Many of you just read the title of this article and want to stop reading. From your perspective, the subtitle includes a four-letter word. It’s the P word: plan. In your mind, that means slow down and look backward before you can look forward. It means pausing to assess what’s working and what needs improvement.
It means taking your foot off the pedal for a moment to discern what’s next for your church. It means taking a break to make sure we have the right people in the right roles to tackle the right initiatives and get the right results. All of that takes time, and the way you’re wired makes slowing down to plan the next steps a huge challenge.
Let’s face it. You had a plan before, but it was in your head.
You didn’t ask for anyone else’s input when you developed that plan because you were the only person around at the time. Since then, growth has happened naturally. And that’s the problem.
Now there are more people. More leaders. More opinions. More ministries. More opportunities. Growth leads to more. And more, if unchecked, leads to complexity and plateau. Don’t believe me?
Ask the churches on the other side of the life cycle. They’re dealing with the consequences of complexity.
Every stage of the life cycle is challenging, but this particular stage is most challenging for entrepreneurs. You are starters. You lead by intuition. If you are a church planter or you’ve had success transitioning churches in the past, I’m talking to you. It’s innate in you to build something new.
Let me warn you, though, because I’ve seen it happen so many times: some of you won’t make it through this stage. You’ll either stop growing as a leader and try to take your church back to what it was in the early days or you’ll pull the “I’m a church planter” card and go start something new again. You don’t have to do that. Your church needs your entrepreneurial bent and will benefit from that in the long run, but your church also needs you to make a leadership shift.
If the first two stages of the life cycle were more intuitive, this next stage is all about being more intentional. In the early days, this isn’t necessary because you are in every meeting and every decision of any consequence. As the church grows, however, it becomes impossible for one person to be everywhere and to control everything.
I used that word control on purpose. That’s the big leadership shift that’s required to generate strategic growth. You have to give up control. If you want to continue growing, you have to release ministry, leadership, decision making, and just about everything else to others. A church can’t continue to grow on the shoulders of just one person. God didn’t design it that way. Instead, he purposely designed us to be a reflection of the entire Body of Christ, namely, every person has a gift and a part in the mission of the church. In other words, your gut intuition, which others don’t have, must be translated into intentional strategies, systems, and structures to support future health and growth.
Churches that learn that health and growth are bigger than one person are having the challenging conversations to determine: What’s our strategy? What systems are needed to support that strategy? What structure is required to engage more people in this next season of growth?
With that introduction, here are some of the characteristics of churches in the strategic growth season:
1. They shift from personalities to teams.
The challenge, of course, is to retain all that’s good about strong, charismatic leadership while learning to release and empower others. The churches that get this right learn to model team-based leadership at the top of the organization.
2. Growth pains force leaders to think more strategically.
Without this shift, complexity will continue to grow and ministry silos will begin to develop. Focused strategies also help shift from personalities to teams.
3. They confirm their discipleship path.
This is one of the key strategies that any church needs to define. In small churches, next steps are driven relationally, that is, people develop a relationship that leads to a next step. As churches grow, people will need to take a step before those relationships develop.
4. Systems are established to reinforce healthy behaviors.
Rather than rely only on chance, values will inform right decisions every time. Boundaries are established and steps are defined so that decision making can be released to more people.
5. Structure forms to support future growth.
By structure I mean a combination of lay leadership, church governance, staff leadership, and volunteer ministry teams. In the past, it was “all hands on deck.” Everyone did everything.
As the church grows, that creates confusion and chaos. It’s time to redefine roles and responsibilities.
6. They begin to flex their healthy change muscles.
While it’s still growing, the church needs to learn how to let go of the past and embrace the future. Now is the time to begin establishing this in the culture: change is expected and is a sign of health.
As hard as it may be to grasp, what your church experienced in the previous two stages of the life cycle was relatively easy growth.
But this season of the church is going to take work. You can’t assume that because it worked in the past, it’s going to work now and in the future. Having more people leads to more challenges.
That’s going to require some changes.
If we are faithful in the little things, though, and God continues to build his Church, we may experience a movement that has profound Kingdom impact. Let’s look at the key changes that will be required to develop strategic growth and will prepare your church for sustained health.
This article is an excerpt from Tony Morgan’s new book, The Unstuck Church: Equipping Churches to Experience Sustained Health.