5 Truths About Growth and Scale That Frustrate Most Leaders

growth

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

Governance

Decision making

Assimilation

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.

I address many of the things senior leaders need to let go of in my Breaking 200 course. You can learn more here.

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.

Click here to get instant access for you and your team.

What Frustrates You About Growth?

What frustrates you about growth?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

9 Comments

  1. Steve on April 8, 2018 at 4:50 pm

    In order to break through this barrier of leadership and thinking, are there any consultants you would recommend to help answer questions and help navigate these kind of changes?

  2. William on April 7, 2018 at 3:35 pm

    Thank you for the wisdom released in the five points,Our church have been at 250 for a while now, my question to why the limit have been answered,I have now full knowledge of where to reorganize to realize full growth. I believe we have been called to depopulation the kingdom of the devil and to populate the Kingdom of God. Thank you for the article.

  3. Craig Sweeney on April 6, 2018 at 8:27 pm

    You have nailed it again! We planted our church 8.5 years ago and every stage of the journey of growth up to today has been a challenge. We have seen our church grow to 1250-1300 currently and all 5 of the bullet points in this article are right on. Its been quite a ride for me leading it. I have experienced all 5 and continue to experience them, but Im more ready these days. We are currently reorganizing so we can open the lid to make a run at 1500. Why 1500? Because God wants His church to be successful in reaching my city. Thanks for your insights!

  4. James on April 6, 2018 at 10:15 am

    After reading this I better understand why I prefer small churches and I can let go of some of the bitterness I’ve held towards people of big churches I’ve attended. I wish pastors could quit focusing on growth and focus on caring for members of their church. This article points out that it’s impossible to do both. The lust for growth is why America is falling deeper and deeper into sin. Mega churches as pointed out in this article only offer a sermon and no personal guidance no sense of community. If pastor doesn’t even know the names of staff it’s obvious they don’t know their congregation. When members of congregation have problems and nobody to guide them, they turn away from church and develop anger because of the disappointment. Most people that commit suicide asked a pastor for help and was rejected told to talk to someone else or pushed off and told to put prayer request in offering plate. The gospel is more than a sermon, it’s reaching people on a personal level. What good is it to full seats if the hurting people in your congregation have no body to go to? Of course i don’t lead a mega church so I’m sure my opinions are seen as jealousy to many. In fact I pitty that you have chosen to gain numbers and are willing to sacrifice quality to see growth.

    • DJ on April 6, 2018 at 10:38 am

      I’m sorry my friend, but that’s not True for some Mega churches I know of. First, I’m a smaller church pastor so I can speak on what I’ve witnessed from myself and team visiting and evaluating them. In some cases they may be number focused, but I’ve witnessed some of the best follow-up and member care ever in the Mega context that sadly I can’t do because of limited people and resources. Remember, for pastors who have more members it means more money and more people who when discipled, they can care for the congregation better up close and personal thru elders, ministers or other staff. The gospel is about depth, but also about height. Don’t discount the fact that every small church pastor would love 30, 60, or 100 more members right away. So don’t lump everyone in that category because it’s Just Not True.

    • Jay Black on April 6, 2018 at 12:52 pm

      I think you missed the point he made regarding pastoral care. He wasn’t saying people are not cared for, but that he could
      No longer esxlusively care for people directly. Jesus himself didn’t do all the ministry but empowered others to do it. The model Carey is presenting may not appeal to people who expect the Lead Pastor to care for all their needs. It is a Biblical model. In Acts 6 the apostles put in place Deacons whose primary calling was care, so that the Apostles could devote themselves to prayer and preaching.

    • Lenee on April 6, 2018 at 5:38 pm

      I’m sorry that you’ve felt some bitterness toward larger churches. I do agree with DJ and Jay, if you would take a few minutes to re-read Carey’s blog I hope you can see that his encouragement and wisdom in handling growth is for churches of all sizes. And I believe actually it responds to some of the concerns you have around a larger church model. Your statement, “that you pity that you (mega churches) have chosen to gain numbers and are willing to sacrifice quality to see growth” is quite a broad statement that lumps all large churches together into what feels like a personal dissatisfaction. If that’s the case, I’m sorry if you’ve ever felt not cared about or lost within a larger church crowd. I will admit that it can be hard for some churches if they grow in numbers quickly to figure it all out. And to be honest, as long as man is involved no matter the size of the congregation, things will never be perfect so I hope you are able to give some grace if there was a particular circumstance that caused you or a loved one pain.

