The Future of Multisite (Part 2)
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There is a right way and a wrong way to approach multisite. In other words, not all multisite strategies produce the same results.
I have to admit: I have a little bit of trepidation about what we’re going to discuss in today’s podcast. I know not every campus pastor or church leader will agree with me on these core issues. But I also have a strong conviction and desire to see churches find health in their multisite models.
DISCUSSING THE CORE ISSUES OF MULTISITE
In the first episode of our Future of Multisite series, Amy and I discussed many of the common questions, truths, and lies surrounding multisite. (Part 3 on The Best Practices of Multisite is now available). This week, join us as we walk through some of the core issues in popular multisite models that lead to dysfunction and disunity among campuses, including:
- The video vs. live teaching debate
- What to look for in a campus pastor
- The case for going multisite
- Knowing when it’s time to un-multisite
To Multisite or Un-Multisite: Clarify a Path Forward
There are some predictable outcomes of every multisite strategy. Does your current strategy produce the results you hoped it would?
Access the video replay from our "To Multisite or Un-Multisite?" webinar and leave with the tools you need to evaluate and fix your multisite strategy.
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. In over 12 years of work with hundreds of multi-site churches, we’ve noticed some common core issues emerge when it comes to multi-site strategy. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy continue our three-part series covering the truth, issues and models that impact the future of the multi-site church with some practical ideas to address the common core issues. Before today’s episode, if you’re new to the podcast, head over to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast, and subscribe to get the show notes each week in your email. When you do, you will get resources to go along with that week’s episode, including our leader conversation guide, and some bonus resources and access to our podcast resource archive. Again, that’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for today’s conversation.
We’re continuing our series on multisite strategy. And today we’re gonna focus on the core issues that leaders need to consider related to their multi-site model. And Tony, I’m looking at the outline of where we’re going in this conversation, and I think this is gonna be a very specific and practical resource content for our listeners. And frankly, it doesn’t look like you’re gonna hold back with your perspective today on multi-site strategy.
That’s absolutely right, Amy. In fact, I have two audiences in mind today. First, are the pastors and church leaders who are considering adding new multi-site locations. And then the second group I have in mind are the pastors and church leaders who are actually considering un-multi-siting. If you’re not in one of those two audiences, you have my permission to turn off this episode and listen to someone else’s podcast today. In fact, one of my current favorite podcasts that I’m listening to is called, “Wisdom From the Top” from NPR. So you should check that out on Spotify or wherever you get your podcast. Free advertisement for NPR. I know they’re looking for more promotions. But if you are one of those two audiences I mentioned, this is why today’s episode is such an important topic. And I hesitate to share what I’m about ready to say, because I’m probably going to tick off a bunch of pastors at multi-site churches and other leaders in the broader church who have been advocates for the multi-site model through the years. And it’s even more likely that just about every campus pastor at a multi-site church is going to disagree with what I’m about to say. But first let me acknowledge there are many, many people in the church context who are advocates for the multi-site model to help churches reach more people for Jesus and help more people take their next steps toward Christ. And I am one of those advocates for the multi-site model, mainly because I’ve seen it work so many times. And in case you’re curious, I’ve heard that several large churches are adding campuses on this side of the pandemic because multi-site still works. However, and I hope you’re ready for this.
I’m excited to hear what you got to say, Tony.
