less to do with May Hill Baptist and more to do with here's a vision.

We had people from large giant mega churches all the way down to small, tiny churches that got behind the idea of a conference that's really going to represent them. And because we, at least in the SBC, you know, and I'm sure maybe other denominations as well, but in the SBC, there's always a lot of talk of—we need these small church pastors in leadership roles because they do know what they're doing. They are doing incredible work. They're great preachers, all of this kind of stuff. They just are kind of out of the limelight and they're not in the conference circuit. And so we've always kind of said that, and there have been incredible ways for “small church pastors” to have some of those opportunities as trustees are on different boards. And even a few years ago, Dave Miller, who is a pastor in the SBC of a small church, he did a pastors conference that was all for churches of, I believe it was either 250 or less or 500 or less.

And all the preachers were going to go through a book of a Bible and they were all from churches either 250 or less or 500 or less. And so there's been kind of little moments like this, and I think this is one where there's a vision that even the large church guys and the small church guys really got behind, of saying that, yes, there's some incredible preachers in our case, in SBC, just like, there are other denominations. But we don't need to just stick with these same eight or nine guys every single time. We can rotate in some of these smaller church guys that are doing incredible work that we just may not know about.

And so we opened it up to nominations and got nominations from literally all over the country. Of our 12 preachers that we have, we haven't announced them yet, only one was chosen from outside of that nomination pool. And so all of them were nominated by fellow pastors. And so it opened my eyes to preachers I didn't even know about.

And so I feel like that was probably, it had less to do with how great Matt is. Matt's not that great. It's not how great May Hill is though Mayhill is great. But it is a small church that, you know, we give well, we do all of that kind of stuff, but it is small in that sense. I think there was this vision and a desire to say, look, the SBC is bigger than just the megachurch or this type of church, or just the city churches or whatever, but having a representation of rural, city, everything in between big church, small church, I think really resonated with people from all backgrounds and, and they got behind it.

KV: Everything you're talking about from the receiving of nominees to you being a small church pastor and heading it up, everything about it feels very much grassroots.

It feels like it is coming from the rank and file of the denomination, which as you said is, or at least I think you implied it at least, is we're kind of now acting according to what our theology has always said, which is that the size of church is not the determiner of health. But it sounds like maybe that message is actually getting through in the way we're behaving.

I'm hoping and praying that it is. One of the reasons I wanted you on is because when something like this happens - -

It's very easy to complain. It's very easy to sit back in a smaller congregation and whine about us not being represented. Or why is it always the same or why is it always that way? So I think it's really important for us to pause. And take a moment, even for those who are listening, who are not a part of your particular tribe, because that's not what this is about. This is about the recognition and the understanding that the action that is being taken now really is matching what we've said all along, that small churches are a value, but to follow it through with our actions is where it really says that we really are believing it now.

MH: Yeah. And I think with that, you know, we've heard the line, “We've never done it that way before.” That's like the death knell for the pastor. They love to hear something like that. Or, “we've always done it that way.” You know, the opposite.

I think that sometimes you’ve got guys that probably have a great vision like this, or a desire to serve or whatever, but feel like they're not known or nobody's going to get behind them. But for me, I just shared that vision out there and people got behind it and it got some traction from people of all kinds of contexts, as I said earlier. So it’s one of those, where if you have the desire to see that change, then get busy and be a part of that change in some way.

And so God just really took off and really made it work really well together. We've got a great team that is putting it on for us and helping us. And that is one thing that, you know, your listeners may not understand that, in the context of the SBC pastor's conference, it is completely funded by the president. I don't have $450,000. My church doesn't have $450,000. That's our budget, maybe for the last four, four-and-a-half years that I've been here has been a cumulative $450,000.

So we have to fundraise and in many of the pastors conferences, presidents will fundraise in various ways. And so what's been neat even for that - -

I was thinking this morning, you know, in our churches, I don't know about yours, but in ours, if we took out all of the big gifts, the people that—I don't know who gives what, but, I know amounts—if we took out all of the big gifts, all the ones maybe $1000 or above, we probably wouldn’t make it.

But if we took out all of the small gifts, everything $1000 or below, we most certainly wouldn't make it. And what I'm already seeing with this pastor's conference is, as we've been fundraising, is somebody who's like, well, I, you know, I could give a hundred bucks, but that's not going to help you. You need $450,000.

Just $100, isn't going to help, but you put several of those hundred dollars together and we're already seeing how these smaller gifts are already matching some of the larger gifts that we're getting in. And it's really one of those kinds of pictures of small church, big church, small giving, big giving, all working together to accomplish a great purpose.

