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EP 250 – Leading From the Middle with Josh Ellis

Replant Bootcamp
Replant Bootcamp
EP 250 - Leading From the Middle with Josh Ellis

This week we welcome Dr. Josh Ellis to the bootcamp. Josh is the Executive Director at the Union Baptist Association in Houston, TX.

Josh talks to us about the three main groups that you will be shepherding in most churches and the six leadership ingredients needed for leadership with each group.

Josh introduced us to the concept of “Leading from the Middle,” an idea that he’s pieced together from various leadership theories. Rooted in Everett Rogers’ “Diffusion of Innovations,” this strategy identifies three groups within any organization: the front, the middle, and the back. Here’s how Josh envisions these groups:

  • Front Group (Scouts): Early adopters who are enthusiastic and ready to forge ahead. These are your go-getters. They don’t need convincing but require clear direction and resources to forge ahead. Provide vision, encouragement, and the necessary resources to keep them motivated and aligned.
  • Middle Group: Majority of members who adopt change at a steady pace. This is where most of our congregation will be. It’s crucial to invest in this group by using all six essential leadership ingredients: build trust, cast vision, equip, resource, encourage, and serve.
  • Back Group: Those who are more resistant or slower to embrace change, often due to healing, learning, or adapting. This group often comprises individuals who are healing, resistant, or taking their time to adapt. Build trust, offer encouragement, and serve them to gently guide them forward at their own pace.

Josh highlighted six essential ingredients for effective leadership. Let’s go through these briefly:

  • Build Trust: It is essential for the back group to feel secure and included.
  • Cast Vision: It is crucial for all groups especially the front group, to maintain clear objectives and direction.
  • Equip: Most critical in the middle group to prepare them for future leadership roles.
  • Resource: Providing the necessary tools, especially important for the front group.
  • Encouragement: Necessary for all groups, particularly the back group and the front group dealing with initial pushback.
  • Serve: Show genuine care and support, which makes the back group feel valued.

One key takeaway from Josh’s strategy is resisting the urge to treat leadership as a linear continuum. Not everyone should or will move from the back to the front. Each person’s journey is unique, and our leadership approach should respect that individuality.

00:00 Introduction and Guest Introduction
01:02 Exploring Leadership in General
01:29 Understanding ‘Leading from the Middle’
05:35 Application of Leading from the Middle in Replanting
10:40 Leadership Activities and Strategies
25:55 Final Thoughts and Prayer

[00:00:00] JimBo Stewart: Here we are back at it again, back at the boot camp. Hope you’re ready for the next episode. Excited to have with me this week, good friend Josh Ellis, Dr. Josh Ellis, at one time the youngest AMS in all of history of AMSs. but, that’s been beaten now. You’re no longer, one, you’ve aged, and then to some young studs have come out underneath you.

Uh, I think Caleb Duncan holds that record now, in the panhandle of Florida as the youngest AMS. I just remember that was the first time I was ever introduced to you, was at a, at a replant event, and you were just being, you were almost, you weren’t even fully yet the AMS, but they introduced you as the youngest AMS.

[00:00:44] Josh Ellis: I’ve worked in association life for 20 years, so I joined association staff when I was 29. So if that counts for anything, I don’t know that it does, but

[00:00:54] JimBo Stewart: Well, there we go. We, and so you’re in Houston, Union Baptist Association, and excited to have you here. Good friend. today, what we want to talk about is some things that you and I have chatted some about this idea of one, just leadership in general. We both love talking leadership strategy. you are.

Highly educated in that field of strategic leadership. And so, I know you love to nerd out talking about leadership theory, as well as I do, but one of the leadership theories in particular that I know you care a lot about and you think is applicable. and I want to learn more about it, is leading from the middle.

so talk to us, just explain what is the origin of this idea, and how do we understand what does that mean to lead from the middle?

[00:01:41] Josh Ellis: Yeah. So leading from the middle is this idea that. I have cobbled together from various leadership theories, and it’s really born from, so Everett Rogers wrote a book in the sixties called Diffusion of Innovations, and that’s where we get this, idea that there are innovators and adopters, and then right in the middle is the early majority, late majority, and then at the end that there are laggards.

