Breaking Church-Growth Barriers: Build A Bigger Leadership Table | The Exchange

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This article originally appeared in Outreach Magazine.

How many of us would admit that we have experienced more failures than we’d have liked in leading our churches? It’s never easy to reflect honestly on our leadership mistakes; however, measurable outcomes and practical goalposts are critical if our churches are to thrive as we grow. Ultimately, in order to break barriers, our measurements and goals must change.

From a Shepherd to a Rancher

This includes simple things like how we measure the community we’re planning on having together. One of the major shifts when a church grows from 125 to 0 attendees and beyond, for example, is that there is a loss of intimacy with the pastors and key leaders. This happens primarily because we must move from a shepherding role to a rancher situation. The congregation must understand that access to the pastor will change due to the growth in attendance and the inability of one person to be available to such numbers. But this change also gives others the opportunity to be used by God to meet congregational needs.

We must always remember that there’s a reason for the change. We want our churches to make known the goodness of the gospel to an increasingly greater number of people and for those people to be integrated into the household of God, to be discipled and to grow spiritually.

Let me be as clear as I can: Our measurements and goals must reflect a community of making disciples and exerting cultural influence. We have to be engaging culture. This is more than simply saying we will be influential in our community. It means we are influential for Christ in our community.

The Systems Connection

The typical church in the United States has fewer than 100 people in weekly attendance. One of the reasons is that in order to go beyond that number, we must move from relational connection to systems connection. When we are under 100, discipleship influence is exerted through direct relationships. When we pass the 100 mark, if we don’t transition to a discipleship system that can be successful without a direct relationship to the senior leader, it’ll ultimately fail.

The unfortunate reality is that most pastors don’t know how to construct congregational systems and effective structures because they lead only relationally. Sure, this is a wonderful way to lead, but it’s simply not sustainable as the church grows. As we make the transition from leading relationally to leading systemically, there is a loss of control and a loss of intimacy, which can be tremendously challenging for pastors. However, it is one of the most valuable lessons leaders of growing churches can learn.

When one of the churches I pastored made this change, we did some ongoing messaging to persuade people to participate in the process with us as leaders. But remember: not everyone who has been a part of the church will continue to stay as the church grows numerically. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

After our congregation made this all-important transition, it almost doubled in size in a year. Of the people who stayed, every one of them had gone through our process of assimilation into congregational life and every one of them was now serving in some capacity. The pastor was no longer seen as the sole provider, but as occupying an important function within the church where the body of Christ ministered.

This transition became key in the life of our church. If we hadn’t made that change, we would have shrunk back to 75 in attendance because that would have been all that the relationally oriented leadership could absorb.

If you take a table and start pouring sand on it, the table’s capacity is limited. Eventually, the sand will get so high that it will start pouring over the edges. What do you do? Either you can keep pouring sand, unconcerned that much of it is flowing off the table; you can stop pouring sand and stop caring about adding more; or you build a bigger and broader table that can handle more sand.

In this analogy, the leadership table has its limitations, especially when placed on the base of one person or family. In order to handle a greater capacity, we must build the bigger leadership table—a system that empowers more people along with their capacities and gifts. And really, isn’t this what the body of Christ is supposed to be about—the gifts of the church working together for the good of the kingdom?

Have you reached your personal capacity to handle current growth? Who do you need to include in expanding leadership capacity in order to grow beyond the goalposts set out by the leadership team? What relationships need to be cultivated and what needs to be culled or cooled down in order for you to be more effective in your leadership role?

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.

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