I just celebrated 25 years of working in and with churches. Along the way, I’ve seen many amazing ministries. There are many more healthy, growing churches out there than you’ve probably heard about. That’s part of what makes my job at The Unstuck Group so much fun. I’m encouraged almost daily by the thriving churches I encounter.
At the same time, though, I’ve run into craziness. There’s some funky stuff happening out there. Churches are innocently making decisions today that will likely be quite damaging in the long run. I’m confident that churches don’t try to sabotage their ministries on purpose. However, any person who is disconnected from the situation and looking from the outside in would likely say, “That’s not going to end well.”
Let me give you some examples of the crazy things I’ve seen churches do:
1) Avoiding any focus around a clear and specific vision for the future.
I get it. Clarifying a big, bold vision for the future sounds like a very businessy thing to do. We just want people to love God and love others. That’s what we signed up for. Vision casting wasn’t even on the job description. But I can assure you that where there’s a vision vacuum, the loudest people in the room will fill it.
The problem, of course, is that the loudest people may not have the vision that’s best for your church. And when the loudest people have a platform, they will naturally pull people in different directions. Instead, we need to create a vision for the future that both rallies people’s prayer, time and financial resources, and also repels people. A strong vision will do both.
2) Establishing vision, but avoiding a focused strategy for how it will be accomplished.
Forget the words mission, vision, and strategy. They’re just words, and people get them confused all the time. Instead, focus on answering these questions:
- Why do we exist? What’s our primary purpose as a church?
- Where are we going? What will the church look like in five to ten years?
- How are we going to get there? What’s important right now?
It’s that third bullet that ends up dividing churches. They go through the hard work of confirming mission and vision, but they don’t unify around the “how” part. When the strategy isn’t defined, people drift back to doing what they’ve always done the way they’ve always done it. People pull in different directions. That leads to division.
3) Allowing ministry silos to thrive.
In bigger churches, the silos tend to get even bigger. They begin to form in churches that aren’t aligned around vision and strategy. (I purposely left out mission, because these statements are often so innocuous that anyone could easily say, “I agree with that.” Don’t tell Peter Drucker I said this, but mission statements oftentimes are pointless.)
The foundation for silos is the lack of alignment, but silos are fueled by a focus on programs and filling the calendar with activities. The win, whether we care to admit it or not, is getting more people to show up to our ministry’s events. Silos take on a life of their own because we avoid asking the critical question, “Are the people at our church becoming more like Christ?”
If we were honest about responding to that question, we would have to work together to help people move from where they are to where God wants them to be.
4) Letting different people teach every week at every campus location.
The only churches I’ve seen that make this type of multisite teaching model work are relentless about making sure there’s one idea that all teachers share through unified messages. They may not be the exact same words with the exact same illustrations, but they are essentially the same message. Most churches don’t approach it this way.
Instead, different teachers are allowed to establish their own personality and their own voice, and, over time, the congregation aligns to that person rather than the vision and strategy of one, unified church.
If you want to start another location with different teaching and leadership, just skip the middle step and plant a new church. You can still give them all kinds of financial and people support like you do with a multisite launch, but at least everyone will acknowledge in the beginning, “If we launch a different location with different leadership and different teaching, it’s going to become a different church.”
(Of everything I’ve listed here, this is probably the one strategy I see churches embracing that leads to the most church splits.)
5) Giving everyone a voice as often as possible.
Giving everyone an equal voice is how democracies run, but it’s not God’s design for the church. Every time you vote, there will be winners and losers. People will take sides. Voting fosters division.
The biblical model for running a church involves appointing qualified leaders based on their spiritual maturity, knowledge of God’s word, ability to disciple and mentor others, and their ability to model good character among other things. It has nothing to do with voting on the most popular person. Open forums that give anyone a voice don’t build consensus, they lead to arguments. All-church surveys about tactical decisions will always set up some people for disappointment when their preference isn’t chosen.
Voting sets people up for defeat when their person or their idea doesn’t get the most votes. The church is supposed to be unified. Unity develops with empowered leadership aligned around a focused vision and strategy.
6) Making a significant change in strategy without connecting the change to your vision.
Here’s how I know this is true. I’ve seen churches that focus on vision have the ability to successfully change service times, change worship styles, build new buildings, relocate, change the name of the church, shift from Sunday school classes to home groups, stop ministries or events that have been around for years, and on and on.
