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7 Things Every Growing Church Struggles With

growing churches struggleIt’s easy to believe that there will come a day when your church will never struggle and you’ll never struggle as a leader.

As tempting as that is to believe, it’s just not true.

Every church struggles. And every leader struggles. And—yes—even growing churches struggle.

I outlined the struggles smaller churches experience in my post 5 Tensions Every Small To Mid-Sized Church Leader Feels. Having started ministry in very small churches, I can relate to each of those struggles personally.

But your struggles as a leader or as a church don’t go away when your church starts to grow. They simply change.

I’ve always said I’d rather have the challenges associated with growth than I would the challenges associated with decline (and that’s absolutely true), but it still means you have challenges.

As our church has grown from a handful of people to over 1,300 people who now attend and 3000 people who call our church home, we’ve navigated all of these challenges. So has almost every church that’s grown.

Here are 7 things every growing church struggles with.

1. The pastor being less available

I began ministry in a church of 6 people (and that was a normal Sunday…a bad Sunday was 2 people). When your church is really small, you’re pretty much available to do anything anyone needs. How can you argue you’re not available when you lead a tiny church?

But as your church grows, you need to begin a transition away from being available all the time. If you don’t, you will implode or your church will stop growing.

You can be generally available to 20 people.

You will wear yourself out trying to be consistently available for 200 people.

You’ll die trying to be available to 2000 people. Frankly, you’ll never even serve that many people because it’s humanly impossible, even if you worked 7 days a week, 20 hours a day. People will just walk away, their calls unanswered and their needs unmet.

As my friend Reggie Joiner says, the problem with needs-based ministry is there’s no end to human need.

Your church will struggle with the pastor being less available as it grows.  But it will struggle even more if you don’t restructure to grow bigger.

To reach more people, you need to be available to fewer people.

I wrote more about scaling your ministry through different stages in my new book, Lasting Impact: Seven Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow, available here.

2. The pastor not doing everything

A companion of being less available as a church grows is the reality that a pastor can’t do everything.

Many pastors of small churches start out as jacks of all trades: preacher, pastor, chaplain, wedding officiant, funeral officiant, bible study leader, team leader, curriculum designer and even friend who drops by.

When your church is small, it’s natural for the pastor to do almost all the work, because it seems there is no one else available to do it, and no money to outsource it or to hire anyone else.

When I started in ministry, in addition to preaching, teaching and vision casting (my primary gifitings) I also designed and printed the bulletins, created any computer graphics, performed weddings and funerals, visited in hospital, led the church bible study and was actively involved in our kids ministry. I was only mediocre at most things on that list, and terrible at a few.

As our church has grown, my role has become narrower and narrower.

At 200 Pastoral care became a groups and congregational responsibility. So did bible study (which became small groups instead).

At 400, I let go of graphics and design entirely (thankfully).  I also go out of direct involvement in student and children’s ministry as we hired people (I still share the the vision, but no longer own the responsibility).

At 800, I stepped back from leading and attending most meetings and almost everything else to focus on preaching, teaching, vision casting and senior leadership.

The struggle here is dual: you will struggle with letting go, and people will struggle with you letting go.

If you want to grow, you have to let go.

And, of course, as Andy Stanley says, by doing less you’ll accomplish more. Far more.

This sounds like a small thing, but it’s a big thing.

3. Not knowing everyone’s name

People who are part of a small church panic about not knowing everyone’s name as a church grows.

Time to challenge that assumption. Why panic?

Truthfully most people don’t know everyone, even in a church of 50.

Human reality dictates we can only truly know about 5 people deeply and about 20 people well.

Which again leads to small groups and serving teams. You can (and should) organize hundreds and even thousands of people to be known in smaller circles of groups and teams.

The point or church is not for everyone to know everyone. The point is for everyone to be known.

I think I have a personal capacity to know between 1,500 to 2,000 people by name and then my mind fries. Our church (and my life) has grown beyond that. At one point I tried to know all of our volunteers by name, but even now, I get stumped (the volunteer name tags really help me).

If you’re leading a growing church, embrace that. Create a church where everyone who wants to be known…is.

You will reach far more people if you do.

4. Shifting from leading people to leading leaders

If you’re going to lead a growing church effectively, you have to begin leading leaders instead of leading people.

That’s a hard shift for many people, including church staff.

There’s a temptation to want to be known and recognized by everyone you’re leading. The truly great leaders are prepared not to do that.

They realize that their greatest success will be found in leading staff and volunteers who can, in turn, lead others.

Which also means sometimes they get the credit rather than you. Which again, is fine if you’re committed to becoming an effective leader.

If you’re not fine with others receiving the credit, you’ll eventually stunt the church’s growth to the level of your insecurity.

If you struggle with insecurity, by the way, this is an amazing conversation with Josh Gagnon, who leads a top 5 fastest growing church in America and has had to battle his own insecruities in doing so.

But you must shift from leading people to leading leaders if you hope to reach more people.

5. Adding systems

This is a hard one for any entrepreneurial leader (like myself). I love freedom and even spontaneity.

