How the Structure of a Church Can Help (or Hinder) Growth

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people worshipping at a growing church

It’s one thing to want to see your church grow.

It’s entirely another to position your church structurally so you can accommodate growth.

If you structure bigger, you can grow bigger. If you don’t, your structural constraints will stifle and hinder your growth.

The structure of a church – or the leadership hierarchy and governing systems that allow a church to function – can have a significant impact on the church’s ability to grow. In fact, poor church structure is the biggest hurdle churches have to overcome when it comes to growth. 

And the best type of church structure for your church? One that will enable accountability, participation, and growth

The best type of structure for your church is one that will enable accountability, participation, and growth. Click To Tweet

A few years ago, I connected with a pastor who has seen his church grow from 200 in attendance to over 450 in attendance in the last two years.

That’s a lot of growth in a short window of time. He’s actually scaling what 90% of churches never scale: The 200 attendance mark.

He’s also figuring out the changes he needs to make. Changes that most leaders miss: How they spend their time and how they structure their team.

That might seem surprising, but that’s exactly what church leaders should be figuring out. It’s the key to growing your church past 200 attendees on a sustainable basis.

Preaching, prayer, and trust in God are not what’s going to keep this particular leader’s church from growing. He’s always pursued those with passion. As I imagine, have many of you.

One of the chief challenges that will keep his church from growing centers on church leadership structure.

As I wrote about in my book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow, if you want your church to grow, you need to structure bigger to grow bigger.

So, how do you do that? This post is a little technical, but I hope it will help you and your team finally put your finger on all those things you haven’t been able to put your finger on.

Note: This article was updated and republished on March 22, 2023.

If you want your church to grow, you need to structure bigger to grow bigger. Click To Tweet

How to Structure a Church to Grow

All churches – regardless of denomination and affiliation – are organized around some form of central leadership hierarchy. 

No matter your terminology (pastor, minister, clergy, staff, deacon, elder, etc.), the growth barriers most churches encounter as they move past 200 attendees are remarkably similar. 

For the purposes of the article, we’ll explore the hierarchical and structural challenges growth creates for:

  • Pastors and Ministers
  • Elders and Deacons
  • Church Staff

Because pastors and ministers are at the top of the church administration structure, we’ll start by looking at one of the biggest challenges experienced by pastors of a growing church. 

Pastors and Ministers: Protect Your Time

As your church grows, so will the demands on your time.

When your church or organization is small, you can accommodate the requests on your time. As it grows, that has to change.

More people equals more requests, and that reality will completely overrun your life if you let it.

You’ll burn out responding to people’s needs, which ironically means people’s needs go unmet.

Too many leaders burn out responding to people's needs, which means people's needs go unmet. Click To Tweet

So, how do you spend your time?

That’s what you need to decide. I make a strong argument about how pastoral care stunts church growth and why you should NOT spend your time doing it.

Remember, no one will ever ask you to complete your top priorities (say, sermon preparation or strategic planning, or even prayer);  they will only ask you to complete theirs.

That’s why you need to decide beforehand how you spend your time.

These two posts contain some of my best tips on time management and that help answer my most frequently asked question – How do you get everything you do done? 

Another massive shift in time management you’ll need to make as your church grows is to minimize the number of meetings you’re involved in. This post can help tremendously with doing just that:

Sure, there may be a season where you sprint through some productive planning meetings, but if you spend your life in meetings, you’ll never get your real work done or your true mission accomplished.

No one will ever ask you to complete your top priorities; they will only ask you to complete theirs.  Click To Tweet

The next section focus in on how to develop a deacon and elder board as your church grows.

Tips on Restructuring Elders and Deacons

Of all the groups of leaders who meet, the elders are among the most critical and the most confusing.

In a small church, the elders often govern by managing. Sometimes by micromanaging. That’s understandable (Who’s going to manage in the absence of staff?), but it’s a bad idea.

If your elders try to micromanage a church beyond 200 people in attendance, they either need to change or you need new elders.

Micromanaging elders will permanently stunt the growth of a church to below 400. It’s impossible for a board to stay on top of a church larger than that, and if they insist on doing it, they’ll never govern a church larger than 400. Structurally, it’s impossible.

Micromanaging elders will permanently stunt the growth of a church to below 400. Click To Tweet

As the church grows, several things need to change between an elder board and the senior leader.

1. Trust needs to deepen with the senior pastor

Trust is the greatest currency a leader or church has. The deeper the trust, the more effective the ministry.

The challenge in many churches is that the board doesn’t trust the staff, the senior pastor, or each other. This is horrible.

As the senior leader, you need to either look in the mirror and see if there’s a good reason not to trust you, or move the distrusting elders off the board.

2. Elders need to stop micromanaging

The reason a board shouldn’t micromanage is simple: You can’t manage a complex organization in two hours a month. And if you try, you’ll keep shrinking the church down to the size of what you can manage in a narrow window of time.

