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5 Signs Bad Governance Is Stifling Your Church’s Growth and Mission

You probably almost didn’t open this blog post, did you?

Governance?

Who cares about governance?

Well, if you care about church growth and accomplishing your mission, read on.

I’m convinced bad governance is a key contributing factor as to why many churches don’t grow.

And, conversely, I’m convinced that good governance is a key factor as to why some churches do grow.

In fact, there’s a good chance bad governance is frustrating you right now…and you might not even know it.

Bad governance…or maybe more charitably, unhelpful governanceis pretty much the norm in church world. Even if you have decent people on your board or boards, the system itself is sometimes the obstacle.

I’ve never heard a conference talk on how governance can help a church grow. I’ve never seen a webinar on it. Apart from this really good blog post and this great book, I haven’t seen much at all.

But if you spend 3 minutes going over these 5 issues, I think your church could end up poised for greater growth. Or at least you’ll have better insight into why things aren’t going the way you hoped they’d be going.

Bad governance is the silent killer of many great church missions.

meetings

Don’t Be So Emotional

Before we jump into the signs that bad governance is stifling your church’s growth, a few words.

I realize that many denominations pride themselves on governance as much as they do on theology. I get that.

So as you read through this you might be tempted to think I’m being unbiblical in my critiques or even insensitive to your denomination’s approach. As a former member of a denomination, (I lead a non-denominational church now), I can empathize.

Yet many forms of church governance are not so much biblical as they are historical, which means they should be open to change. Most governance systems were designed to work in an era when churches were smaller, when communities and cities themselves were smaller, and when we were not living in a post-Christian era.

This doesn’t mean all vestiges of historic church governance should be ousted. But I’ve seen many cases where church governances hurts the mission of the church more than it helps the mission of the church. What worked 200 years ago has stopped working today.

Churches that are willing reformulate governance (within the parameters of scripture of course) will do far better than those who don’t.

So as we go through these 5 signs related to bad church governance, try not to get defensive. Stay open. There’s too much at stake not to rethink everything in the church.

5 Signs Bad Church Governance is Stifling Your Church’s Growth and Mission

So how does governance hurt the mission rather than help it? Here are 5 signs your governance is working against your mission, not for it:

1. Your board or congregation loves to micromanage

Small churches are notorious for wanting approval on every decision, from the paint colour in the kids ministry rooms to every hire in the church, to every minute curriculum change.

That’s a recipe for disaster.

Why?

Once you reach a certain size, ministry becomes complex enough that two hours a month or even a monthly congregational meeting isn’t nearly enough time to meaningfully review the issues before the congregation.

Just think about it for a second.

A pastor or staff member will have spent 160 hours working on issues in a month…minimum. A board member might spend two. A congregational member might spend an hour..or, more likely, about 30 seconds, before passing judgment.

How can a board make a decision on every item in the allotted time? How on earth can a congregation?

Yet it’s not that hard to find board members and congregational members who have opinions on everything…no matter how ill-informed those opinions might be.

Boards and congregations that micromanage keep their churches small because of their need to control every decision.

Churches in which boards micromanage rarely grow beyond 200 attenders because the issues facing churches larger than that require boards to stop micromanaging (here are 7 other reasons churches never break the 200 attendance mark).

Micromanaging shrinks the size of the congregation back to the size in which everything can be ‘controlled’.

One more thing on micromanagement.

Great leaders never say “Please micromanage me.”  So if you want to repel great leaders, micromanage them.

2. Your congregation demands consensus

Somewhere along the way someone got the idea that everyone has to agree with every decision.

I think that someone is crazy.

Where on earth did the idea that we need consensus on every decision emerge?

If Moses had waited for consensus before leaving Egypt, the Israelites would still be in slavery.

Consensus kills courage. Churches that look for consensus will never find courage, and churches that find courage will rarely find consensus…at least initially.

When you drive for consensus, decisions get watered down to the point where all the risk is gone, and any boldness evaporates. You get churches that come out in favour of yard sales and Mother’s Day. And that’s about it.

Look, if you and your spouse can’t agree on where to go on vacation, how do you think you’ll get 200, or 2000, people to agree on anything significant as a church?