But for your church to ever sustainably pass 500 in attendance, let alone 1000, you have to have systems.

Many entrepreneurial leaders are afraid of systems and structure because they think it means the creation of bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy stifles mission. Great systems fuel it.

Like an office tower designed to house thousands of people, great systems and structure support the goals of the organization with lean but solid processes around finances, management, discipleship and even the weekend services a church offers.

Without structure, freedom collapses into chaos and disorganization.

The novice leader values freedom from structure. The mature leader values freedom in structure.

Without great systems that foster care for people, you won’t care for people.

6. Saying no

‘Yes’ gets you to initial growth; ‘No’ gets you to sustained growth.

Many pastoral leaders are people pleasers. As I argue here, that can be deadly.

Most great organizations become effective not just because they decided what they are, but fundamentally because they decided what they are not.

As you grow, more and more people will show up with ideas about how to make things better.

Having a clearly defined mission, vision, strategy and culture will help you decide what to say yes to and what to say no to.

The leader who says yes to everything ultimately says yes to nothing.

7. Dealing with critics

So once you start growing, all the critics will disappear, correct?

Sorry to break the news…but just the opposite. They’ll line up.

You’ll have internal critics who want things to be the way they used to be. After all, the people heading for the Promised Land always want to go back to Egypt.

But the critics are not just internal, growth attracts a growing number of external critics.

Our generation seems to specialize in encouraging leaders and organizations to grow and then criticizing them when they do.

And before you accuse others, there’s a 99% chance you’ve thought or said something negative about a large church pastor you resent.

Growth attracts critics. It just always does.

So how do you process the criticism when you’re the one being criticized?

The best way to process what your critics have to say is to understand why they say it.

First, take whatever good there might in what they said and reflect on it. You’re not perfect. You can learn and develop from it.

But then process why the critics are often so mean-spirited.

What usually fuels a critics’ animosity toward success and growth? Three things:

Jealousy

A need to justify their own lack of progress

Sin

Once you understand that a critic’s arguments are often less about you than they are about them, you’re free to show compassion and even concern for them.

Break The Barriers Holding You Back

 

If you want to move past the tensions that every small and mid-sized church pastor feels, I have some deeper practical help.

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. In the course, I 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 and more are finding the material helpful as they try to reach more people.

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

What Do You Feel?

And I’d love to hear from you. What other struggles have you seen or experienced in growing churches?  Scroll down and leave a comment.

13 Comments

  1. Laura on January 25, 2018 at 8:33 am

    I’m an older woman starting church life over in a new place. We were part of a core team for two new works. Your common sense encouragement I find refreshing and I’m certain Moses would have enjoyed your fellowship. He had Jethro. Thank you, Carey

  2. Neil Brighton on November 22, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    Great blog again Carey. I’m familar with most of this (I lead a church of a bit over 200 people) but the one that I’ve yet to really grasp (let alone do) is the transition from leading people to leading leaders.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 22, 2015 at 5:05 pm

      That’s a huge one. You can do it Neil!

  3. Leadership Roundup | Worship Links on November 19, 2015 at 4:02 pm

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  4. Isaac on November 16, 2015 at 11:23 am

    Thanks, Carey!

    I find that often the underlying cause of all 7 of these is fear. I am experiencing this at several levels in the church I lead. There is real fear of change from the congregation as we continue to grow, and fear of letting go of expectations or being criticized from my leaders (including me, at times). God has been reminding me lately that the gospel is a message that drives out fear, and I am trying to communicate this to my leaders and people in the pews. It still surfaces on occasion as I challenge us all to risk what is for what could be.

    Thanks for the reminder that this is common to the church-at-large, but is something that can be overcome with patience, strategy, and full reliance upon the Spirit.

  5. Josh Evans on November 13, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    Carey,

    Thanks for the post. I currently work in a church and we have definitely experienced these things. One thing that I personally struggle with is point number 7, critics. I naturally want everyone to like me, and therefore, my decisions are oftentimes made based on this.

    I recognize that to continue to grow and to raise our potential as an organization, this must change.

    Thanks for the post and the reminders.

    JE

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  7. Peter J on November 13, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    Hey Carey,

    Love the article. Quick question. The Title is 7 Things every Growing Church Struggles with. In the article you mention a list of 10. Are the rest in your book? I want to share this at my church and want to make sure I am not missing anything.

    Thanks!!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 13, 2015 at 12:38 pm

      Peter…that was totally my bad. Originally I had 10 but cut it to 7 in my final draft. The book is full of other insights though. 🙂

      • Peter J on November 13, 2015 at 12:49 pm

        Not a problem, just checking. Actually just ordered your book. Looking forward to reading it!

  8. Weekend Picks 11-13-2015 | Life on the Bridge on November 13, 2015 at 9:19 am

    […] 7 Things Every Growing Church Struggles With -Carey Nieuwof “So once you start growing, all the critics will disappear, correct? […]

  9. joshpezold on November 12, 2015 at 10:57 am

    Love this. Really helpful as I’m processing growth for 2016. Thanks Carey!!!!

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