The Primitive Podcast: Dusty Thompson

Posted by Kade Wilcox | February 12, 2021

Dusty Thompson

Leadership of any caliber is a high stakes game. 

Being everywhere and taking on the roles of everyone, always means something will inevitably fall through the cracks.

Unless you understand clear direction, and take on the challenge of multiplying your leadership.

Connect with the folks behind the episode: Dusty Thompson and Kade Wilcox

Kade Wilcox: Welcome to The Primitive Podcast. This is Kade Wilcox, your host. In this week's episode, we have my really good friend Dusty Thompson. Dusty's the lead pastor of Redeemer Church here in Lubbock. I had the privilege of working with Dusty for four years; it's a really special treat for me to have him on the podcast. All of us have people in our lives, I hope, that believe in us and invite us to more. Personally, Dusty's like a big brother, and he's always believed in me. He's always challenged me. He's always expected a lot of me. And his belief in me has been a really powerful force in my own life. And so I hope you enjoy this episode and get as much out of it as I did.

Dusty Thompson: My problems as a man, a human being, a very flawed human being are my biggest problems as a leader. Flaws and weaknesses and even sin patterns that I've got tend to play out professionally, just like they do at home, just like they do coaching my kid's baseball team or whatever. So you have to own that and be able to let grace come in and address and encourage us and help us.

Kade Wilcox: Dusty, welcome to The Primitive Podcast. Those listening obviously wouldn't know my almost 11-year history with you. From hiring me and firing me at Redeemer and then hiring me again, it's not an overstatement for me to say that you've had as much impact on my life as anyone else.

Dusty Thompson: That's not true.

Kade Wilcox: And then our family moving to Lubbock and all the things that you've done for me. So it's a really cool thing for me to have you on my podcast, given all the impact you've had on my life. So thanks for joining the podcast.

Dusty Thompson: Thanks man. Glad to do it. It’s one of my favorites anywhere. I'll try to keep it in between the lines and not heckle or anything like that. I'm going to do my best.

Kade Wilcox: There's a handful of us who have some bets on whether we can do that, but we'll see. For those who don't know Dusty Thompson, tell them a little bit about your background and what you do. Just all the good stuff.

Who is Dusty Thompson?

Dusty Thompson: Yeah. I am the founding and lead pastor of Redeemer Church here in Lubbock. I've been doing that for a little over 13 years. Before that, I did college ministry and youth ministry, and before that, I married Amy going on twenty-five plus years. It is incredible that I've been able to have her not can me or anything along the way, but she's pretty awesome. She's the CEO at Covenant Children's hospital, and she's also a physician by training. Our life can be between the organizations we lead and a couple of boys that are busy with things - we're flying around almost all the time. We got two sons, a freshman who just transferred to Midland College where he's playing baseball (He'll have his first official game tomorrow. I'll drive down there for that.), and then I've got another one who is 12. So those dudes are a lot of fun.

Kade Wilcox: That's great. Thanks for sharing that. So I want to talk to you a little bit about leadership. I'm really excited to hear from your perspective, a distinctively Christian perspective, which matters to me a lot. But also, you, throughout the years, have worked with all kinds of leaders - people that you've led and shepherded in the church - plus working with other leaders on your staff, plus the church planting aspect of your job. So I'm excited to hear about your perspective of leadership. When you think of leadership for your role and your responsibility at Redeemer as an organization, how do you see your role as a leader?

Dusty Thompson: Yeah, I think the broad one for any leadership would be, you want to see the flourishing of both the individuals and the organization. I think that's a really good, broad one. If I were going to put some biblical categories, I realize not all the listeners here will share those with me, but those are obviously really important to me. When I look in the Bible for what it means to lead things, even at the very beginning of the Bible, Adam and Eve were supposed to cultivate the land. They needed to make that garden work and make it as fruitful, literally, as they could. And when I see other calls for leadership, both in the home, the church, work, that's what I see in scripture.

And so it seems like that if you can keep your eye on that ball, that it keeps you from doing other dumb things. Either doubling down on an authoritarian type and think that's what leadership is - me getting my way and telling people what to do. It also keeps you from abdication, where you sometimes don't make the hard decisions and don't lead in a direction just because you don't want to hurt someone's feelings or make an unpopular decision. If you keep your eye on that, which is, what's actually best, here, for us together as a church or as an organization, what's actually best for those that work here, then that tends to inform. You're willing to actually lead, but in a way that isn't really about me, but about the bigger goals we have.

Leadership is Multiplication, Not Addition

Kade Wilcox: Yeah. That's really good. What other aspects do you feel directly responsible for regarding leadership? Whether it's the vision, whatever the case may be, what are some other things that you feel a direct responsibility for as a leader of the organization?

