Show Notes:33. Karl Vaters — Writing and Success for a Small Church Pastor
Karl Vaters is a small church pastor. It’s not a title he is afraid to use. Karl describes his passion for small churches and the dignity he hopes to offer the pastors who lead them well.
Karl is also a published author and writer for Christianity Today. He joins me to talk about his experience in ministry and how writing has expanded his influence.
The church needs voices articulated from all of its churches, big and small. Karl didn’t wait on writing to become a mega-church pastor or celebrity. He serves faithfully in his writing and in his congregation. I can’t recommend his book, Small Church Essentials, enough.
The following is an automated transcription. It is recorded exactly as it was spoken.
Chase Replogle: 00:00 You’re listening to the pastor writer podcast, episode 33.
Chase Replogle: 00:06 I’m joined on the podcast today by Karl Vaters. Carl is a pastor and a writer. The author of Small Church Essentials, a book I highly recommend, regardless of the size church in which you’re pastoring. He joins me to talk about being a small church pastor, as well as how even small church pastors can write and get published. It’s a great conversation, one that I know you’ll get a lot out of. As always, thanks for listening.
Chase Replogle: 00:33 Joining me on the podcast today is Karl Vaters. Carl is the pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California. He describes himself as a small church pastor, which we’ll get into. He’s also a speaker and a blogger at newsmallchurch.com and Christianity Today. He’s the author of the Grasshopper Myth, and the recently released Small Church Essentials: field-tested principles for leading a healthy congregation under 250, which just came out this past spring. Carl, thanks for joining me on the podcast today.
Karl Vaters: 01:02 Hey, good to be with your chase.
Chase Replogle: 01:04 Well, maybe a good place for us to start is a little bit of context for you as a pastor, as well as the church that you serve. Maybe you could give us a little background about how you got into the ministry.
Karl Vaters: 01:14 Sure. I’m actually a third generation Assemblies of God Pastor. My grandfather was the national superintendent for the assemblies of God of Newfoundland, which is now a part of Canada. And then my dad was a pastor and so I grew up in a pastor’s home. I am a pastor’s kid, raised by a pastor’s kid who’s raising pastor’s kids. So there’s a whole lot of pastoring in ministry in my background. And I, you know, I got into pastoral ministry at a fairly young age, went to a couple of small churches to begin, thinking, well, these are just stepping stones towards the inevitably larger church. And then 25 years ago came to to Fountain Valley, which is in Orange County, California, just eight miles south of Disneyland. And, you know, all around me is all, all of these mega churches just, you know, within half an hour drive in my front door is saddleback church, the original calvary chapel, the original vineyard church on the way, um, the crystal Cathedral, um, you know, even even Azusa Street, uh, is, is very close to us.
Karl Vaters: 02:23 So I live in this area where it isn’t just big ministries, but the start of big movements are, are all around me and, you know, so I come here 25 years ago thinking, well, you know, I’m next a sign up, sign me up for that and we’re going to do big stuff when we’re on a main street and, you know, maybe, you know, hundreds of thousands of people drive by our door every single day. Uh, but, and we came to a church that was really, really struggling, really hurting and started working in, administering there. And we had some growth and we brought and a lot of health happened, but we never had the massive growth that we anticipated. Um, and so, um, that’s where I am now. I’m in a church, I’m in a small church in a very heavily populated area where it seems like every other church grows to mega status, even though that’s not the case.
Chase Replogle: 03:16 Yeah. I sort of come to ministry from maybe the exact opposite end of that spectrum. I have no one in my family history who has been a minister. In fact, there’s a, there’s sort of, I don’t even know how true it is, but there’s a circulating family story that my grandfather had got in trouble with the law for selling moonshine on the steps of a church, which is about the, since my family history, never actually inside the church. So a long ways from pastoring a church. Uh, but inevitably it seems like regardless of how you sort of come into ministry, one of the things you bring with you that you talk about are these expectations, these sort of goals or ambitions of what you think ministry is going to look like. And You admit really transparent apparently in your book, Small Church Central’s, that you came to the realization that you didn’t have the gifting or the skillset to be a pastor of a megachurch. Um, I’m curious how you came to that conclusion.
Karl Vaters: 04:02 Well, I came to that conclusion by failing at attempting it. That’s pretty much it. I tried it and couldn’t do it. We actually went through a season. I came to this current church and they’d been through five pastors in 10 years, so they were very discouraged and uh, just about voted to close the doors and a big Sunday was 30 people in the seats. And so we just spent a little bit of time just kind of helping them to heal. And it had about seven year point. We were healthy and strong and running about 75 or 80. And then at about the 15, 16 year point, we were actually running about 200 people, which packed our tiny little building twice on a Sunday morning. We have a very, very small building. So I went around and I found a local junior highschool and rented there.
Karl Vaters: 04:47 Uh, I like to call it the Cafa Jim Datura Librarian, you know, that room that’s used for everything, uh, and it was sizable enough that it would seat 400 people and we in the, in 20 months from the moment we moved out of our building on Sunday mornings into the junior high school, we went from 200 to 420 months. And so we thought, well, we’re on this upward trajectory. I went to the, actually went to the board and I said, we need to hire a staff for a church of $600 because we’re going to be at 600 and a couple of years, take a look at the line here. And they agreed and we hired at $400. We hired enough staff for 600 and then all of a sudden it just started to reverse. And in the next 10 months we dropped down to, well under 100 people.