KV: That's great. Hey, if there somebody’s listening, and I'm sure there are a bunch of people listening who aren't SBC, but maybe they're in another denomination or they're in a particular network of churches or whatever. And they're listening to this and going, wow. I wish our group of churches would do that. I wish somebody who's in a small congregation would be acknowledged in that way and brought into leadership and be able to speak into the broader conversation.

Do you have any thoughts or ideas advice about how this happened within your group that you can maybe give advice—if I'm a small church pastor and I'm in another denomination and I want to elevate the voices of small church leadership, what are some steps maybe that we could take that you could help us from what you've learned?

MH: What I've learned is just the value of relationships. Where in that case, let's say it's me and Karl. I find out that Karl also has the same desire of seeing more small churches come together for something like this, and maybe even working together and putting on your own “normal church conference” or whatever it may be.

I think there's a church out of Missouri that puts on something like that, where all of the pastors are just normal pastors that come in and preach. And it's always great. And so in some sense, it might just be, you know, doing it yourself. Getting out there, getting some people that are like-minded, and put it together, and get those people in your tribe to pull something together for people. And then maybe it goes from there.

You know, every denomination is going to be different. Every denomination is going to have their own kind of ways of doing it or Robert's Rules of Order or whatever it may be. And some of those may be appointed. So it's just a matter within your own context. But if those kinds of things are maybe impossible, maybe just doing it from that grassroots level of finding a church in your area or your county or whatever it may be and getting some like-minded churches together and putting something on and maybe word would spread.

KV: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I mean, I've been on your website and it's very simply done. It's not on Blogger, is it? It's on tumblr, which is really a very, very simple user-friendly way of blogging. It's not fancy, but that makes it easy. And as long as somebody knows who you are, and I mean, I can subscribe to you on tumblr, just as easy as I can subscribe to somebody who's got their own independent site that they paid thousands of dollars to somebody to build, but you have been regularly communicating your ideas, putting your thoughts out there. And this is what I discovered years ago as a small church, pastor myself.

I wrote a book at my wife's urging, because she basically told me, “stop whining and write the book you're complaining doesn't exist.”

And I took her advice and once the book was out and then I started blogging, I noticed people really did want to hear what the boots on the ground pastor has to say. But unless we put our voices into the field, they won't know it. And secondly, when we do put our voices into the field, it can't just be to complain all the time because nobody wants to hear that at all. That's even worse than not saying anything.

So, I would suggest—it appears to me that a lot of what you’ve done is—you've shown up. You've put your voice out there into the field in a way that doesn't take much or any money or, or technical expertise, but you've been consistent on it. You've been gracious about it. You've put out leadership principles.

So people will read Matt Hensley and go, hey, there's a guy who actually has some value. And I know it because he's putting his stuff out there. And it's not about you promoting you. It's about—you've got a message and you want to make sure that it gets out there. So that's what I'm seeing if I'm off on that, correct me, but that is what I'm perceiving correct from your point of view.

MH: It’s absolutely correct. You know, everything we wanted to do—and I think we can see this, whether it's politics or in theology, whatever it is, and just in your own friendships and in life in general—is being known for what you're for. It would have been very easy to just complain about blank, blank, and blank, you know, for, to use the pastor's conferences as an example, “well, there's never any normal guys on there.” “I don't want to hear the same guys.” You know, that's the kind of complaints that you may get. And they're always great preachers and I love it. I go to it and I enjoy those too. But instead of just, here's what I don't like, here's just an alternative.

And in our situation, our context or our tribe, we get to vote about it. And so it's like, at a church level, if you want blue carpet or red carpet, just get the right number of people to vote the way you want them to vote. That's kind of the way that it is.

And so with this one, it wasn't going to be about me or the church or anything else. It was going to be all about this vision that we were trying to get people behind. And so as people are doing the nomination speeches and all of that kind of stuff, you had great people, and I was going against some incredible people. And even, even me saying “going against” was going against everything in me because I have nothing against these guys. I love every single one of them. I'd have them preach at my church. They could have been on the pastor's conference line up, you know, whatever it may be. They're great guys, but for me, it had nothing to do with me or anything like that, it was all about, here's a vision of a conference that everybody can get behind unless you just hate Jesus. I don't know.

KV: Yeah, folks, if you hate Jesus, don't show up.

MH: Yeah, this isn’t the one for you. But I mean, really, you've got—big church, small church, you've got these church plants. One of the guys that's going to be preaching launched his church about three months before COVID and it derailed everything. And then he's back at it and is doing an incredible job. He's a great preacher, great leader, all of that kind of stuff.

And then there's a guy that is retiring after several decades of ministry, or really a few decades even at one church of just simply pouring into his people, and then raising up pastors. That's literally all he has done. And we say that like that's nothing. He's done what we should all be striving to do.

