5 lessons for connectors from the movie Free Solo


As a Sherpa type, travel may be the #1 thing I love to do. What would your list of top destinations be? Here are my top 5:

1. Italy-I just can’t seem to stay away from there. It is a classic paradise and an art lovers dream. So much history from the movement I am proud to be a part of today as well as having a family heritage there. The food is a destination in itself. Can’t wait to return. 
2. Chile. The people are the main tourist attraction for me. The pace and level of community in which they live make it a home for me. The fish, the beef, the wine and the friends. Beyond wonderful. 
3. England-sweet friends and a lot of history and charm oozing off the manor homes and the stone architecture. Good friends who have always put us up there and a common language makes the connection sweet and the culture like walking into a Harry Potter movie. 
4. Big Sur-…where mammoth Redwoods meet the Pacific, it’s got it all: forest, beach, waterfalls, hiking, old lighthouses and missions. Taking my family camping there as they grew up was one of the best things I ever did. 
5. Yosemite-can’t get enough. The scale of it is what keeps me coming back. Yosemite Falls is 2x the height of the Empire State Building, falling over granite cliffs onto the Valley floor. It’s prehistoric. I could go there every year.

One of my favorite things to do when I take someone to Yosemite is to point out El Capitan, known as the most impressive granite wall in the world. At 3,200 ft high, it is hard to take in the whole sight since the valley is only 1 mile wide. So when I show someone this stone edifice, I hand them binoculars and ask them to look at the surface of the rock and tell me what they see.

El Cap ants.jpg

Their gasp is always beyond rewarding…

With the help of magnification, you can see what wasn’t readily seeable before: people, like ants, climbing it, even camping on it, in carefully anchored hammocks. The scale is unimaginable.

That’s why Alex Honnold and what he did on El Capitan is too astounding to take in. Alex climbed El Capitan in less than 4 hours….without a rope or any other safety equipment. His documentary Free Solo is up for an Oscar this year and is in IMAX theaters right now. Must-see viewing for Sherpas.

As I watched the movie, the lessons for those of us leading people on the climb toward connection with God and others became obvious to me:

  1. Never climb alone.

    Alex never climbed alone. He had a friend who was his climbing hero climb with him when he practiced. He had other friends filming him during these practice climbs as well.

    Though we think connecting with our churches should be a coast for guests, it’s really a climb. They are unfamiliar with what to grab on to and where to find a footing. They need a “who” to come alongside them, a relational component to make their journey to connect successful.

    That’s where a Sherpa comes in.

    At Eastside we train 3 specific teams to function as Sherpas for a specific leg of the climb:

    Guest Central Team. This team is trained to not just welcome guest but invite them to Next Steps which is our connection environment for new people. This includes walking those who are interested over to our Next Steps room (which is nearby), letting guests familiarize themselves with the environment, and meet some of the hosting staff. Sometimes, these guests just decide to attend immediately, receive a backpack for the journey and sit down at a table with other guests.

    Table Hosts. Every table has a Sherpa to lead discussions, give assignments and answer questions. Many of them will take a photo on their phones of the table roster and pray for those at their table, send them a follow up email about anything personal they may have shared with them, and help them find the best way to identify a small group or a ministry team. Then they hand them off to the next team of Sherpas…

    Volunteer Champs. These are staff members who are departmental admins. Their training is to come alongside the guest until they have been placed in a ministry team that uses their SHAPE unless the guest chooses to press pause for some reason. Volunteer Champs are overseen by our Volunteer Director for this function of their job. Click here to learn more about them and how what they do makes them the heroes of our volunteer placement process!

    Here’s the next lesson I learn from Alex’s free solo climb…

  2. Never distract the climber.

    Sometimes those who were filming Alex used drones. Sometimes they needed camera angles that required them to get unusually close to see where and how his hands and feet were gripping the rock. For Alex, that could be like having gnats swirling around your face while walking a tightrope.

    Sometimes we have unnecessary steps in our onboarding processes. Too many people have to interview someone, too many duplicate forms to fill out, too many hoops to jump through before getting to the next step to find a group or a team. Alex contemplated not filming the climb at all due to the potential distractions it sometimes created as he made his way toward the summit.

    Do you know what drives me nuts? I hate it when I call a customer service line and have to give my security info, account info, ID info 3 or 4 times in a row before talking to a live person who will ask me for it, AGAIN. Sometimes we have created processes for finding a small group or joining a ministry team that are unnecessary. Examine your placement processes. Ask newly added team members if there were steps on the climb that seemed irrelevant or redundant. Then you are ready to learn from the third lesson in Free Solo for us Sherpas:

  3. Know all the routes in advance.

    There are 3 to 4 different starting points to begin the ascent up El Capitan. The routes for the climb are determined by the starting point. Alex would explore each route, pick one of them, and rehearse every maneuver on it with ropes, negotiating the challenges along the way over and over again. He literally knew and memorized where he would put his foot, which handholds he would grab for thousands of steps. Do watch his 12 minute TED Talk on how this practice helped Alex manage his fear, click here.