This is a tough transition for a lot of boards, but one they can make if they see the issue and are willing to adapt.

The board will get full disclosure on budget and key items, as it should, but examining a $2,000,000 budget is very different than examining a $20,000 budget.

But, where trust is healthy and high and the staff is competent (instead of counting how many paper clips are used each year), the board can help the leader focus on healthy ratios of staffing costs to mission, growth challenges, and the like.

After all, a great team will make sure no more paper clips are used than necessary. And the board knows that.

3. The board refocuses on guiding the mission

The most important function of a board is to guard and guide the mission of the church that they’ve all agreed on.

When the staff, elders, and senior leaders are all aligned around a common mission, vision, and strategy, the church becomes so much healthier (I wrote more about why an aligned team is better and the benefits it offers).

Because trust is high, the elder’s main job is to ensure the senior leader stays true to the mission, and the senior leader’s job is to help the elders do the same.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed a deep relationship with the elders and have used them as a sounding board for new ideas, directions, and initiatives.

When trust runs deep, those conversations are life-giving and energize not only them and me, but, ultimately, the entire church.

Trust is the greatest currency a leader has. The deeper the trust, the more effective the ministry. Click To Tweet

Now, we’ll explore how to restructure your staff as your church grows, including looking at whether or not you need to add a leadership and executive team.

How to Restructure Your Staff

Most churches start with a small staff. That’s normal.

But as your church grows, your staff will grow. And as it grows, you need to change how you interact with them.

When our church started, there was just a handful of staff. We were in the start-up phase, and more than once we made decisions while in the car driving somewhere.

In regular staff meetings, we’d talk about everything we were facing because, well, the whole team was there.

But you soon grow out of that phase.

After several years at Connexus, we eventually added a leadership and an executive team.

As a result, our staff meetings needed to become something different.

Our staff (about 15 people) met every other week to celebrate wins (How do we know we’re accomplishing our mission?) and to share general information about what’s happening and clarify anything that’s unclear.

That may sound trite, but it’s not.

The leader’s job is to keep the team healthy, motivated, and clear.

If you don’t think that’s important, try serving in an unhealthy, unmotivated, and unclear team for a while. You’ll quit.

We also started short 15-minute huddles a few times a week to connect on our most urgent priorities and keep the team connected (thanks to Chris Lema for his insights on how to build a high-performing team). For example, people can dial in via video conferencing if they’re working remotely. It keeps a growing team on the same page.

The biggest shift? We don’t make decisions at staff meetings anymore. 

We simply focus on keeping people encouraged, on mission, vision, strategy, and healthy.

It's the job of the leader to keep the team healthy, motivated and clear..  Click To Tweet

Tips on Adding a Leadership Team

Shortly after launch, as our staff grew, we added a leadership team that consisted of some of the more senior staff.

At first, we used this team to make decisions, but eventually, that broke down (when we reached about 600 in attendance).

Why? Because the Leadership Team became the bottleneck.

If the Leadership Team failed to meet, decisions didn’t get made. If our agenda was too long to cover everything in a meeting, leaders might have to wait a month for a decision. It was a recipe for intransigence.

So, we switched to push-down decision-making. Essentially, we have leaders’ permission to make decisions, and teams stopped making them.

That’s been a much better process for us. We kept our Leadership Team, but I refocused it on working on the mission rather than in the mission.

When you work on the mission rather than in the mission, your mission tends to advance.

We focused more on reading books together, talking honestly about how things were going, and working on medium to long-term objectives together.

When you work ON the mission rather than IN the mission, your mission tends to advance. Click To Tweet

Maybe You Need An Executive Team

I also created an Executive Team composed of two or three senior staff who served more as a personal advisory team.

The Executive Team was created to help me process the most significant directional issues for the church, deal with sensitive HR issues, and help us plot out the 30,000-foot issues for the church.

It’s not a decision-making body, but, if you want buy-in on decisions and an aligned team, it’s a good idea to hash out good ideas until they become great ideas and other leaders own them.

Executive Team serves that function well for us, and it frees up the Leadership Team to do what it needs to do and the Staff Team to do what they need to do.

Every leader needs a forum to hash out good ideas until they become great ideas. Click To Tweet

Increase Giving and Fully Fund Your Mission—Regardless of Where You're at Now.

When it comes to money conversations with your church, my guess is that you want the outcome (margin in your budget and a generous congregation) without the process (having to raise funds and talk about it).

The Art of Building a Generous Congregation is a proven method for increasing giving, creating a culture of generosity, and building financial margin at your church... without the stress and awkwardness.

Even if you don’t feel comfortable talking about money right now.
Even if you’ve never seen your congregation fully engage with that kind of conversation.
Even if you’ve tried other methods without success.

And yes, especially, if you could make a bigger difference by increasing your budget by 20%, 30%, or even 40%.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.