April 12, 2023

The Challenges of Church Growth – Episode 291 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

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The Challenges of the Church Lifecycle (Part 1)

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Regardless of their uniqueness, every church has the potential to go through a very similar lifecycle: Most churches start, grow, thrive, decline, and eventually end. But God’s plan for our churches is to mature to a place of sustained health and to help more people follow Jesus. 

churchlifecycle sustained health
The Phases of the Church Lifecycle

The reality is that churches can get stuck in any season of the lifecycle. That’s why it’s important to determine what season the organization is in, so that we can intentionally interrupt it. Without an interruption, though, the church will remain stuck, and the natural pull will be toward decline and death—because no one “drifts” back to health.

In this series, we’ll be exploring the key challenges that churches face in every phase and side of the church lifecycle, as well as how to get unstuck and overcome them.


This week, we’ll kick things off by starting on the left side of the lifecycle, unpacking the challenges that come with the phases of launch, momentum growth, and strategic growth.

When it comes to the left side of the lifecycle, the overarching theme is this: Churches on the left side of the lifecycle must overcome the challenge of finding strategic clarity and developing systems to power their strategy.

Listen in as Amy and I unpack:

  • The resource constraints of launching
  • Addressing the space constraints of momentum growth
  • Overcoming systems and strategies constraints in strategic growth
  • The characteristics of healthy systems & structures

Unsure where your church sits on the church lifecycle? Take the free Unstuck Church Assessment.

Churches on the left side of the lifecycle must overcome the challenge of finding strategic clarity and developing systems to power their strategy. [episode 291] #unstuckchurch Share on X The key challenge of churches in the launch phase is resource constraints, including both people to serve and money. [episode 291] #unstuckchurch Share on X The key challenge of churches in the momentum growth phase is space constraints, including both physical space and ministry space. [episode 291] #unstuckchurch Share on X The key challenge of churches in the strategic growth phase is systems and structure constraints, because both were established when the church was ministering to fewer people. [episode 291] #unstuckchurch Share on X
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This Episode is Sponsored by PlainJoe Studios:

PlainJoe: A Storyland Studio partners with churches, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and educational environments to create unforgettable strategic, digital, and spatial stories that lift the Spirit. 

Through architecture, branding, interior design, website development, themed environments, and more, PlainJoe champions churches as Sacred Storytellers and collaborates with a wide range of world-changing people and organizations. 

To learn more about working with PlainJoe’s team of down-to-earth specialists, architects, strategists, artists, and problem solvers, visit plainjoestudios.com/getunstuck.

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Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Most churches start, grow, thrive, then decline, and some even end. But God’s plan for our churches is to mature, to sustain health and help more people follow Jesus. To sustain health, it’s important that church leaders understand every phase of a church’s lifecycle to keep from getting stuck. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy start a new series focused on how to recognize each phase of the lifecycle and the steps that get you unstuck. If you’re new to The Unstuck Church Podcast, head over to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’ll get resources to go along with each week’s episode, including our Leader Conversation Guide, bonus resources and access to our podcast resource archive. That’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now, before this week’s conversation, here’s Tony.

Tony (01:02):

PlainJoe, a Storyland Studio, partners with churches, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and educational environments to create unforgettable, strategic, digital and spacial stories that lift the spirit. Through architecture, branding, interior design, website development, themed environments and more, PlainJoe champions churches as sacred storytellers and collaborates with a wide range of world-changing people and organizations. To learn more about working with PlainJoe’s team of down-to-earth specialists, architects, strategists, artists and problem-solvers, visit plainjoestudios.com/getunstuck.

Amy (01:50):

Well, hey Tony, we’re gonna kick off a new series today. Before we dive in, what have you been up to lately? Where you been?

Tony (01:57):

Yeah, so I’ve been busy, Amy. Most recently, I’m just back though from Indiana. It’s always fun to travel to Indiana. That was a little bit of sarcasm. Did you pick up on that?

Amy (02:07):

Yeah, I was gonna say, “Said no one ever,” but I didn’t wanna offend anyone because no one comes to Minnesota either.

