Interview: Mark Conner


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John Finkelde: It’s great to have Mark Conner here in the Member’s Hub. Mark, 5 years of volunteering in his church but that was a few decades ago. He’s been on staff at City Life Church for the last 32 years, 22 years of those as the Senior Pastor and he’s just stepped down from that role to step into a new phase of ministry and life. He’s also an author, been a blogger for many years and is beginning to write some poetry. Mark, welcome.

Mark Conner: Thank you very much John it’s great to join you today.

John Finkelde: What’s life like now on the Sunshine Coast after Melbourne?

Mark Conner: Well, it lives up to its name. There’s 300 + days of sunshine here a year so it is a beautiful part of Australia, just north of Brisbane. So it’s all good, sunny, quiet a little bit of a slower pace. We bought a house just up in the hinterlands with a cool breeze so we’re loving it here.

John Finkelde: You’ve just done a huge transition – stepping aside out of leading one of Australia’s largest churches and a significant church with its impact both nationally and internationally. What is your process you use in making significant leadership decisions, like the one you’ve just made in the last year or two?

Mark Conner: I think there’s always a combination of things. I always like to look at God’s guidance system as having a number of lights. There’s the wisdom light, looking at pros and cons of a decision, there’s the faith aspect of risk and adventure, there’s the counsel of Nicole and I talking it through, friends, mentors, an inner peace of sensing what’s right. So obviously the bigger the decision, the more lights you want lining up and the more time you give to it.

So for us, I had been discussing and praying how long I’d keep in my role for a couple of years and eventually came to a point about 18 months ago, when we started talking about leadership succession with the elders. It was definitely an interactive process with both my family and also the elders, looking at a number of options and then landing with a decision to go with the timing that we did.

John Finkelde: It sounds like a fairly methodical, slow process.

Mark Conner: Yeah, I guess as you look back you can see signs of it and we looked at it, I’m 55 now – do I want to go another 5 years, another 10 years or do something a little bit sooner. So we definitely swayed back and forth between those. It definitely wasn’t a rushed decision. It was something that we gave a lot of time and prayer and thought to.

John Finkelde: You’re in your mid 50’s, you’re young enough to have another whole phase of ministry life. What would be a couple of main reasons that you stepped aside from leading one of Australia’s significant churches? Some probably would have said “Mark, you’ve got a lot of years left in you”. What would be some reasons you decided to step aside?

Mark Conner: I think first of all, probably just feeling a bit tired, a little mild burnout and I think one of the things I came to realise is that calling, which is the foundation of what we do, is vital but you don’t want a calling to become a sense of duty or obligation.

I think I just started to come to the point where I just didn’t have the same interest in leading and managing such a large organisation – 11 services, 4 locations, big Christian school with 1800 students, big community centre, big missions program – it’s just a large organisation and although you’re the leader, I was spending two thirds of my time in meetings. As I looked at it I thought, do I want to hit 60 and wish I had finished earlier.

I had some prayer time and I remember asking God would you be ok if I finished up this role and I felt a smile in that your calling is not limited to a specific role and then Nicole one day asked me, if you didn’t have your job today, would you apply for it and that was a really good question.

And as I answered it I thought there’s a lot of what I do that I enjoy but I think it had been a good innings, 22 years. So that would be the first reason, I feel like I had been in battle for a long time and I didn’t want to fade.

The second reason is I think change is good. 22 years is a long time and we really felt the church could benefit from some fresh energy and vision and I think all of that being said, I didn’t start this church, it was already 28 years old when I become the Senior Minister. I’m the third Senior Minister.

I think if you’re a founder, it’s a little bit different. I think a lot of the larger churches in the world today are still first generation and I think when you found a church or business you probably feel a little bit more of an obligation to keep it going, whereas for me I kind of came to the point where I felt this is not my church.

I’ve stewarded it, I’ve brought it a long way and my time is up and there would be a benefit for me and the church for a change.

John Finkelde: Also, you’ve done a fantastic job, I’ve got to say in the last 22 years, of leading the church also as a team pastor before that but you’ve done a brilliant job in leading the church. It’s a fabulous church and has been over its history. You’ve built on previous generations and now handed it off to the next generation to build it further. Congratulations on what you’ve done over the last 22 years.

Mark Conner: Thanks John, I really appreciate that.

John Finkelde: Looking back on the transition you’ve just done, would you do anything different in the transition / succession process of the last couple of years?

Mark Conner: As I said, we did look at a number of options – another one year, another five years, ten years. I think if I went another five years I could have raised an internal successor. There was no one immediately ready to step up. We’ve got a lot of great leaders, both on staff and in the volunteer area, but all of them had some gaps.