Karl Vaters: 05:33 There were some Sundays where there were like 50, 60 people looking at me and there was no scandal and there was no split. So I was left reeling like what in the world is going on here? And a very long story, very short, I discovered through a lot of study and concern and prayer and quite frankly, counseling, um, that part of the reason that it didn’t, whether it got bigger was I was miserable when it got bigger. I didn’t know I was miserable because how could a pastor be miserable when the church is doubling in 20 months? But I was spending all my time doing things that I don’t enjoy that I’m not called to do. And that sucked my soul dry. I was doing administration and doing fundraising and putting staffs together and fighting the city hall and looking for facilities. And I’m not built to do any of that. I, I’m not the guy who was called to manage systems. I’m called to pastor people and I could only discover that by trying and failing and then reassessing what I’m really called to do.
Chase Replogle: 06:36 It strikes me that there’s a, um, there’s a really fine sort of distinction there that, that you’re able to make about yourself that I think is hard for a lot of people because some of the prevailing advice or wisdom would go, um, you know, the challenge you were hitting was you needed to level up your leadership. You know, there were, there were principles are things you need to learn that if you could sort of read enough books or get enough experience or glean from other leaders, you could become a better leader. Sort of move yourself up that scale. And then those challenges, those problems will begin to take care of themselves. So that the humility or the approach to be able to say, no, I know myself well enough to know who I am, what my skillset is, where my passions are. I think that’s a distinction a lot of pastors struggled to make what is who I am and what is just an area that I need to grow. How do you go about discerning that place where you sort of say, I recognize my limits. I recognize what I’m good at. And the ability to embrace that,
Karl Vaters: 07:30 yeah, it reminds me of, I don’t know if it’s true or if it’s urban legend, but apparently Thomas Edison went through, you know, a couple thousand different experiments to try to figure out the light bulb. And when somebody asked him about 1700 failures or however many it was, he says, I haven’t failed 1700 times. I figured out 1700 ways not to do this. So I’m narrowing down the field to the one that will work. And it was. It’s kind of like that in leadership. I think too often we look around and we see a certain type of leader that tends to get a name for themselves and then tends to teach others. And so we think, well, success looks like that because that’s the model that I keep seeing. But sometimes we have to look at it and go, no, that’s just a type of leadership that I need to check off of my list because that’s not what I do.
Karl Vaters: 08:19 And so we can either get upset that I can’t level up in the way that other leader leveled up. Or we can look at it and go, well, that’s one less place for me to waste my energy on it. I’m not there. So if I take all the energy I’ve been putting into trying to be something I’m not, now I can put my energy and my attention into something that might in fact be better for me. So for instance, with me, leveling up in ministry didn’t mean bigger, bigger congregation that didn’t work for me. So now so, but I’m not going to settle and just sit here and go, well, I’m just this. Now I have to figure out how do I expand the ministry? How do I level up in ministry? How do I move forward in ministry and have greater impact for the Kingdom of God?
Karl Vaters: 09:03 If it’s not going to be with more people sitting in front of me on a Sunday morning, what will that look like? And for me, that came through the writing process, which has now led me to talking to you today. And so now I’ve got a blog on Christianity today and I’ve written two books about small churches and I’m having an impact on other small church pastors who went through and still have similar frustrations to the ones that I had. So it’s not giving up on your dreams or even giving up on moving forward and settling for less. It’s, it’s finding another door that, that has, uh, that has, you know, God’s goals for it, for you behind it. And walking through that and success in your ministry will look differently than success in somebody else’s ministry looks.
Chase Replogle: 09:52 I think this is partly what you try to capture in the first book with this title, The grasshopper myth. Maybe you could sort of give a description to what you mean by that title.
Karl Vaters: 10:00 Yeah. When you’re writing a book called the Grasshopper Myth, you’ve always got some explaining to do
Chase Replogle: 10:05 it was the first book. Second book, again,
Karl Vaters: 10:09 second, second book. Small church essentials is self explanatory. But the first one
Chase Replogle: 10:13 I’m curious to just here, you’d be able to articulate it yourself.
Karl Vaters: 10:17 Yeah, no, I, I love the title. That creates the kind of intrigue that requires these kinds of questions, which is part of the reason I wrote it that way. I thought, if I can’t come up with a very basic explanation, I’m going to come up with a title. It creates intrigue, and the Grasshopper Myth does that. It comes from the story of the spies that go into the promised land and 10 of them come back with the report. Uh, the people we saw there are great size. One translation says there were giants in the land and then they say this important phrase, we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes and we looked the same to them. And so the premise behind the book is, um, for most small church pastors are feelings of inferiority. Do not begin with the big church down the street. Our feelings of inferiority begin when we see a grasshopper in our mirror, we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes. And then we looked that way to others. So that was where my problems came from, was that I had this perception that pastoring a healthy small church wasn’t enough. If it’s staying small, then I’m a grasshopper that I’m less than and I have to become like the giants around me and I had to let go of that. Uh, there is no grasshopper in my mirror. That is a, that’s, that’s, that’s the myth. Uh, in, instead I am called to do ministry in a different way than the giants around me.
Chase Replogle: 11:39 It’s one of the patterns I think that plays out even beyond ministry, but really profoundly. Administrators. We live in a world that seems to operate in, in abstractions. Um, you know, we think about the congregation we would like to have and the kind of people that would show up and what the church building would look like and the kinds of sermons series we would be doing and so much of the energy that we have in trying to grow the church and trying to pass the churches, trying to sort of do this abstract thing or reached these abstract people. And the thing that always seems to suffer. I know in my own experience and what I seem to observe is the actual known people and work in front of us that there are people that we have in our congregation right now and unfortunately this sort of abstract congregation we’re trying to get to consolidate and sacrifice the people that are there. And part of what I think your work does so well is that it tries to carve out, and I, I think you would articulate this and what as well, that you’re not against big churches. You’re not favoring small churches, but you’re trying to give a kind of dignity to pastors who are being faithful in the context of these small congregations. Um, why is that dignity so hard for small church pastors to recognize and feel?
