May 8, 2024

The First Step Toward Healthy Growth – Episode 347

the first step toward healthy growth – episode 347

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How Healthy Churches Grow (Part 1)

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Attendance growth at a church is not a guaranteed sign of health—and we all know the stories that prove it. After all, both healthy and unhealthy things can grow.

But desiring healthy growth is still a good thing. It means you’re focused on reaching your mission field.

This week, we’re jumping into a new series called “How Healthy Churches Grow.” In this new series, we’re going back to the basics: How exactly do healthy churches grow? What do their leaders do differently?


Over the next three episodes, we’ll explore the core tensions we see church leaders managing related to assessing their ministry’s health, strategic planning with a focus on growth, and building the systems for executing that strategy.

In this episode, we’ll unpack the first principle of healthy growth based on our work with 650+ churches over the last 15: objective assessment.

  • The challenges of assessing your own health
  • The benefits of objective health assessments
  • Why you need an outside perspective
  • Metrics every church should be tracking
Attendance growth isn't always a sign of health. After all, both healthy and unhealthy things can grow. [episode 347] #unstuckchurch Share on X Most leaders have a gut feeling that what they’re doing is or isn’t working, but sometimes that initial assessment is wrong. [episode 347] #unstuckchurch Share on X When you don't assess effectively, you start to do things without knowing whether or not you’re actually getting results. [episode 347] #unstuckchurch Share on X Assessment helps you make sure you’re spending your time and resources on solving the right problems. [episode 347] #unstuckchurch Share on X
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This Episode is Sponsored PATH:

As your church grows, it becomes difficult to see individuals through the crowd. It’s time to transform your data into discipleship with PATH.

Using PATH’s clear, actionable reports to define reality, gain clarity, and know your people, you can be confident that you’re maximizing your data to shepherd and care for the people in your church when they need you most. To learn more and receive a free resource on “Shepherding Tips and Ideas,” visit

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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. The overall narrative across most of the world is that the Christian church is in decline, but for many of the churches connecting with The Unstuck Group, there’s an entirely different story playing out. On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy begin a new series focused on How Healthy Churches Grow with a conversation on how to know if your church is really healthy. Before we go there, though, if you’re new to the podcast, just head to and subscribe to get the episode show notes in your email. When you do, each week, you’re going to get resources to support that week’s episode, including our Leader Conversation Guide and access to our podcast resource archive. Again, that’s to subscribe. Now, before we start this week’s conversation, here’s a word from Tony.

Tony (00:57):

You got into ministry because you feel compelled to lead people to meet and follow Jesus, but as your church grows, it just becomes difficult to see individuals through the crowd. You may try to solve this by using a church management software but that mostly just houses the data you’ve gathered. It’s time to transform your data into discipleship with PATH. Using PATH’s, clear, actionable reports to define reality, gain clarity and know your people, you can be more confident that you’re maximizing your data to shepherd and care for the people in your church when they need you the most. To learn more and receive your first free resource, visit

Amy (01:44):

Well, welcome back to all of our listeners. Tony, good to see you. Where have you been lately?

Tony (01:49):

Yeah, so, last week, Emily actually traveled with me. And Amy, you’re not a big college football fan, but there’s a big college football rivalry between Oklahoma University and Texas. And it’s called the Red River Rivalry. Emily and I actually had the experience of being on the OU campus one part the early part of the week and then on the Texas campus the latter part of the week, which was pretty fun. We were doing some fun family things and just seeing the sites and so on, but we also had a chance to visit with a great church in Oklahoma City. I’ve probably talked about them on the podcast a little bit: Victory Family Church, four locations around Norman. And boy, they’re doing fabulous, fabulous ministry. In fact, I want to get Pastor Adam, their senior pastor, in our content in the coming days because you really need to hear from him directly about some of the great work that they’re doing to reach people for Jesus and help them take steps towards Christ. So love that. And then, had a chance for the very first time to actually go watch Pastor Carlos at Gateway in Austin and a great team, again, great church. And I love, it was just so fun listening, Pastor, Pastor Carlos teach on, again, a tough topic because, and we’re just coming out of that series. But the message was actually focused to singles, Amy, and so it was interesting as a married person hearing the teaching on that topic but very, very helpful for the entire crowd, including those of us that had been married for more than 30 years. So, that was fun to actually experience a service with Gateway in Austin.