If I would have gone longer, I probably could have raised someone up internally. Our governance has the board of elders making the choice of the next Senior Minister. I am one of the elders so I participated in that but it’s not me deciding on my successor.

I was a part of the process and in the end there were a number of internal people who applied that I think could have done the job and it ended up being an external person and that can work well to if you get a good cultural fit. Sometimes someone outside comes with fresh eyes, they’ve got no baggage, in the end the elders felt the applicants that were looked at, the external person, who was Andrew Hill, seemed to be the best cultural fit for the next season.

Being that it was a pretty short lead time, 12 – 18 months, I think it went about as good as it could. I think even Andrew said to me, because he’s stepping up into a Senior Minister’s role for the first time and as we’d been doing our transition time and spending a lot of hours together, he said I would have loved to have worked with you for a year, which probably would have been good but I think in the end I was wanting to do something a bit sooner so it ended up being a reasonably quick transition, although the church had known for a year.

Giving a year’s notice is a long time to keep motivated.

John Finkelde: I remember when we did our transition journey, that last year once it became public, sometimes during the year I said to Jason, my successor, “I think I’ll just go and leave you with it. I think I’m ready to go now, I’m out the door!” But I didn’t do it!

Mark Conner: I have a friend, that you would know, who had a 3 year transition and he was already an experienced pastor and it just felt like “give me the baton!”

John Finkelde: Your lap is done, please let me take it!

Mark Conner:  Change is difficult. There’s grief, there’s loss and sometimes it’s a bit like a band aid. There’s going to be adjustment and I think you don’t want to rush it, but once the person is selected, sometimes quicker goes a little bit better.

John Finkelde: You’ve been an incoming pastor and an outgoing pastor and two succession journeys. 20 + years ago you were the incoming pastor, succeeding your father, Kevin Conner – a wonderful legendary leader in our nation and oversees as well, and now you’ve been an outgoing pastor. What’s one tip you’d give to incoming pastors in a succession and one tip for outgoing pastors.

Mark Conner: I think for the incoming pastor really honouring the past, without worshipping it. Honouring the past and the leader. I use this this analogy – if you honour the previous leader they tend to let go a bit more emotionally and as they let go you honour them and it’s a bit of an upward spiral but if you don’t honour the past they tend to either hang on or maybe seek to influence and then it’s a bit of downward spiral. In my case, my dad stayed in the church.

If you’re an outsider, getting the culture first is really important.

I remember someone telling me it takes 7 years for a church that you didn’t plant to become yours and I kind of laughed but it does take a while. The day you take over 100% of the people were there before you and the younger ones will tend to gravitate to you immediately, whereas the older ones will be very much wait and see.

But as the years go on, the percentage of people that have come in under your leadership grows, so it does take time until the church actually feels yours. You’ve just got to be patient with the process.

John Finkelde: That’s great. I think there’s real wisdom in that whole process there. A tip you’d give to outgoing pastors?

Mark Conner: I think letting go. Your identity really has to be in who you are. I love the John the Baptist quote when Jesus arrived, He must increase and I must decrease.

I had to just choose to stop influencing things and so there’s a conference coming up or an event and it’s like that will happen after I’m done so that’s not my decision, so just letting go, being secure in who you are, stop influencing things.

Actually Phillip Mutzelburg, he had someone say to him when he finished up “when you finish up, don’t just look at what you’ve done, look at what you’ve set in motion”.

I thought that was a really good insight because we’re on the tail end of a large building program, it’s not quite finished yet but the church is debt free, I’ve raised $6 million already towards the $11 million.

I won’t actually see that completed so there’s a lot of things where you go, that didn’t get done but look what I was able to set in motion.

We’ve just had our 50th anniversary at City Life and I was talking to the daughter of the founding Pastor Richard Holland saying look at City Life today – your dad set all this in motion. Just that multi-generational view, I think is really important.

John Finkelde: That’s gold. That’s real wisdom there Mark. That’s awesome. I’ve really enjoyed your blog over many years actually but the last few posts you’ve done through the transition have been exceptional and really helpful and you are one of the longest Australian pastor’s blogging – you and I, I think would be some of the longest time in blogging in Australia for Australian pastors but I’ve got a quote from one of your blogs recently “I’m at a stage in life where I’d like a smaller world, not a bigger one. A slower pace, not a faster one. A simpler life, not a more complex one”. As you look at the next 12 months what does that smaller world, slower pace, and simpler life look like for you and Nicole?

Mark Conner: I think it’s more time with family and more time with a few friends. You would know John, when the church gets larger you feel sometimes like you’re touching base with a lot of people at a fairly shallow level.

