Breaking Through Church Growth Barriers (Part 4)
On the surface, it might seem like churches with several thousands of people in attendance don’t face any new barriers to growth—however, even very large churches can get stuck and hit a plateau.
VERY LARGE CHURCHES: BREAKING THE 10,000 BARRIER
In the final episode of our series on how to become a church that’s both healthy and growing, we’ll discuss breaking the 10,000 barrier by exploring common growth barriers that affect churches with thousands in attendance.
For this conversation, we’ll define “very large churches” as 3,000 in attendance and larger. This category reflects less than 0.5% of all the churches in the country (although, interestingly enough, our team at The Unstuck Group actually has quite a bit of experience in these churches—13 of the 19 people on our team either serve or have served on staff teams of very large churches.)
Listen in as Amy and I unpack:
- Addressing a personality-driven, top-down culture
- The importance of leadership development
- Why even very large churches need to change
- Dealing with complexity creep and ministry silos
At this free webinar, you’ll learn to address the growth barriers you may be feeling now, as well as how to recognize the warning signs of future barriers that may be ahead as your church continues to grow.
This Episode Is Sponsored by Planning Center:
Planning Center is an all-in-one church management system that gives you the tools you need to organize your ministries and give your congregants a place to engage. Whether you’re looking for a secure check-in for families, an effortless way to schedule volunteers, or an easy method to give online, sign up for only what you need. Go to planningcenter.com and start your 30-day free trial today.
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. On the surface, it can look like churches with several thousands of people in attendance don’t face any new barriers to growth, but what’s true is that even very large churches can get stuck and plateau. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy finish up our series on how to become a church that’s both healthy and growing by looking at some of the common growth barriers that affect churches with thousands in attendance. If you’re new to The Unstuck Church Podcast, stop before you listen, and go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe to get the episode show notes in your email. When you subscribe, you’re gonna get resources to support each week’s episode, including the Leader Conversation Guide and access to resources from all of our past episodes. That’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now, before we get into this week’s episode, here’s a word from Tony.
Today’s episode is brought to you by my friends at Planning Center. Planning Center is an all-in-one church management system. With a single software, you’ll have the tools you need to organize your ministries and give your congregants a place to engage. Whether you’re looking for a secure check-in for families, an effortless way to schedule volunteers or an easy method to give online, you can sign up for only what you need. Go to planningcenter.com and start your 30-day free trial today.
Well, Tony, it’s hard to believe, but we’ve reached the last episode of our series on church growth barriers and the reasons why churches of every size get stuck. And as we wrap up our series, what growth barrier will you be focusing on today?
That’s right, Amy. So far, we’ve discussed the common reasons why small, midsize and then large churches get stuck. And today, we’re going to talk about very large churches or think of them as mega/giga churches, if you will. For this conversation, we’ll define very large churches as several thousand in attendance and larger. And it’s important to note that this category reflects less than 0.5% of all churches in the country.
Yeah. Interestingly enough, though, our team at The Unstuck Group actually has quite a bit of experience in these churches. By my count, I think 13 of the 19 people on our team either serve or have served on staff teams of very large churches, myself included. And we’ve also, of course, provided coaching and consulting to many other churches that average, I don’t know, 3,000 and beyond.
So, what Amy, I think, is trying to say is we kind of know what we’re talking about when it comes to this topic. We’re not just completely making this stuff up.
Right. So it’s clear that churches this large have some unique opportunities, but I think they also have some unique obstacles. And what is the first issue that you think of, Tony, when you think about these churches getting stuck?
So the first and maybe obvious obstacle for very large churches is that they’re typically very personality driven, and by personality primarily, of course, I’m talking about the senior or lead pastor. And I don’t think any of us would have to think too hard of experiences that we’ve either been a part of or that we’ve read about or seen stories about where there was a big church with a pastor with a big personality that grew quickly and then whatever happened that caused that pastor or that ministry to have a downfall. And so, there are lots of stories out there like that. But this is, this is the caution maybe that I’d like to provide here is it’s not a sin to have a big personality. It’s not a sin for a pastor to have lots of charisma. I mean, that’s something that God’s put in you. That’s your unique wiring, and you should be leveraging that wiring for kingdom purposes. The challenge, though, is that everything revolves around the personality of a senior pastor if we don’t take some precautions. And that makes it very difficult then to engage people in next steps beyond the weekend service. So, again, big personality, that’s a good thing. We just need to have some boundaries, some cautions about how we engage that to accomplish the mission of the church.
