This article is from the September/October 2023 issue of Outreach magazine. Subscribe today!
When he was working at Intel Corporation, Ashley Wooldridge didn’t know he would one day become the senior pastor of one of the largest churches in America—Christ’s Church of the Valley (No. 4) in the Phoenix metropolitan area. After all, he had a job he loved and was fast-tracked up the leadership ladder. But then he received a call from God to take the skills he had learned in the corporate world and help the local church.
After much soul-searching, Wooldridge joined Christ’s Church of the Valley (CCV), which had started in the living room of Don Wilson, the founding senior pastor.
“The story of CCV is one of faithfulness and humility by those original leaders to see a church reach a city for Jesus,” Wooldridge says.
As he followed in their footsteps, Wooldridge came to understand the importance of staying on mission; being openhanded with time, money and resources; and seeing himself as a steward of the church that God had entrusted to him.
CHRIST’S CHURCH OF THE VALLEY
What’s your personal story of ministry?
My grandfather was a pastor in Oklahoma, but no one else in the family had followed him into the ministry. I went to Bible college in Southern California kind of on a whim. I didn’t know a soul, but I felt called there.
When I graduated, I didn’t feel a calling to go into full-time ministry, and I ended up going into the business world for about 10 years at the Intel Corporation, which used to be the largest manufacturer of semiconductors in the world. Now you do not graduate from Bible college and get hired at Intel. They only hire from top-tier business schools. So how I was hired was kind of a fluke. I had a couple of good internships on my resume, and it got floated up the hiring chain. I think the way the HR manager put it was, “I have never heard of this guy’s school, but he has a couple of good internships. Let’s take a flier on him.”
I had a great career at Intel. I shot up the org chart pretty fast to become a senior manager of finance. Later I learned it was because I embraced this leadership idea of emotional intelligence: EQ over IQ, or emotional intelligence over cognitive intelligence. Someone had taught me that early on at Intel because I felt so insecure with all these brilliant people around me. I realized that the smartest guy isn’t always the most successful, but relational intelligence matters more than you can ever imagine.
I had a great leadership journey. I was in a decision support organization where I was helping different business units in the company learn how to make wise decisions. They put me on a leadership-development track and sent me back to school to get my MBA. I ended up loving what I was doing so much.
There came a day, though, as I was continuing to stay involved in my local church, when I received one of those clear callings from God for full-time ministry. I didn’t know what that meant. I had no idea what he wanted me to do. All I knew was I was supposed to spend the rest of my life serving the local church.
I was so afraid to tell my wife. She was working at Intel at this point, too. We were making good money. Life was good. I didn’t dislike my job; I loved it. But the moment I knew the calling was clear was when my wife and I were on our way home from a small group we were in, and I said, “Hey, I have to tell you something. I feel like God’s told me to leave Intel and go spend the rest of my life serving the local church.” And she said, “That’s funny, because God told me the same thing.”
I asked God, What do you want me to do? I never got an answer, but I got a vision. God impressed upon me that the local church should be the most well-led organization in the world. What I was experiencing at Intel was amazing leadership. When I looked into the local church, I didn’t see the same level of leadership. I felt like God was saying, I’m going to take everything I taught you here, and I want you to go serve a local church and help it be well-led.
What happened after you felt that calling?
I was ready to jump right at that very moment. But in God’s timing, I waited three and a half years to leave Intel. During that time, I was so frustrated. I thought maybe I was missing something. Maybe I didn’t hear from him. But a waiting season is never a wasted season. I learned more about leadership, and I grew more as a follower of Jesus. God began to strip some things out of my heart that weren’t healthy.
I decided to come on staff at CCV in 2007. The church was running about 10,000 people. After about six months, I realized I would bottleneck the church if I stayed as the only executive pastor, so we brought on a second. I began to spend almost all my time on the ministry side of things.
When our senior pastor was nearing retirement, he approached me about becoming the next senior pastor. That was a massive shock for me. I did not have that on my radar at all. I said, “Man, I’d have to pray about that.”
I spent about a week praying and asking God to give me clarity. My question wasn’t Do you want me to be the senior pastor at CCV? My question was Do you want me to be a senior pastor at all? I felt like I needed to answer that question first. I finished a week of intense prayer, fasting and journaling, and I felt like the answer I got from God was You could be.
It wasn’t You should be or You have to. Part of what God had begun to put inside me was this deep understanding of stewardship, that nothing we have is ours. It all belongs to God. And so he’s like, Yeah, I think I’ve gifted you enough that you could be a senior pastor, but if I ever call you to do something else, I want you to be just as open to doing that. And I was.
We spent a long time working through the succession process, almost to a point where it looked like maybe it wasn’t going to happen, and I was OK with that. But it did end up working out. So, in 2017, I stepped into that senior pastor role.