And he was writing about. The idea that people adopt technology and change at different rates. And you know, he created this bell curve that everybody knows about now, and it’s become famous and there are many additions of his book. So I looked at that and said, you know, it’s not just technology that people adopt in this way.

People really approach change in that way. And so I, I looked at that and said, leadership. Is really a process of people solving problems, working together, collaborating together. In fact, my, my favorite leadership definition is, by a guy named Gary Yukle, who wrote, leadership in organizations and several other books.

And he says the process of influencing others. To understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it. And the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives. So he basically says, leadership is a process of understanding what needs to be done and then getting it done.

That’s, that’s really what he says. And leadership has to be done as a group has to be done with shared objectives between the leaders and the followers. And. And then marshaling people and marshaling their efforts to get it done. So how do you do that when people are in different stages of that bell curve?

And so I looked at that and, and especially in a church setting or an association setting and said, to make it simple, Because that’s what I need to do. I’m, I’m not that smart. I need things in an easy to digest, situation. I liken it to three groups, okay? It’s, there’s a front, a middle, and a back.

So, if you’ve ever been hiking, I’m from Colorado. We went on a lot of hikes. Whenever, People pile out of the car and they’re in the parking lot. Inevitably three groups emerge. You know, my oldest son takes off down the trail. He wants to run and find whatever’s at the end of the trail first. He’s in that front group.

I didn’t have to sell him on the idea of going to the front. He just naturally wants to be in the front. There are people in the back who they don’t care about getting there first. They don’t care about. You know, anything at the front, they just kind of wanna meander along. some people are in the back ’cause they’re slow, some people are in the back because, they just want to tell the most stories and see the most scenery and all that kind of thing.

There’s just a back group. And so in the absence of being in the front or in the back, there’s a huge group in the middle. And so we’re all kind of. You know, going on this trail toward some goal in the future. And I thought as a leader, where do you strategically position yourself? To relate to all the people that are on that journey.

a lot of leaders naturally want to be in that front group because they’re like, that’s where the other leaders are and I must lead the leaders. But as a pastor in particular, you have to. be responsible for all the people in all those groups. And so that means relating to the people in the back group.

It means relating to the people in the middle group and also giving enough vision and direction to the people in the front group that they don’t feel like they’re detached from both the leader and the rest of, the whole group. So I started playing with this idea of. Of leading from the middle and leading by position.

And so, so that’s where the idea comes from and looking at it in a church setting and, and that kind of thing. So anyway, that’s, that’s what it is.

[00:05:35] JimBo Stewart: Yeah, so it sounds like, you know, the common struggle or tension that replanters in particular or revitalizers even sometimes seem to find themselves in, that this sounds like this is it is that idea of like, there are the people in a replant. that are new to the replant. They’ve bought into the vision of a new day for the replant, and they are ready to run fast.

And then there are the legacy members of the church who have agreed to the change, at least in the first few conversations. but as the change starts to happen, it’s happening faster than they thought it was going to happen, and they really kind of want things to slow down. And so I often joke, with, replanters when they ask me, how do I know if I’m leading at the right pace?

I always say, if no one thinks you’re leading at the right pace, then you’re probably leading at the right pace. if the, if the, if this one group really feels like, the front group really feels like, man, you’re going way too slow. You got to pick up the pace, man. But then the back group is feeling like, hey, slow down, slow down.

That’s probably, you know, what’s going on. Kind of right where you need to be is somewhere in that middle area. Is that, does that relate directly to this leadership theory of leading from the middle?

[00:06:46] Josh Ellis: Yeah. So I liken that to, people are naturally going to find a pace that works for them. And the temptation for us as leaders is to get everybody to move fast. Or to get everybody to embrace the vision at the same time. and what I’m saying is resist that, utilize everybody’s strengths for what they are, or, admit that people are going to move at their own pace and that the leadership demands are different based on people’s context.

So leadership for me, is a set of activities. And a context in which those activities is done. So for instance, if you have people who want to move fast, they’re in your front group, those would be your scouts on, you know, on a hike, you have to lead them differently. then you would lead people in the back.