Tony (02:13):

No, I love, I love the Hoosiers, and I was just at a great church. You’re gonna have to get your map out for this: DeMotte, Indiana. So, it’s kind of midway between Chicago and Indianapolis. And love this church. First of all, new, I say young leader. It’s a millennial leader younger than me, so younger leader.

Amy (02:36):


Tony (02:37):

And they’re in two, two rural locations in Indiana. And preparing to open their third location and one, there’s so many things that I loved about what they’re doing, but one of them is they have, they’re doing team teaching in their multisite strategy using video message delivery, Amy. And we always hear that excuse, of course, that video will, will never work in a rural area like rural Indiana. It’s working for them. And I think it’s just a good example of when you have great teaching when it’s delivered on video, people connect with it. They resonate with it, and it’s working for them. So, I was just very encouraged by the team at First Church in DeMotte, Indiana. So they’re doing great things.

Amy (03:21):

It reminds me of Prairie Lakes Church in Iowa. Jesse Tink and John Fuller out there. They’re, they’re slowly taking over Iowa in these rural counties.

Tony (03:29):

That’s right.

Amy (03:31):

And they’re doing it that same way through video teaching. I had the chance to go to Denver last week, and I was actually just shadowing one of our consultants to see our process in action. And I loved this team. They’re a mainline church, and they’re on the right side of the lifecycle, which we’re eventually going to talk about. But their spirits are left side of the lifecycle minded. You know, it’s, it’s challenging, right? For mainline churches to be in that stuck place and try to figure out how do they maintain their main lineness but also start to care about their mission field. One of the guys, you would’ve loved it, Tony, he was a great participant, and he just said, it was the day two when we kind of like, “How you doing?” He said, “You know, if it were all about me, I wouldn’t change a thing.” (He loves his church.) “But we would continue to attract 60-year-old, fill in the denomination, but it’s not about me.” And that’s just the spirit.

Tony (04:27):


Amy (04:27):

They’re gonna have a lot of work to do, but just reminded them this is not a three-month process. This is a three-year process. But they’re rolling up their sleeves, and they’re getting at it. So, came back with a little spring in my step. I love when they’re willing to enter the change wheel and make changes necessary to reach their community. So.

Tony (04:43):

So encouraging,

Amy (04:44):

Isn’t it? Well, that segues into our new series, cuz we’re actually gonna talk about the church lifecycle. And Tony, it’s been a while since we talked about this on our podcast, but I know you’re passionate about this topic because, well, you wrote a book about it, so.

Tony (04:59):

That’s right.

Amy (04:59):

Yeah. Can you explain a little bit the why behind this series and where we’re headed in the next few weeks?

Tony (05:05):

Yeah. So, it’s hard to believe, but I released my book. It’s called The Unstuck Church: Equipping Churches to Experience Sustained Health, and this is back in 2017 so a little bit more than five years ago.

Amy (05:17):


Tony (05:17):

And the concept of the book is this, regardless of their uniqueness, every church has the potential to go through a very similar lifecycle. The lifecycle of an organization usually is represented by a bell curve. We’re gonna have to include a visual on the show notes. But the horizontal access represents time, and the vertical access represents, you can think about it as ministry success or impact. And the curve shows how over time organizations will start, grow, thrive, decline and then eventually end. And the reality is that organizations, including churches, can get stuck in any season of that lifecycle. And that’s why it’s important to determine what season is our church in. Then we can intentionally interrupt that season because the, the necessary interruption will look different based on where the church is in the lifecycle. And without the interruption, though, what we’ve seen is the church will remain stuck and the natural pull will be towards decline and then eventually death. And because, as I like to say, “No one drifts back to health.”

Amy (06:31):


Tony (06:32):

So, Amy, in this series, we’re going to be exploring the key challenges that churches face in every phase of the church lifecycle, starting with launch, then momentum growth and strategic growth. Then we’re gonna take a look at sustained health, which is the pinnacle of the lifecycle and where we want churches to end up and stay for as long as possible. And then we’re gonna look at the declining side: maintenance, preservation and then ending in life support. And because the lifecycle is a curve, we will summarize these phases into three sides. The growing side on the left, sustained health on the top and the declining side on the right.