Dusty Thompson: I felt like the directional aspects are the things that should be on my mind a lot. Now, full confession, I am chronically bad about getting on the street level and doing, kind of hand to hand combat. I'm not really fighting with people, although sometimes, but more like just in the work of people working through problems and sermons that need to be written and the day-to-day things to do. And sometimes I'm working in the church, but not on it. What should I be doing? I have to remind myself of it regularly and even build time to do it, to work on it. Like, where are we going? And are we moving in that direction or not? Are we aligned?

To me, job #1 is that directional element, especially whenever you've got a church of theoretically, I don't know what we are anymore during this COVID era, but before that, a couple of thousand people. I don't have that kind of relational capacity. I can't personally know everyone in the way that they need to be known. And I can't disciple people in the way they need to be discipled. I can't lead people in the way they need to be led. And so I've got to be multiplying that out, and we've got to have a clear direction. So I think that's probably one of the most critical ones, just setting that tone and almost like the culture setting too. That's something I've been thinking about a lot in recent days and weeks. What kind of staff team and elder team do we need and cultivating that kind of culture, because that's the kind of culture you're likely to replicate in your whole church.

Kade Wilcox: That's really good. I love that phrase that you just said, culture setting. I have learned that the hard way at Primitive of how critical that is. I appreciate you saying that. You mentioned the word multiplication, and as it relates to leaders because the larger an organization gets, and certainly I can resonate with this at a Redeemer level, you just get further and further and further removed just because of sheer size. So in your experience over the 13 years, what has leader multiplication looked like for you? When you think of a leader multiplying his or her impact through the multiplication of other leaders, what does that look like in your mind?

Dusty Thompson: That's a great question. I'll say this first of all as a confession that I haven't always staffed well. How I staffed back when I did college ministry before I started Redeemer is who'd been with me the longest. And I knew there was more work than just one person. And there were specific jobs. You need somebody to do the music, and you needed somebody to oversee the small groups and almost thought about it on a task level. And that's not a wrong way to think about it, but over time you begin to see the limits of that. Really, you want to see people, especially in your senior levels in your organization, that can multiply leaders. And I think that's something that, for those that don't know, Kade was on our staff for... how long?

Kade Wilcox: Four years.

Dusty Thompson: He said a little bit of that in the intro of our time, but I feel like you're a guy that did that. As I look back at Redeemer's period, you came, you really raised the bar for leadership in general, that expectation for the quality of work. Sometimes in church circles, that can be like, Oh, we're all Christians here, and as long as you love Jesus, the quality of your work doesn't really matter. And that's what you want is a multiplication of high work and leaders. And I think that that's more than just addition, but you're able to multiply that. And I would think that would be true in any organization that the health or unhealthy for that matter tends to reproduce itself.

Actually, the case I would make, I think it's a biblical principle, but I think it's a life principle is, we reproduce who we are. And that can be healthy and reactive or not. And like if you're upset at somebody all the time and the last three jobs you've had, you've been unhappy. And you find yourself unhappy again, you're going to tend to have entire departments of unhappy people that work under you. I've seen this at very large organizations and not even necessarily talking about church work. I'm just talking about friends of mine as they lead organizations. And there's a point when you have to look at yourself, and if there's something unhealthy around you that you have to be willing to ask some hard questions about maybe I'm burnout, I'm not in a good frame of mind, I'm in the wrong spot, the wrong organization. Verbalizing things in my soul and emotional life that need to be directed, confronted, and helped things like that.

Kade Wilcox: That's really good. I have so many thoughts related to what you just said about how we reproduce who we are. That's a really powerful statement. And what we try to talk about a lot around here is, first of all, we care about the whole person. So our culture is made up of a bunch of individuals, and the healthier each of those individuals is holistically, not just in work but all areas of life, the better our culture is going to be. The same is true of leadership. If I'm not my healthiest self, how are Jess and Annie and Tim and others going to be healthy? So it's a really powerful statement.

You said something on multiplication that was interesting. I've always thought about leadership multiplication, like reading a John Maxwell book together. Then once a week, you get coffee, and you talk about leadership, and you're trying to get pumped up about leadership, and then you are reproducing leaders. And I'm not necessarily saying that's a bad methodology. Still, something you said about my time at Redeemer, and I would have never thought of it this way, is that leaders can reproduce other leaders by two things, expectation (modeling for people what leadership looks like) and invitation. I don't know that I ever tried at Redeemer to intentionally reproduce leaders, but I love inviting people to think bigger, do bigger, dream bigger, be bigger, be better. And so that idea of invitation is pretty powerful around multiplication.