Karl Vaters: 12:48 First of all, thank you for phrasing it so succinctly and so well, and I completely agree. I am not anti big church at all, but restoring dignity for the small church pastor. That’s exactly what this is all about. And it’s, it’s important because you can’t know your church can be great if you think being a small church is a bad thing. Um, and I know that because I went through that, I’ve been a small church pastor my entire ministry, but I didn’t know I was a small church pastor until about seven, eight years ago when I went through that whole meltdown phase. I was convinced I’m the next big church pastor. I just haven’t gotten there yet, but it’s inevitable. Um, and, and the idea of saying, Hey, I’m a small church pastor, um, w, w, w, the, I remember the day that I said I’m a small church pastor, and how freeing it was.
Karl Vaters: 13:39 It’s, it’s the reason why I titled the First Chapter of my first book. Hi, I’m caroline. I’m a small church pastor. And I did that. I intentionally mimicked the alcoholics anonymous introduction in that because as saying, I’m a small church pastor, before you’ve said it feels to me at least I imagine because I’m not an alcoholic, but I imagined that it feels somewhat like the alcoholic admitting their alcoholism because they feel like they’re about to admit some deep, dark, sinful secret that nobody should ever admit. But the second you say it, there’s a moment of freedom that makes me realize, okay, what’s, you know they say, I think John Maxwell says, the first job of leadership is to define reality. If you’re a small church pastor and you, the moment you say, I’m a small church pastor, you have defined your reality and now you’ve got something you can actually work with.
Karl Vaters: 14:31 Now it may be that I’m a small church pastor for now, but for most of us it’s going to be, I’m going to be a small church pastor for most of my ministry because take a look around folks. That’s the percentages. Saying where I am now is a very, very freeing thing. In fact, I regularly have people come to me and say, I don’t even use the term small church because I would never use that. And I go, I use it because. How can I say it’s okay for the church to be small if I’m uncomfortable using the word small, uh, you know, and so I think we can restore dignity by simply, first of all, acknowledging yeah, I serve a small church. Yes, I am a small church pastor. How do I do that? Well now, so the moment we can recognize and identify who we are, do so without any guilt or shame attached to it, then we can start moving forward and doing it well.
Chase Replogle: 15:23 I think for many pastors probably wrapped up in long held the concepts of what success looks like in ministry is this idea. I think you used the phrase in the book inevitable growth. If I just do the right things, this thing is inevitable, it’s going to grow. We have viewed that as this trajectory of success. Um, but you saying I am a small church pastor, I recognize my giftings or as a small church pastor to some would see them like abandoning success or abandoning that trajectory. How do you think a pastor goes about understanding what success looks like and how that relates to church size?
Karl Vaters: 15:57 Yeah, that’s the big challenge. What we’ve done in really recent years. I’m old enough now, I’ll be pushing on my next birthday. Makes me 59, so I’m pushing 60. Uh, I remember back and being a preacher’s kid, third generation preachers kid, I remember back in the day I’m in a, you could go to almost any even big city in America, and it was, and the biggest churches in town would be five, six, maybe 700 people. It was rare to even go to a big city in America when I was growing up and find a church over a thousand. They were, you just, you just didn’t find them. And so back then you had, you know, the biggest church in town was 10 times bigger than the average church in town. And what that meant was they had, they had staff members and they had a bigger choir and there wasn’t this massive difference between them.
Karl Vaters: 16:48 The advent of megachurch has brought some great, great things to the body of Christ, but every good thing also brings out intended consequences. And one of the unintended consequences of the megachurch movement is now when the biggest church in town is 100, maybe a thousand times bigger than the average church in town. Now the set of principles they use is entirely different. Now. They have to be numbers, more numbers focused, and they have to have metrics because when you’re trying to manage the movement of thousands of people on a weekend, you need to know within two or three percentage points how many people are going to be in one weekend and how many people are going to be receiving the newsletter and how many parking spaces you need. Otherwise the whole thing falls to pieces. So we’ve become much more numbers oriented in the last generation by the need to be numbers oriented in the mega church.
Karl Vaters: 17:44 They have to have precise numbers, but then we go to conference where the megachurch pastor is speaking and they give those numbers ideas to us and we think, well, we need to be a numbers oriented to [inaudible]. That must be how they got that big. And so the necessity for numbers in the megachurch has brought about an obsession with numbers for the rest of the body of Christ. That in a smaller church simply doesn’t function in the same way. And so that’s part of the frustration and challenge for small church pastors is we’re trying to come up with metrics to measure success, but you know, what are the metrics to measure the success of your family? It’s not a numerical thing, it’s, it’s quantitative, it’s qualitative and not quantitative. And, and so that I think is where we gained this number’s obsession in the last, a generation it was, it didn’t come from a bad place. It came from church growth. But it has been one of the unintended consequences of a good thing.
Chase Replogle: 18:46 Yeah. It’s, I think most pastors will resonate instantly with that struggle because inevitably we get the question, uh, you know, how’s, how’s the church going? And I always find that an incredible itch. I should say I pastor a church under 250, so I fall into this category. I always find that to be a difficult question to answer because I want to say, well, I mean people are still showing up for worship every Sunday and some people have been sick and are getting better. Like it’s, it’s hard to sort of. I don’t have that number metric. That’s so easy to say, oh, the church great. We’ve added 100 new families over the last quarter, you know, it’s hard to find the way of articulating the churches doing well. Um, outside of sort of saying, well, we’re continuing to do what we’ve been doing.