So say a very large church hears that and says, “Huh, I think we might be a little too personality driven.” What, what could they do to work on that, Tony?
Yeah. So I, I think one of the keys is to, and we talk, first of all, we talk a lot about building leadership teams. So I think it begins with making sure we have a team of leaders kind of guiding the direction of the ministry. But more specifically, too, I think if we’re gonna turn the corner on being primarily a personality-driven church, we need to develop a teaching team as well, and we need to model what team-based leadership is looking like from the platform on Sunday morning. And while the lead pastor should be the primary teacher, they shouldn’t be the only voice the congregation ever hears. And the only voice that the church trusts. It’s also vitally important that the senior pastor has strong people in their life that are there to provide both personal and spiritual accountability and encouragement for that matter. I mean, Amy, here’s the challenge for pastors of large churches, especially with this unique charisma about them, is that the people that they probably don’t want to be pouring into their life are the folks that are gonna be kind of grabbing for their time and attention. The thing here is, in order to create that, that encouragement and accountability, you have to actually reach out to people that you trust that you know will provide that, that accountability and encouragement to you. Because the people that are strong leaders that are strong influencers and can play that role in your life, they are, they also recognize who you are and kind of the leadership and influence you have, and they will kind of stand back and wait for you to engage that relationship. So, especially churches and pastors of churches this size, you, you kind of have to take the initiative in developing those types of relationships where you can find that ongoing encouragement and accountability.
That’s really good. All right. What’s the second challenge, Tony?
So the second challenge also has to do with the senior leader. And it’s that the leadership culture is top-down and authoritarian. And I, again, we’ve probably seen examples of this where it’s obviously the church has grown, and largely that’s probably because of the leadership strength of the senior pastor. But what I find is sometimes senior pastors hold on to that same style of leadership that allowed the church to grow when the church was smaller. And frankly, they have, may, may have been the only strong leader in the church in, in that time. But as the church grows, they kind of hold on to that approach to leadership and thinking they need to be fully responsible for every decision, especially any decision of significance. And this is where we, we do, we need to start to look at more of a team-based approach to leadership.
Yeah. We like to say culture is caught, not taught. And, when the senior leader takes a top-down authoritarian approach to leadership, that’s exactly what’s going to trickle down to the rest of the organization. And I think you’re right, Tony. I don’t think there’s intentionality to lead that way. I think it just comes out of how hard it is when you plant a church or trying to turn a church.
And all the burden that you have on your plate. And you need good people, going back to your last comment. You need good people around you to kind of help you see: you’ll become the lid here if we don’t start to bring some team-based leadership into there. So while there’s certain, certainly a lot of examples of very large churches that, on the contrary, do have a collaborative team-based approach to leadership, and I get a frontline view of this all the time. And, you know, it is interesting the, the season that we came through, Tony, with church leaders and some of the churches that had missteps with high-personality leaders, this next rung of pastors, they have clarity that they want to be more team-based. They have a much higher awareness of that. So, what would be a first step for churches who find themselves, though, with a less than ideal leadership culture?
Well, I alluded to it a moment ago, but the, the first step really is to develop a strong senior leadership team. And by the way, I’m talking team here. I’m not just talking about a strong lead pastor and a strong executive pastor kind of partnering.
It’s, we’re probably talking about anywhere from five to eight strong leaders— every, every one of those leaders capable of leading a significant portion of the church’s ministry. And developing this strong team is incredibly important as the ministry, it grows. And really, I, I would hope a church has already figured, figured that out by the time they’ve reached a few thousand in attendance. But once this team is in place, the team-based approach to leadership also needs to be reflected throughout every level of ministry. As the church grows, leadership needs to be less focused on execution of details and more focused on empowering leaders, especially ministry leaders here, of course, to use their gifts and to engage a clear vision with a clear ministry strategy.