The scouts want an objective. You don’t have to sell them on the vision. They have the vision. They want to get stuff done. So they want to run ahead, accomplish the vision, accomplish the task, come back to you and say, great. We did that. Checked it off. Now what? You have to be ready as a leader to say, okay, now here’s the next thing.

you also have to be willing to say to them, don’t get two mountains ahead or you’ll leave the rest of us behind. You only have to get one mountain ahead. You have to be able to blaze the trail for the rest of us. That’s the work you are doing. The object for you is not to get five mountains ahead for your own personal glory.

you’re still part of us. And so leading leaders or leading scouts is different than leading the people in the back who may be in the back for any number of different reasons. They may be back there because they’re healing from a past trauma. They may be back there because they’re resistant to the vision in the first place.

They may be back there because you just haven’t earned their trust yet. They’re not Resistant to you. They don’t dislike you. they’re not healing from anything. You just haven’t earned it yet. And so you, you lead them in a fundamentally different way than you would lead the people in the front. You’ve, you’ve got them.

and then there’s this glut of people in the middle that also require different leadership than the front or the back. And so, if you look at this in a team setting, like if you were to apply this to, to a football or baseball or whatever, there are players who are playing on the field. There are players who are preparing to play, but that’s your middle group.

And then there are players who are healing. They’re in the locker room. They’re on injured reserve, whatever, but they could be playing in a future set. So you have to think of them differently. This isn’t, a way to typecast people. This isn’t a way to segment people. You go, Oh, well, you’re always a back person.

That’s not the case because they may move into a different group. And if an element of the vision were to change one of your front people go, Oh, that’s not me. I don’t do that. I’m going to, I’m going to step back and now I’m a middle person. Somebody else is going to be a front person for that. And so this is just a way to say, okay, I understand.

The lay of my team is to be front, middle, back or playing, preparing and healing. Whatever you want to do. I, I was even playing around with a shopping metaphor. These people are sold on the vision. These people are shopping the vision and these people are browsing the vision, you know, whatever it is, segment those into three groups and just three.

Um, now there may be a fourth group, that I write about. And the fourth group is that you’re never going to have them. You know, there’s, there’s that element. And especially in a replant scenario, there’s a segment of people. It’s a small segment. You’re never going to get them, you know, you’re, they’re going to hate everything you say.

They’re going to hate every idea that you have almost on principle. Like they get up in the morning, they come and they’re like, how can I shoot him down this morning? That’s fine. But, but I wouldn’t waste any leadership energy on them. And there’s a big difference between that fourth group and a back group.

So I’m, I’m almost dismissing them. And, I, you know, I don’t mean that in a harsh pastoral way. I just mean like, as far as leadership energies, and then when it comes to the six kind of leadership activities, think of these as six ingredients to leadership. you can make a lot of things if you have.

Six ingredients. If you have sugar and salt and eggs and you know, whatever, you’re the, you’re the cook. If you have chocolate, you know, that’s four. If you just have those four things, you add butter, you add one more thing. You can make cookies, cakes, croissants. You can make all kinds of things with just those ingredients.

So for leadership, if you just have build trust, Cast vision, encourage, serve, equip, and resource. And you meet those out in different quantities to the different groups. You’re going to, I think at least. Lead effectively. So for that front group, you don’t need to build the trust. You, you have that. So if you spend time building trust with the front group, you’re going to waste their time and yours.

You have that. They wouldn’t be willing to run if they didn’t already have the trust. You do need to cast vision for them because they want to know what to do. you need to encourage them because they’re going to spend a lot of time out on their own, doing the, doing the things that you ask them to do.

you don’t need to serve them a lot. You don’t need to equip them a lot because they have the training that they need, but you do need to resource them a lot. You need to put the systems in place that allow them to do what they need to do. That back group, almost, almost the opposite. You need to spend a lot of time as a leader, building trust with them. you don’t need to spend time casting vision for them because they’re not interested in your vision. they’re interested in you as a leader. You need to spend a lot of time encouraging them a lot of time serving them. you don’t need to spend a lot of time equipping them. because they’re, again, that comes with trust, that comes with vision.

the equipping can come later. you don’t need to spend hardly any time resourcing them. Because again, you’re not trying to develop them as a group. You’re trying to, you know, To love on them. You’re trying to encourage them. You’re trying to serve them in any way you can to build up that trust because with trust comes the permission to lead them.