Amy (07:14):

Tony, it’ll be really interesting. This side of the pandemic, especially as we’ve been talking about with Christmas, showed some people returning to the church. I think beyond just taking The Unstuck Church Assessment to actually process through this series to go, “Really, where are we?” Because there are certain things like growth that can make you feel like you’re on the left side, but it isn’t. You just had a little bump, and you’re still on the right side. So, all right. So we got seven phases. We got three sides. So, where should we start today?

Tony (07:44):

Already, there’s a lot of math in today’s episode.

Amy (07:47):

I know.

Tony (07:47):

But today, we’re gonna kick things off by starting on the left side of the lifecycle, and we’re gonna be unpacking the challenges that come with the phases of launch, momentum growth and strategic growth specifically. But before we do that, I wanna point out that we did a series focused on the characteristics of each phase of the lifecycle back in 2019. So, we won’t spend too much time on that, on that in this series. If you wanna go back to that series, it was episodes 188 through 190. Okay. Now, let’s dive in. So when it comes to the left side of the lifecycle, the overarching theme is this: churches on the left side of the lifecycle must overcome the challenge of finding strategic clarity and developing systems to power their strategy.

Amy (08:33):

Yeah, that’s a big one. And let’s unpack that a little bit more, starting with the unique challenges of the launch phase.

Tony (08:40):

Yeah. So just to give a brief overview, the launch phase is the starting line. Everything is new, and this is a time for dreaming about what the church could potentially be in the future. It’s exciting, Amy. I mean, this is, there’s just a lot of, lot of excitement in the congregation, but it’s scary at the same time. And the leaders celebrate every time someone shows up at the same time. And they’re regularly wondering, though, “Will anybody show up?” I mean, some of you, especially church planners, have experienced this. And for that reason, the church is pretty much entirely focused on reaching new people and putting on their weekly Sunday services.

Amy (09:20):

Yeah. And that’s definitely one of the most exciting seasons to be a part of a church. But what are the challenges that are unique to this season?

Tony (09:28):

Well, there are quite a few, but they can be summarized as resource constraints. The two primary constraints being around people and money. So we need people to serve, but obviously, we need financial resources, as well. And churches that are starting out typically don’t have many paid staff; in fact, at the start, it may only be the lead pastor who is paid. And because of that, churches in this launch phase must rely heavily on volunteers to serve and lead ministry. And Amy, needless to say, churches are also in this launch phase—it’s just tight on money, tight on financial resources. And I think it’s one of the reasons why they try to stay very narrow and focused in their ministry model because they need financial resources to do only what they can do in that season.

Amy (10:17):

So Tony, when churches are facing the challenges of this launch phase, how do they tend to move up and to the right to get out of this initial launch phase and move towards momentum growth?

Tony (10:29):

Yeah, good question, Amy. When churches are trying to survive beyond launch, a couple things come to mind. First, the lead pastor needs to be a strong leader who willingly gives ministry away and empowers and energizes volunteers. And this is one of those areas where I’ve just seen pastors who they just, as you know, they kind of take on all the responsibility of the ministry themselves. And the challenge, of course, is when you do that, there’s only so much time; there’s only so much energy you have. And so it kind of limits the, the growth and the health of the church. Then secondly, churches need to count the cost. I mean, this is a principle from Luke 14, and make sure that they’re making realistic financial plans, that they’re thinking about what is it gonna cost for us to engage ministry to make sure that we’re spending within our means and, and maintaining appropriate financial margin. But for churches to survive beyond launch, there definitely needs to be a strong financial plan, but there also needs to be a strong plan in place to raise up and empower volunteers as soon as possible so that we can give ministry away.

Amy (11:42):

Mm-hmm. Right. All right. Well, let’s assume this new church, they’ve figured out a way to do ministry through volunteers and they’ve made this strong financial plan. Now, they’re in the season of momentum growth. What does that look like?

