By Larry Travis and Tim Wallingford
Why are 75 to 85 percent of the churches in America plateaued or declining? Why are 74 percent of those in their 20s not going to a church of any kind? We can find a clue in the ministry of Jesus.
Before he launched his ministry, preached the Sermon on the Mount, confronted the Pharisees, taught in synagogues, and performed most of his miracles, Jesus selected leaders.
He prayed all night before his decision. Jesus then invested the next three years equipping 12 men who, after being trained and empowered by God, turned the world upside down. Jesus laid the foundation for his revolutionary kingdom by first selecting leaders.
Understanding leadership is a major key to growing the church. Why do some churches grow, while others don’t? Why do some churches fulfill their potential in ministry, and others don’t? Why do certain churches stay unified, while others split? Why do some churches have vision, courage, and faith, while others flutter with little impact?
The answer is leadership. Congregations that make an impact for Christ place a premium on it.
What are the greatest leadership challenges facing small- and medium-size churches? In a survey of more than 500 congregations, we identified four that we will briefly describe in this article.
Understanding Leadership Roles
Since the first days of the church, leadership roles have needed to be clarified. In Acts 6 we see a picture of the first church, a growing congregation led by 12 apostles who were trying to “do it all.” When their job description expanded to include oversight and administration of a benevolence ministry, the whole church grew frustrated. The Grecian Jews complained they were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
A meeting was called. The apostles admitted they had been neglecting the ministry of the Word in order to “wait on tables.” The solution was for the congregation to select a new set of leaders to carry out the task. When leadership roles were defined and implemented, “the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly” (Acts 6:7).
Defining the role of every player is pivotal to the success of a team, be it sports, business, or the church.
Ministers and associates stay with a church an average of 18 months before leaving for another ministry. A common denominator is undefined leadership expectations and roles that lead to misunderstanding, hurt feelings, disrespect, and ineffectiveness.1
Ministers and elders can love each other and even enjoy being together in casual or nonchurch settings, but without clearly defined roles, the “business” of the church can lead to frustration, conflict, lack of connection, and suspicion.
Leadership roles change as the church grows. Not evaluating the way leadership operates in light of scriptural mandates will allow cultural pressures or power personalities to mold the style or definition of leadership.
Conflict and Power Issues
The apostle John identifies a power struggle in his third epistle. The church location is not clear, but the ineffective leader is identified as Diotrephes (3 John 9).
John describes several dysfunctional leadership traits: Diotrephes loves to be first, excludes other leaders from decision making, slanders those who disagree with his positions, intentionally creates factions, and verbally or physically abuses those who will not follow his way (vv. 9, 10).
John was concerned others would imitate this leadership model (v. 11), so the apostle proposes a leadership model that reflects Christ. His name is Demetrius, and John describes him as a team builder and unifier, purposeful in implementing the goals of Christ (v. 12).
Every congregation must resolve these questions: What is the process of decision-making and approval? How is the vision and programming of the church suggested, clarified, and finally approved and implemented?
How do the ministers, other leaders, and volunteers interact to make the final decision? Who’s responsible for developing ownership and getting buy-in from the congregation?
Not defining the decision-making and approval process leads to conflict and power struggles.
In the small church, conflict can occur between the minister and a key family. People can become protective of their area of ministry and feel passionate about their work. A key family can feel threatened by a minister who might change “their church” or cause the family to lose influence.
If the minister does not respect the culture and traditions of the church, members will question his leadership and hesitate to follow his proposed plans.
In the medium-size church, conflict can arise between the minister(s) and key committees. Every leader or key committee member wants to know his or her work is valued and supported. Leaders may feel they’ve earned the right to direct a part of the ministry without input from others.
Conflict can be triggered by personality clashes, immaturity, power struggles, not sharing the same definition of the church’s purpose, and the infiltration of Satan.
Processes must be established to allow members to exercise their gifts and create ministry as they perceive God’s leading. At the same time, leadership must have responsibility to set the vision and give final approval to the ministry plan.
Training and Mentoring Leaders
Training and mentoring were key elements in the leadership styles of both Jesus and Paul. After responding to Jesus’ call, the 12 disciples spent three years as his pupils and trainees while watching how he related to people, handled abuse from Pharisees, and dealt with interruptions while still maintaining his focus.