Because I haven’t heard anyone say what I’m about ready to say, I have a little bit of trepidation here, but I have strong conviction about this. There is a right way and a wrong way to approach multi-site, or to say it another way, all multi-site strategies don’t produce same results. It would be like saying there are many ways to parent our kids. That’s true, but all parenting approaches don’t produce the same results. Some parenting approaches increase the odds that will raise kids and equip them to become healthy, successful, thriving adults, but they don’t guarantee that, but they do increase that probability. And likewise, some multi-site approaches increase the odds that we will have a healthy, thriving ministry that reproduces disciples of Jesus. But, to put it bluntly, there are some multi-site approaches that increase the odds that you will create more complexity, overburden existing staff and volunteers. It’ll lead to overt staffing. It’ll cost you more money. It’ll foster division in your church. It will create confusion about who you are in your community. And most importantly, it will get you off mission. And I can say that because I’ve also seen many churches attempt multi-site strategies that unfortunately create negative outcomes. And one of the reasons they choose multi-site strategies that don’t work is because way too many multi-site experts have told churches there are many ways to do multi-site, and these experts report data demonstrating and celebrating all the many ways churches are doing multisite. But what never gets reported in that data are all the failed outcomes of the many churches that have tried to implement a bad multisite strategy. And I’ve personally probably worked with at least a dozen of these churches just in the last 12 months. So let me say it again, there is a right way and a wrong way to approach multi-site. All multi-site strategies don’t produce the same results. And honestly, Amy, I’m just tired of seeing great ministries invest lots of time, lots of money and energy into a multi-site strategy that’s just not producing results, and they really never had the chance to succeed. So with that in mind, in today’s episode, we’re going to tackle a couple of these core multi-site issues head on, and I suggest you might wanna buckle up and please direct all of your feedback related to my comments today to Amy.Anderson@theunstuckgroup.com. Amy, is at your email address?
Thank goodness, it is not.
Oh, it isn’t? Okay.
Close. Well with that as a setup, let’s begin with the most controversial core issue first. Should multi-site churches use video to deliver messages to all locations or should multi-site churches have in-person, live teachers at every location?
Yeah, this is the big topic, isn’t it? So, based on our experience working with hundreds of multi-site churches, this is actually an easy answer for me. You increase the odds of success with your multi-site model if you use video delivery of messages as much as possible, so that you have every campus hearing from your senior pastor as the primary teacher on a consistent basis. It provides every location hearing the same message every week, which helps you maintain unity of mission and vision and doctrine within your church. And, you know, it’s amazing, when there are different teachings happening on Sunday morning in the same church, how much doctrine actually starts to waiver between the different locations. I’m amazed at how that happens. Also when you use video teaching, it streamlines the efforts of your creative arts teams to support the teaching at every location. Another benefit is that you can build a teaching team, but you guarantee that every location on any given Sunday is hearing the best, most gifted Bible teacher on that particular Sunday. It’s also the best stewardship of your financial resources in the long run, because rather than several teaching pastors investing 10 to 20 hours a week preparing messages, you have one pastor doing all of that work every single time. Buying a projector, and a nice projector at that, will always be a lot cheaper than paying the salaries, taxes, and benefits for multiple pastors to be preparing multiple messages every week.
Hey, Tony, I think when a church feels strong convictions that we have to have live teaching at every campus. This is where I go, then don’t compromise. Plant a church. Plant a church. Flip to the other model. Again, multi-site is great. Church planting is great, but there’s different strategies to get there. And so if you’re feeling so strongly, we have to have live teaching. I would challenge a multisite leader to say, should we be church planting?
That’s right. So with all of those benefits, let me get to the biggest benefit. The biggest benefit is this. You avoid splitting your church, and Amy, again, I’ve seen this happen so many times. I’ve really completely lost count. Let me play out this scenario. Church goes into multi-site, and they decide up front, we’re gonna let our campus pastor teach every week at that new location. Over time, the campus pastor becomes the primary voice of that congregation. It’s the key voice that that congregation is hearing every week,
That’s right. Over time, the campus pastor starts to shape their vision, their direction for that particular campus. The campus grows more independent and they desire more autonomy over time because of that. Then tension begins to develop between the campus and central ministry teams. And that especially happens around staffing questions and financial decisions. And then over time, that tension, that division increases, and eventually the church splits. Either the campus becomes an independent church, or frankly the senior pastor just gets fed up and decide to un-multisite. So, I mean, Amy check me on this. Am I making up this scenario out of thin air? Or is this the reality you’ve seen as well?