Tony, in order to move away, though, from an authoritarian culture and start giving that high-level leadership away to others, a church would need to have a pretty strong base of trustworthy leaders. So is that one of the other challenges for very large churches?
Yeah. Another one of the growth barriers for churches this size is there’s not really an intentional strategy for leadership development. And you and I were just talking with a large church in recent days. You know, one of the mistakes I’ve seen large churches make is they try to kind of over-engineer leadership development.
And so it becomes pretty complicated. And, you know, there’s only certain ways to do this. I mean, bottom line is leadership development, it’s not unlike discipleship. It comes down to relationships. But maybe being more intentional about how we’re pouring into the people that we’re leading so that we’re not just trying to get stuff done through the team that we lead, but we’re actually encouraging the people that we’re leading to take their next steps toward Christ. And then to grow their leadership capacity so that as the ministry grows, hopefully, we’re kind of raising up those leaders from within our ministry. And what I would say, though, leadership development, it’s a challenge. And it, and it becomes even more pronounced for the very large churches when they’re launching multisite locations.
As the number of locations increases, the number of leaders required, both staff and volunteers, also increases dramatically. And the “If we build it, they will come,” approach may work to get new people to attend your church, but I’ve never seen that strategy work when it comes to increasing the number of ministry leaders, Amy.
Yeah. And I think it’s important, it’s an important thing to recognize around this point is that when we say developing leaders, we’re not just talking about staff, right? At this point of growth, if you haven’t already, there needs to be a major shift towards developing and empowering high-level volunteer leaders to move the ministry forward. And it’s the model scripture gives us, right? But it’s also really the only financially sustainable model for a church of this size. We can’t just keep hiring more and more staff to do the ministry. Very large churches need to be proactive in helping future leaders develop spiritually, relationally, and then, you know, the competencies that are required, you know, in those roles.
That’s exactly right, Amy. And from these three challenges, it’s incredibly clear that developing a culture of healthy leadership and healthy leadership development is really key to continuing to grow in a healthy way as a ministry. And that often starts at the top of the organization with the senior pastor. Okay. Moving into a different topic, the fourth challenge for very large churches is that they hold on to traditions. This may sound a little counterintuitive cuz usually, when we think of the largest churches, we don’t think of traditional church. But even very large churches typically have experienced some run of success and some run of growth in the past. Or they wouldn’t be very large churches.
But the challenge is that not everything a church did in the past will necessarily lead to future health. In fact, many times, it’s the very large churches that have the biggest challenge kind of re-embracing new, Amy. When they become too big, they often lose that agility to be nimble and to embrace change. And often, simply because of their scale, the, the strategy and the approach to ministry gets very predictable.
Yeah. We could go off on a rant on this, couldn’t we, Tony?
We certainly could.
There was so much creativity in the church, I don’t know, 15, 20 years ago. And it’s interesting; these very large churches, which are all pretty large now, were still lacking creativity now because I think it’s because of that size thing. We have to pull something off in multiple places. But that’s part of the big church’s predictability, is their, we lack surprise. But this goes back to what we discussed recently in our episode about the challenges of sustained health, too. You might look like a very large church, right? And assume that you’re healthy due to your size. But if they’re not actively looking for new ways to multiply their ministry, to reach new people, to bring creativity into those spaces, they really could be starting to head for decline. And so that’s why at this point, it’s really up to the senior leadership of the church to decide: are we going to keep trying new things or are we gonna ride out the strategies that got us to where we are today? Are we willing, in other words, to change and embrace the new to go where God is taking us next.
Yeah. Amy, I do think that when churches find themselves at this point, it’s going to take a new set of voices, either inside or outside the team to bring new perspective and to lead to the types of change that we’re talking about. But of course, the senior leadership has to be open to seeking out that new fresh perspective and then actually following through on these changes.
