April 22, 2021

When Large Churches Get Stuck: Reducing the Span of Care


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Several years ago, I walked into a senior pastor’s office and we started to talk. You should know that I get paid for strategy consultations, but much of what I do is really counseling. I’m good with that. I want to do all I can to help pastors get healthy and grow healthy churches.

As I sat across from him at his desk, I knew he was overwhelmed. I could have told you that without even hearing his story. He wasn’t in a healthy spot, and his team wasn’t healthy either. He was running 100 miles per hour, and he had no margin in his life.

The reason I knew he was overwhelmed was because I saw his organizational chart before I walked into his office:

Every leader of every ministry in the church reported directly to him.

By the way, that’s not an uncommon structure for small and mid-sized churches. That can work for a season.

In my experience, though, when a church grows to be a community of 1,000 or more, that structure will begin to buckle.

As I remember, this pastor had 14 different staff leaders reporting directly to him. I can’t remember the entire mix now, but it included a campus pastor, student pastor, kids ministry director, worship leader, business administrator, small groups pastor, missions director and other ministry leaders.

By the way, they were all leaders…at least by title. The reality is none of them were leading because the senior pastor was still trying to call all the shots. Every decision, both big and small, landed on his desk or on the weekly meeting agenda.

“The reality is none of them were leading because the senior pastor was still trying to call all the shots.”

What’s unique about churches, of course, is the top leader doesn’t just get paid to lead a team. In most cases, this person is also researching, crafting, rehearsing and delivering a major presentation in front of a large audience every week. We call it a message or a sermon, and it’s not uncommon for pastors to invest 10 to 20 hours each week on this function. It’s a pretty critical function.

Am I describing your situation, too? If so, here are a series of questions that I’d like you to consider:

Why is it that I need control?

Typically control is the driving factor when pastors are trying to lead too many people. In the marketplace, they refer to the number of people who a person leads as that person’s span of control. What’s driving that? Here are some factors to consider:

  1. Maybe you have doers rather than leaders in leadership positions.

    If you had capable leaders, you would trust them to make decisions, build healthy teams and get great results with very little coaching and direction.

  2. Maybe you haven’t focused your vision and strategy.

    Because you haven’t worked as a team to confirm where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, people constantly have to come back to you for direction. You’re the only person who knows what’s in your head.

  3. Maybe you are hungry, but you’re not humble.

    I know you’re hungry because you’ve played a key role building a ministry that’s impacting the lives of many hundreds of people. On the other hand, I know you’re not humble because your direct connection to every leader on the team implies that you think you are the only person who has all the answers.

Why am I trying to please everyone?

Because that’s the other key factor that prevents people from reducing their span of care. They’re afraid to reduce the number of people they lead because some people will be left out. These are a few things you need to consider:

  1. Maybe your team needs you to reduce your span of care.

    They need your best in the areas that will most influence the ongoing health and growth of your church. There’s a reason why Jethro told Moses to find other capable leaders. There’s a reason why the church leaders had to find others to care for the widows in Acts 6. You have to give leadership away so the church remains healthy.

  2. Everyone needs someone to be fully invested.

    You can’t be that person for everyone. You might be able to stay on top of everything people need to do, but do you have enough time to engage their lives and help them become the person God designed them to be? Do you have time to celebrate their wins? Do you have the time to coach and develop their God-given strengths? Do you know what challenges they’re trying to overcome? Do you know what’s happening in their family? Do you know how to pray for them? We can only invest in a handful of others at that level.

  3. You can’t make everyone happy.

    Frankly, if someone’s happiness is linked to your personal presence, you have the wrong person on the team. That’s a void only Jesus can fill. They should be driven by God’s purpose for their life. They should want what’s best for the overall health of the church. It’s great that people want to work with you, but it’s a bit narcissistic to think you are the only leader who can help someone maximize their gifts and find fulfillment in their role.

What is it that only I can do?

For senior pastors of large churches, my personal bias is that it boils down to three key functions:

  1. Focusing and casting a compelling vision.

    By the way, you can’t just cast the vision. You are the primary person responsible for making sure that vision gets funded. You can and should invite others into this process, but you really can’t delegate this responsibility to anyone else.

  2. Leading the Senior Leadership Team.

    You may call it something else, but senior pastors of large churches should only be directly leading a team of people who is leading other leaders.

  3. Being the primary teacher/communicator.

    I’m still a big proponent of building a teaching team, but generally the senior pastor is still the primary communicator. Even if you aren’t the one preparing and delivering the message, you still need to drive the teaching plan and work to develop other teachers around you.

So what’s next? Well, coming to grips with the fact that your span of care needs to be reduced is the first step. The next step is to transition to a smaller span of care.

What’s the magic number? It’s going to be different for different leaders. For some it’s a team of five to seven leaders who oversee the growth engines (both numerical and spiritual growth) of the church.

For others it will be a structure where you oversee one or more executive pastors and they lead the rest of the team.

The bottom line is that the same structure that helped you grow to reach hundreds will not allow you to grow through the thousands. The structure needs to change. It is likely the people in key leadership roles will need to change. And, most importantly, your leadership will need to change.

Are you willing to take that step? I hope so, because the church needs you to be healthy so the church can be healthy.

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