7 Leadership Principles That Transformed My Ministry

In life, you can learn from both good leaders and bad leaders. We should make it a point to learn all we can from those in authority over us—good and bad. I’ve had the opportunity to work for, and with, some incredible leaders. As I write this, I flash back to everything from funnel reviews in the sales world to watching someone lead a Fortune 10 company constantly making headlines. The greatest leadership lessons I’ve learned have come from Todd Wagner, the Founding Pastor at Watermark, who I’ve sat under for the past 13 years. Under his leadership I learned about the grace of the gospel and gave my life to Christ. As I’ve been reading his book, Come and See, with our staff, I’m reminded of so many other things I’ve learned. He’s taught us to lead and care for our families, how to inspire teams, how to resolve conflict, and has given us an endless list of leadership skills. Here are seven lessons that I’ve learned from a man who I believe is one of the greatest leaders of our day.

Family first

When I first started at Watermark, my office was a closet (truly, a closet, with no windows) that I shared with another pastor who was also new to staff. One day Todd walked in and asked me, “how’s your ministry?” I was ready for that question! I immediately began rattling off facts about the last gathering we had. I shared how many people were there, how many of them wanted to trust in Jesus afterwards, and about an upcoming discipleship trip (mission trip) that “sold out.” I paused for a minute so he could say “attaboy,” but instead he just looked at me confused. He picked up a picture of my family from my desk and said, “no, how’s your ministry? This is your primary ministry.” #MicDrop. #Burn. Todd has lived this. The man has six kids. All of them love Jesus and would be thankful for their non-traditional “PK” lives. Non-traditional in the sense that their dad was around. He coached their games and took them to school. He made sure their house was the “fun house” with ice cream towers and backyard Bar-B-Ques. I’ve watched him turn down other opportunities so that he can put his family first. His platform could be bigger, but he’d rather make his kids’ games, performances, and events.

Don’t ask—share vision

You can ask someone to do something. “Will you please pick up the trash?” You can tell them to do it. “Pick up the trash.” Or you can cast a vision for them to do it. “The world is ours to steward for just a little while. What we do with it, shows Who we belong to. When something is not as it should be, even if we’re not to blame, we are the solution as the hands and feet of Jesus. More specifically, this property is a gift from God to us. Now, I noticed some trash outside, who is with me to go clean it up!?” There’s a big difference between asking someone to do something and casting vision as to why they should. With one, people feel like an employee, with the other they understand they are a vested owner. When Todd asks me to pick up trash, I want to run through a wall to do it. He doesn’t ask. He doesn’t tell. He tells why and inspires.

Get inside the circle

Every Tuesday 250 employees pile in a room. We get in a circle. Over the past 11 years I’ve watched the circle grow considerably. It is, however, still surprisingly small. About 150 people sit on the floor ,with another 100 encircling them in chairs. If you show up late, you can’t remain outside the circle, you must come inside. Todd really cares about this. I imagine everyone wonders why. We are a family. We’re talking about things of eternal significance. The bigger we get, the smaller we must become. This is not a place to hide on the outside like you don’t belong. There’s value in sitting uncomfortably close to your coworkers, knowing their names, and then praying with them in smaller circles, which we do every week. No one is going to sneak in if they’re late. And it’s ok, as long as it’s not a pattern…walk in confidently and get inside the circle.

Run toward the explosion

Imagine walking outside a grocery store when someone runs out shouting, “bomb!” People start flooding out in a panicked state. Everyone in the parking lot starts running back toward their cars and away from the doors. The only person who would move toward the store is someone trained to handle the potentially explosive situation inside. In ministry, the “explosives” are angry, hurting people who are in conflict. I’ve never in my life met someone so obsessed with resolving conflict as Todd Wagner. If something doesn’t sound right, Todd stops everything and gets whoever is involved into the room. He gets people talking to each other, not about each other. He never looks past someone who is hurt, or someone who is hurting others. If he is the cause of the hurt, he picks up the phone and moves quickly to the person who has expressed hurt, so that he can make it right. When there has been moral failure on our staff, he moves in swiftly. He gets everyone who is a part of the problem and/or a part of the solution in a room. He communicates clearly. He removes the mystery and creates a place to talk about it, ask questions, and move on. He gives a path of recovery for the individual. Jesus’ ministry was restorative. Those that follow Him work diligently to preserve peace.

It will all work out

Faith is an incredible thing. It is believing that everything the Bible says about God is absolutely true. That He is all powerful and that He loves you. If you can believe that, what do you have to worry about? I’ve never seen faith like I’ve witnessed at Watermark. I can remember coming for the first time and hearing, “we’re just going to do what this book says. No matter what it costs us.” Proverbs 24:10 seems to be a life verse for Todd. He loves when God has the opportunity to work against the odds (as if there were ever actually “odds” against God). What I mean is, God loves impossible situations, because they are the easiest opportunities for Him to show that He works in impossible situations, and we marvel all the more at His strength. In the chaos of life and ministry, Todd always says, “it will all work out.” This is the crazy faith of leadership that drew me to Watermark.

Have fun

When I think about the times I’ve laughed the hardest in my life, the top five experiences would all be at Watermark staff functions. The most ordinary moments have become my most extraordinary memories when Todd makes something a game with a winner, a loser, and a consequence. Sure, sometimes there’s also a prize, but I can guarantee there will always be a consequence. We “pastor hard” and play just as hard. I’ve taken shots of Tabasco, swum in frozen ponds, taken baths in eggnog, was covered in syrup and powdered sugar, and had some crazy impromptu haircuts. I know that doesn’t sound like fun right now, but when you’re with the right people and the stakes are high, it’s always an amazing time. I’ve told Todd that he’s the best in the world at planning a party on a budget. It’s safe to say, I’ve laughed until I’ve cried MANY times on staff.

To not separate yourself from your people is to not separate yourself

I’ve seen Sr. Pastors with security details. I’ve seen them take secret exits from the church and have private parking spaces. I’m not judging at all, but Todd just doesn’t do that. He parks with us. He steps off the stage and talks to people until they’re done. We call him Todd. Not Pastor Todd or bishop or anything else. Well, sometimes I call him Wags or TW. I’ve learned that he doesn’t do “formal” often. Not that he can’t. He just usually doesn’t. He’s never going to be the best dressed guy at the party. He’s much more about giving you attention than getting you to notice him. Some people are very different in the green room than they are on the stage, but Todd is consistent. He’s the same on the stage, at the dinner table, in the living room, and in the staff meeting. It’s important to him to stay connected to his staff and members. He’s available and approachable. He often returns emails with phone calls. Sure, he leads a church of 12,000+, but he does everything in his power to make it feel small.

I’ve wanted to write this blog for 10 years, and it is interesting to see the seven things that made the list in the few minutes I spent typing. It could be 700. I have learned so much about Jesus and how to be His follower from this man. I’m blessed to work alongside him and watch him live out these lessons every day.

-JP, Teaching Pastor at Watermark Community Church