CourageToLead Coach Ken Hester on Courage in the Face of Adversity & Strategic Vulnerability as a Leader


He's a new father, campus pastor at one of the fastest growing churches in the country, Elevation Church, led by Steven Furtick, and he is also one of CourageToLead’s newest coaches.

CourageToLead is excited to introduce you to Ken Hester, who joined our team of coaches in October. Ken is the pastor of the Gaston campus at Elevation Church in Gastonia, NC, which just celebrated it’s fifth year as a campus this past September. Elevation Church was ranked as one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2017 by Outreach Magazine. Ken is exceptionally gifted at leadership development and committed to raising up the next generation of leaders. Under his leadership, he has had eight staff members go on to launch other campuses. “We raise people up so that we can raise more people up”, he says.

If you follow Ken on Instagram, you have probably noticed his adorable son, Isaac, who is now 6 months old. He says in one particularly touching post that Isaac is “a promise fulfilled”. He and his wife, Ashley, walked through seven years of infertility before Isaac’s birth this spring.

In our interview, Ken shares his and his wife’s experience of choosing courage in the face of personal adversity, he talks about strategic vulnerability as a pastor, and he offers a word of encouragement to any pastors who could use a good pep talk. 


CTL: Did you always know that you wanted to do ministry?

KH: I honestly had no idea. I thought that I would be a coach. My goal was to be on the sidelines of a Division 1 school. I went to UNC Chapel Hill. My ultimate goal was to be on Roy Williams’ sideline. Was coaching middle school. And then worked my way up to varsity. I thought I was going to coach my whole life. I was good at it. I was up for an athletic director position at the school I was coaching at. They ended up giving it to the girls' coach. He and I were the same age. I was asking God to open up a door to show me what he wanted me to do. That same week, my senior pastor at the church I grew up in my whole life said to me, "The elder board met last night, and we want you to be the college pastor of the church." This was three days after I heard that I would not be the athletic director. I had been reading in Nehemiah that whole month and a half. I felt like God was telling me, "You have been a cupbearer for so long, and I have a different plan for you. As a coach, you did this well, and you did exactly what I called you to do in that season, but in this next season, I am calling you to build my church." So, I dropped my whistle, and I haven’t looked back since. That was 12 years ago.

CTL: I hear that you're very gifted at leadership development. Shawn Lovejoy (CourageToLead's founder and CEO ) told me that “Ken has clarified the win. It’s about developing people." Having a mindset of being okay to release people is something that requires courage and security. Can you speak to that?

KH: I think the greatest downside of leadership is not releasing people. That’s because it is hard to develop people. It’s hard to raise them up. It’s hard to spend so much time in nurturing them and caring for them and developing them and pulling potential out of them. You do all that and then you kind of want to exhale. You want to say, okay good -- now I can focus on other things, and they can do what I have raised them up to do. But again, over and over in scripture, not just with Jesus, but with Elisha, with Moses, with so many men and women in the Bible, we raise people up so that we can raise more people up.

"I believe that as a global church, we’ve got to think of things as not how I’m going to look good, but how is God is going to look good? And that is sending people out and allowing them to fully embrace their calling. That’s through development."

I’ve had, probably now, eight staff members come through Gaston and all gone on to another location, launched another location -- gone into another role. A lot of people ask me if I feel like I'm always starting over? I don’t feel like I’m starting over. I feel like I’m raising up the next generation. Through Gaston now, we’ve had now three brand new locations launch just this year because of that leadership. Now if you add those up, we would not have 2000 people, 500 salvations, and 180 baptisms that wouldn’t have happened if I kept all those people to me. 

"It’s not what you do with what you don’t have, but it’s what you do with what God has given you that makes a difference."

It’s not what you don’t have. It’s how you budget your money, how you budget your time or how you budget people. It’s this is what God has given me and I’m going to multiply that.

CTL: What does courage look like to you as a leader?

KH: Courage is being willing to fail because we learn through our failures. I’m only successful because of the amount of times that I have failed.

"Too many times as leaders, we think that we are not supposed to fail. If I don’t have the courage to fail, the courage to try something new, or the courage to empower someone with an ability or a task or a ministry that ultimately leads to their leadership, then I’m actually not doing what God has called me to do."

That’s not leading boldly. That’s leading from a timid space instead of a bold space. That’s what courage is. It is being bold in what God has given you and what God has gifted you with. And that means to trust people around you. But often times, that trust means that someone is going to fail. But you learn about their leadership, and you learn about yours -- through failure.

CTL: Can you share a time, in your experience as pastor, where you were going through a tough time, and you had to choose courage?

KH: This is more on a personal level for my wife and I. We went through 7 years of infertility. Two miscarriages. Three failed IUI’s, and a failed IVF. To walk through that every step, it has taken courage. It has taken, I believe, more than faith. You have got to have faith that God has given you a promise, and that he is going to deliver on that promise, but it takes courage to get up and get out of bed in the morning.

"You have got to say no matter what I’m facing, I still have the ability to choose. I think that’s where courage comes in. It’s a choice[...] For us, we continued to choose -- no matter what -- even if God doesn’t bless us with a child, we’re still going to move forward in him."

We’re still going to move forward in our faith, and we’re going to move the kingdom forward, because why should the enemy win? And so now, we have the blessing of our baby boy, who is five months old and growing. It’s hard to see that 5 years ago, 7 years ago, two years ago. But you’ve got to have the courage just to continue on. Courage is a choice.

CTL: How did you overcome personal adversity while ministering to the masses?

KH: It’s strategic vulnerability is probably the best way to put it. We shared parts of our story along the way, but only after we had gotten a little past a certain time.

"I think sometimes, we are told, be vulnerable as a leader. Let your people in. But if you’re too vulnerable, they’re scared for you. Or people will potentially see it as a weakness rather than a vulnerability." 

I think Jesus did such a great job of balancing letting people in, but he would also seclude himself and say, I’ve got to go pray on my own and take a smaller group of people with me. So he would preach to the masses, but then he would go wrestle with things on an individual level. And so, for me and Ashley, it was leading from a place of we’re strong. We’re not on the other side of this, but we’re walking through it. We’re not depressed. We’re not overwhelmed. It was leading from that strategic vulnerability that allows people in but lets them know you’re okay as well.

CTL: Any advice for pastors that might be going through something hard right now?


KH: I’ve always thought to myself that goals are what I can accomplish on my own, but dreams are what I can accomplish with Jesus. The goals that you have may be frustrating. It may be -- I thought I was going to launch this campus or ministry. I thought that this was the way it was going to go. Often times, it’s like -- okay, that is a goal that I had. But the dream that is inside of me is directly from God. And If I’m building his church, he cares about it more than I do.

"It’s going to be difficult, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it. If you’re going through a difficult season, I would just remind you that it’s worth it. Now that I’m on the other side of it, now that I get to hold my son, it’s worth it. Now that I get to see people getting baptized, it’s worth it. Now that I get to see salvations, it’s worth it."


Interested in getting one-on-one coaching with Ken? Drop us a line! We'd love to chat with you about what coaching could look like for you.