In fact Nicole and I often said some of our most enjoyable days were when the church was a big smaller where you have all the staff back after church.

Now a days, I mean we’ve been doing Saturday night church for 18 years, we’ve been doing double Saturday services for 9 years so the weekend is just, and I probably underestimated the impact of two services. I would preach two Saturday and three Sunday and then jump on a plane on Monday.

You do that for a decade or so and then you take one day off in the week and then you realise I’m probably working six days and weekends are just dead to family.

So for me, it’s more time with family, more time with a few friends and increase in the inflow. I think as leaders, if our inflow doesn’t exceed our outflow it leads to our downfall so for me it’s not just holiday but it’s reading, it’s reflecting, it’s playing, recreating and just some quieter weekends and probably a time at 55 where you’re just asking some questions about the meaning of life for the next season and what really matters, what really has value.

You definitely don’t just want to be busy for the sake of it so I think it will be a bit of refreshing, re fuelling and probably some re calibrating over this year.

John Finkelde: And also look, you’re also still very young. I mean I’m in my 60’s now so 55 sounds really young! Which means you’ve got another good couple of decade’s left of strength and energy. You can do whatever you like and then maybe even more.

Mark Conner: And that was part of the decision making and I think – Warren Bird from the Leadership Network, he has a great book called “Next”, which I think is probably the best leadership transition book and his opening paragraph is “Every pastor is an interim pastor. One day someone will be doing what you’re doing. The best time to prepare is now”.

It’s very sobering but I think that we will start to see a trend from pastors – my dad was 67 when he handed it to me and I think we’ll see a bit of trend away from that. I was talking to Paul Scanlon, he handed over his church in his early 50’s and now doing a lot of mentoring and training.

You’re a great example of that to – I mean you didn’t finish because your time was up. I think we’re probably going to see more of that and I think its good thing.

John Finkelde: Yeah I was 58 and similar to you, one of the reasons for finishing before 65 or 70 was I wanted another stage, I wanted another season of ministry life that was different so I was able to do that. 

Mark, City Life has grown from being a large church to one of the few mega churches in Australia. How have you handled the “success”? And I put “success” in inverted commas there because success obviously in Christian life is far more than a numeric basis. We generally don’t measure success just by numbers but from the outside it looks like, man this church has had massive success. How have you handled that internally in yourself, emotionally, in your own heart?

Mark Conner: I think it’s a real choice to keep humble and just to have a realistic view. I do like the more organic or agricultural metaphor for church.

The church isn’t a machine that you can just – if you do A, B and C then D will happen. Paul says “one sows, one waters another reaps but its God that causes things to grow”. So I don’t think there’s any one key – if you do this, this and this you’ll have 1000 people.

I think if the seed is a rose bush then success for that seed is being a beautiful rose bush. If another seed is an oak tree then success is being an oak tree and I think and the dangers in comparison is not every seed, not every church, is going to be an oak tree.

And also big is not necessarily better. If your neighbour has 10 kids and you have 3 kids it doesn’t mean they have a better family, they’ve just got more kids! The truth is there’s a lot of great people out there pastoring small churches that are more spiritual than I am, better preachers than I am. Just because you’ve got a big church, it doesn’t make you better than someone else.

So I think don’t compare, build your identity in what you do. There’s no magic number – 500, 1000, 2000, 3000 where you hit and go I’ve now arrived. You want to see people come to faith but keeping the quality focus.

Paul never wrote a letter saying “I hear you’ve broken the 200 barrier”. He says “I hear the love you have for each other is really growing”, so I think all those things, for me also touching the ones.

I mean Jesus did the crowds of thousands, he did the leadership group of the 12 but he regularly touched the one’s and I think as you get bigger the challenge is to keep being smaller and not just spend time with the crowd’s and your leadership team but actually connecting with real people and not forgetting where you’ve come from.

John Finkelde: I’m hearing there a philosophical framework of what churches are about and what church growth and church health is and I think pastors positioning themselves in a healthy place mentally and emotionally, thinking about what size means and what does it mean when someone’s a different size to them I think is vital for pastors lasting the journey.

One thing I have enjoyed about your blogging is the emphasis on heart and very little emphasis on numbers, or pretty well no emphasis on your numbers in your church, it’s been more leadership health through your writing as well so I think you are a humble man Mark. The way you’ve carried yourself through your growth has been exemplary for the Australian church.

Let’s talk a few things about leadership. What’s a regular habit you’ve done to improve your leadership over the years?

Mark Conner: That’s a great question. I think the idea of having a retreat day once a month. I’ve been doing that for a few decades now.

It’s interesting you’ve got the Sabbath which was one day in seven God rests on the Sabbath, but it’s interesting it is also the new moon or the first day of the new month was an additional Sabbath.