Almost nothing gets accomplished if everyone has a say.

So should you ever try for consensus? Well, yes, but likely at the board level. John Stickl has a fascinating approach to consensus style leadership in a mega-church context that he explains in Episode 29 of my leadership podcast.

3. Your board or congregation doesn’t trust the staff

This sounds so basic, but it’s so often missed.

For a church to grow and be healthy, there has to be a high level of trust between the staff and the board and congregation.

Naturally, that trust has to be earned by the pastors and staff.

But it’s amazing to me how many people in churches distrust their pastors and staff for no good reason. Churches that cultivate a default assumption of suspicion, not trust, will always pay a price.

The best leader I know on this subject is Andy Stanley, and if you haven’t listened to his 20 minute podcast on trust v. suspicion, you should.

Bottom line?

If you don’t trust the staff, fire the staff. If you trust them, let them lead.

4. Your staff hates the board

I realize hate is a strong word. But I’ve met enough church leaders who loathe their boards to know the problem goes both ways.

Sure. Look. I know you don’t have your ‘dream board’ yet.

You inherited a board when you stepped into leadership. We all did.

When I began in leadership, the three small churches had a total attendance of 45 people (adding all three together), but had 18 elders (I’m not making this up).

The average age of the eldership was about 70, and they had all presided over churches that had been stuck for decades. There were some great people on the board. And there were a few who were not ideally suited for leadership.

That could have been a recipe for disaster.

But why not see it as an opportunity instead?

You have to start cultivating a relationship with the people you have in leadership before you can work with the people you want in leadership.

If there are toxic board members, you can deal with that. And over time you can build a better board.

But if you hate your board after 3 years of leadership, it’s not your board’s fault, it’s yours.

You haven’t done the hard work of cultivating a relationship of trust or moving unhealthy board members off.

So get started. Be a great steward of who you have, not who you don’t have.

5. Your board focuses on complainers

If your church board meetings usually begin with “So and so isn’t happy about X”, you have a problem.

Sometimes boards feel it’s their responsibility to speak up for people who don’t have a voice.

That might be true for widows and orphans. It’s not true for the cranky church member who is opposed to everything.

As my friend Reggie Joiner says, great churches focus on who they’re trying to reach, not who they’re trying to keep.

Why do so many churches struggle with trying to please people?

That’s great question. Here are a few blog posts and a book I’ve written on the subject of handling opposition to your vision:

Leading Change Without Losing It: 5 Strategies That Can Revolutionize How You Lead Change When Facing Opposition

3 Hard But Powerful Truths About Likablity and Leadership

Why You Need to Stop Thinking Your Church Is For Everyone

Boards (and congregations) that focus on who they’re trying to reach will be much healthier and do much better than congregations that focus on complainers.

What Do You See?

I realize this is tough medicine and may come as a shock to some leaders, but I do think bad governance in the silent killer in many churches.

What do you think? What are you seeing?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

5 Signs Bad Governance Is Stifling Your Church’s Growth and Mission

25 Comments

  1. Bobby Francis on June 19, 2017 at 8:39 am

    Hi Carey,
    I am continually grateful for your insight and transparency in your leadership! Thank you for what you do.

    I read most of your posts and pretty much always, say, “WOW – that’s so true.” I am wondering if you have some posts that I’ve missed or could offer insight (or perhaps other resources) for a particular leadership scenario that I believe I find myself in: The difference between someone who is more of a manager-type and someone who is more of the vision-driven leader. There are clear differences in their approach, focus and style. Both have strengths and positives, but it seems like a “manager” can only take an organization/ministry/business so far. Also, it gets a little muddy when a manager-type is in the lead role and a leader is in the second chair. Hmmm…..

  2. Steve on May 23, 2017 at 7:19 am

    Hi Carey.
    I’ve just come across this today and maybe the Lord’s hand is in it. I’m currently found myself in a season of looking at what the church really is, and the great commission. This also involves how finances are spent within a church, and all the accountability associated with that.

    Being a young Christian, I’m not aware of what really goes on at the leadership level. I know its difficult! But having my relationship with the Lord and his word alone, things may appear to me very simple (seeing I dont have all the reality of leadership).