And so we've got that whole kind of line and everything in between—people that have been doing it for a while, white, Black, Hispanic, all of that is mixed in there because I want everybody that's in the seats to be able to look up at the stage and say, that guy gets exactly what I'm going through. I've been in my town for 30 years and we're, we're not seeing the same growth, you know, we're not seeing this, we're not seeing that, or I'm just ready to quit, but this guy was telling me, oh, it does get better. Like, you know, it'll still be hard, but it does get better. You can move through these things.

And so that was just something that we wanted to be all about, what our message was and what our vision was and nothing about who the messengers were going to be. And so that, to me, is probably key. Anybody can complain. And those of us that are pastors know that some of us have more complainers than not. But it's those that are ready to get to work and ready to make it better. That really you want to be around. And so that's what I wanted to be about.

KV: Now, a 20-second break to talk about something. If you like the content you're hearing, here are two things you can do for us. First, forward this podcast to a friend. Secondly, consider becoming a Patreon partner. For as little as $3 a month, you can help us put these resources into the hands of ministries that need it the most. Our Patreon link is in the show notes.

And a lot of what you're talking about is exactly what we as pastors, especially as small church pastors, go through with congregation members. You know, if somebody shows up because they've got an opinion about everything. Well, the folks who show up early and stack chairs, quite frankly, their opinion matters more. You know, the person who shows up late and leaves early on the occasional time when they show up and then complains about it. It's like, sorry, but your voice just doesn't carry the weight because you're not involved.

As small church pastors with our groups, with our denominations, with our networks, whatever group of churches we're with, it's the same thing. I get that for a national level, it's physically difficult for a lot of small church pastors who are bivocational to afford to be able to show up for a conference. That’s one of the reasons why I'm constantly pushing that more of our conferences need to have an online option so they can participate in it.

But even then, watching online and voting online, isn't the same as being in the room with people and carrying on conversations. So I get if you can't, you can't. No guilt attached here whatsoever. I went through a whole lot of years where I couldn't show up at anything but the ones really close to me for exactly that reason.

But if we really do have that hard in that burden for the small church voice to be heard within the larger church leadership context, we've got to show up. And as we talked about already, you can do it online now—cheaper and more often than we ever could before. So we really don't have an excuse, not to put a positive voice out there in a way that can be recognized. Not so that we can be heard, but so that the message of the value of the small congregation can get out there.

I appreciate your getting into this circle. I appreciate those in your tribe who recognize that and are moving forward with that. I think this is all a positive sign for where I hope the rest of the body of Christ is beginning to follow as well.

From that, let's finish up with, I always make sure that every guest has got to endure the lightning round question. No one escapes this.

MH: I've got to go. No, I'm just kidding.

KV: Yeah, there we go. Lightning round question number one. What are the biggest changes you've seen in your field of ministry in the last few years and how have you adapted?

MH: Well, the biggest changes for us were the COVID restrictions that changed, like, by the week. And so that's the easy answer right now.

But we have people that will drive to church here for an hour to get to church, sometimes a little further, because we are kind of out in the middle of nowhere. Like I said, we've got 56 people in our little town and we have 150 or so on a Sunday.

So obviously most of them are coming in from the outside. And so one of the things that I had to adapt to is that kind of old model of Wednesday night, you had this, you know, maybe Friday night, you had this and Sunday morning, Sunday night, you know, all these extra activities—we had to really distill it down to what's key and what's important because many of these folks can't drive an hour here, go to church, go home, have dinner, come back for the evening service or choir or whatever it might be and make multiple trips each week

So we had to make the most out of the time that we had. And so we'll put a lot of the meetings during that time or some extra training during that morning time and just make the most of that morning session, just because of how far it is to get here for most of our folks.

KV: Yeah, we did the same thing. Not because of distance, but because of busy-ness. While they're here, let's double and triple the value of their presence whenever we can. That's great.

Question number two: hat free resource like an app or a website has helped you lately that you would recommend for small church ministry.

MH: My website. No, I'm just kidding.

KV: I would recommend it! MattHenslee.com

MH: PreachingSource.com. This is done by Southwestern Seminary, that's my seminary. But what I like about it is that there’s some sermons there, they've got videos over the years of different conferences that they put on. One time I was working on a sermon in Jonah and I just was hitting the wall in my sermon prep.

And so I just was looking through there for sermon ideas, sermon starters, or just other things, just to hear it kind of from a different voice. And it just sort of reinvigorated my writing and sermon prep for that particular sermon that time. But they also have, you know, a blog that deals with all kinds of stuff, whether you're a guest preacher or, you know, whatever it is, they really do a good job with their blog. They only do a few posts a week when they're doing it. It's usually during the school year.