      I also understand for some, the word ‘numbers’ can seem impersonal yet if clarified in the context of church growth, it is just a mathematical term to describe “more people”? When placed in that context, how is gaining or seeing more people attend and hear the Gospel every week a bad thing? And if you look to scripture, it always talks about ‘expanding’ not ‘containing/maintaining’ the Kingdom (body of Christ). Even Christ himself said that He would leave the 99 to go after the 1 lost sheep. I would go one step further and ask you to consider if the Holy Spirit is sending large #s of people to a particular church community, who is to say how large it should be? And if those people are going out and spreading the Gospel and continue to grow, who has the right to say your church is too large? And even if we could make that decision for a particular church community, exactly what would be the solution?- “No one else is allowed to come today because the Pastor can only take care of the ones that are already here?” I can’t wrap my head around God wanting us to turn anyone away? Can you?

      And if there is the possibility as you say that they are “sacrificing quality to see growth”, how do you explain that the community continues to grow instead of decline? Why would people come week after week and apparently invite others to come if they felt anything was being sacrificed in their care?

      Instead, I would agree with Carey in his encouragement “that before you think all of this is unscriptural, it’s not. You’re actually releasing people to do the very things God gifted.” Paul’s teaching in Eph 4:11-16 confirms this, if apostles….if pastors…….. will equip His people for works of service then the body of Christ would be ‘built up’ until they reach unity in faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become “mature” attaining the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. No longer infants tossed back and forth by the waves… instead speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect “mature body of Him” who is the head that is Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds ‘itself up in love’ as “each part” does its work (emphasis mine). Wow, that sounds like a healthy church community? What I hear in this passage is that we are all ministers with our part to do. And if we all do our part within the body (and beyond) to care for one another, it will help each of us become more mature in our walk and faith in Christ (not in a pastor) and the community (his church) will be held together because of that building and supporting one another up in love. Personally, I have witnessed and believe many large churches are healthier and are growing (inspiring others to explore/come to Christ) because they are using this model and in the same vein they are not ‘sacrificing’ but are actually gaining the ability to give quality care to their communities by equipping many to use their gifts (every member a minister).

      I’m sure there are still lots of people that have a hard time grasping this model either because they haven’t experienced it working or they’ve been exposed to a model where the pastor was placed on a peddle stool (sometimes godlike) and was the only one they believed acceptable to minister to them. And for some, they were never taught the model of serving, church has been a place they come to ‘get what they need’ instead of Christ’s call to be like the Son of Man, who did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

      I don’t know if any of this encouraged you brother. I do appreciate, hope and pray that blogs/articles such as this will help encourage pastors and leaders to equip God’s people to do the works of service so that both care and growth are achievable for congregations of all sizes. In addition, the clarity that ‘growth’ and ‘numbers’ are not terms to be taken lightly, they are that lost “1” sheep that Jesus has called us to go after that adds up to the many…..

  5. Robbie Jones on April 6, 2018 at 8:00 am

    No doubt I have struggled and from time to time continue to struggle with these 5 frustrations. However, as we have approached being a congregation of 400-450 and just opening our second campus, my frustrations have changed. My frustrations today mostly focuses on being able to financially support full-time staff. I have often stated that “we are too big to be a small church, but too small to financially support the full-time staff needed to take that next step.” I have an amazing part-time staff that I deeply care. Most are working two jobs to support their families and our ministry. Carey you are right! There are frustrations at every growth level.

  6. alan scott on April 6, 2018 at 6:34 am

    In 2007, we couldn’t figure out how to grow our church. We had 5 meetings with Andy Stanley, and just about gave our church to Northpoint. When Andy said our 200 people would scatter to the wind with their hostile takeover, we pulled back the keys. We started to give ourselves away to our community. We are now around 1,100, missional, Gospel-centered, and multiethnic.

    The conversation around numbers growth can be frustrating for me– especially concerning our strong push to be multiethnic. Being multiethnic seems to change the metrics because we do not target one, narrow, look-alike audience. It seems the metrics have changed from butts, budgets, and buildings to… city transformation, effectiveness, and stories.

    What are your thoughts concerning growth and multiethnic churches? (only 13% of American churches are multiethnic… and yet, Biblically, all should be)

    And still… as a leader, I’m challenged to look at numbers. I still want to grow. The numbers are people. I don’t find a lot of material for multiethnic churches to break through the 1,200 barriers.

    Thanks, Carey.
    alan scott
    cumberland community church
    smyrna, GA

Leave a Comment