Karl Vaters: 19:24 Yeah, very true. And so what we need to do is we need to start looking at different ways to gauge success. One of the things I encourage small church pastors to do is to start what I call a healthy church log. And that is, for instance, um, I spent last night talking to, uh, a member of our church and, uh, about some very, very personal things. And the end result of our conversation last night was major forward motion for him and for his family. I see there’s no metric sheet, there’s no stat sheet that I can put that conversation on to show archer just moving forward because that family got healthier last night. So what do I do? I come home, I write it down and in a healthy church log. And then when I feel discouraged a week or a month or a year down the road and I think the church isn’t moving forward, I then pick up the log and I look at it and go, it’s not unhealthy.
Karl Vaters: 20:29 I had this conversation and that family got healed and this person came to know Christ and this person we sent off to go into ministry and you know, almost none of that lands on my, you know, annual statistics sheet that I sent into the denomination. But all of it is indication of a healthy church that’s moving forward and doing things to benefit the Kingdom of God. So we have to come up with a different way of tracking it. We and we have to track it because if we just let it go, it is really easy for us to forget those conversations and then just start getting discouraging getting discouraged because I don’t have the numbers to back it up.
Chase Replogle: 21:03 I think it’s equally sort of temptation to say, well, since I don’t have a trackable number, like you said, I’ll track nothing. And then we do sort of get ourselves into a place. We’re not paying attention to what’s happening in the church, we’re not paying attention to is this a healthy church or not? And so I think that’s one of the real benefits you bring forward is it’s not enough to just say, I am a small church. That’s fine. The next question becomes, so how do I be a healthy small church, which is really at the center of so much of the work that you try to do.
Karl Vaters: 21:31 Yeah, exactly. You can’t just. One of the expressions I like to use is small is not a problem of virtue or an excuse. So you know, the whole encouraging is to show you a small is not a problem. By secondly is not a virtue. It’s not better than big. But the third part, which is what you just stepped into here, was it’s not an excuse either. The fact that my church is small, it doesn’t mean I’m just going to sit here and do nothing. It means I’m going to do the small stuff really well. We’re gonna figure out what a healthy small church looks like and we’re going to lean into that because, um, there are great benefits to small things. I mean, roses and redwoods grow to different sizes because they serve completely different purposes. And you wouldn’t say that a Rosebush has failed because it didn’t become the size of a redwood. It’s not designed to become the size of a redwood. It serves a completely different purpose than a redwood. So I can build a house out of a redwood tree, but it’s that redwood tree is not going to be much good to me on my anniversary. I’m going to need some roses on the anniversary. So you’ve got to figure out how can we, what is our best functioning in the Kingdom of God at the size we are right now?
Chase Replogle: 22:43 One of the things, if I could recommend, which I would free for anyone, um, you made the point early in the book, a health, a small church essentials that really everyone should pay attention to how a small church works. Because almost every minister at some point, either we’ll begin in a small church or will see their whole ministry through a small church that it’s a dynamic all of us should be more aware of and so I would recommend anyone any size, but particularly if you’re in this category, it’s a book I would recommend and one of the things you do so well in the book is you’re extremely transparent about processing your own experience coming to these conclusions through your own experiences. Uh, but at some point you recognized beyond just becoming the best small church pastor in this church. God was leading you to sort of take and begin resourcing other small church pastors. I’m curious how that came about. At what point did you realize that what God’s doing in my mind and my heart right now is really something that he’s wanting me to share beyond just my congregation.
Karl Vaters: 23:40 This is where we get into the writer, part of Pastor, writer. What I did was I, as I was discovering, well first of all, I, I, I wrote my first book because I couldn’t find my first book. That’s absolutely true. I looked for it and I thought I need something like this and couldn’t find it, couldn’t find it, but I kept digging up little bits and nuggets of truth here and there. Some from my own experience, some from an article that might have been written, but I couldn’t find all of it assembled into one place, and so I started teaching these principles to our congregation and particularly to our leadership team. Hey, we’re going to lean into this healthy small church thing. We’re going to figure out what this means, and so as I would discover it, I would teach it to them and we would put it into, into play in our church.
Karl Vaters: 24:23 And as I was doing this, both of my youth pastor and my wife came to me independently of each other and said, this is a book you’re developing, right? You just haven’t told us yet. I like, uh, no. I’m just teaching you. And both of them said, oh, no, no, no. This is a book you’re developing. Other people need to know this because we, if we need to know this in our church than every other church that small needs to know this stuff too. And so they just nudged and pushed. And I even looked at my wife at one point and I said, I’m not going to write a book. I’m, I’m a pastor of a small church. Nobody’s ever heard of me. Nobody’s ever heard of the church. Nobody would ever buy that book. And she said, well, who else is going to write a book about pastoring a small church other than a small church pastor?
Karl Vaters: 25:04 And how many famous ones do you know? It’s like, okay, yeah, you got me. Uh, so I wrote it just to put together all of these thoughts and ideas and random pieces and actually wrote the grasshopper myth like in a, in a mad rush of three months. And then I just left it on my laptop and then forget about it, but kind of abandoned that there. And I thought, okay, I’ve written it and I’ve taught all this to our folks and I’m going to let it be. And about six months later I thought, you know what, I’m going to read that and see if there’s anything there. And as I’m reading it I’m going, oh, this is good. I like literally out loud on the couch. The third time I said, oh, this is good. My wife looked at me and went, you know, you’re reading your own book. I was like, yeah, but it’s been six months since I wrote it and it feels like somebody else wrote it at this point and if it’s actually what I wrote six months ago is ministering to me now, then there’s something in this for others.