Amy (03:45):

What’s so good about that, Tony, is for what we do, we get to see a lot of different churches and a lot of different experiences, and I hope our listeners, I hope you get to get out once in a while and experiencing something different because there’s always a nugget of, Boy, we could do that better. We should incorporate that. I wonder why they did that and actually just help your church get stronger. So, anyways, glad you had those opportunities. Today, we are jumping into a new series called How Healthy Churches Grow, and of course, attendance growth at a church isn’t necessarily a guaranteed sign of health, and we all know the stories that prove that. After all, both healthy and unhealthy things can grow. As a gardener, I know both healthy and unhealthy things can grow, but desiring healthy growth, that’s still a good thing. It means you’re focused on reaching your mission field.

Tony (04:35):

That’s right, Amy, and as we were brainstorming around this series, I remember you said this, “Not all churches that grow are healthy.” So, in this new series, we’re going to really kind of go back to the basics. How exactly do healthy churches grow and what do their leaders do differently? So, over these next three episodes, we’ll explore the core tensions that we see church leaders managing related to assessing their ministry’s health, strategic planning, with a focus on growth obviously, and then building the systems for executing that strategy. And we’re going to share what we’ve learned about healthy church growth from serving more than 650 churches over these last 15 years.

Amy (05:17):

Great. Well, let’s dive in on that. So, Tony, based on your work with churches, what have you seen are some of the key tension areas that pastors feel when it comes to assessing their own church health?

Tony (05:29):

Yeah. Well, Amy, it’s interesting, and we’ve talked about this a lot. It’s actually a sign of someone who has the leadership gift because leaders sense opportunities and they sense challenges I think before everybody else on the team. And I’ve had so many conversations with pastors and other church leaders where they feel like something isn’t right, but then, they don’t have anything to kind of back it up and help them define that issue and define what the challenge or the problem is. And so, I think the question we need to be asking ourselves is, Do we trust our gut? Or could it be that our gut is lying to us? Because as a leader, I know personally there have been several instances, many instances through the years where, gosh, I felt like in my gut I needed to go down a certain path and we needed to make certain decisions even related to what we’re doing at The Unstuck group. And then, realized after the fact, because my gut was wrong, that I had made the wrong decision. And I don’t want you to call those out on this conversation today, Amy.

Amy (06:41):

Can’t even remember any of them, Tony. Can’t remember any of those decisions. I think, too, don’t you think with the gut thing, too, I sense that with Senior Pastors, too, and Executive Pastors. But when Senior Pastors have that, they don’t always have the time to lean in.

Tony (06:57):

That’s right.

Amy (06:58):

Because of their rhythm and their routine, I find in our health assessment visits, a lot of times the pastors will say, “That just confirmed what I had been feeling,” but they haven’t had the time to lean in. But the flip side, for me, are Lead Pastors that maybe just have a wife or a kid who’s feeding them information, and all of a sudden, they think something is off where maybe their gut can be wrong.

Tony (07:22):

And then, Amy, I mean, I think this is a good thing. Pastors kind of want to know how are we doing compared to other churches? And I get it. This is an very important mission that we’re on, and we just want to know the things that we’re doing to help people meet and follow Jesus, that what we’re doing is actually working. And one of the ways that we can confirm that or not is to know how other churches are engaging their mission, particularly as culture changes or society changes. And because of that, churches are engaging in some different ministry strategy changes. And because of that, pastors, they just want to know how are we doing, especially compared to some other churches. So I get the tension, and again, as a leader of The Unstuck Group’s ministry, those are some of the same questions that I wrestle with personally, too, because I want us to be at the top of our game as far as our mission’s concerned because we think it’s critical to helping churches like yours experience health to thrive, to continue to engage the mission that God’s called you to. So I get it.

Amy (08:34):

Yeah. So going back to just that kind of gut instinct, what would you say are some of the problems with trying to assess health, just subjectively?