    In the same way, a predetermined route with Sherpas present to help will always make a guest feel like their journey towards becoming part of a great team to serve God with his doable and worth the effort.

    For example, our route to finding a place on a ministry team at Eastside is typically this (in ascending order):

    5. Join the team.

    4. Schedule to shadow a team member

3. Meet with the team leader

2. Respond to contact from Volunteer Champ

1. Sign a Card at Step 03 of Next Steps


If the climber started from an all church recruitment weekend (instead of Next Steps) or by filling out the volunteer interest form on our website, replace number 1 with that and in our case, the route remains the same. We have led people on this climb over and over again and our familiarity with the route makes the climber (guest) less intimated. Should they someday want to join another team, the route will feel familiar.

4. Be patient, but persistent.

It took Alex 8 years from the time he decided to free solo El Capitan till the morning he actually decided to do it. There were many factors influencing that, most of them very legitimate. Though most of our guests who show up at Next Steps come within their first 4 weeks at our church, many take longer.

Much longer.

I remember one person who came to Next Steps to find a group and a ministry after attending Eastside for 14 years! It took that much life change, circumstance change, envisioning from the stage and encouragement from others to get her to the point where she would begin her ascent toward full connection. Your Sherpas will find that patience will serve them and your guests in the long run.

But so will persistence. We have designed a couple processes and are designing another that will allow us to circle back with guests who have been attending church for 4 months and have not been to Next Steps yet and another process for Next Step graduates who still have not found a team to serve on. Not giving up on people who have chosen to press pause on their climb will pay off, I guarantee you.

One report we designed for our database was for identifying those who had completed only 3 of the 4 sessions of Next Steps. Since we have a small gift and a graduation certificate made after someone completes their 3rd step (so it is ready to present at their 4th step), our Directors on a campus will text or call these people the week before the step they missed to tell them we have their certificate and gift ready.

One time a woman was called who had completed 3 of the 4 steps a year and a half ago. When she was contacted to invite her to complete her last step, we told her that we had her gift and certificate already printed. All she had to do was come this weekend. She then shared that she had already started attending another church, but, she didn’t connect their either. Because she was so touched that someone noticed that she wasn’t there and wanted her to complete Next Steps, she returned to our church and did it! She is now connected to our church and we are thrilled to have her.

Persistence pays off. That’s why we need to….

5. Celebrate when someone reaches the summit.

When Alex got to the top of El Capitan in less than 4 hours and without any ropes or safety gear, he celebrated. His friends were there to greet him. His girlfriend called him. He had to hold back tears. He said it was “the best day of his life”.

Now I don’t expect someone joining the Parking Lot Team or launching a new small group to feel that intensely. Regardless, having someone to…

  • greet them with a smile on their first day

  • present them with a badge or T-shrit

  • give them a cookie with their name on it

  • present them with a special gift or a hot cup of coffee

….all this goes a long way to making someone feel that they just summited and we want to celebrate that milestone.

All 5 of these lessons from Free Solo reveal a different way to connect people to the life of your church, giving them friends and a vital role to play on a team. To learn our route and our climbing technique for leading guests to this summit, you can watch our online video course or use the questions below with your team after sharing this post with them.

The route is worth mapping and the summit is worth celebrating!

Cliff Mojo.png

1. Identify up to three  different starting points that exist in your church for a guest to find a small group to visit.  Map the route from each starting point to the summit of actually connecting with a great small group. Are there any dangerous gaps in that particular route? How can you bridge them? 

2. Identify up to three  different starting points that exist in your church for a guest to begin finding a meaningful volunteer role on a great team.  Map the route from each starting point to the summit of actually connecting with a great ministry team. Are there any dangerous gaps in that particular route? How can you bridge them?

3.  Sometimes it’s good to slow things down when placing somebody in a small group or a team. However, are there any points in the processes that create an unnecessary distraction for your climber?  How can you eliminate that distraction?  

4.   How do you celebrate and welcome new members on the teams? Is there anything that allows them to feel that they have reached a milestone in their spiritual journey? Is there anything you could do to make people feel special when they’ve completed the climb toward finding their role on a ministry team?  

5.  Since climbers are vulnerable when they climb alone, is there any way you can add a partner, a docent, or even a guide (Sherpa) to aid somebody as they find their small group of friends or a ministry team to serve on? In what environment could that helpful relationship be added most easily?