Chase Replogle: 26:00 Oh, sorry, I was writing something you had been interested in before, or really something that just developed out of a passion to share this message and these insights.
Karl Vaters: 26:09 Yeah, I, I’ve have all my skill sets. I mean I’ve talked about, you know, where my skillsets don’t go like in larger churches and so on. So, so if, if I’m going to be transparent about this stuff I don’t do well let me be transparent about the stuff that I do do well. And one of them is, yeah, I’ve always been a good communicator both speaking and writing, but particularly writing my, my whole life from, from literally, you know, elementary school, I’ve had teachers tell me, you were a really good writer, you need to pursue this. It just flows out of me that way. But it was always really, really hard. It was like every word was squeezing blood out of my soul. But this book on small churches, because I had gone through the trauma already, this was just an expression of that trauma and it just flowed out of me like crazy.
Karl Vaters: 26:56 Um, and so when I did write it, it was really stream of consciousness. And then when I read it six months later, it was like, okay, I can see the, I can see the problems here and there grammatically structurally I’ve repeated myself there and so on. But by then I had enough content on the page that it, it was really the editing process at that point. So it never ever felt like, okay, I’m sitting down and staring at a blank screen and I’m going to write something that is the most intimidating thing in the world, staring at a blank screen, trying to come up with an idea to write that is really hard. And the reason this worked for me was I didn’t start saying I’m going to write a book about this. I started with, I got to find information that I and my church need and then I only wrote it down as notes to present to them to teach them what I had learned.
Karl Vaters: 27:47 So it didn’t feel like writing. It felt like preparing my next board meeting, preparing for my next staff meeting, preparing for our annual retreat, which I do on a regular basis anyway. And then by the time we had done enough of that, I took that content and I said, now I just need to write it out and sentence for them instead of bullet form. So that didn’t really feel like writing either. It just felt like flushing it out. And then six months later when I read it back to myself, the rest of it didn’t feel like writing, it felt like editing. So what worked for me was that I didn’t stare at a blank screen and say, okay, I’ve got to come up with something brilliant to say today. I saw an idea and went, oh, I need to write that down so I don’t forget it. Then I saw another idea and said, I need to write that down so I don’t forget it. And then I went to all those ideas and started working with the raw material. Uh, and that, that’s a quick kind of overview of my writing process. And it’s worked ever since, since I started writing the grasshopper myth six years ago, whatever the opposite of writer’s block is, I’ve had that I can’t stop writing for the last six years.
Chase Replogle: 28:49 Yeah. This is one of those areas. One of the things I like to explore in the podcast is where there are these overlaps between the vocation of the calling of pastor and writing. And I think it’s helpful for people who listened to the show that aren’t pastors as well. These insights you bring about pastoral vocation. And one of these overlaps I find fascinating is, um, well maybe the way to put it, uh, since joining the podcast, I’ve read a lot more and I’ve read new authors that I wouldn’t have come across without it. In fact, I’ve started having publishers or publicist send me books to review and one of my commitments has been, I’m not going to interview somebody on the podcast that I haven’t actually read. So that’s always a part. So I’ve been doing a lot more reading and one of the things I’ve discovered is, um, the sort of big name pastors or big name authors that have been on my bookshelf in the path past are not all that is being published.
Chase Replogle: 29:34 There are some incredible books and some incredible writers out there who don’t have sort of celebrity status or big name status, but have just been faithfully writing sometimes on blog posts. Sometimes those turn into books, maybe sometimes from small publishers are self published. But, uh, it strikes me as deeply connected to this image you describe as sort of embracing the work in front of you as a small church pastor to be faithful to the calling, to do the work, to not sort of be obsessed with just leveling up and reaching sort of bigger celebrity status. I’m curious, your experience, you’ve mentioned it, you actually mentioned it in a small, a small church essentials as well, that you came into writing and publishing as a small church pastor, which when we think about Christian publishing, we think you grow a mega church and then everybody’s interested in what you have to say and you publish off of this massive platform that you’ve built, but you’re coming at this calling, this desire to write and publish from a small congregation. What was your experience like trying to get into publishing coming from, from that place, that identity?
Karl Vaters: 30:37 Well, I wrote, I wrote the book and I don’t know if it was skepticism or realism either way. I looked at that book and thought I have something here that I really feel like I need to put in other people’s hands and can really benefit them, but there’s not a publisher in the world that’s going to touch this. Uh, I can probably find some small nameplate publisher that is going to have a minor distribution, but actually then called a couple of friends of mine who had published books and I asked them, is there a value to me and going into to try to shop for a publisher or should I just publish it myself? And every one of them said, given that you have no platform and given the, the, the lack of books in that subject matter, you’re right, a publisher that any publisher that’s big enough that could actually help you won’t touch this book right now.
Karl Vaters: 31:29 So go ahead and self publish. So I wrote it up. I called a friend of mine who’s a printer. I asked, you know, what do I need to do to actually put this in a format so that it can be printed. And he sent me to professional layout people. I had a graphic artist who’s a friend of mine and I said, I need a cover that doesn’t look like a self published book, uh, cause you and I have all seen the cover that we go, oh yeah, that one’s self published. Uh, and I was determined to self publish without looking like it was self published. And so I found a good graphic designer and he gave me this really clean, cool, good looking cover. I worked hard to come up with that intriguing title, the Grasshopper Myth. We laid out the interior and I paid money to somebody who actually lays out books for a publisher to lay out my interior with the book for me.