Learning and Adjusting From Failure

Kade Wilcox: Something I've admired about you since I met you and something I got to watch you model for four years is learning from failure. We could probably fill a whole podcast between the two of us on decisions that didn't pan out. I really admire your willingness to admit that and learn from it and adjust accordingly. So how have you found yourself intentionally learning from failure? How do you treat failure?

Dusty Thompson: It's a great question. And it's just part of the job, part of life, really. Especially if you're attempting some things and trying, even at the organizational level, you're trying some tricks, almost like you're at a skate park, you're going to try to jump up on this rail. We'll see what happens. And some of those times didn't turn out very good. I put failure in two different classes, even though I think there's probably the same starting point for each.

So if it's just, we set a goal, and we tried, and we all put out a lot of effort, and we just didn't get there. I didn't get there. Whatever the case would be, I think you start off acknowledging what happened. We didn't quite get there. But I think there's a certain level of when you set an organizational goal and you went after it. That's where you try to almost be clinical about it. You do a post-mortem, what worked there, what didn't work, why didn't we get there, were we unrealistic, and the goal we set was this more of like an aspirational goal of something we wanted to get to, but it wasn't really realistic. Was it something we should be doing? Did we have a problem in our process? And I think that a leader should always be willing to tackle some of those hard questions. Still, the trick is, you've got to get yourself out of that, other than what you might've contributed to not accomplishing the goal and be willing to lead by example and owning what you can, but not taking that personally.

And I think that's really hard sometimes. Feeling like an organizational failure means that you're a failure as a human being and that you've lost value and that people may not want you around and almost feel a need to cover for yourself. I've seen that I messed that deal up so much over my years where it's so hard to admit. I didn't follow it through as I should have. And maybe we were the problem, and why we didn't reach a goal and being willing to own that and take yourself out of it and be accountable.

Now, the other kind of failure is of a more personal level. A biblical category would be something like a sinful mistake where I've done something actually wrong. Not just that I set a goal, and I didn't get it, even though I tried. That's not sin. But sin is where we did somebody wrong. We weren't straightforward and honest. We said one thing, we did another, whatever the case would be. And that's also going to happen for every human being. It actually has the same first step, which is just to own that and acknowledge it. It has a different second step because it was a moral thing, and it was against others. At that point, you own it, but then even turn from it and receive grace from the Lord on it. I think that's something that's so beautiful about what Jesus came to do through his death and resurrection is he actually came to give grace to people that mess up, be it a leader or not. Since we tend to reproduce who we are, my problems as a man will likely come up here in a minute as we continue this conversation. My problems as a man, just a human being, a very flawed human being are my biggest problems as a leader. Flaws and weaknesses and even sin patterns that I've got tend to play out professionally, just like they do at home. And just like I do coaching my kid's baseball team. So you have to own that and be willing to let grace come in and address and encourage us and help us.

Kade Wilcox: That's really powerful. And I think it is really good. It's a really good explanation or unpacking of why we try so hard at this organization to care about the whole person. Because you just said, your transgressions in your personal life are going to reflect themselves in your leadership. You are one person, and you can't separate the two. And it's really helpful in a way to understand why that's true. I am at home, which I am here, and I am here who I am home because I can't separate those two things.

Dusty Thompson: It's impossible.

Kade Wilcox: And I personally think it's really freeing when, instead of trying to live dual lives, you're just committed to being one healthy person, and it impacts positively every area of your life.

I really appreciate the way you couched that. Thanks for sharing all that. How do you approach your own growth as a leader? When you have a busy family life, your wife has a demanding job, you have a large organization, a large church to oversee, and you've got all kinds of moving parts, what have been your go-to methods in terms of nurturing and caring about your own leadership and your own personal growth?

From Child to Leader

Dusty Thompson: I'll tell you the best thing I've done in a long time is something that I didn't even know I was getting into. About this time last year, I was invited to participate in this thing called the Leaders Collective. It's a deal really designed for pastors that had been pastoring for a bit. In other words, we're not 25. These are dudes that are like me, in their forties or fifties, even probably leading decent-sized churches. And that has been around the block a couple of decades of experience, that kind of thing. And I didn't really know what I was getting into. I thought it'd be some mutual coaching and helping each other through our leadership problems. And there has been that, but here's what it's doing to me. I just didn't know how much I needed it.