And then they also have some sermon structures. I do what's called a text-driven preaching is kind of a form of expository or verse by verse preaching. And so they have a number of sermon structures where they’ve broken out several books by kind of how you could preach them, how many sermons you could preach on them. And it just helps to kind of see it on one screen. You know, you've got your spreadsheet up or where you're mapping sermons out and whatnot, but that really helps me just open it up and kind of see where we will be going in the years or the months to come.


KV: We will put that in the show notes for everybody as well. And what's the best piece of ministry advice you've ever received?

MH: The tyranny of the trivial. My mentor used to talk about the fact that we hear about the tyranny of the urgent, where everything you've got to do now. You've got to deal with it now. But he reminds me that a lot of ministry and a lot of our stress centers around the tyranny of the trivial. Like in the grand scheme of things, blank may not really matter. And yet it's keeping us up at night or whatever it may be. And so that might be, you know, so-and-so, doesn't really like you or they complained about your sermon or whatever it might be.

But in the grand scheme of things, it's really trivial because what so-and-so thinks of you really doesn't matter when we know who we are in Christ. I

KV: I love that. Tyranny of the urgent is important too, but tyranny of the trivial, I think actually focuses even more tightly on what matters about that, because there are some urgent things that do have to be done and that are important, but trivial is never important by definition.

So it actually is, I think, even a better filter than tyranny of the urgent. I love that one. That's great. Thank you. Number four: what's the funniest or weirdest thing you've ever seen in church?

MH: I did a funeral and the husband that was being buried—his favorite coffee was Yuban Bold. I think you get it at Costco or Sam's or one of those. It was one of those giant cans. He had been cremated. And they put him in a Yuban Bold can and wanted it on the pulpit so that he could hear one last sermon.

So that was the weirdest. I wouldn't call it funny because I don't think you can laugh about that, but it's definitely the weirdest as I'm about to preach the sermon with a can of coffee on the pulpit.

And that's the coffee that we had used at church until then. From then on, we switched to Maxwell House or Folgers or whatever it was because I was like, I can't look at a Yuban Bold coffee can the same way again.

KV: No, you would not. That's why I said funniest or weirdest. So that's got a little bit of funny, but it's got a whole lot of weird in it. That's for sure.

Hey Matt, I appreciate you being with us today and I really pray for and wish you well, as you move forward with this. You've got a lot of work ahead of you, you’ve got some great stuff coming out. And I hope and pray that those who are listening from other denominations, especially will hear this.

And I love it when we can share things cross denominationally, share good ideas that are happening, it's not a matter of the SBC doing it better than anybody else. It's just a matter of, hey, they're doing this thing right and there's a whole bunch we can learn from each other.

And I hope others pick up on this. And I hope it's the beginning of a real change in the way people start thinking about the value of what small church pastors have to bring into the mix. So thank you very much for that. I appreciate it, Matt.

MH: Yes, sir.

KV: I do love Matt's heart, his willingness, his attitude, and his pastoring. Man, a church of over 150 in a town of 56. That is some seriously good shepherding, right there.

I also love that one of the largest church groups on earth, the Southern Baptist Convention, is recognizing the value of small churches. And, in fact, specifically appointing him because he's in a small church and because he represents the vast majority of pastors in their group.

So can this work in a small church? Is there a place in your denomination or your group for small church pastors to lead? The answer of course is, “yes!” But there are a couple of caveats to that.

First of all, we have to do solid ministry in our current context. We can't complain about where we are and expect to be elevated to a different position. We have to do solid ministry in our current church.

We also can't see small church ministry as a stepping stone to something else. That's not how Matt sought. The Lord simply called him out of that to a different place. Do great ministry where you are. Secondly, if you want to have influence in your denomination, we have to show up. We have to get engaged in the process.

I know that for most of us, we can't go to most of the conferences because finances and time just simply don't allow it, especially if you're bi-vocational. But like Matt did, you can still blog about it, you can still write about it. You can still be engaged in the process.

And then thirdly, when we do get engaged, we have to offer positive ideas and solutions. Nobody wants to put a complainer in a position of influence or authority. We need to bring something positive and valuable to the context.

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.

If you want a transcript of this episode, it will be available within a few days of the podcast air date at Christianitytoday.com/karl-vaters. You can find that link in the show notes. This episode was produced and edited by Veronica Beaver. Original theme music was written and performed by Jack Wilkins of JackWilkinsMusic.com. The podcast logo was by Solomon Joy at joyetic.com.

And me? I’m Karl Vaters, and I’m a small church pastor.

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