Karl Vaters: 32:18 So you open it up and the margins are correct and everything else. Even if you don’t know the publishing industry, you open up. If you read much, you can open up a book and go, this is self published or it’s not. And almost everybody who picks up my book either either go, Oh, they just assume it’s with a publisher or they scratch their heads and go, I’m not sure. And that’s so I at least got there, but I did the work because I find if I’m going to put the content out there, I want to put it out in a format that will be attractive enough to people that they’ll actually buy it. I want to read it. I don’t want to put out something that isn’t going to be read. So there’s a reason why publishers format they’re book, the way they format it.
Karl Vaters: 32:54 There’s a reason why they work hard on a title. There’s a reason why they make the covers look like they look like it. And the reason is because that’s what sells books. That’s what puts content into people’s hands. And I want to put the content into people’s hands. So my first book, I didn’t even call a publisher, I call the printer, I called the graphic artists, I put the team together and then I have this book in my hand and I have zero platform. I’ve got a personal facebook page and a personal twitter page. And I think I had like 300 people on one and 100 people on the other. And that was it. So then I took copies of the book and I sent them to every single church leader I knew and a whole bunch of that I didn’t know with a cover letter saying, here’s my book, here’s where I’m from, here’s what, here’s what’s going on.
Karl Vaters: 33:37 And a handful of them, mostly the ones that I knew actually took enough time to read it to get back to me and go, Hey, wait a minute, this is actually good and I’d like to order some more because I’m working with small church pastors and some of them could benefit from this. And then I actually read Michael Hyatts book platform, which is the absolute gold standard for how to build your platform and how to, how to move a book along the, in the publishing world. And he, he talks about how to leverage social media and all these other things. And I just followed that like a roadmap and did it piece by piece. So that’s how I got into publishing. I just did it myself because I knew there would be no publisher interested in it. And, uh, the book started moving along because the leaders that I sent it to actually, you know, started buying it, you know, I want to buy 10 for those small church pastors that I oversee, that kind of thing. Uh, and it moved along in that way, but I didn’t, I, I didn’t wait for a publisher, I didn’t shop at to publishers. I just decided, hey, we’ve got this really amazing wild west situation for the Internet right now where anybody can get on and they can do it and I’m going to figure out how to do it in a way that gets noticed.
Chase Replogle: 34:50 Well, these days I know you do quite a bit of writing, so you’re, um, and maybe you could sort of break it down, but the latest book was published by Moody I believe. And then you’re blogging. So multiple times a week I think normally I see two or three posts a week. So those are posted to your side into Christianity today. Um, I’m curious how you continue to pastor as well. How do you balance the sort of expectations, the sort of never ending opportunity of building a platform? And Writing Online, you could do that everyday, all day with the responsibilities you still have at the church. How do you keep those things in a proper balance or check for each other?
Karl Vaters: 35:23 It’s been the biggest challenge of the last five years if I can’t complain about it because it’s all forward motion, but it has been very challenging. Um, what, this could not have happened 10 years ago because a 10 years ago at the 15 year point, uh, I have not, we have not worked. I had not done the hard work to develop the leadership in the church. In fact, one of the reasons that our church fell apart after we went to $400. Remember I told you we hired staffing for $600. And the reason I had to hire staffing for that was because I had not equipped the members to, uh, sustain the growth. We were just entertaining people on Sunday morning. I mean, that’s overstating it. But we hadn’t done that. So part of my process of developing a healthy church was, um, what I call the pastoral prime mandated of Ephesians four, 11 and 12 were pastors along with the other four ministry leadership gifts are called not to do the work of ministry for the church, but to equip God’s people to do the work of ministry.
Karl Vaters: 36:31 So one of the first things that we realized, a healthy church of any size, but especially in a smaller church, we don’t hire pastors in to do the work. The pastors equip the people to do the work of ministry. So we’ve spent the last 10 years developing the people in our church to step up and to do the leadership of the church. So by the time I started writing grasshopper myth, um, my, you know, work hours, there were some weeks where I had a 20 hour work week and it, I, I seldom hit 40 hours now, four years before that. Sixty, 70 hour work weeks were normal, which is normal for most pastors. But I started realizing that’s not sustainable. Uh, and the reason I’m having to work 60, 70 hours a week is because I’m doing all the work for people and the my church grows.
Karl Vaters: 37:21 The more work I’ve got to do as part of the reason it collapsed. It burned me out, but because we’d been discipling the people, they’re taking on the mantle of leadership and now I don’t have to spend hours and hours preparing it and doing it and cleaning it up. I assign a team to prepare it, to do it and to clean it up and I give them guidance along the way because they’ve been equipped to do that job. So I found myself in a position where my actual pastoring, ours were really reduced and allowed me to do more. Well, it’s basically the model from the book of acts where they pick the seven, including Stephen to serve tables so the apostles could spend their time in prayer and ministry of the word. We did that and that allowed me to do the writing. And now in the last six months, it’s gotten to the point where this ministry has grown big enough for me that I’ve actually traded places with my youth pastor. I’ve had the same youth pastor for 25 years, so if you can pull that off, I highly recommend it.
Karl Vaters: 38:20 But he got to the point where he felt he was ready to step up into the lead pastor it. I knew that I could not continue to do it at this pace. So six months ago he became my pastor and I became his teaching pastor. And the reason that could happen was because I have equipped him to do that over the year. So it’s just a further extension of equipping God’s people to do the work of ministry. So that’s how it all came about from me. So right now, two thirds of my time is in the writing and extending of our Ministry of the church to other pastors, other churches. And one third of my time is the actual t being the actual teaching pastor of our congregation.