And then once you have that permission, then they will move into that middle group. And for me, which is why it’s called leading from the middle. This is where the real work of leadership begins. is done. This is where all the ingredients come together. This is where you have to build the trust, cast the vision, encourage, serve, equip, and, and a little bit of resourcing.

Well, more resourcing. but this is where, you know, you as a leader have to spend the most time. you know, you have to spend time with your front group for sure. You have to spend time with your back group for sure. But if you spend all of your time in one of those two categories, you’re going to miss the greatest group of people.

And that goes all the way back to diffusion of innovation and Rogers group. You know, you have 68 percent of your group. And his bell model in your early majority of late majority. So when people adopt change, most of them are not adopters, early adopters, they’re not innovators. And most of people are not laggards.

They’re right there in the middle. So if you lead from the middle, you’ll have the most access to the people that you’re leading.

[00:13:48] JimBo Stewart: Alright, so, just to summarize, the six ingredients were build trust, cast vision, equip, resource, encourage, and serve. Is that


Alright, and so, what you’re saying is, as a pastor, you find yourself in a replant, and there is the group, the scouts that want to run hard. And so for those guys, we’re going to pour in casting vision.

What was the, our, our main focuses for the front group are

[00:14:16] Josh Ellis: hmm. Cast vision, encourage and resource.

[00:14:18] JimBo Stewart: okay. Cast vision and courage and resource. That’s what we need to give to them. And I think about, something I was reading recently where it talks about, you know, people who want to run hard. they want the freedom, but they need clarity of direction and expectation.

but then give them the freedom with that. Just freedom. Actually leads nowhere, but freedom with some direction. And so it is, hey, run, but here’s kind of what that looks like. But also be mindful of the fact that you’re the scouts, and we got the middle and the back group, and you can’t forget them.

They’re part of this body, and they’re part of this family, too.

[00:14:50] Josh Ellis: and the encouragement is tied to that vision because scouts want to know that what they’re doing is tied to the greater group, or they need to know that. And so, and they need to know that because scouts is a lonely job, you know, and some of these guys are going to run, they’re going to do things.

it’s not, they’re not going to see a lot of fruit. and they may see things that the rest of the group isn’t going to see. they may see some early, pushback, you know, as they’re doing some things, you’re like, well, I, you know, I’m, I’m acting on this. The back group. What, what is, what are they doing out there?

Why are, why are they acting like this? Well, because I’m, I’m following through on the vision. What’s the problem with you? So, I mean, they’re gonna see some early pushback. They need that encouragement ’cause they’re gonna be the tip of the, of the spear. and they need to know how their efforts are gonna go into that group so that the vision casting is not enough.

it may be enough to get the task done. It will not be enough to pastor them well or to lead them well.

[00:15:46] JimBo Stewart: That’s good. Yeah, to make it sustainable. So, all right. So we cast vision, encourage, and resource with the front group. Then you go all the way back. We’ll come to the middle in a second. All the way to the back in our emphasis there is building trust.

[00:15:59] Josh Ellis: Mm-Hmm.

encouraging. And serving.

[00:16:01] JimBo Stewart: encouraging and serving, building trust, encouraging and serving in the back.

And that’s how we’re, we’re bringing them in and shepherding them. And then the bulk of your congregation is going to be somewhere in the middle. and this is where you’re saying the largest amount of leadership energy needs to be directed with really almost all six ingredients, to some degree, to this middle group.

[00:16:26] Josh Ellis: Yeah. Because, and you’re going to have people, you know, lean toward the front, right. From the middle, you’re going to have people that lean toward the back from the middle. You’re going to, they’re, you know, they’re real permeable boundaries between these. And so, so most of your leadership energy has to be here in the middle.

You as a leader need that vantage point to understand where people are, are moving to and from. You’re going to need this, also to build up leaders who will relate to, I mean, if you’re going to duplicate yourself as a leader, right, this is basic discipleship. If you’re going to duplicate yourself as a leader, you need to have leaders in the front group, leaders in the back group, because you can’t be there.

and so this is where you have to encourage, serve, and equip. in that middle group, you have to duplicate yourself. You have to cast a vision for understanding that the front group is different than the back group. But that we’re still on the same journey. I, I like team metaphors. I played a lot of team sports growing up.