Yeah, it’s the reality I’ve seen as well. I mean, we’re human. People follow the leader they hear from, and by the way, these campus pastors aren’t bad leaders. They just slowly over time as well start to see them as the pastor of this church, and Tony, I still get stomach pains when I think about a church I served early in my Unstuck years, and they had multiple locations. They had their campus pastors teaching. And by the time the senior pastor kind of figured out his church was about to break apart, it honestly was too late. And not only did the church divide, but relationally, they just schismed. And it was so unhealthy. And we just know now this is a predictable outcome when we go down this path.
Yeah. So again, I could go on with other benefits we see, including avoiding the church splits, but let me jump to the pushback that always comes up related to using video teaching. The first is around this theme. We’ll hear things like it doesn’t create opportunities to develop other Bible teachers. And of course this argument assumes that the teaching gift can only be developed on Sunday morning. And that’s just not true. In fact, I would argue Sunday morning is actually the last place that you should be developing new Bible teachers.
Secondly though, if you require campus pastors to also teach, aren’t you limiting the opportunities to develop ministry leaders who don’t preach? So, I mean, think about leaders like Amy and me. We’re not preacher/teachers, but by saying your campus pastor has to teach, you would be limiting leadership opportunities for people like Amy and myself. Here’s another theme. We’ll hear things like this. We prefer a teaching team because we don’t want to become a personality-driven church. And I couldn’t agree more. We advocate for a teaching team as well. We just know the advantages of that teaching team through video delivery in every location, because among other things, it helps maintain unity within the church at every location. Here’s a third theme that we hear. We’ll hear things like this. Our context is unique. People don’t want video teaching because our community is too rural. Our community is too suburban. Our community is too urban. Our community is this culture or that culture and on and on and on. I mean, we’ve really heard every excuse when it comes to, you know, whether or not a community is right for video teaching. But here’s what I’ve seen. When it’s good, Biblical teaching that helps people apply God’s truth to everyday life, we’ve seen video teaching work in every ministry context.
Yeah, we have. I think, Tony, it might be helpful. Can you share any specific stories or examples where you’ve seen this?
Yeah, let me preface this by saying I’ve talked to many churches through the years that have learned the same lesson that I’m about ready to share. And this isn’t an indictment of one specific church. Again, like last week, there are dozens of churches, that will actually email Amy, since I gave her email address, and said, you know, Tony was talking specifically about our church on today’s podcast. And you know, Amy just tell them, yes, I was talking about your church. So see how they respond to that. So here’s what happened. I was working with a multi-site church in the last year, and one of their campuses wasn’t growing. And so they heard from people at that location who suggested the reason why the campus wasn’t reaching more people was because the church was using video teaching. And again, there are hundreds of church leaders right now saying, he’s talking about our church. Maybe I am. The leadership then heard this, and they began to wonder maybe people in our community prefer in person teaching. Maybe that’s why this campus isn’t reaching more people. So the leadership team came to the conclusion that video teaching works for some churches, but maybe it doesn’t work in our community. So several months ago, they shifted to in-person teaching at that particular campus. And the attendance didn’t change. However, recently, another multi-site church opened a campus in that very same community. And guess what? That new church only uses video teaching, and that new church that’s using video teaching currently, they have about six times more people attending their Sunday morning services than the church in the same community that thought it was all about the live teaching. Again, that’s just one story, but in all my years of helping multi-site churches, I’ve never seen in-person teaching have a significant impact on attendance at a campus, unless it’s the senior pastor who’s doing the in-person teaching.
Okay. Well, we’ve successfully stirred up the hornet’s nest, but let’s keep things going. Yeah. Another core issue relates to leadership, Tony, and this all has to do with who to hire as the campus pastor. We started talking about this last week. As long as someone is a strong leader, can any person be a campus pastor?
Amy, again, this is an easy answer for me. I would argue absolutely not. Just as there are certain gifts, personalities, and experiences that prepare people for specific roles and leadership within the body of Christ. The same is true for the campus pastor role. In other words, you increase the potential for success with your multi-site model if you hire the right leader to be your campus pastor. And so let me give you some specifics here. This is what I’ve learned through the years about what makes a successful campus pastor. This leader is more of a vision carrier than a vision creator. This leader is more of a builder than an entrepreneur. This leader is more about galvanizing than invention. This leader is more about empowering than controlling the people that they lead. And lastly, and this may be the most important one, this leader is more of a missionary than a preacher. So if you hire a strong leader, who’s a vision creator, an entrepreneur who always is inventing things and prefers to tell others what to do. And they love to preach. Guess what? That person will constantly be complaining about not being able to shape their own vision, start new things and preach more. That leader’s gonna be frustrated. The team around that leader will be frustrated. And most importantly, you will be frustrated, and Amy, again, am I making this stuff up?