Tony (08:42):

Yeah, Amy, I understand. I mean, every leader kind of has that sense in their gut of what’s working well, what’s not working. And the reality is sometimes just that initial assessment, as I mentioned, can be wrong. And I think part of what compounds that is, especially for pastors, we’re so sensitive to how other people perceive what’s happening in our ministries. And just to be honest, how people are perceiving our role as leader, pastor, shepherd of our congregation. And because of that, maybe too often, I don’t know. We really put a lot of weight on the conversations that we are having personally. And the reality is, especially in larger churches, even though we are personally having these conversations on a daily basis, there’s no way for us to know what’s really happening, especially in a large church in everybody’s lives, and we’ve talked about this in the past. Is sometimes we conflate the positive conversations in an unhealthy way because we assume if something’s happening, a good thing is happening in one person’s life, well, that must mean the ministry strategies that we’re engaging are actually helping everyone in our church. But I would say the reverse is even more true for pastors because we’re so sensitive to—people pleasing may be too strong—but we want people to like us. I mean, it’s part of one of the reasons why we got into ministry is we wanted to help people. And when we sense that something’s not right in relationships with people, with us as pastors or with people and their relationship with our church, we take that personally. And so, more oftentimes what I’ve seen is it’s actually a negative conversation that a pastor might have that they then take and extrapolate that, “Well, if that person has had a negative experience, then everything that we’re doing is wrong as a church, and we need to revisit everything.” And so, when you can’t have honest assessment, and sometimes, it’s helpful here, Amy, to bring somebody from the outside that isn’t relationally connected, isn’t emotionally connected to who we are and what we’re doing as a church. If you don’t have that honest assessment, you can start to do things without knowing whether or not you’re actually getting the results. So, let me give you an example of this. One of the churches that reached out to us several years ago had had some conversations with people that had been around the church, and they were looking at the people that were leaving their church. And there was a real sense that they had a stickiness issue that maybe others would define it as a backdoor problem in their church because people that had been around the ministry for so long felt like more and more of them were starting to leave the church. And again, leader hears one or two stories like that, and you start to think, “Well, then we really do have a backdoor problem. We have to fix that problem.”

Amy (12:06):

That’s right.

Tony (12:06):

Well, Amy, we got in and started to look at their data and actually assessing is this more front door issue or more of a backdoor challenge? And stickiness wasn’t the issue when we started to dig into the data; it was the fact that they weren’t reaching as many new people. There weren’t as many new people coming to the church. There weren’t as many new people connecting to faith. And actually, when we started to dig into the data, there was almost a straight line trend of a decline in the number of new people that they were reaching. And that’s one example of sometimes our gut, based on the conversations that we’re having, tells us one thing, but we kind of need to step back and take an honest assessment. Looking at some hard data in some instances helps us do that. Sometimes, again, bringing somebody from the outside to give fresh perspective and ask questions in a different way helps us get to that. But what we want to help churches avoid is running after and fixing a symptom or a problem that really isn’t the problem. We want to make sure that we’re pursuing solutions to things that are really impacting the overall health of the church.

Amy (13:23):

That’s a great example on this subjective piece, Tony, because had that team not moved into the objective analysis of what was going on, they would’ve spent a lot of time, money, resource on the wrong problem.

Tony (13:36):

That’s right.

Amy (13:36):

So, let’s actually shift then and talk through what are some of the benefits of objective assessments and what does that look like practically?

Tony (13:44):

Yeah, so I mean, I’m sure other churches, many churches look at this in different ways, but for The Unstuck Group, some of the common themes that we’re trying to work through to help churches get an honest assessment, objective assessment of where they are has to do with the types of resources that we’re polling before we even have any strategy or structure conversations with them. And so for us, as an example, we’re running vital signs just to dive into some of the data. We’re helping them go through The Unstuck Church assessment to understand where they are in the church life cycle. We’re having conversations with leaders about the things that are healthy in the church right now—what are the strengths of the church? Then, also, what are the weaknesses? What are the challenges that you’re facing as a church? Looking externally to some of the opportunities and threats and really getting a good sense of where the church is today in the context of the community and the society and culture around the church. And again, we’re not initially trying to solve problems. We’re really just trying to get perspective, trying to identify what are the gaps that exist? What are the real challenges that we’re trying to pursue? It’s like going to the doctor, Amy, and you got to sore throat, and it’s not going to be helpful for the doctor just to prescribe something to address the sore throat unless you know what’s the underlying illness that’s causing that symptom.