And so in the middle is where you really help people to understand we’re all doing this together. in a football metaphor, this is the huddle, right? And this is where we all understand, yes, you may be playing a position that’s really far away from. where the football is, but this is still important. in, you know, in a football analogy, you may be a special teams player and you may be on the field a third as much as all the other players, but this is still crucial.

so that’s where that encouragement comes from. That’s where the serving comes from. And this is really where a lot of the equipping comes from. Because if you’ll notice, equipping is not Really emphasized in the front or in the back in the back, they’re going to be resistant to that equipping and in the front, they’ve got all the equipping that they need.

So equipping plays a primary role here in the middle, to either help them duplicate their leadership resources or some of these people are going the front for different tasks. Some of these people are going to be leaders on their own right and go off to start things and you’re going to send them out.

Well, so a lot of equipping happens here in the middle.

[00:18:28] JimBo Stewart: Are we trying to get people in the middle to the front or is that not necessarily the desired goal?

[00:18:35] Josh Ellis: I think that happens sometimes, but I really push against trying to move people like it’s continuum. I don’t have any problem with people staying in the back as long as they’re staying there for healthy reasons, like a chaplain would necessarily stay in the back, you know, he’s going to work with people who are going to fall into the back group because they’re healing from something.

as you’re, as you’re taking on new people who are learning the vision. they’re probably going to start in the back or near the back of the middle group. And so you want healthy leaders who can afford to be back there. and not, not lose a sense of group identity, not lose a sense of the vision, not suffer them their own health.

because people in the back group, they may not see as much of, What the scouts are seeing. And so you, you want healthy people in the back group. So I really resist the temptation to say, well, we need to clear out the back group, move them all to the middle, move all the people to the middle, to the scouts, because very few people are scouts.

Very few people, want to run ahead of the group, want to be out on their own. Some people will, and you’re going to, you’re going to disciple them and help them to do that. I am not a, not a natural entrepreneur. And so if, if people came to me and said, well, the only mark of being a fully developed disciple of Christ is if you’re going to go plant a church, then I wouldn’t be a fully developed disciple of Christ.

So. So I think the middle there, you’re going to help people flesh out their calling. And some people may serve in the middle of their entire ministry and they may be very faithful at it. so there isn’t a built in continuum here for me, at least

[00:20:11] JimBo Stewart: no that’s a good clarification and another clarification is this is not exactly like this is not a personality profile. There’s not like a middle personality and a back personality and a front personality per se.

[00:20:24] Josh Ellis: sure. Yeah, no, people are going to come in and out. if someone is in the back group because they’re healing and they just need a time, once they’re healed, I don’t imagine that they’re going to stay in that back group. I imagine that they’re going to move into the middle group. If someone comes in new and they’re like, I just need to get a feel for this.

for this church, for this vision. And they adopt that vision. I imagine they’re going to naturally move into the middle group. I’ll give you an example of that. I had taught Sunday school at a church that I previously pastored for 10 years. and I, you know, we just felt the Lord released us from that ministry assignment.

Didn’t really know what was next. my role at the association had changed. And so we went to another church that was meeting on a and I said to the pastor, I said, I know how this sounds. I know it sounds like I’m trying to hide. I really am kind of burnt out. And after teaching for 10 years straight, I need a place where I can lay low and not have any responsibilities.

And the pastor, graciously heard that and said, I got you. And he didn’t ask me to preach. He didn’t ask me to do anything. Um, he didn’t ask me to be in a position of responsibility. I really just laid low. I joined a small group. My wife and I joined a small group. and now after a year, he came to me and said, remember how I was so good about that?

Yeah, that’s gonna stop now. So, but, but for a year, That was exactly what I need. And, and he was right. I mean, after a year I was good and I could take on some other things, but, but that was my one year of being in the back group. And then I moved into the middle group.

[00:21:53] JimBo Stewart: So the key then is. if I’m hearing this correctly, the, the back group, maybe the primary reason for that is a reason of healing or leading those that are healing or learning, healing or learning and, and getting adjusted. So is there some sort of continuum if somebody’s in the back group, we want to get them to a place of healing and greater service into at least the back end of the middle I mean, is, am I accurate in that?