Tony (11:53):

Yeah, Amy. So I actually think this may be the most fun season in the lifecycle of a church because during this time it’s as if nothing can go wrong. I mean, people just start showing up to church, they’re inviting their friends, and then new people invite new people. So there’s just all kinds of momentum that’s happening, and growth seems to be happening almost supernaturally. The church is extremely outward-focused at this time, and it’s just, it’s as if it’s contagious. Every time the church opens its doors more new people show up. And I’ve been a, I’ve experienced this firsthand. I mean, it’s just a fun season of ministry.

Amy (12:36):

Yeah. I think when I started attending the church that my husband and I were engaged with for over 20 years, they had actually just come through this. So it’ll be interesting to pick up the next phase, but I’m guessing there are some unique challenges that churches face, even though there’s a lot of fun stuff going on.

Tony (12:51):

Yeah. And I would characterize these both as space constraints, including physical space constraints and ministry space constraints. In this phase, having adequate space will become a constant pressure for the ministry. Good problem. But it’s a problem; the hardest and maybe yet easiest solution will always be to find or build a bigger building. And of course, my prayer is that at some point, every church will grow enough to have to pull that trigger, but before you ever make that move, the best step is to ask, “How can we add another service?” And so adding services is one of the best strategies you can engage to improve the health of your church and for you to reach more people. And there’s several reasons why, but let me name a few. First, adding services, it forces you to multiply the number of leaders and volunteers in your church, which encourages people to embrace ownership in the ministry. Secondly, adding services will challenge you to create new systems to simplify how people connect to the church, how you communicate priority information, and then how you scale ministry programming. So this is going to encourage more people to take next steps in spiritual formation. And then adding services also creates more options for people. And people are busy, and their time is precious. And the more options that we can offer, the easier it will be for people to say yes to checking out the church.

Amy (14:26):

Yeah, absolutely. We always encourage churches to add a service before they try to find a bigger building. And, like you said, new people want options. They don’t necessarily want or need a bigger space. But Tony, how do these churches in the momentum growth phase know when it’s time to add a new service?

Tony (14:41):

Well, you need to first focus on getting to critical mass. And this is going to depend on the seating capacity of your current physical space. But in, in many instances, you need to fill at least half the seats in the room before you feel that energy and engagement, and before it feels like something’s happening. But when you consistently have more than 80% in your services, it’s probably time to be looking at adding another service. And my brother, I was just talking with him; he’s, he’s planting a church in Ohio right now. And what he noticed is this weekend, it was almost time for the service to start, and a family showed up—seven people.

Amy (15:27):


Tony (15:27):

And there were still empty seats in the room, but there weren’t seven seats together. And so that family was not able to be seated together. That is not the the ideal first impression you wanna give for, for folks, as they’re coming into their first service.

Amy (15:44):

Yeah. Just a quick question, Tony. As I’ve been meeting with churches, I’ve had the question come up three or four times this new year, and they’re saying, “Have you experienced now that we’re kind of post-Covid, that that 80% rule is shifting lower?” Like, is it starting to feel fuller for people, you know, at the 70%? I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that.

Tony (16:06):

Yeah, I mean because we came through Covid where I, I was talking with the pastor the other day. His very first Sunday was the Palm Sunday after Covid shut down a society; no one was in the building when he was preaching. And so I think having any size crowd just, it feels good after what we’ve been through.

Amy (16:27):


Tony (16:28):

But yeah, I would still do the math here; because I think if it’s 70%, then there’s still room to add people and that’s a good thing. To create more energy, to create more engagement, you want the room to be as full as possible before you start adding additional services. A second decision factor here, Amy, is you need to begin to shift people first before you start adding services. And the shift begins with being more intentional about seating people prior to services with well-trained, friendly greeters and ushers. Then as one service consistently bumps over that 80% mark, you need to routinely encourage people to attend the services that have more seats available. And so, you know, it’s not unusual for that later service on Sunday morning to get full first. Before you add a third service, as an example, your first step is to try to encourage people in that second service to go to the earlier service where there are more seats available. And if people really love Jesus, I think they’re gonna be willing to do that. Right?

Amy (17:36):

That’s right. That’s how they can get on mission with you.

Tony (17:38):

That’s right. Then the third decision factor is to move to multiple services as soon as you have the opportunity. And again, you mentioned it, this move will save you millions of dollars on facility space in the long run, but additionally, you’ll create more opportunities for more people to both attend a service and then serve a service. And the more ownership we can get in the invite and serving, again, it’s just gonna connect more and more people to the church. So we’re trying to encourage that momentum to continue into the future.

