When Large Churches Get Stuck: Letting the Staff Lead
I’m always amazed at the number of relatively-large churches I encounter that are still operating like small churches. One common challenge in these churches is that they still have layers of boards and committees involved in much of the decision-making that impacts day-to-day ministry.
Let me give you some examples of decisions that boards and committees should not be making in larger churches:
- Authorizing purchases that were previously approved in the budget
- Deciding Sunday service times
- Screening candidates for new staff positions
- Determining strategy for the various ministry teams
- Making decisions about ongoing maintenance and repair of facilities
- Hiring or firing any staff that work for the senior pastor
- Engaging in conflict resolution between staff members
I wish I could say I just pulled that list out of thin air, but those are real examples I’ve seen in churches where boards and committees were still operating as if they were leading smaller churches.
Why do churches continue to embrace structures that impede healthy growth?
The reasons vary from church to church. In some instances, it’s because no one has ever paused to ask the question, “Is this the appropriate way for our church to operate given its current size?” Particularly in fast-growing ministries, it’s not unusual for a church to quickly outgrow structures and systems that worked just months ago.
For some churches, a crisis happened in the past where a previous pastor or staff member did something (or abdicated their responsibility) and it negatively impacted the health of the church. As a reaction to that crisis, the lay leadership assumed more control and created more checks and balances. But the challenge is this: control is the enemy of growth. Healthy, growing churches have a framework of accountability that empowers the pastor and paid staff to engage ministry unhindered.
In other churches, holding on to a structure of many boards and committees is connected to a desire for lay people to be involved in the ministry. Particularly in traditional denominations, the level of engagement by lay people is measured by the number of people serving on boards and committees.The reality is rarely are any of those boards and committees engaging in actual ministry. Instead, their sole purpose is to govern the activity of staff and ministry teams. I’m a strong proponent of engaging lay people. I’d much rather that happen by equipping volunteers to do ministry rather than to attend committee meetings to talk about ministry.
And in some cases, the paid staff are partially to blame. Rather than equipping God’s people to do the work of God, they’ve assumed they were hired to do the ministry themselves. They’re not building volunteer teams and letting those servants engage the ministry. In larger churches, the roles really need to be reversed. Rather than committees telling paid staff what to do, paid staff need to empower lay leaders to use their spiritual gifts to help others take their next steps toward Christ.
What structure changes are necessary as churches grow?
As churches grow, these are some of the key structure changes that need to take place to encourage future health:
1. There should only be one lay leadership board that handles all the responsibilities of previous boards and committees.
2. The only person who should be accountable to the board is the senior pastor.
All other staff leadership, including hiring and firing, should be the senior pastor’s responsibility.
3. There should not be any subcommittees on the board.
Anything that might require a subcommittee (finances, facilities, human resources, etc.) for operational oversight, should be delegated to paid staff.
4. Rather than voting on board members based on popularity, leaders should be appointed based on gifting, biblical qualifications and alignment to the mission, vision and doctrine.
Any congregational votes required by the denomination should only be an affirmation of an appointment process that ensures alignment, gifting and biblical qualifications.
What are the roles for the lay leadership board?
Don’t misread my advocacy for more of a staff-led structure. Though I think this is a very necessary shift for larger churches, I still believe it’s in the best interests of both the senior pastor and the church for there to be some form of lay leader oversight. I’m not an advocate of structures where the senior pastor has no oversight or the oversight is provided by some outside board of overseers. Early in a church plant, an outside board is likely the only option available. Once the church is established, though, this oversight needs to reside within the church.
With that, here are some example of the primary roles for this one lay leadership board:
- Modeling spiritual leadership to the congregation
- Providing encouragement and accountability to the Lead Pastor
- Protecting the established mission, vision and values of the church
- Making significant financial commitments (annual budget, salary of Lead Pastor, land acquisitions, construction contracts, etc.)
- Advising the Lead Pastor, as requested, on strategic decisions the staff leadership is processing
Frankly, where I see boards dropping the ball is the first bullet. They add people to the board who might be able to provide operational oversight, but they lack the qualifications or desire to provide spiritual oversight.
In fact, if churches would just raise the bar when it comes to spiritual qualifications for board leaders, I’m convinced most of the dysfunction I see in the relationships between pastors, staff, and lay leadership boards would fade away.
It’s really unfortunate that so much sideways energy is expended in churches because their structure does not fit their size. Is that your story? Then it’s time to begin the conversations that best position your church for future health and growth.
Tony is founder and chief strategic officer of The Unstuck Group, a company that helps churches get unstuck through consulting and coaching experiences designed to focus vision, strategy and action. For 14 years, Tony served on the senior leadership teams at West Ridge Church in Dallas, Georgia, NewSpring Church in South Carolina, and Granger Community Church in Indiana. He’s written several books, as well as articles that have been featured with the Willow Creek Association, Catalyst and Pastors.com. He writes about leadership regularly at tonymorganlive.com. His next book, The Unstuck Church: Equipping Churches to Experience Sustained Health, will be available from Thomas Nelson in May 2017.