I’ve tried to have a habit of grabbing a day mid-week and just getting out of the office, getting away from the email and just having some time aside. I once heard Steven Covey in his 7 habits book, he talked about the difference between leadership and management and he used this analogy of cutting through a jungle – the managers are down there, they’ve got the machetes being sharpened, they’ve got refreshments and first aid and they’re moving through the jungle, the managers are very happy.

The leader is the person who climbs the tree, looks around goes “whoops, wrong jungle!” But the managers go “we’re making such progress” and I love that metaphor so for me ministry can be a jungle. I mean you just get caught up – it’s another meeting, another counselling appointment, another sermon.

You just get caught up in the day to day and for me the monthly retreat day is kind of like a climb a tree day where I can get above the noise and just go “am I heading in the right direction”?

I think Jesus did this.

We think sometimes Jesus is this 24/7 ministry machine but the times in the gospels where he says “Jesus slipped away into the wilderness by himself” and I think it’s in those moments that he not only connected with the Father more deeply but he gained perspective.

He would come back and go “hey, time to move onto the next town”, so I’ve been doing that for a lot of years and I would say it’s a life saver for me and I journal on those days and I’ll often look back a month later and go “oh, yeah I heard that but I haven’t really done that”. That really kept my head above water.

In the last five years I’ve been doing two week long retreats a year where I’ll just book myself into a retreat centre and I’ll walk and journal and pray. I would say that habit for me has been a life saver.

John Finkelde: I love that, a “climb the tree” day!

Mark, I’m going to take you out for dinner, we’re going to go to your favourite restaurant in Melbourne, which of course is the foodie capital of Australia. You pick the restaurant and you can bring in four leaders from any era, living and dead. We’ll raise some from the dead if you need to! We’ll fly them in from around the world if they’re alive. Which 4 leaders would you choose and why would you chose them.

Mark Conner: Yeah that’s a tough one to limit it to four isn’t it? I think biblically you’d have to pick Jesus, Paul and David or something like that.

In terms of leaders, I’d probably go Dr Martin Luther King. I think what an amazing man.

Mother Teresa I’d throw in the mix.

Maybe an Abraham Lincoln and you could throw Hitler in there.

I mean if you’re talking about leadership, obviously a person who caused phenomenal damage but as far as influence, capturing the hearts and minds of people, that would be a very interesting group to sit down with.

If you’re just talking about leadership and forming a vision and getting people passionate about it – that would make for an interesting dinner!

John Finkelde: I’d love to be at that table! Would you put Hitler next to Martin?

Mark Conner: Yeah maybe Mother Teresa between them!

John Finkelde: Sitting opposite sides of the table looking at each other. That would be fascinating. Adolph Hitler – you’re right in terms of leadership, I mean one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century, in a terrible way, but still. Well I’d love to sit in the corner at that dinner party. That would be fun!

I know you’re a big reader – the best book you’ve read lately.

Mark Conner: For the last couple of years I’ve been reading through a book called “Playing Life’s Second Half”. It’s by David J Powell.

Obviously there’s the Bob Boucher “Half Time” which is again a great book from a business person’s perspective.

This goes really deep into the heart of a man.

David J Powell is a PHD psychologist but it really digs deep into how two halves of life – success and significance. But particularly for men, it looks at the male journey mid-life and beyond, what really is success, your relationships, fathering, the whole identity of work, retirement, facing your own mortality, your spiritual life, becoming a wise man.

Look it’s just one of those books that you read and you re read and at the end of every chapter he’s got these exercises and questions so I’ve been deep reading it for a couple of years now and I’ve found it very profound, it’s definitely a heart book more than a head book but it messes with your head to because it really just looks at the fact that life is short and what really has meaning and what are you really living day to day for.

So that’s been an outstanding book for me and for any male leader that wants to dig a little deeper rather than just keep on the wheel and spinning and all of that – it’s a great book.

John Finkelde: Yeah look I’m getting that book. That sounds brilliant. I’ve noticed hitting my 60’s that I definitely think about my mortality more in the last few years than I did in the first 60 years and that sense of our life is just a mist, it’s a flower that’s here today and gone, you get a greater feel of that, that you never get when you’re young because you think that life is going to be forever but it sounds like an outstanding book Mark, I’ll definitely be buying that and having a good read.

Mark Conner: Yeah, it’s very very good.

John Finkelde: Thanks so much for joining us in the Member’s Hub. It’s been fabulous. Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

Mark Conner: My pleasure and all the best to those that are listening, in their personal life and their leadership. Thanks John, it’s been a great joy to have a chat today.


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