Amy (18:12):

Yeah. And one discipline that we had as an exec team was always playing the movie forward. We would predict how much we thought we would grow year over year so that we were never surprised when we needed a new service. We could actively start planning for that new service, boy, a year in advance of actually needing it so we could build volunteer teams. And so I would encourage churches in that momentum growth to play the movie forward. So you’re ready and not surprised by that need. All right. So say our new church, it’s doing good, Tony. Our new church is doing great. It’s reached multiple services, and we’re sustaining our momentum. So now we’re in what we call strategic growth. And what does that phase look like?

Tony (18:53):

So in strategic, in the strategic growth phase, really it’s, the key thing here is it’s a shift from personalities to teams. So the entrepreneurial bent, begin, it gets complimented now by an awareness that we also need structure and systems to be established. Momentum’s not gonna drive us further anymore. We need to get some of that structure and some of those systems in place. And in many cases, this is the first time that churches begin to recognize that it’s more than just getting people to show up. They also have to help people grow through discipleship path that encourages spiritual formation. So if the momentum growth phase was about reaching more people, the strategic growth phase is about helping people move from where they are to where God wants them to be.

Amy (19:46):

Yeah. Tony, you, you briefly mentioned structures and systems, two words I know we both love. Is this the major challenge of the strategic growth phase?

Tony (19:55):

Yeah, that’s right, Amy. As the church continues to grow, there’s going to be a tension that begins to develop. The church is not able to sustain its growth pace without establishing clear strategies, clear systems. These systems and structure constraints begin to show up because the existing systems and structures were developed when the church was much smaller. So what that means is this: if strategies are the long-term view of how the vision gets accomplished, then systems are really the day-to-day methods for executing the ministry strategy.

Amy (20:31):


Tony (20:32):

During the momentum growth phase, these systems start to form, but they’re typically handled by one person. So instead of documenting that process in writing, getting moving from oral to written tradition and equipping others to share the responsibility, one person becomes a system. And I’ve, I’ve joked, “If your system is go see Joe or go see Sue, you don’t have a system, you have a person.” And this may have worked in the past, but it’s not sustainable for the future. Additionally, until this point, it’s not unusual for everyone on the staff ministry team to be directly connected to the senior pastor. And again, I was just talking with a church the other day. Every person on staff was connected directly to the senior pastor. The organization is very flat. As the team grows, however, the senior pastor has to supervise and lead more and more people. And over time, it really becomes a span-of-care challenge, Amy.

Amy (21:33):

Yeah. These growing pains force leaders really to think more strategically, don’t they? And these are both good problems to have, but they can become huge barriers if they aren’t addressed. I just worked with the church last month. They were so flat, and part of the challenge coming in is they had been that way forever. So even trying to figure out who’s gonna participate in our strategic sessions, everyone felt left out because there was, you know, in the teens, the number of people reporting. So how can churches in this strategic growth phase get more strategic, right? About their systems and structure?

Tony (22:05):

Well, Amy, I mean, we need to make sure we have simple, repeatable systems implemented so that ministry can continue to expand and grow. To build your list of necessary systems, you might think about those key touch points where your team is interacting with people. So these are those instances when someone wants to take a next step, and I would prioritize the touchpoints that experience the most interactions and begin there. So don’t try to establish all the systems around all the touchpoints; look for the places where you have the most interactions, and begin to put systems and structure first in those places. And if a process happens over and over again, get that process out of one person’s brain and onto paper so that it can be executed by teams of people now in the future. So here are some examples that we’ve seen of common characteristics of healthy systems. First, healthy systems empower leaders to accomplish ministry without always having to get permission. So if we’re waiting on somebody to approve something, that’s probably an indication that we need to get a system in place. Healthy systems also are embraced and championed by the top leadership, and so we need to agree together. We need, this is one of those times where we need to stay united, make sure we agree with the system and not only embrace it but are able to champion. Healthy systems also mobilize more people rather than leaning on a handful of talented individuals. And so if we need to, we need to wait for the most gifted person to handle it, that means that’s an instance where we need a system in place. Healthy systems also simplify the path, and so it should make it easier for people to take their next steps. And then lastly, healthy systems improve over time. So you’re not gonna be able to establish a system today and assume it’s going to work over time. That system may work for today, but it’s going to also need to improve over time.

