by Kent E. Fillinger
What situations foster or frustrate church growth? Some statistics correlate directly to growth, while other items have an indirect effect or no apparent impact at all.
But two recurring statistics directly impact a church’s growth rate in ways that deserve attention. These two statistics have held true from megachurches to medium-sized churches over four surveys in a four-year period (2005–08).
The two factors both relate to the senior minister. One is his age. The other is his tenure. Combined, they create what I call the “leadership factor.”
The Leadership Factor
The average age of the 66 medium-sized church senior ministers was 47, and the average tenure was 12 years. Survey statistics from 2008 for the 117 megachurch and emerging megachurch senior ministers were almost identical, with an average age of 49 and an average tenure of 13 years.
Across the board, from megachurches to emerging megachurches to medium-sized churches, the age and tenure of the senior minister have either a positive or negative correlation to a church’s growth rate. (Bear in mind, these statistics represent averages, not guarantees.)
Regarding tenure, the most effective years of growth occur during the minister’s eighth to 10th years. The 2008 growth rates for this period were 13 percent for the medium-sized churches and 6 percent for the megachurches and emerging megachurches. Growth rates drop significantly for ministers in their 11th to 15th years, when average growth is 1 and 2 percent, respectively. For senior ministers who have served a congregation 21 or more years, the growth rates drop again. It is clear that longevity does not translate to church growth.
Three-year averages for megachurches and emerging megachurches show that the best growth—at almost 25 percent per church—happens when senior ministers are 45-49 years old. By comparison, churches led by senior ministers older than 55 declined almost 5 percent during the same three-year period.
For medium-sized churches, the 32-39 year age range for senior ministers showed the best growth rate last year, 11 percent, compared with a 2 percent growth rate for senior ministers over 55.
The impact a senior minister’s age and tenure have on declining church growth seems to be attributable to several factors, including the natural maturing or life cycle of the organizational vision, the decreasing connectivity to young families due to the senior minister’s age and life stage, the natural progression of less energy, and an intuitive personal gravitation toward security and safety over innovation and risk in an attempt to finish well.
These findings bring to mind two familiar leadership axioms: “Everything rises and falls on leadership” and “the speed of the leader, the speed of the team.” There are three related issues that also must be acknowledged and addressed.
Succession planning has largely been misunderstood and neglected. It has been said, “There is no success without a successor.” But almost 80 percent of the medium-sized churches are operating without a succession plan.
A critical component of effective succession planning is “bench development.” A senior leader is responsible for ensuring the players on his bench are being mentored and developed for future leadership positions to bring about long-term success and effectiveness of the organization.
For the 2008 Megachurch Report: Deluxe Edition, I asked Bob Russell, retired senior minister of Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky, “What would you do differently today if you were starting over in your ministry at Southeast?” His response: “The first thing I would change is I would start a preacher development group for junior high boys.”
Due to the combined effects of inadequate retirement planning and a loss of wealth due to the recent recession, many baby boomers will delay retirement beyond age 65. Also, because people are living longer and staying healthier, they are more likely to work past the traditional retirement age. These realities have the potential to hinder potential growth in many churches across the country.
A Subtle Shift
At some point a shift takes place in the hearts and minds of most leaders; they stop striving for significance and begin to settle for security. Personal and anecdotal evidence shows leaders who choose to invest themselves in God’s business start their careers asking what significant difference they can make. Spiritual leaders enter the ministry with a desire to impact the world for Christ and to affect noteworthy change in people’s lives. They passionately believe and demonstrate that there’s nothing more important than the privilege of serving God in full-time ministry.
It seems, though, at some point in almost every spiritual leader’s path, security supersedes significance. Leaders stop taking risks and they limit the number of changes they attempt to make in the church.
The shift can be eerily subtle. One day you arrive at church only to realize your goal is no longer to win the world for Christ, but to survive the situation you are in long enough so you can retire or your kids can finish school or your spouse can get a job with insurance or. . . .
The Typical Solution
The standard solution to these facts is for church boards and senior ministers to lapse into denial. Richard S. Tedlow, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, makes this comment in Denial: Why Business Leaders Fail to Look Facts in the Face:
It is no accident that only one firm from the original (1896) Dow Jones Industrial Average is still on that list. According to the economist Paul Ormerod, on average, more than 10 percent of all companies in America disappear each year.” [The percentage of churches that close their doors annually is even higher!] “Denial is a major reason—perhaps the major reason—for this . . . failure.
A quote from Edward Lorenz, pioneer of chaos theory and the butterfly effect, applies in this situation: “We should believe what is true even if it hurts, rather than what is false, even if it makes us happy.”
The Better Solution
The answer to the leadership factor is not singular or simple; it is complex and requires attention and prayer. Arnold H. Glasgow said, “One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” Given that the number of self-professed atheists and agnostics is accelerating and the American church is on life support in many places, this situation constitutes an emergency. Coupling these realities with the age and tenure of so many senior ministers, action must be taken now to address the situation.
The senior minister is equally responsible, or even more responsible, to own his role in the process. Max de Pree said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” Senior ministers need to have the courage to initiate the crucial conversations needed to reach a consensus of action.
In the book, Crucial Conversations, the authors describe a crucial conversation as “a discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.” This is a fitting description of the type of conversations church leaders need to have immediately to address these findings.
Juan Enriquez said, “One way to get where you want to be is to find a good map and a smart guide.” Consider using an outside resource to help navigate these essential and crucial conversations to achieve better results. And remember these principles: respect the individual leader, honor the church’s vision, and value the priority and purpose of the kingdom of God.
Kent E. Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting (www.3strandsconsulting.com) in Indianapolis, Indiana.
This article is part of The 2008 Medium-Sized Church Report: Deluxe Edition, which is available as a downloadable resource at http://www.standardpub.com/detail.aspx?ID=4260 for only $14.99. Item number D021535910.
This report contains complete survey findings that will help you evaluate your ministry and strengthen your church. Topics covered in the report include:
• Attendance and growth trends
• Baptism ratios and trends
• Leadership profiles of the senior ministers
• Multisite insights
• Worship styles and services
• Giving and debt statistics
• Church staffing
• Outreach and missions giving and involvement
• Church demographics