No, you’re not making it up. You know this, Tony, I’m married to a guy that was a campus pastor for 15 years. And all those qualities you just read off. That’s what made him a great campus pastor. And when I’m working with a multi-site church that’s stuck, this issue of kind of the DNA and gifting of the campus pastor, when I’m working with a multi-stuck church, is almost always at play. They have great people with the wrong wiring or gifting to be in the campus pastor role. And by the way, usually the teaching model is a little askew as well, because they’ve got this great leader who wants to preach and they wanna keep him happy. And it just, it’s part of the tangle that you get into.
That’s right. So this is why you’ve probably heard me say somewhere along the way, if you’ve been following my content for a number of years, that student pastors, honestly, they often struggle in campus pastor leadership roles. So, you know, think about a student pastor. They start out with a lot of autonomy and independence in their student ministry. And then we put them in a campus pastor role where they have to carry someone else’s vision. They have to build teams around an existing ministry strategy. And then we make them sit in the front row most Sundays to watch someone else teach. And needless to say, it wouldn’t be so funny if it weren’t so true, would it?
I know. I know.
Needless to say, if someone wants to plant a church and/or become a senior pastor at some point in the future, they’re going to be absolutely frustrated as a campus pastor. And that’s going to create a lot of frustration for you too. We’ll talk more about the right profile of a campus pastor in our upcoming webinar, but the bottom line is this. You need a strong leader in all ministry areas, but you especially need the right strong leader to be the campus pastor of a congregation of your church. And here’s the part where almost every campus pastor listening is going to disagree with my convictions about there being a right way and a wrong way to approach multi-site. But it relates to that first core issue we discussed today, Amy it’s about the campus pastors. And so campus pastors, I hope you’re sitting down for this because this is my conviction. You can be a successful campus pastor, leading a healthy, thriving campus and never teach a message on Sunday morning. The right campus pastor doesn’t need to be the person giving the sermon every week. In fact, there are millions of great leaders in and out of ministry who don’t have the luxury of teaching a 45 minute message every week. But they’re very capable leaders, leading strong and mobilizing others to fulfill a great mission. In fact, if you’re feeling like you need to preach in order to lead, that’s actually a clear indication that you shouldn’t be a campus pastor. You should be a student pastor. You should be a senior pastor. You should be a church planter, or you should be in some other ministry role where you can develop your teaching gift while you continue to develop as a leader.
Can I just add, you should have said like 35 minute message. That’s really more what we recommend. Didn’t wanna interrupt though. When we work with churches to multi-site or in some cases un-multi-site, our process guides them through probably more than a dozen multisite core issues. And unfortunately, we only had time to discuss two of the most critical issues, but Tony, based on everything you mentioned today, why would a church even consider multisite? It sounds like multisite comes with a lot of challenges.
