If your church has plateaued it could be because you have tried to lead everything by consensus.
There’s a colossal difference between pseudo-leadership (leading everything by consensus) and biblically based, godly, unifying, strong, decisive, servant leadership.
The consensus trap in smaller churches
I see this occur most often in smaller churches where a leader has rallied around themselves a small group of men and women to plant or restart a plateaued church. The problem that occurs is that as they try to grow from one stage to the next, the leader looks around at the people who have sacrificed just as much as he has and feels that because of their sacrifices they deserve an equal voice in the church’s future direction.
That happens in part because in the early years the leader did in fact solicit everyone’s opinion in the group before making a decision. But at that attendance size and staff configuration that process was healthy and natural.
Along the way the leader was sure to measure everyone’s relational temperature, mitigating risk by putting out fires before they started. Everyone was in on every decision.
As time went on, that group, having been consulted in every decision early on, quickly developed the false perception that this is in fact what should happen in a healthy church at later sizes.
What few realize until they’re plateaued is that what is often considered a sign of health at one size is a sign of dysfunction at another.
The sad fact is many churches running 500, 800 and 1,110 are operating like a church of 100 and don’t realize it.
The consensus trap in larger churches
Leading everything by consensus has a hand in directly creating a consensus-only decision-making culture in the governing elder boards of larger churches.
In fact, consensus-only decision-making will find its last, great stand among the elders of your church as they decide whether or not to fully empower you, as the staff leader, to make some decisions without their knowledge or participation.
Healthy elderships should always seek consensus, but should never fail to proceed without it. Elders who are actually leaders always prefer unified dissent over consensus-driven gridlock. I will point you to another article I wrote that talked extensively about the by-law changes that have to occur in churches 200, 400, and 600 to make this happen.
The fact is volunteer elders who have been ingrained with a consensus-driven mindset rarely relinquish power. They fail to do so in part because we senior pastors are so intent on attracting people and not making disciples. But mainly because Christians, fully matured or not, have rarely seen godly leadership in action. If the only thing people in your church have seen is pseudo-leadership, reinforced by scripture taken out of context, they can’t begin to think another way.
Mix in the fact that churches rarely grow through conversion growth, then you have elder boards cross-pollinated with the bad leadership habits and philosophies of multiple dysfunctional churches from across the country and across generations.
On top of all of these factors, many churches don’t place actual leaders on to their boards (people who have proven themselves to be leaders of people in their non-church ventures), so it’s completely understandable why these elders wouldn’t want to give up telling the senior pastor of their church what he can and cannot do. It’s a rush for someone who doesn’t get that kind of authority and influence in their day job. Keeping an influencer of hundreds of people under their thumb may be the biggest power trip they’ve ever experienced in their life.
Why would they give up that gig?
They’re going to fight tooth and nail to keep that kind of responsibility.
Unless they’re a mature, Christ-following leader.
Your job is to help people understand how decision making changes as the church gets larger
Senior pastors have two specific leadership tasks that lay before them in terms of facilitating change. The first is clarification. The second is amplification.
In his book Leadership Jazz, Max DePree wrote, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between he is a servant.”
Senior pastors do a really good job of the saying thank you part. A pretty good job at the servant part. But we must agree that we usually don’t do a great job with the defining reality part. That’s our first task.
In his masterful article “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics: How Strategy Changes with Growth;” Tim Keller wrote,
“…The larger the church the more decision making falls to the staff rather than to the whole membership or even the lay leaders. The elders or board must increasingly deal with only top-level, big-picture issues.
This means the larger the church, the more decision making is pushed up toward the staff and away from the congregation and lay leaders. Needless to say, many laypeople feel extremely uncomfortable with this.
On the other hand, the larger the church, the more the basic pastoral ministry such as hospital visits, discipling, oversight of Christian growth, and counseling is done by lay leaders rather than by the professional ministers.
Generally, in small churches policy is decided by many and ministry is done by a few, while in the large church ministry is done by many and policy is decided by a few.”
Decision-making being pushed up, and ministry being pushed down – that’s an indispensable reality that must be shared early in the life of your church.
The one thing we all understand about leadership is that it is easier to change if we are told, in advance, with enough time to process, why something is to happen and when. When reality is simply stated, naturally and consistently, over and over again, leaders in the room will push for changes. Once that is happening all you need to do is be their confirming voice.
If you’re at 100, then you need to be talking now about the changes necessary to grow to 200 and 400. If you’re at 600, you have to make up for conversations you failed to have at earlier stages, but also talk now about the evolution your board and staff must make to hit 1,000 and 1,200.
Your job is to tell the truth
If you’re in a situation where everything is decided by consensus, then it is your job to be the discordant voice. This is the amplification part.
Being a discordant voice is often difficult because so many senior pastors are either (to use Myers-Briggs language) feelers (they have difficulty with confrontation) or are sensing-judgers (their orientation is towards ensuring compliance with the past). FYI – you can take the Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator (MBTI), and learn more about your type preferences. I would encourage everyone on your staff and governing board to take the MBTI and review your preferences together.
Yet, I’ve seen even the most unlikely and ill-equipped senior pastors lead change in a God-honoring, unified way.
Herein lies the difference between being an authoritarian leader and a real servant leader.
What I tell pastors that I coach is to introduce ideas and then let them sit. Introduce ideas and then do not push for immediate action. Give books. Load your leaders on a bus and go visit other churches. Keep the ideas coming. As you influence the system by using your influence to place people on your governing board with actual leadership experience, they will push for change.
The right leaders + the right information + the right inspiration + time = lasting change.
That’s the difference between real leadership and authoritarianism. Your job is to introduce ideas and to use your influence to place the right people on the team. The combination of those two actions is real leadership, which always results in momentum forward.
Your job is to tell the truth, to the right people, in the right way, in the right spirit, over and over and over again. Your job is not to win the battle (force a structural leadership change before everyone is ready), but lose the war (forever losing your ability to influence the church).
Leading by consensus is killing the Church.
Leading like Jesus is not.
Never confuse the two.
If you are interested in learning more about the types of coaching I offer, you can do that here.