Every leader I know hopes their church or organization grows. The challenge is that few are prepared for what happens when it does.
As strange as it seems, most of us think growth will be easy—that when everything is up and to the right, all problems and stresses just go away.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Growth presents its own challenges – challenges that leaders don’t automatically overcome.
Growth challenges are one of the key reasons 85% of all churches that are reaching people and have a heart to reach their city never pass the 200 attendance barrier, and 98% never pass the 1,000 attendance mark. (If you’re interested, here are the top 8 reasons churches never pass the 200 attendance level.)
In the corporate world, it’s why most businesses remain small businesses despite the dreams of the founders.
So what surprises leaders about growth? Well, having led churches past the 200 and 1,000 attendance level and led through explosive growth in different ventures, here are five things I’ve felt again and again as things grow.
But as I always tell my team, Growth may present problems, but so do decline and stagnation. I’ll sign up for growth problems all day long.
So with that in mind, here are the challenges you’ll likely feel.
1. People Will Criticize You
As amazing as growth sounds, rapid growth produces critics—both internal and external critics.
Internally, some of your people will long for the good old days when things were simpler, when everyone knew everyone, and when they felt more important than they do in a bigger organization.
Externally, some of your colleagues will criticize you, taking shots at your new growth and questioning whether you’ve sold out, compromised or taken shortcuts. You know what’s underneath 99% of the criticism? Jealousy.
Here’s what you need to look for. Most of the criticism will come from people who have never led at your level. You’re accomplishing what they long to accomplish, and because they haven’t, their insecurity pushes them into critical mode.
You’ll also find that people who are leading something as large as what you’re leading or larger become your friends. They’ve been there and almost always they want to help. Listen to those voices. They can light the path for you.
What do you do with the critics?
Above all, consider the source. Don’t let someone who’s only been on the sidelines tell you how to play the game.
2. All Your Systems Break
Even if you don’t think of yourself as a highly structured organization, you have a structure. And, as W. Edwards Denings has famously said, every system is perfectly designed to get the result that it does.
So when you grow, all your systems break. In a church pushing 200, one of the first things to completely break down is the pastoral care system, which simply can’t scale past 200 if the pastor is the primary caregiver.
Similarly, in any organization, the senior leader has to stop doing ‘everything.’
What systems will you need to redesign as you grow? All of them.
Here’s why. What got you to 200 won’t get you to 2,000. It won’t even get you to 500.
All your systems will break, and it’s your job to fix them.
3. If you don’t change your strategy, you shrink back to your old size
You’re probably thinking, well what if I don’t want to change all the systems? What if I want to do more than most leaders do and be responsible for everything, refusing to delegate or change as we grow?
The answer to that is clear: your growth will be temporary. Very temporary.
Before long, you’ll shrink back down to your old size.
This explains why many churches grow to 200 and slide back to 150, or spike in a season to 500 and then slide back to 400, or can never push past the 1,000 barrier, no matter how many new guests they attract.
Your growth gives you a chance to build a new system, but if you don’t build it soon enough, your growth will disappear. What systems do you need to rethink and rebuild?
The senior leader’s role
Staff roles (develop leaders, not doers)
The role of key volunteers
And that’s just a few things to get us started. The short answer is you need to rethink everything.
The best way to insulate against future growth is to change nothing. Do that, and you’re guaranteed to never reach your potential.
4. You Need to Release Things You Used to Love Doing
This is an emotional journey for leaders. There are things you loved doing when your church was smaller that you’ll have to give up.
Pastoral care is a tough one for many leaders. But it has to go. You can care for 30 people. You just can’t care for 300, let alone 3,000.
It’s not that you stop caring, it’s just you change who you care for. Eventually, you’ll end up caring for your key staff and elders. Do that well, and build a great group structure, and counseling referral system; and you’ll have a very healthy church.
It also means you need to stop doing everything, even some things you love. You may love graphic design or programming computers, but if you’re the senior leader that’s an utter waste of your time.
Before you think all of this is unscriptural, it’s not. You’re actually releasing people to do the very things God gifted them to do.
Pastors, to claim all the leadership in a church yourself is far less faithful than to empower God’s people.
5. You Feel Less Important Than You Used To
Maybe the biggest shock for leaders of growing churches is that they feel less important than they used to.
I still remember the first time I got to church and really felt ‘unneeded.’ Everything had been given away so extensively that my only task was to deliver the message. I wasn’t used to that. And while it’s become very normal, it can make you feel unnecessary.
It is a little strange to reach a lot of people and know you’ll never know their names, and you’ll likely never hear their stories. It’s strange not to be involved in hiring decisions or be told “this is our new team member.” It’s odd when you don’t even know the names of volunteers anymore, despite the fact that you try to learn them. Eventually, there are just too many because the mission is thriving.
But here’s the point. If you’re going to accomplish your mission of reaching your community, you can’t be at the centre of it all. You can have a small thing you can control or a large thing that you can’t control, but you can’t have both. And leadership is not control. It’s leadership.
You’ll never have multiple locations and reach hundreds—or thousands—of people if you want to run it all yourself.
Ironically, the fact that you don’t feel as valuable because you’re not at the centre of everything makes you more valuable. Leaders who raise up other leaders are far more valuable to an organization than leaders who don’t. And sometimes, that makes you feel less valuable.
Deal with it. Hammer that out on your knees or in a counsellor’s office. Everyone will be thankful you did. And the mission will move forward.
A Strategy for Breakthrough
If you’re reaching more people but you’re currently stuck at an attendance plateau, I have some practical help for you.
Breaking 200 Without Breaking You is a course I’ve created that provides strategies on how to tackle eight practical barriers (including a more nuanced and practical dive into everything I covered in this blog post) that keep churches from reaching more than 200 people. And it’s designed so I can walk your entire leadership team or elder board through the issues.
So whether your church is 50, 150 or 250 in attendance, the principles will help you gain the insight you need to break the barrier more than 85% of churches can’t break. Even churches with attendances of 300-500 are finding the material helpful as they try to reach more people.
What Frustrates You About Growth?
What frustrates you about growth?
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