Amy (15:19):

That’s right.

Tony (15:19):

And I think the same thing happens with good objective assessment. With the right tools, you can understand, okay, you have the symptom, but what’s the underlying challenge that’s causing that symptom to exist?

Amy (15:33):

Tony, you mentioned vital signs. And let’s just park here for a second because I’ve heard you say some things about vital signs, like one metric doesn’t tell your health. We have to look at both reach and discipleship. Can you just for our listeners describe a little bit about why we want churches to take the vital signs and what that provides for them?

Tony (15:51):

Yeah, so for years, churches, in fact, I went to one of the first churches that Emily and I were a part of when we were living in Illinois. The church had been around for decades. And you would walk into the sanctuary, and at, in the sanctuary, it would show this was our attendance last week, and this was our attendance the week before. And then it would show this is how much we had in giving this week and this how is how much it was the week before it was a sign. I think many older churches, traditional churches used to have that. I don’t know what the benefit of that was, honestly, but those were the two numbers that churches tracked. And it was very clear walking into the sanctuary every week, where was the attendance and where was the giving? I don’t want to disparage attendance and giving. We need to know that because it’s giving us a clue to how many people are we reaching. And giving honestly is maybe one of the clearest pictures of our people taking steps towards Jesus because it’s a reflection of someone’s maturity in Christ. But those certainly are not the only two metrics we need to be considering. And so, in our vital signs assessment, we’re looking at other kind of reach metrics. So, how many new people are we engaging? How many first-time guests are showing up on Sunday? How many first-time kids are we seeing on a regular basis? Because that’s the clearest picture that we have of how many new families are showing up, especially since we have to track exactly who is in our children’s ministry every week to make sure our kids get back to the right parents.

Amy (17:40):

That’s right.

Tony (17:40):

So, looking at some specifics on the reach side. And then, on the spiritual formation side, I mentioned giving and tithing, but just are people taking next steps beyond the weekend services? Are they connecting in relationships through groups and bible studies and serving opportunities and outreach initiatives? Are people connecting and actually engaging in the mission of the church? And there are a number of other metrics that we work through when we’re helping teams take a look at their vital signs. Leadership is another good example.

Amy (18:13):


Tony (18:13):

And again, it’s for those that are further along in their faith journey, but what we want to encourage people not only to engage the mission but really help us shape the mission of the church as well. And so, we’re looking at, we intentionally kind of break it out into reach metrics and spiritual formation metrics because we want to make sure the church isn’t top heavy, bottom heavy, leaning one direction or the other. We want to make sure that they have health on both sides of that equation.

Amy (18:44):

And have visibility to both sides.

Tony (18:46):

That’s right.

Amy (18:46):

It’s probably the flip of what, an inch deep, mile wide?

Tony (18:50):

That’s right.

Amy (18:50):

You also find churches that are a mile deep and an inch wide.

Tony (18:52):


Amy (18:52):

So, neither of those are very healthy. But to look at the holistic part of it, I think tells a great story objectively. And then, hopefully that objective measurement will confirm some of the things that we maybe felt subjectively, or like the church you mentioned earlier, it actually completely changed the conversation once we had the data and got the team focused on the real challenge.

Tony (19:14):

That’s right.

Amy (19:15):

Tony, you’ve been working with churches for 15 years. Do you recommend that churches actually try to jump into assessment on their own?