Amy (24:16):

Yep. And so, Tony, what would you say in regards to structure?

Tony (24:18):

Yeah. So when it comes to the structure of the, of the church staff, it needs to reflect the church’s ministry strategy. And then leadership development should be your core focus. So we’re gonna put the structure in place, and then we’re gonna identify the people to fill those key roles. But in order, if the church is continuing to grow, we’re gonna have to focus on leadership development. Really, it’s the only way to appropriately address the challenge that you’re going to experience as more people connect to your church. And then as a result of that, the, the number of people that you’re ministering to continues to grow. So we’re gonna have to focus on that. And Amy, you know, that’s going to begin with establishing a senior leadership team. And this is where we begin to move from a flat structure to getting to a healthy span of care for the senior pastor and other leaders.

Amy (25:12):


Tony (25:12):

So that we’re not only able to lead but care for the people in our ministry appropriately. Amy, as you think about structure, I mean, you bring a lot of expertise here. Any other tips come to mind?

Amy (25:25):

Yeah, I think what you just mentioned, building that senior leadership team, doing that at this appropriate time when you’re in strategic growth, because it sets the precedence that structure is something that we’re gonna hold loosely to, and we’re going to be as we grow and as we expand, that shouldn’t be a sacred cow, how we’re organized. And so of course, your structure, again, being a strategy should always reflect your vision. Where are we going? Does it support that vision? It should. You should put leaders in leadership roles. This is often where we make those mistakes of putting highly competent doers into leadership roles, and then they become a lid to their ministry area. So just ensuring we’re putting leaders in leadership roles with the right capacity. And then what I would encourage is, at this stage, begin to build high-level volunteer roles into your structure. So that you develop that muscle of not thinking we have to hire for every need but understanding what are those higher-level leader roles that can lead teams and be a part of that ministry. And of course, whatever structure you’re in, like I, you know, I’m a proponent of changing it once in a while.

Tony (26:30):


Amy (26:30):

But you should always be thinking about your next two steps with any restructure because we don’t wanna be manic about it. We wanna be able to build. When I work with a multisite church, I don’t just give them their next structure. I give them their next two so they understand, “Okay, these are the leaders we need to be looking for in the months and years to come.” All right. Well, that was a lot. To recap, churches on the left side of the lifecycle must overcome the challenge of finding strategic clarity and developing systems to power their strategy. And now, Tony, I know we’re out of time, but I realized we haven’t covered one important topic yet. So how do churches know what phase or side of the life lifecycle they’re in?

Tony (27:10):

Yeah, Amy, I’m glad you asked. The long answer is that they should consider reading the book (It’s a great book, by the way. Of course, I’m a little biased) since it’s important to realize some of those distinct characteristics of each phase. However, we’ve also developed a free tool. It’s called The Unstuck Church Assessment. And we’ve had, I think it’s over 10,000 now, churches that have taken this assessment. And it’s great because it helps churches self-assess their current lifecycle stage. So you can figure out of the seven phases, which one are you in today. And I highly encourage you to check out that free assessment in your show notes as a starting point for taking your next steps toward health. And then tune in again next week where we’ll discuss the challenges. Yes, there are some challenges even for those churches that are in sustained health.

Sean (28:01):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. At The Unstuck Group, our goal is to help pastors grow healthy churches by guiding them to align vision, strategy, team and action. In everything we do, our priority is to help churches help people meet and follow Jesus. If there’s any way we can serve you in your church, reach out to us today at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.


  • Loved the episode and I’m looking forward to the rest in this series. One thing I’d love to hear you guys talk about sometime is how to put together a leadership team within a smaller church. We’re a church under 200 and I find that we have a lot of what Amy called “highly competent doers” but I don’t know that we have very many high level leaders. How do we overcome this obstacle?


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