Chase Replogle: 38:59 Yeah. That’s fascinating testimony to the health of your church because unfortunately we don’t hear stories like that enough. I’m normally the stories are sort of conflict within people trying to sort of move up the ladder and having to move on and these sort of deep relationships within the church that are able to recognize a common goal, common mission, and be able to sort of move and flex in response to that. I think that’s a for many will be a powerful image as you have continued to grow the ministry, reaching out to other small church pastors. I know part of what you handle there can be a challenge as you try to sort of gain audience and as you’re doing more online, you’re building the platform. Um, it always comes with inherent risks, inherent temptations. As more people began to know and read and interact with your ministry. As you think about people who are just getting into that process of building a platform, you haven’t come through it and continue to work in it. What are some of the warnings are some of the, the things you would give to writers to watch out for as they take up that task of building an audience, building a platform,
Karl Vaters: 40:01 one right from your experience in your heart, not from what you think the audience wants to read.
Speaker 4: 40:10 Um,
Karl Vaters: 40:11 now within that, you’re also going to find ways to
Karl Vaters: 40:17 title it or, or, or, or tweak it to make it more readable for an audience. You don’t want it to be just navel gazing, but your original draft. If I’m going to sit down and I’m going to write, I’m not sitting down and looking at, Oh, here’s this trend that people want to hear about. I’m going to write about this trend. And piggyback on that. If I do that, it all starts just collapsing in a heap. But I have a, I have a passion for this. I want other small church pastors not to have to go through all the trauma I went through an eye. I am so passionately driven by that, that, uh, I want to write about it. I want to get it out to as many people as possible, so I come up with an idea, hey, here’s an idea that helped me.
Karl Vaters: 40:58 I’m going to write it so it helps somebody else. And then after I’ve written it, I look at it and go, okay, now, now that I’ve written it, how do I, what do I need to do to edit this or to title it or, or, or to put it out in a format so that it becomes readable. I work on the marketing after it’s written, not before it’s written. And I think too many writers are market marketing driven first rather than being a driven by the content and by their passion. So that’s my first caution. The second one is, um, if the audience doesn’t grow, don’t panic because I have actually discovered it’s the first time in my life where the audience has grown in correspondence to the work that I’ve done it over for 30 years. I pastored a small church and now that I told the story about pastoring a small church, you know, I, I, I, I spoke to my heart for 30 years and nobody cared what I had to say.
Karl Vaters: 42:01 And now that I tell that story, everybody cares what I have to say. It’s just a weird phenomenon. But what I’ve discovered now in this really big growth of this audience outside the church body outside of the immediate and the local church has been a. There was something about the smaller beginning audience when it was just on my website, um, where we had a comment section. And the comments came because there was a small group of people who were really were interested in knowing how to pastor small churches better. And so the comments were, hey, I appreciate that. Can you answer this for me? Or how do I do this? And then somebody else comes in from a small church and goes, Hey, I tried that and it was this and we’re building this community. And everybody was helpful and everybody came along. And then Christianity today called and I’m still grateful for that.
Karl Vaters: 42:49 And I still blog for them, but the moment I moved the blog over to Christianity today, immediately the audience increases tenfold and they’re not reading my stuff because they’re looking for small church stuff. They’re reading my stuff because they’re on the Christianity today website and now the comments change. Now it’s, I can’t believe this. If a church is small, then it must be doing something wrong or or the trolls who just want to call me an idiot to see how I’m going to respond, and it got to the point where Christianity today has turned off all their comments on all their blogs and on all their articles because it was taking multiple people that they had to hire full time just to manage the nastiness in the comments. So what I’ve discovered is there are advantages to having the big audience. You get to reach more people.
Karl Vaters: 43:38 I get to talk to more small church pastors, but it comes with that massive downside. There is a certain charm and almost a longing within me for those original days when I was writing stuff and it was a smaller group, but that group was actually helping each other and making comments that blessed each other and I didn’t have to wade through the junk. So would I go back to that? No, because I believe the Lord brought me here and I think there’s positive things in the in the larger audience, but if you write and your audience remains small but they’re passionate, just like if you pastor a small church and it’s a healthy one, don’t worry about not having the benefits of the big because you also don’t have the headaches of the big. You’re going to have the headaches of the small and they’re, you know, there’s just as many of them, but you also get the blessings of the small and they are not to be taken lightly.
Karl Vaters: 44:35 One of the things that blesses me now is, you know, here I’ve got this large and growing audience outside the church and from the writing and the podcasts and everything else, but I get to come home to this smaller congregation where they know me and love me and they want to hear, hey, how did it go, uh, on, on your trip and we’re praying for you as you go on your next one. And there’s a, there’s a genuine family connection that happens in my home church because I’m not just walking into a church of 2000 people where I might know one percent of the people in the room by name. Um, both have their benefits, but both have their detractions. So appreciate the benefit of the size of audience you have and speak passionately to them.
Chase Replogle: 45:22 One of the things on the podcast I do quite a bit is trying to point out, point out some of these challenges that come along with platform and writing. Because when you go online, so much of it can speed, sort of take this course. And in 30 days you’ll have a bestselling book. And I just don’t think it’s always honest about the struggle that goes into writing, but the flip side of that is I want to be careful that I don’t make it all doom and gloom. Would you encourage pastors who are, who are feeling the urge to write? Maybe there’s something on their heart. They’re beginning to pursue that. What encouragements would you give them? What are the benefits of embracing that calling?