On the other hand, I’ve also seen churches try to mimic healthy churches by adopting their methods without explaining why they were making changes. Those changes routinely divide churches. An imperfect idea with a somewhat flawed implementation at the wrong time can still find success if the leadership rallies and explains why it matters to the overall vision. A perfect idea with a flawless implementation at the right time can still fail miserably if the leadership isn’t mobilized and no one makes the case for why it matters to the overall vision.
7) Adding competing services with completely different worship styles, teaching, and leadership that meet in the same building at the same time.
Let me save you lots of time and heartache. This is how this story will eventually play out: Even though both services are located within the same building, different worship styles with different teaching and leadership will eventually lead to two different churches. (See #4 above.)
Eventually, the healthier service with more people and more growth is going to realize, “Hey, we could go become a separate church and reach more people faster for less money without having to deal with all the headaches of appeasing the other people who don’t like us because they don’t like our worship style, teaching, and leadership.”
In the early days, the easy decision was to avoid the conflict and start something new and let the old continue to exist. That solution only works if the new thing fails to take off. If the new things work, though, it will naturally create an “us against them” conflict.
8) Elevating someone to a leadership position over a campus or core ministry area who is only 95% on board with your strategy and values.
You may not have known this, but it’s completely possible for someone to 100% love Jesus, love you, and love your church, but only love 95% of your strategy and values. When you let someone lead an entire congregation of people—whether it’s a campus or a core ministry—that last 5% gap becomes huge.
How we accomplish the vision and the behaviors that shape our values are very important. When a leader with positional influence is in charge and there’s a gap in alignment, the gap gets magnified by everyone they influence. In fact, if someone in leadership is not fully in alignment, the people that person influences have no reason to be fully aligned either. Before long, you have entire congregations of people moving in a completely different direction.
9) Avoiding a succession plan so that young leaders are forced to move on.
Because the younger leaders will eventually move on. It’ll either happen because of the uncertainty created when there’s a lack of a clear plan for who will become the next leader. Or, it’ll happen because that younger leader needs to lead their own thing and there’s no plan in place for them to assume the next leadership role. In either case, you’re essentially encouraging them to plant their own church. And they might as well do it where they already know the community, know the people, and have a base of financial and people resources developed.
Every church needs an emergency succession plan, and any leader age 60 and over needs to have a plan in place for who will become the next leader and when that will happen.
10) Trying to make everyone happy.
The only way to attempt to make everyone happy is to avoid making anyone mad. And the only way to do that is to keep things the way they are.
If you do anything new or try to focus your efforts to become great at something, you run the risk that you will alienate people. When you alienate people, it’s going to create some level of pain in their lives. And you’ll hear about it. Because of that, it’s just easier to try to keep people happy by not rocking the boat. Of course, to avoid rocking the boat, you’ll need to embrace mediocrity. Why is that? Because success, whether it be in the marketplace or in ministry, also seems to foster contempt…
You’re not “deep” enough. You don’t offer this program or that program. You don’t invest ministry dollars here or there. You’re not Methodist or Baptist enough. You don’t use the right music. Your message is married too much to the culture.
It’s amazing the grief you get when your sole purpose is just to point people to Jesus. I’ve learned that to try to make everyone happy, you have to be comfortable with mediocrity. It’s a place where there are few critics but it’s also a place where few people become really passionate about ministry and their relationships with Christ. Of course, when you embrace mediocrity, you also push the passionate people away.
I wish I were making these things up, but I’ve seen each of these examples lead to church splits. The funny thing is that any reasonable person would look at these ten situations and likely come to this conclusion, “Tony, you’re just stating the obvious. Of course these examples will lead to divisions in churches. Churches pay you for this type of advice?”
I can understand if you come to that conclusion. But, if the advice is so obvious, why do so many churches continue to go down these same paths thinking their situation is somehow unique?
If nothing else, please pause before you move forward with any of these ten easy steps. Seek counsel from other churches that have tried a similar approach. Did it actually work? Especially after years of embracing that approach?
We’re all called to be good stewards of the limited time and resources we have available. That’s why I’m pulling for you to maximize your potential and avoid some of these crazy ideas that have landed other churches in trouble.
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