In Matthew 10 Jesus sends out the twelve to put into practice what they had been learning. Upon their return there was time to debrief, correct, and encourage.
The apostle Paul also placed a premium on training. Study his missionary tours. Paul always has young gifted leaders assisting in the work of God. Timothy is the classic example. Paul so believed in training that he devoted his entire second missionary tour to appointing leaders and training them to be effective!
Paul encourages Timothy to incorporate training and mentoring in his leadership style: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2).
For the most part, churches neglect training and mentoring new leaders. They struggle because they lack leaders and spiritual depth. Any enterprise will rise or fall on leadership.
The challenge in small- and medium-size churches often centers on the purpose of the church. Such congregations usually are composed of members who are part of the same family or who have been longtime friends. Fellowship can easily become the purpose of the church instead of the Great Commission and discipleship.
There is little need to train a leader whose role is simply to be a friend. The church needs to revisit the purpose of the church as defined by Christ and the apostles.
When equipping the saints for ministry becomes primary, the leader will naturally feel a sense of inadequacy and seek training so he or she can be effective and obedient to Christ.
It is important to have an established process or program to identify, select, and train potential leaders. But even more important is to clearly define the purpose of the church, which automatically determines who the leader will become and the tasks he or she will do. The church, with time, will become healthier and see growth.
Members always behave and function according to their definition of the church. Dysfunctional churches simply have members with a dysfunctional definition of the church’s purpose. People live out what they believe to be true.
At times church members complain they don’t have enough leadership. But the fact is, God has given each congregation the resources needed to accomplish his mission.
God will provide the church with the leadership necessary to be effective when the church clarifies and owns God’s definition of the church.
The Struggle with Vision
The disciples did not share Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. Jesus taught that the kingdom of God would be a community of faith with Christ’s Spirit ruling in the heart of members. But the disciples could not give up the vision of a political kingdom.
As a result of a split vision of the kingdom, the disciples’ ability to learn and live out Christ’s call for leadership was stunted. The disciples often struggled with pride and position (Luke 9:46-50). They did not always share Christ’s compassion for “unimportant” people (Matthew 19:13-15). They abandoned Christ at his arrest because they did not share his vision of the kingdom (Matthew 26:47-56).
The mission of the church is evangelism and discipleship (Matthew 28:18, 19). The mission never changes; it is an absolute mandate to be carried out by church members until Christ returns.
The purpose of the church enables the congregation to accomplish Christ’s mission. The purpose of the church involves belonging to the community of faith, worship, character development, serving one another, and leading others to Christ. The purpose of the church is often described as a process that brings Christlike maturity to the membership.
The vision of the local church is a desired future state of who the congregation will become and what she will look like when the mission is lived out by her members. The vision gives shape and a distinct “look” that will differ from other congregations.
The vision is created by first examining the church’s potential leadership, resources, giftedness, and passion. The property, demographics of the community, and building and grounds are all factors too.
Maintenance churches can have an identity crisis. Their identity as a church community has never been defined, so they don’t know who they’re supposed to be or become as a community of faith. Thus, their ministry plan lacks cohesion. The church flounders due to a lack of clear vision.
When vision is lacking, members will drift in different directions with their time and money. Any of several factors may make this happen: an influential leader, personal preference, tradition, a conviction about how God is leading, or their own vision of the church. As a result there is fragmenting and lack of a cohesive community.
Congregations can struggle in this area because vision can require a change of direction. A vision from God requires people to move, or give, or sacrifice, or do something different from the way they’ve operated in the past.
Another enemy of vision is apathy. A church can have a vision, but if leaders do not live it out, people won’t see or understand it. If leaders do not regularly remind members of the vision, people will forget and sink back into their old ways.
Many small- and medium-size churches plateau simply because they don’t believe they can grow or the people aren’t willing to take on a new vision of who they can become by the grace of God.
Just as is true with the first three problems, this one will not be solved until we restore biblical leadership.
1National Survey: Smaller Church Struggles, Church Growth Materials.
Larry Travis is campus minister and vice president for leadership development at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University. Tim Wallingford is senior minister with First Christian Church, Johnson City, Tennessee.