And it really maybe pulls this whole conversation together today. And maybe why I'm even framing it the way that I am so far is that the whole idea of it is this guy named Elliot Grudem that leads it. He calls it Adaptive Leadership. The distinction he would make is that adaptive leadership is when there's not a technical, obvious problem to solve. With technical leadership or technical problems, you need to build a website; you need to build a social media following. And there actually is a technical solution that exists. It may include hiring Primitive. It may be hiring someone in-house that can build a website or creating a book or a blog. There's something you could go do. There's a technical solution that exists. There's technical know-how. The problem is in my line of work, and honestly, when I look at Amy, even though we're in very different fields with her leading a hospital and me leading a church, our problems when we come home and debrief our day are almost identical.  Almost all of our problems are adaptive. There's no book to go read to figure out how to solve that particular problem. There's no technical problem with most of the things that she and I are facing. And maybe some of the listeners that are following along right now might identify with that. And so what we've actually spent a ton of time doing is training on emotional intelligence. And sometimes, it almost feels like group counseling.

And there was this really powerful moment, I won't get into the exercise, but he brought this guy in to lead this one session, and we were talking about a problem I've run into at Redeemer. I was debriefing this problem. I finished it with "and that's when I knew I was alone." I had to solve this problem on my own. People weren't working against me, but I wasn't going to have any support. I had to figure it out. And the dude stops, and he says, that sounds a lot like your childhood. And I just sat there. I didn't even know what to say because I realized that that's exactly my default is when things feel painful if there's pressure, if there's a problem that is getting complicated, the thing I know how to do, and I like to be around people. Still, I know how to retreat into my own little world and attack that problem on my own.

And that can include even an abdication of leadership. I'm really comfortable riding off to battle and fighting battles and writing a sermon and sitting down with a couple with a troubled marriage or helping a church get planted. Still, the hard work of leadership sustained presence and coaching and just hard work. You can't do it as an iron-fisted, calling the shots guy. You can't do it well as an abdicator either. And what's weird is I know a lot of pastors that are an iron fist to guys that the last thing somebody needs to say to them is "own their power." But that's exactly what Elliot has been talking to me about is owning my power, and power is given by God. Don't abdicate it, doubt it, over-delegate it.

And I do have good guys and great women leading things. But it doesn't mean that you don't have the hard work of leadership where you're involved and move into my own little escapist mind. And so like those broken parts of me actually play out professionally. I could follow those same old patterns that I've been doing since a little boy, and my organization doesn't flourish. I'm not helping my leaders grow. They need somebody present, a coach, a leader, and it's actually the same thing I need at home. If you take an objective look at it, you'll see that the same problems you have professionally, you almost always have at home. And in fact, at home, it might even be more pronounced. If you tend to be an absentee leader that tends to over-delegate, you may really be an absentee dad or mom. And if you're hard-fisted calling shots, you may bark out orders at home and want to be left alone and go sit in front of the TV.

Kade Wilcox: It's interesting, but that's probably an area that I'm growing in more than anything else. If I want to be the best leader I can, I really need to do the hard work, the soul work, the emotional work on my own health, and the ability to tackle those things because most problems are adaptive, which means I bring myself into them. Coming up with a solution will be me with people working through it when there isn't a real clear path forward and where there's no playbook and being willing to admit failure. It goes back to that. And a better sense of self and grace, I think, is actually really helpful as a leader.

I find it really hard to create space and the things you're talking about in terms of emotional work, soul work, it seems you can't just do that in five minutes or sitting at a red light, or maybe you can. So how have you practically tried to create space or make it a part of your routine or your work to do that really important work on you that allows you then to serve others? What does that practically look like for you?

Dusty Thompson: Practically what that looks like is I go four times a year. So it's a serious commitment. Redeemer ponies up a decent amount of cash to make this happen. So the church is prioritizing my health and growth as a leader. And so that'd be one thing I would say is the organization that you belong to or lead, I don't think it's inappropriate for an executive leader of any kind to say, I need to grow. I found this one program, and this one's for me. I don't know what that might be for you, but I've seen things like this. That dude on the exercise I told you about actually mostly works in the business world, and most of what he does is with Christian guys who are business owners and leaders, and it's the same issue.

The organizations are different. And so I don't know what that thing would be for you, but I would first make a case of prioritizing funding for whether it's going away and maybe you don't need the same thing. Maybe you do need technical training. Maybe you need an MBA. I don't know, but I think that it may include systemized, carved out prioritization.

Last week I ended up speaking at a retreat. It was in Colorado, and they were skiing, but occasionally a chance to, I've heard it described as balcony work, where I'm just off the street level doing the hand to hand combat of leadership. Just briefly, I don't need all the time for it to be skiing, but maybe every month or two, just take a step back and just get a bigger perspective on where we are.