Tony (19:22):

Yeah, I’ve given it away already, haven’t I, in this conversation, but I really do think you need some outside eyes to help you with this. And I’ve shared this before, even for The Unstuck Group, we’ve brought in some outside facilitators and experts to help us assess where we are as a ministry. And really it’s because, I mean, I am too close to it, Amy. I’m too close to the mission that we’re engaging. And I’m clouded in many respects by the relational connections I have with you and others on the team, the pastors of the churches that we’re serving, where I’ve developed relationships with pastors. I kind of view our relationship differently maybe than the broader scope of churches that we engage with. And I just need that outside help to make sure that what we’re doing holistically as part of the ministry of The Unstuck Group, is actually having the impact that we are hoping and praying it will have. And likewise, I think it’s hard for pastors to do this on your own. So, whether you’re inviting a friend that you know to come in who’s not as familiar with your team, your ministry, your strategies that you’re engaging or you’re hiring a group like The Unstuck Group to come in and help you, I just think you need that to truly be objective in your assessment of what’s happening in your ministry. And with that, just making sure that we can help or somebody can help you solve the right challenges rather than the trap that I see a lot of pastors getting into is they identify a church that is healthy, they are thriving, at least from the outside looking in. And when you know that you’re facing challenges in your church, your tendency is to look at other churches that are healthy and thriving and just start mimicking or copying what those churches are doing. And first of all, you, it’s outside. You’re looking from the outside in; you have no idea what’s really happening the closer you get to that church. So, on the surface may look like that church is healthy, but they could be dealing with the exact same challenges that you’re dealing with. And then, the fact is every church is unique, is a unique church. It’s a unique pastor with unique giftedness, building a unique team, reaching unique communities with unique people. And so, just because something is working in one church in one location doesn’t necessarily mean those same solutions are going to work for your church. And so, that’s why you really need a customized strategy to engage the mission that God’s called your church to, that God has called you to. The good news is, too, if you are, and I get it, you want to know how are we comparing? We may not want to copy the other church, but we want to have a sense that our churches having the same impact that other churches are having. The good news is, of course, at The Unstuck Group, we can give you all kinds of benchmark data from all the churches that we’re working with to really answer that question in a healthy way. How do we compare so that we know what we can celebrate because it’s healthy in our ministry and where the opportunities are for us to make some improvement because there might be a gap from what we’re experiencing compared to what other churches are experiencing.

Amy (22:52):

By the way, Tony, I love that you called that out—what can we celebrate? Those are fun conversations when we’re on site with the church because I don’t think as leaders we pause very often to actually celebrate what’s going well. We tend to get pulled into, “Man, what’s wrong? What’s stuck? What’s missing? What’s broken in the system?” And because the church never has a finish line, those conversations help us pause and actually celebrate the great work that God’s been doing. Well, any final thoughts, Tony, before we wrap up this conversation?

Tony (23:24):

Well, first I want to invite our listeners to join us for our upcoming webinar. It’s on May 23rd. We’re calling the webinar What’s Working in Large Churches Now. And for this conversation, I’m excited about this. We’re going to be sitting down with pastors JD Greear, Eric Geiger and Adam Starling. JD, of course, Summit Church, it’s North Carolina, right? I always get the Carolinas confused—North Carolina. Eric Geiger’s at Mariner’s Church out in California. And Adam Starling, he’s the pastor of that church I was mentioning in Norman, Oklahoma. You’re going to love hearing from all three of these pastors. They’re going to discuss what’s actually working in their large churches now to reach new people and to engage people in the life of the church. So, if you’re interested in learning more about how healthy churches are growing in the season, I want to encourage you to join us for that webinar. And then secondly, I do want to point out that a Ministry Health Assessment is the first step and foundation of our Unstuck consulting process. And your team could get a fresh and honest perspective of where you have been, where you are now, and where your church may be stuck. And this becomes then a roadmap for where to strategically place your focus, which we will discuss more in next week’s episode. But it’s good to know where are we today so that we can map out a strategy for how we’re going to move forward with the mission that God has called us to. So, if you’re ready to learn more about how The Unstuck Group can help your church assess, plan and execute, reach out and start a conversation today at

Sean (25:06):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. As Tony mentioned, we’d love to have you join us for the upcoming webinar on what’s working in large churches now. To register and learn more, make sure to check out the information in your show notes. And if you don’t yet have the show notes, just go to 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.

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