    I dont quite understand why a christian or leader would have his heart on getting people in to church and not on keeping who is already in?? Its clear in scripture that a pastor is a shepherd of his flock! He must attend them and feed them well and know them. And at the same time be all about evangelism and reaching the lost?!?

    I’ve heard a bit about church governance, and also this subject called Church Growth (or the Church Growth movement) I’m currently reading a book on it to hopefully confirm what the Lord and shown me to be truth from error.

    My heart is as much to love and look after my brother and sister as it is to reach the lost.

    I know I’m a little off subject, but the point stating “not who they’re trying to keep” really I guess grieved me. I know so many people who have left the church, fellowship etc because they were alone and lonely more in church than they were outside of it. Its a tragedy.

    We are commanded by the Lord to do much in his name. His heart is for his people. He keeps his people. He, and He alone builds the church. We are also told to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.

    I understand strategy and vision. But that should come via the holy spirit, through the word, through prophetic word. The way I see a lot of Churches, they are so worldly in the way they reach the lost, it boarders on unbelief! Do you really trust in God to bring in People? If so, we are to go out, and bring them in. Is there an issue in doing this over these past years? Marketing ploys come first, rather than walking and doing life with the lost and loving them into the kingdom?

    As for boards / trustees Im not involved. I was beginning to at a previous church but the Lord specifically led me out of that church. That church no longer exists.

    That church didn’t evangelise enough. It was more a social club that church. I say that not picking on the people. The pastor there was a lovely man who loved Jesus. I was a babe then but I still saw the effect of not sowing well into the body as well as not being about Christ’s mission to the world. I really do think it works both ways.

    God bless you.

  3. Chuck on September 3, 2016 at 9:47 am

    Like. Especially the acknowledgment that so many bodies cling too much to history and tradition rather than Scripture. Do that, and you tell the world that the Word is dead and we do it better than He does anyway. I think Jesus had a few discussions with the Pharisees over that….

  4. Jay on September 3, 2016 at 8:28 am

    As the new guy on our elder team, I really appreciate your insights here, Carey. You nailed it on staff/board distrust. Building, cultivating, and maintaining trust between the board and staff is absolutely critical. Stronger relationships between our staff and board knock down walls that were never meant to be there in the first place.

  5. ym on September 2, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    Omigosh, seriously, are you stalking us?!? Because this is like the sixth post in a row that sounds like you’ve been watching our lives on a TV like Big Brother. I keep waiting for you to jump out from around the corner and tell me that we’ve been Punkd, and hey by the way I’ve been using you as fodder for all my blog material. Ha ha! Thanks for your words of wisdom and I especially appreciate that you always see it from both sides, so you don’t let anyone off the hook!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 3, 2016 at 7:04 am

      This made me smile. It’s amazing to me how so many of us think our problems are unique. I love the tribe that’s grown around this blog. We can help each other more than we think! Thanks ym!

  6. ServantHeart2012 on September 2, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    A denominational church I served up until 5 years ago had (and still has) what I will refer to as a “legacy family.” This family has held membership since about the time the church was formed in the late 1800’s. The family is rather well off and fairly generous with their resources. However, EVERY decision no matter how trivial MUST be approved by the present matriarch . . . and she is quite opinionated and inflexible. How best to show appreciation for such a family’s longevity and generosity without virtually giving them the reigns at the exclusion of everyone else? My reason for asking is that I have some very good friends who are still on staff there. (and pulling their hair out with frustration)

  7. Kathy Nelson on September 2, 2016 at 10:44 am

    This is spot on. Thanks, Carey, for stating this issue so clearly. As a leader, I have to continually remind myself that the pace of change is important. To build the trust that you speak of, to be able to show the people you lead that you are trustworthy takes a little time. It is difficult to be patient when you have a sense of urgency for mission and community. Thank you for the reminder that I, as the leader, have the ability to build a healthy, kingdom centered board.