Yeah, that’s right. And, and that’s another reason that the senior leadership team is so important. They can either encourage and embrace change or be the lid that keeps the church stuck where it is. Okay. Tony, what’s the next reason very large churches get stuck?
Well, Amy, we don’t talk a lot about church finances, but I wanna spend a minute here today. Very large churches can get stuck because they haven’t developed a sustainable financial model. Growing churches tend to spend, I mean, every dime as they’re growing and to keep that growth happening. And this challenge just gets compounded if the church is reaching many new people, people that are outside the faith, and are helping those people to take their next steps towards Jesus. And it’s because of the giving lag. We’ve talked about this a number of times. Generally, there’s a lag between giving and spiritual maturity. Meaning, if your church is made up of a lot of new people, which is a great problem to have, we want that—
Every church would love that.
Yeah. The challenge is, of course, that a lot of those people, especially if they’re taking their first steps towards Jesus, they’re not as mature in the faith, and because of that, oftentimes they’re not giving or giving generously at that at that point.
So, what is a sustainable financial model for these churches? What does that look like?
So with the giving lag in mind, very large churches need to establish financial disciplines where they regularly spend a percentage less than they anticipate receiving in offerings. And we recommend budgeting for 10% less than what you’re anticipating will come in through your offerings. Now, that may sound like crazy talk right now for the pastors are listening. But this shift may cause the need to have a one-time adjustment. Often around staffing where the biggest financial investment of course occurs, you may need to do that in order to create this margin that we’re talking about. But with financial margin, you start to create flexibility to fund future vision expansion. And I think a few years post pandemic when giving still hasn’t returned to the rates that most churches were planning and hoping for. This message is especially crucial for churches of every size, especially though for these very large churches. Think of it this way, if your giving does exceed your budgeted expenditures, you’ll have the enviable problem of having to decide how to invest all the extra money now or at some point in the future. And if the extra money doesn’t come in, well, you’ll be better prepared because your spending plan will be within the giving that you’re seeing through, through your offerings.
As you mentioned, Tony, we aren’t financial experts here, but planning to spend less than you bring in kind of sounds like some good wisdom to me.
I think even Dave Ramsey would approve of that one, Amy.
I think so, too. Hey, what’s another reason very large churches get stuck?
The sixth reason is that they don’t deal with complexity creep. It’s no surprise as attendance increases, the complexity of ministry program programming, calendaring, communications, all of that also grows. The challenge, of course, is that you can’t develop a focused communication strategy unless you begin with focused ministry programming and calendaring. And one of the reasons why I think new church plants are so effective at reaching new people is because they are typically very lean. The structure is simple; the ministry strategy is very focused. The mission is clear. Then, as a church ages, the ministry strategy gets more complex as multiple new programs and events get layered on. And eventually, growth slows or plateaus as that complexity increases. And then, our solution is a new structure or systems or rules to fix the problem. So if there’s a problem, our natural tendency is never to do less. We always try to add something new. So to avoid this, very large churches need to become more adept at saying no to good opportunities that will pull from mission priorities. And frankly, very large churches may need to look at even existing ministry programming and calendaring and so on and consider pruning.
You know, a picture of this, Tony, again, multisite today is such a common expansion strategy. When we talk about being at the sustained health part of that life cycle, pastors now are thinking about that.
You know, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, how many of us experienced these large monosite churches that had, it was like a cruise ship of anything and everything you wanted existed. And then when they thought about going multisite, it was only then they thought, “Oh, well, we don’t need to replicate that. We don’t need to take that to our new location.” And then, they end up launching, a new campus that doesn’t feel anything like, you know, the cruise ship that these people just disembarked from. So, hopefully, some of those learnings have caught on, like don’t use your size to create complexity. Instead, stay in sustained health by continuing to multiply. And this is another one of those problems that, the complexity piece, I think can get churches stuck at any and every side. And I understand why it’s a struggle because we say it all the time, right? All ministry is good. However, not all ministry is in line with our mission of reaching the people that God has called to our church, called our church to reach. And getting off mission is what might be getting us stuck.