Yeah, Amy, you’re absolutely right. Multi-site comes with a lot of challenges, but multi-site also provides incredible opportunities. When multi-site ministry is done right, it produces significant kingdom results. I mean, go back and listen to last week’s podcast episode. Multi-site churches are growing faster and reporting more faith conversions than other churches, including new church plants. So if you’re on a mission to help more people say yes to Jesus and take their next steps toward Christ, multi-site is a proven ministry strategy with proven results. That said, my goal for today was to finally say out loud what I’m not hearing anyone else say. You can do multi-site many different ways, but they don’t all produce the same results. So when you hear a pastor say, multi-site isn’t working for us, that doesn’t mean the multi-site model is broken and it won’t work for any church. It may mean they used the wrong multisite approach, and it didn’t work for that specific church. Or when you hear about a large, prominent church that decides to un-multisite, that doesn’t mean the multisite model has stopped working for every church, because the data actually would suggest otherwise. What it may mean is that pastor just decided it’s not worth the investment of leadership capital required to make and implement the tough decisions that are needed to leverage the full potential of a multi-site model. Likewise, it could be as simple as that pastor learning, God, didn’t call me to this. And I’m not supposed to lead a multi-site church. It’s not a knock on the model. It’s just an acknowledgement of God’s call in that particular pastor’s life. Or just to be honest, it’s possible that the church did everything right. The church had the right multi-site model, but they didn’t get the results that they desired and the results that they were praying for. But again, the right multi-site approach doesn’t guarantee the outcome. At the end of the day, I hope you agree it’s the Lord that builds the church. We don’t build the church, so we can faithfully do everything God has called us to do, but we may not personally experience the fruit from that ministry.
So what about that church? What should the pastor do if they’re doing multi-site right, but not getting the results they expected?
Yeah. Amy, for that church that has the right multi-site strategy, but they’re not getting the right results. I have two words of encouragement for you. First, you need to celebrate. I mean, thank you for taking that risk. We need more churches making bold moves to reach more people for Jesus. I mean, churches that don’t change are going to eventually die. And I firmly believe God is constantly desiring to do new things in our lives and new things in our churches. And we need more pastors and church leaders pursuing God-sized dreams. Trying multi-site and not getting the desired results, it’s not a failure. It’s actually an indication that you are fully committed to God’s mission for your church, and that is worth celebrating. But secondly, it’s time for you to un-multi-site. You know, we’re still called to be good stewards of the resources that God has entrusted to us. And that includes being good stewards of the people, the leaders, the money, and more importantly to that mission that he’s called us to. So I know, again, you remember that parable of the talents. There were three servants. The first two servants were good stewards of the resources that were entrusted to them. They invested those resources wisely and they doubled their return. The third servant, primarily out of fear, buried those resources. And at the end of the day, there was no additional return. That servant didn’t lose anything, but he didn’t gain any return either. So let me be pointed here. I know this won’t be easy to hear, but if a church is investing significant volunteer time, leadership capital, and money into a multi-site campus, and that campus is not experiencing health and growth, and they’re not thriving after years of trying, if you are not getting the return from those resources, you have been been investing over time, which one of those servants in the parable are you most like? And I know, this is a tough leadership moment. I mean, I recently personally had a similar decision for our ministry. We took a risk, a big risk, trying something new a couple years ago. We invested a big chunk of time and resources to make it happen. And initially it worked, but recently it wasn’t getting the results we needed to match the investment that we were making. And as a leader, even though I was the person who made the decision to launch that new initiative, I also had to make the decision to pull the plug after getting input from my team. And we’ve certainly helped more churches through the years launch new campuses than churches we’ve helped un-multisite, but we have helped several churches un-multisite. And that includes one very large church we served in the last year. They had three campuses. The two newer locations, they had a combined attendance of close to 1500 people. So Amy, it’s not like this was a failed attempt at multisite by any means. But honestly, the senior pastor just wasn’t called to pastor a multisite church. So we helped them through a process to un-multisite as a ministry. All that to say, our time is too short and our mission is too long to continue pouring resources into something that’s not doubling our kingdom returns.
That’s a good word, Tony. Any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Well, after these last two episodes, I hope some of you are, you’re ready to dive into either going multisite or un-multisiting. And I want to invite you to join our team on March 31st. It’s a free webinar. It’s called, “To Multisite or Un-multisite: Four Keys to a Clear Path Forward.” And Amy and I will be sharing some best practices and practical tools to help you discern the best strategy for your ministry. And we’ll answer some of the common questions like, “Are we healthy enough to become or remain a multi-site church? Should our campuses be identical or independent? Does the location of our campus matter?” And you’ll be able to find out more information and register for this free event through the link in our show notes.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. We would love to have you join us for our free webinar coming up on March 31st “To Multisite or Un-multisite.” To learn more and register, just visit us at theunstuckgroup.com/webinar. 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.
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