  8. Russells4him@peoplepc.com on October 8, 2015 at 5:11 am

    Sometimes I struggle with this as a volunteer. I’ve never planned an event that wasn’t Biblically sound or even unsuccessful, but every thing I ask to do is so managed and requires so many hoops to jump through that I wonder, if every ministry in our church is like this, it’s hard to get things done or step out in faith. We have no boards except an elder board so it’s not that things get bogged down in board meetings. It always makes me feel distrusted. But I hate to say anything or else I may be causing division. Our church is a church that just can’t seem to get past the 250 mark. After reading this, I wonder if it works from the top down too. Can things be so micromanaged from the top that there is no freedom in ministry to step out, or does this article only refer to churches not growing when the micromanaging occurs by boards and “consensus” of the body?

    • Tim Truong on September 2, 2016 at 3:41 pm

      You must be attending the same church I am. This is too freaky and disturbing. You are describing my situation to a T and guess what, our congregation is hovering around 200. Thanks Carey. This helps me not feel alone. How do I get the elders and head pastor to see this?

  9. Kevin on August 14, 2015 at 10:02 am

    Check out “Winning On Purpose” by John Edmund Kaiser. He does a
    great job of laying out an effective governance model that employs
    authority, responsibility and accountability.

  10. Nina on June 21, 2015 at 8:24 pm

    Could you talk about how a church defines its mission? It seems that it has to be clear about that to be able to do all the other.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 22, 2015 at 7:02 am

      Hi Nina…I think that’s a huge subject. I would personally read Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage for the most comprehensive treatment of mission and vision of organizations I’ve seen. Hope that helps. You can also search “vision’ in this blog search (bottom right) to see other posts I’ve written on it.

  11. Articles for Leaders on May 23, 2015 at 8:02 am

    […] Is your leadership structure hurting your church’s growth? […]

  12. Brian Custer on May 23, 2015 at 12:01 am

    Great advice and awesome insight. I have seen all this over the last 23 years. And still seeing it. If I governed my board the way the govern myself and my staff it would be like dropping the A-Bomb. Love this quote; “Great churches focus on who they’re trying to reach, not who they’re trying to keep.” Thank you for sharing this. Would have loved to seen this about 17 years ago when I first began to realize these problems existed. This will help those who apply it through His grace.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 23, 2015 at 3:33 am

      Brian…appreciate the encouragement, and the irony. So true!

  13. Kelli Espiritu on May 19, 2015 at 12:34 am

    Lots of favorite insights but I especially like …”When you drive for consensus, decisions get watered down to the point where all the risk is gone, and any boldness evaporates.” There is something about taking a risk. The Lord Himself took risks. If we truly believe in what God has showed us, we’d do well to step out in faith. If we fail…fail forward and learn. God totally uses you much more than you’ll ever imagine. Your topics are SO ON POINT. I give you the credit when I use your points while teaching at conferences here in central and Southern California. I always print your website address on all my handouts. The blog is rockin it too! I’m sounding like a groupie, but I just want to encourage you in your giftedness.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 19, 2015 at 4:51 am

      Kelli…great to hear from you! Thanks for the encouragement and be encouraged as you help church leaders—one of my favourite things to do!

  14. SRB on May 15, 2015 at 7:25 pm

    Have you been exposed to any of Paul Borden’s stuff, Carey? Reforming church boards is pretty much integral to what he did in reforming the American Baptist Churches of the West (as part of empowering leaders). I think the denomination rebranded to Growing Healthy Churches. He has a couple of books on the subject.

  15. […] 5 Signs Bad Governance Is Limiting Your Church Growth […]

  16. Matt Brough on May 14, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    Awesome post, Carey. I only have small church experience, but even in a small setting where there hasn’t been much numerical growth, I don’t think micromanaging is helpful. I also have to remind myself as the pastor to not micromanage other leaders, especially volunteer leaders, in the Church.

    I’d love to know what you think about the optimal size of a Church board. I love having a small 4 or 6 person group. It seems easier to build and keep trust, and decisions seem to come more quickly and naturally. Does the size of the board make a difference?

  17. Quinton on May 13, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    what is you alternate proposal then for church governance if its not in Boards?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 13, 2015 at 3:31 pm

      Great question. I love boards. I just love healthy boards-boards where trust is high, where board members stick to key mission and vision, where leaders are allowed to lead even if there isn’t full consensus, and where they focus on the people they want to reach, not the people they want to keep.

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