[00:22:17] Josh Ellis: I think, yeah, I think for some they will be there for different reasons. I, I mean, I think there will be some who just need a timeout or some that are new or some that are healing. I also think there will be some, especially in a replant that they’ll go with you, but they’re going. With a high degree of resistance so They’re like, okay pastor.

I this is my church. I’ve been here for 30 40 years I love this church. I want to see people reach for christ. I don’t know about the new name I don’t know about the new worship style. I don’t know but i’m but i’m not leaving either I’m going to be buried in this church. And so you know, I’m thinking of 10 churches simultaneously where I can see the people who

[00:22:59] JimBo Stewart: Yeah. Yeah.

[00:23:01] Josh Ellis: They’re not going to ever be in the middle group. You know, they might be at the front of the back group, right. But they’re always going to need, that trust. They’re always going to need the encouragement. They’re always going to need the service. Any equipping that I’m able to do with them is going to be very minimal.

Any, any casting a vision is really just going to be to get their permission to lead the rest of the church. Where we’re going and Get them to not be antagonistic. so there may be people and I mean, they may just forward their mail to the back group. They’re not leaving it, you know? So that’s okay too.

As long as I, as a leader understand the context in which I’m trying to lead and I don’t hold that against them, you know, understand the sheep are going to be spread out. Right. And so. These are the sheep over here. I’m going to lead and love them in a particular way because that’s what they need.

And these sheep over here, I’m going to lead and love them in a particular way because that’s what they need. And that’s okay.

[00:23:58] JimBo Stewart: I think that’s the key. I love this, what you’re saying, because, one of the things that when I left New Orleans to come to Jacksonville, I was asking my pastor for advice, and the thing he repeated more than anything else was, pastor the people that God has given you, not the congregation that you wish you had.

[00:24:14] Josh Ellis: Yeah.

[00:24:15] JimBo Stewart: And, that really resonated in my head so often because there would be people that I would, I would, I would want, I wanted, I’m a naturally front of the pack kind of guy, I’m a scout guy, and I wanted everybody to be with me. I wanted like, alright, everybody come on up to the front, everybody let’s run.

and my pastor’s words just kept echoing in my head of like, that’s not who they are. That’s not who God gave me. And I think that’s a big part of what a lot of guys have got to see is, You’ve been called to shepherd every single sheep in that flock. And, what you’re offering is some wisdom on how to group those where they’re at and what type of shepherding leadership energies need to be given to different groups and that you can’t lead everybody exactly the

[00:25:01] Josh Ellis: Yeah. I also think it avoids the danger of assuming that, somebody in the front group is always going to be in the front group as the leadership tasks change. And that’s not true. So an early adopter for some technology, Is not going to be an early adopter necessarily for the next kind of technology or for the next kind of change.

And if you, as a leader say, I’m always going to lead the front 2%, you’re making a dangerous assumption that the front 2 percent is going to stay the same. But if you only take say half of the front 2 percent into your next change, then you are all of a sudden not leading the same size group. You’re leading half of that group and say the next change it halves again.

Well, Eventually, you’re going to be leading a very small group of people. And that’s probably not good stewardship of your leadership.

[00:25:53] JimBo Stewart: Yeah, I think these are all wise things to consider. man, as we come to an end, one, Josh, how can we be praying for you and your ministry? and then after you share that, would you pray for God to give everybody listening wisdom on how to know, how to lead every single sheep in their flock?

[00:26:09] Josh Ellis: Yeah, just keep praying for me as I try and lead the association. And associations are awesome places to serve. So, it’s also, weird, like all leadership contexts are. So, you know, just pray for associational leaders all over the country. That would that would do my heart well.

So we all need it. Yeah.

Yeah. Let’s pray. Yeah. Lord. Thank you for this time to talk about how we as leaders can best serve The people that you have put in our charge you have put us in a time in a place and so lord let us not just lead well, but lord let us Point to you in everything that we do give you the glory because you are the one who is worth it Father, let us lift up your name.

Let us put a smile on your face. We love you. In Jesus name. Amen.

[00:26:54] JimBo Stewart: Amen.

houston, Josh Ellis, leadership, leading from the middle, tactical patience, union baptist association

Jimbo Stewart

Replant Bootcamp Co-Host

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