Karl Vaters: 45:56 There is so much. One of the things we discovered when we decided we got to figure out what a healthy church looks like. A healthy small church looks like. We have a really tiny facility. We’re in the middle of very crowded and very expensive Orange County. We have less than an acre of land. There is no way to expand our footprint because every house that butts up next to us cost over $700,000 and we don’t live in a fancy neighborhood. That’s just what stuff costs to live here. And so one of the early things that we decided in order to be a healthy church, we can’t just do ministry in the church. We have to figure out how to do ministry from the church, so what I would encourage a pastors who want to get into, into writing to do is exactly that we’re we have to do ministry from not just in and so if we’re gonna reach out to that audience, you have to look at it and go, who is it that I’m speaking to?
Karl Vaters: 46:53 Where is it that I’m trying to put that out to and have a ministry from not just a ministry in mentality. One of the things that I’m actually works, especially with the Internet, is right your best stuff and give it away. I’m old school writing was don’t ever give your best stuff away for free. New School writing and marketing is give your best stuff away for free. They will actually come back and rebuy it if they like it. It’s a really strange phenomenon, but that’s actually how working, how it works, especially for written material when you put it out there on the web.
Chase Replogle: 47:35 Well, I, uh, I can’t say I’ve, I’ve mentioned it before, but I would just want to reiterate, um, if you’ve not already read small churches, central’s pick it up. Uh, it’s a phenomenal book. Uh, I just appreciate your transparency. You can tell it’s honest. It’s genuine in the writing. It’s just a, it’s one I would highly recommend for anyone and maybe a good way to wrap up is what are ways people can continue to follow and if there’s something that you’re working on next, I’d love to hear. But, uh, you said you were sort of in a season of a, you can’t stop writing, so I’m assuming, I’m assuming there’s more to come, but also how can people follow you? How do they stay in touch with what you’re doing and keep up with your writing?
Karl Vaters: 48:10 Sure. Yeah. And I’m working on a book right now, the working title and it’ll probably be the final title is 100 days to a healthier church and the premise of it is to take what we’ve done in our church five times now in kind of doing a, a good healthy church reboot. Uh, and how, how does that happen? So the idea isn’t massive turnaround. We’re not promising you’re going to go from three to 3003 years. We’re saying if your church is at a negative five and 100 days, you can be at a negative for a, you know, little nudges, which is how we’ve done it in our church, a little nudge by little nudge by little nudge and we’re putting it in a 100 day format so that you can actually see a template that you can follow, that you can work together on with your leadership team.
Karl Vaters: 48:54 How do we assess the challenge, how do we take the most immediate challenge and start to tackle it? And at the end of 100 days, look back and go, we’ve made one step forward progress. Uh, and, and now if we do it again, we can make another step before we progress. So 100 days to a healthier church is what I’m working on right now. It should be, it shouldn’t be up by this time next year, uh, people can get ahold of me, um, through a new small church.com. That’s my website and within about two or three weeks, we’re going to have a whole redesign of it. We’re going to have all kinds of cool new features. The cool new feature that we’re working on now that should be up in about a month or so, we’re actually going to have an interactive map where people can sign up and put their name and their churches information and it’ll actually appear on a map and then you can start looking at the people around at your map and say, hey, there’s four other churches around me that also read the book. Or they’ve read this blog and there are talking the same conversation. Maybe we can get together some time now that we’re on the same page and see what’s going on. You can, you can start seeing the kind of company that you’re in. As we started having these conversations together. So that’s gonna be on the new new design of new small [inaudible] dot com. Or You can follow a new small church on facebook, or you can follow me, Carl vader’s on twitter or instagram.
Chase Replogle: 50:09 Well thanks. It sounds like good stuff to come and maybe if you don’t mind, I might ask if you just close us out in prayer. I don’t do this on every podcast, but everyone smile as I sort of sensed the Lord leading and maybe you could just pray for I know pastors that are listening that are small church pastors that they might find some of that dignity that you and I have talked about and also for who are sensing God, leading them to write so that they could approach that with the same kind of faithfulness and honesty that you’ve described here
Karl Vaters: 50:33 for sure. Absolutely honored to do so. Heavenly father, thank you so much for every faithful, prayerful, wise, hardworking, and perhaps discouraged small church pastor who’s listening right now, or a leader of a small church who doesn’t have a pastor or a member of a small church or somebody was writing about Christian issues and whatever their background might be. I pray, Lord Jesus, that you would encourage them. I pray, Lord, that you would maybe bring other people into their lives who can be an encouragement to them or that they can be an encouragement to. I pray for every church of every size, but particularly the Lord. I pray for a special blessing on the small congregations that may be feeling discouraged and may be wondering what their, what their mission is, what their purpose is, why they even continue to exist. I pray that you would guide them to a clearer understanding through your word and through prayer to understand we have a purpose here. We have a calling. We have a mission and help them to lean into that more strongly in the future than they have in the past. I pray, Lord Jesus, that every church represented by the listeners of my voice right now would have, would understand that their future is greater than their past and that you would help them move into it with great passion and great joy. In your name we pray. Amen.
Chase Replogle: 51:53 Well, Carl, keep up the good work and thanks for joining me today.
Karl Vaters: 51:56 Thanks. Great to be with you.
Chase Replogle: 52:03 As always, you can find show notes for today’s episode as well as links to both Carl’s website and his blog by visiting pastor writer.com/ 33. I also wanted to say thanks to those of you who have left reviews on Itunes, and if you haven’t, it’s one of the best ways I can get feedback on the show and continue to make improvements, so go over to Itunes, click subscribe under pastor, writer, and leave a review. You can do it just by tapping on one of the stars or by typing out one. As always, thanks for listening. Until next time.