Let’s talk about the challenges of church growth. What is one you’ve had to face, and how are you dealing with it?
One of the biggest challenges facing large churches is staying focused. You get larger, you have more resources, you have more staff, you have more voices, you have to potentially take the church in 50 different directions versus one unified direction. And I think the pandemic magnified that problem.
During the pandemic, everyone was trying to figure out what to do. We started taking on all these new things. But if you take on something new, you’re potentially losing a laser focus that could help you go further faster.
How do you keep that focus intact when you reach the size that CCV has?
It’s about keeping the vision of why you exist front and center. Last year, we hired between 80 and 90 new staff members. How many of those staffers have truly heard our vision and mission as a church? It starts with keeping the vision and mission hot. Then it moves to the culture you want to create inside your organization. That has to stay crystal clear as well.
To what do you attribute the present growth you’re experiencing?
That’s such a hard question to answer. The obvious answer that I don’t want to gloss past is that God has his hand on this church. We want to make sure he gets all the credit. When I try to answer a question like that, I want to come with a ton of humility, knowing that we might have some ideas, but at the end of the day, I do feel like God’s hand is on our church.
As we talk about maybe why we’ve seen some of our growth, I do think that part of it is staying focused. We’ve probably spent more time and energy on keeping our focus than I could ever articulate. As well, we’ve seen the impact of radical generosity. Something we’ve discussed as a staff is how the world became pretty closefisted during the pandemic. Everyone was just trying to sustain and survive. During that time, we felt a calling to be openhanded and get radically generous.
Right before the pandemic hit, we had just taken up a massive offering called our More Than Us campaign. We had said, “If we’re going to reach our city for Jesus, it requires every church to succeed, not just CCV.” So, we identified about 25 churches around all of our campuses in the city that we felt had big growth potential but could use an infusion of capital to help them grow. We cast this vision to our church, explaining that we wanted to pick up an offering and that 100% of it would be given away to other churches to help them grow.
We had vetted these churches; we felt like they were going to do good with the money. We had them sign some things to make sure that it wasn’t going to go to waste. But I was blown away that our church took up about $7 million, which was given away to other churches. It not only helped those other churches grow, but it also did something inspirational in our church where they caught our vision for something bigger than ourselves, maybe more than ever, as we got openhanded with other churches.
During the pandemic, we also did something called Press On to address the country’s mental health crisis. Looking at the word “depression,” if you take out the D, E and I, it spells “press on.” We cast this big vision for our church: “Hey, there’s a mental health crisis going on. If you’re not struggling, someone around you is. Anyone in the Phoenix Valley who says, ‘I need help,’ we’re going to pay for their first 10 counseling appointments to a vetted counselor we’ve partnered with.”
We offered that to our entire city. Anyone could do it. We ended up paying $2.3 million for professional counseling for people.
Coming out of the pandemic, we felt the demographic affected the most was our students. We are big on summer camps. We send thousands of students to summer camp. But it’s normally between $400 and $500 a person after we subsidize part of the cost. We were also coming up on our 40th anniversary as a church. I found a bulletin that was 40 years old and featured the very first camp we ever sent students to. The cost back then had been $50 to go to camp. And so, we decided that year that we would only charge students $50 to go to camp. We asked our church to raise money to fill the gap, which was a cost of $3.2 million. And our church did.
If we look back and ask why we are seeing some of this growth, we believe part of it has been due to our commitment to being radically generous during a time when people were naturally getting a little bit closefisted. We often forget how vital stewardship and generosity are in our leadership and ministry.
Speaking personally, I feel that it’s God’s greatest work in my life. Radical generosity is what he began to teach me at Intel, and that has shaped my leadership. I want to view myself as a steward. I don’t like saying “my” church or “my” staff. This isn’t mine—I don’t own anything. This is God’s church, and I am going to steward it for a while.
What did that radical generosity do?
It caused unchurched people in our city to perk up. During the Press On campaign, we had people who had never entered a church building take us up on paying for free counseling appointments. We saw people come to Christ because of that.
Second, I think it simply inspired our church. It gave people something to talk about with those who needed hope. And third and most importantly, it invited the further blessing of God. When you get radically generous, it invites the blessing of God in a supernatural way. That generosity has helped in a way that we haven’t been quite able to explain. But we do think there’s something there.
The idea that everyone can participate and contribute seems to be important in the culture of CCV and in what you are doing.
It is. Regarding your question about growth, I would say that one big thing is we risked big to plan during the pandemic for growth after the pandemic.
Three weeks into the pandemic, I was on a Zoom call with a bunch of pastors, one of whom said, “Our church will never be as large, and people will never come back to the point that they did before the pandemic.”
I know he said it out of a place of feeling defeated. It was a dark time. But I spoke up and said, “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I see the exact opposite. I think this is going to springboard our church to places we have never seen before, and we are going to grow out of this.”