Yeah, it’s, it’s interesting, Amy, as you’re talking about that cruise ship analogy.
I’ve only been on a couple of cruises in my lifetime, but one of the great things about being a passenger on a cruise is you can eat pizza 24 hours a day. And so, as I’m thinking about my cruise experience, you know, there are certain opportunities that you have because you’re on a big cruise ship that you don’t have in normal life. But I don’t know if eating pizza 24 hours a day is the healthiest thing for passengers. And the analogy I think plays pretty well for very large churches: just because you can provide all those offerings, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the healthiest thing for the people that you’re trying to encourage to take their next steps towards Jesus.
Absolutely. And if you’re a large church and you’ve been growing, it’s so easy to get undisciplined in that area because you’ve got resources and money and people to pull it off. But it becomes a big sticking point later on. All right. Well, Tony, we have reached the end. What’s the seventh and final reason that very large churches get stuck?
So the final challenge I want to talk about is ministry silos because we have seen this. I, I’ve seen it many times with the very large churches that we work with. Over time, ministry silos begin to develop, and really, it’s a natural outgrowth of an increased number of people in ministry programs. And as the church grows, they’re, these silos tend to develop. And rather than focusing on the overall health and growth of the church, ministries become very protective of their own ministry programs, and they begin competing with each other as ministry leaders for volunteers, for volunteer leaders, for finances, for attention, promotion and so on. And so you start to get this competition that happens around the different ministries in the church. And here’s what’s interesting, Amy; larger churches can also afford to hire more staff for all these different ministries.
And it, it actually becomes part of the identity of those ministry leaders that they, of course, want their, each of their ministries to be healthy and successful and more people connected. And so if you hire high-capacity leaders of all over all these different ministries, the competition even becomes more pronounced. I mean the, the silos really do start to form in those instances.
Yeah. I think this issue of ministry silos and the complexity creep issue we just discussed are really rooted in a lack of alignment. And if our ministry priorities are clear and every ministry program and event that goes on is clearly in line with those priorities, then we won’t feel that sense of competition. Every member of the senior leadership team should feel like a win for one team is a win for everyone and a win for the organization as a whole. And while this alignment might be more difficult to achieve in a very large church with a larger staff team, it can make or break the health of the church.
That’s right, Amy. And the only way to combat, combat this attitude is to embrace a collaborative effort to develop unified vision and strategy. And as we’ve mentioned earlier, this collaborative attitude has to start at the top with the senior leadership team. And we, we can’t just talk about it. We have to model this behavior from the top down.
Well, just like that, we’ve reached the end of our episode and our series on church growth barriers. And I just wanna say, if you’re a leader who’s listening, I really encourage you to go back and listen to all the podcasts in this series. Because the fact of the matter is, is that even if your church hasn’t reached a certain growth barrier yet, you may eventually encounter it in the future. And you’ll be much better equipped to face that barrier if you can see it coming. And if you have surpassed a certain size, there might still be issues we’ve identified that are getting you stuck. Tony, any more comments before we wrap up today’s conversation in the series?
Well, if you’re listening to this on the day that this episode goes live, there’s still time to register and join us tomorrow May 25th for our free webinar on Church Growth Barriers: How to break through the four most common plateaus. And we’ll be diving even deeper into the topics we discussed in this series. And as you just said, Amy, I think it’s helpful information for leaders, regardless of the current size of their church. So head to the link in your show notes now to register and join us live tomorrow. Or if you’re a church leader who’s facing these growth barriers that we’ve discussed in this month’s series and you’d like an outside perspective to help guide you toward reaching the next phases of growth, we’d certainly love to help. Our team has helped over 600 churches, from churches that are only 210 in attendance to churches that are well over 20,000 in attendance and every number in between to find alignment to get unstuck and to make a greater kingdom impact. And you can learn more about all of that theunstuckgroup.com.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Like Tony said, if you’re listening to this episode on the day of release, there’s still time to join us for our upcoming webinar on Breaking Church Growth Barriers To register, you’ll need to subscribe to get the show notes. If you haven’t done that yet, just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.