It's almost like the day after I get out, I think if I could carve out even 24 hours once a month, just get out of my headspace a little bit of my day-to-day stuff and reflect on where we are, evaluate, even we're I'm at as a man. Because what ends up happening, you get burned out, you get reactive instead of trying to solve a problem, and you can lop somebody's head off and not even know you've done it. Runaway from a problem that really needs to be addressed, and you might not even know you've done it, right? So being refreshed, but also having perspective. And that may not always be realistic, but it may be your Saturdays. Those off days need to be really good. It may not be a workday that you can take but find out what works for you.

Kade Wilcox: Thanks for all that insight. It's really good. And I love how relevant it is. You keep saying this, but it really is true. The types of organizations are different, but the humanity of our leadership is not different. The impossibility of separating who you really are from your leadership and your organization is really powerful stuff. Thanks for sharing that.

My last question for you is if you could speak to your younger self, go back 15 or 20 years ago, what advice would you give Dusty Thompson knowing what you know now?

Talking to Dusty’s Younger Self

Dusty Thompson:  I love this question. Jason Davala, our old coworker, was reading a book one time by a college basketball coach, and it was a book on leadership. And so I read it real quick, and there's one phrase in that book that I've thought about forever, about young men and women that are at entry levels or early on points in their professional life. Basically, what he said was to look at the University of Kentucky. You have these young guys that come in, and they're all thinking NBA. That's the kind of kids they recruit. I guess our Red Raiders are finally getting around on that same level too, which is fun.

But you have these kids come in, and they're freshmen, and maybe they're not getting the minutes or the shots they want, and they'll come up in a panic to the coach and be wondering if I'm not getting more shots and more looks, I'm not going to get the points. I'm not going to get drafted high if I don't get more minutes. And what they tell them is you helping this team win is how you're going to get noticed in the NBA. And there's nothing you can do that helps us lose that will help you get to the NBA. It just so happens that you helping the team that you're on right now in this minute win is exactly how you get ready for the NBA.

And I think that's the thing, especially as I have a ton of young staffers, probably two-thirds of our staff, it's their first or second job they've had. And they're just immature. And a lot of them are really ambitious, which is cool. I love that drive, but they're wondering why they're not running the church at 26. Or they're getting restless, I need to go plant a church, or I need to, whatever it is. And I've used that line a lot of, that's great, let's talk about those aspirations. But helping Redeemer right now is the best thing you can do to be a lead pastor someday or being a church planter. And I think that works everywhere. My wife runs into that all the time with young aspiring leaders. They're thinking like two or three steps ahead. But just do a really good job right now with what's in front of you. And what you'll find is all those future opportunities really work themselves out. They really do.

I don't know about you, but when I find a young leader, they don't have to be young, but maybe a new employee that's got some grind. That's something that I immediately saw about you is you had that gas pedal. I love finding people that I have to install a brake pedal. I don't know how to install a gas pedal. I just haven't been able to do that with people, but somebody that's got a lot of drive and they're really succeeding, I usually try to find a way to create room for them at Redeemer, you know? And I'll bet you do too. When you see that employee, it doesn't take long.

And if it's not there, you'll have one of your clients, like I could sure use her to come run this whole thing. I'm sure you've lost some great employees to clients.

Kade Wilcox: Yeah. We have.

Dusty Thompson: And that's great and what a win for them, but they've done such a good job for you and for that client that somebody wanted them to come work permanently with them. And so be really good at the thing right in front of you. And one of the saddest things I've observed is when someone is asking for more and more responsibility, and they don't even know that areas are going bad, which ends up being a bad look later when you come in. I just found this out while you're asking for more responsibility. So take care of your own house. Start with that thing, and I promise you, opportunities will come your way.

Kade Wilcox: That's good. Thanks for joining the podcast. It's a really powerful thing when someone believes in you and when they acknowledge things, and they invite you to be great. And then they believe that you're capable of that. And from the moment I called you out of nowhere because I wanted to plant a church in Flagstaff, you've invited me into greatness. And I just can't tell you how grateful I am and how much of an impact it's made on my life. So thanks for joining the podcast, and more than that, thanks for being a good friend.

Dusty Thompson: Thanks, dude. Well, it's been fun to watch you just bloom with this whole business like a flower. I'm really proud of you and going from those days of small school basketball stardom all the way here. I had to work it in a little bit. If you didn't know this, Kade was basically Jimmy Chitwood from Hoosiers, if you've seen the movie, and he isn't shy about letting you know. Love you, man.

Kade Wilcox: You talk about that way more than I do. Thanks man.

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