Part of that I learned at Intel. Right after I joined Intel, the dot-com bubble burst. Tech companies were laying off people like crazy. Companies were shutting down. Everyone in the tech industry was freaking out. But I’ll never forget our CEO standing up in front of the whole company, almost 80,000 employees, and saying, “Any company that leads well through a downturn will always come out stronger on the other side.”
I was taken aback. I was just a young 20-something kid. It didn’t make sense to me. But then I watched it happen. It taught me that when a crisis comes, you can come out stronger than when you entered it.
I probably said to our staff 50 times throughout the pandemic, “We will come out of this stronger.” We planned for it. We secured five new locations during the pandemic. We did it out of faith.
Now, on the other side of the pandemic, I have never seen people more open to the gospel in my lifetime. Part of what we planned for is now helping us reach more people than we would have if we had played scared and not had faith during the pandemic.
How are you approaching staff health and discipleship as the church grows?
Staff health during the pandemic and during our growth has been a challenge for every senior pastor that I have talked to. We have had to pour more energy and resources into our staff’s health than at any other time, I think, in our church’s history. We have had to offer more counseling and resources to our staff.
This included investing time and energy into helping staff marriages. At one point during the pandemic, every single month we were paying for any of our married staff to go on a date. Just have a date night. We paid for that out of our pockets, because we knew we had to pour more into our staff’s health.
Then there is discipleship in the congregation. When you disconnect people from the physical gathering of the church, and you have people joining online (which we do not think is best), you have some work to do discipleship-wise on the other end. So many people stopped serving, stopped getting into the community, stopped their habits of getting into God’s Word and praying. All the things we want from them in a discipleship-type environment took a hit. So now we have to come back. The theme here is that it is taking more energy. But the energy is worth it because the fields are ripe.
What role does community play in sharing the gospel?
It’s vital. There are two critical things we are seeing. First, as a church, we are hyper-focused on creating community spaces during our weekend experience. At each campus, people don’t just come to service and then go home. We have created spaces where we want people to experience community. We have tables and grassy areas. There are coffee shops and food services on all of our campuses because we truly want people to go to a service, then stay and create community together. We want them to go to a small group and have community throughout the week for sure, but we also want them to experience community on the weekends.
That has become a critical part of our ministry. Coming out of the pandemic, that’s what people craved: community. When we created and doubled down on those spaces, it helped get people back to in-person gatherings, which we think are much more important than an online gathering.
We won’t build a campus unless we have room to be able to build those community spaces. We are in Phoenix, so we have a lot of outdoor space, and not every church can do that as easily as we can. But there are other people creating spaces indoors or getting creative. I think that’s so important, and it is very evangelistic. Because if you invite a friend to church, instead of walking out of church and parting ways, here we want you to stay on campus around other people so you can potentially talk about the service and what you just heard. You can have a spiritual conversation, which happens best around tables.
We leverage online worship for everything it is, but online is not a destination. It’s a doorway for us to hopefully get you to an in-person gathering. That clarity came early on in the pandemic. I felt like I owed our staff that because there are so many conversations in certain circles about what the future of the church is going to look like. At one point, people began to think that we were all going online forever.
It’s a theological conviction for me. If there comes a day when I can disciple someone online as effectively as I can in person, I’m going to be all ears. But I know I can’t do that. So, I am not going to prioritize something that I know doesn’t give me a discipleship mechanism that works as well as I know I can do in person.
That clarity has helped our staff and our teams stay focused. And it’s even helped our online teams stay focused on what their mission is, which is to be an on-ramp and a front door to get people to a physical campus. And for those who watch services online, we try to plug them into a local church in their area.
What advice do you have for other church leaders?
We need to remember that we got into ministry so that people who do not know Jesus could experience the life-changing message of the gospel. We want to help people who have never had the hope of Jesus to find hope in a Savior through the simple gospel message.
Where we have to find our encouragement is that people are more open to that gospel message today than at any time in recent history. If that can’t encourage us, I don’t know what’s going to. Maybe the reason we are not encouraged is that we have lost our focus on sharing the gospel with people who are open to it.
One of the things that I think Satan did during the pandemic was get us so off focus from that simple gospel message. If we could come back to that, I think we could see more revival than we are already seeing.
But if it is any encouragement—and I say this with a lot of humility—last year at CCV we saw more people give their lives to Jesus and get baptized than in any of the 40 years of our church history: 4,431 people. This year, we’ve seen 31% more people get baptized than last year.
I only give those numbers to show that people are open right now. We just have to create that focus on the gospel and on sharing Jesus. I believe that God is stirring revival. The only question is, will the church step up and embrace the openness people have so we can see this revival spread?
Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large of Outreach and author of several books. He lives in Oregon.