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Leadership systems are in motion in large churches

By Susan Beaumont

Leadership systems tend to reach the outer limits of their effectiveness based on attendance or budget.

The large church is managed through five interdependent leadership systems. When change occurs in one system, it tends to produce change in the others. These systems include:

  • Clergy Leadership Roles
  • Staff Team Design and Function
  • Governance and Board Function
  • Acculturation and the Role of the Laity
  • The Formation and Execution of Strategy

As daily changes occur in the life of the congregation, these systems adjust but remain relatively stable.

Leaders come and go, policies are formed and adapted, groups form and dissolve, but the basic interaction of the five systems remains constant.

However, every leadership system has a capacity limit, a point beyond which it can no longer effectively function. When the activity level of the congregation significantly increases or decreases, leadership systems hit their limits. A senior clergyperson assumes a particular leadership role that is highly effective in a church with weekend worship attendance of 700. The clergyperson is surprised to discover that the leadership role begins losing its effectiveness when the church adds an additional worship service and now hosts 850 in weekend worship.

Or a staff team that was humming along eliminates a few part-time staff members due to a budget decrease, and suddenly the overall department structure of the church no longer works. The staff team maintains momentum but notices how much more energy it suddenly takes to function well across departments.

Reaching the outer limits
One of the remarkable things about leadership systems is that they tend to reach the outer limits of their effectiveness at predictable moments, based on worship attendance or budget size. We often refer to the period of time that a congregation approaches or moves through these limits as a transition zone. Some refer to transition zones as “attendance ceilings,” because they observe that a congregation’s weekend attendance repeatedly climbs to a predictable level and then drops back down. When a congregation hits one of these transition zones, it must intentionally adapt all of the five leadership systems, or the congregation won’t be able to accommodate added complexity. The systems have reached their effectiveness limits and cannot accommodate additional growth without being repurposed.

In the large church there are natural attendance and budget zones where the five leadership systems stabilize and accommodate complexity and growth without shifting. Each of these zones operates with a basic organizing principle and with predictable characteristics in the five leadership systems.

Congregations occupy a stable size zone when they operate with an annual budget of between $1 million and $2 million or when weekly worship attendance remains between 400 and 800. I refer to this size zone as the professional congregation, because most of leadership behavior is driven by the need to professionalize operations. The congregation realizes that the church’s programming has outgrown the managerial capacity of its lay leaders to sustain excellence, so demand for a staff team of specialists emerges.

Affected by budget capacity
The growth of this size church is related to budget capacity, which impacts the ability to add staff. The pastor is learning to let go of a purely relational style of leadership and adopt a more managerial focus. The staff team is moving away from a generalist orientation and toward a specialist orientation.

The strategic congregation emerges as the stabilizing zone once a congregation is operating with a budget between $2 million and $4 million or maintaining average weekly attendance between 800 and 1,200. This congregation requires a more intentional orientation towards strategy, growth, and alignment.

In this size congregation there are so many decision-making groups at work that it is easy for the church to drift out of alignment and for tremendous energies to be wasted. The pastor is learning to maintain strategic focus. The staff team is learning to function in aligned departmental structures, with the oversight of an executive team.

The church that worships with an average weekend community of 1,200 to 1,800, or with a budget of more than $4 million, is known as a matrix congregation. [The author has not developed the typology beyond 1,800 at this time.] The presenting organizational challenge of this size category is decentralization. The careful work that was done to align church structures in the previous size category suddenly gets in the way of the more organic leadership style needed to function in this very large category.

Growth in the matrix-sized church emerges and is managed everywhere, all at the same time. The senior clergy leader focuses primarily on the overall strategy of the congregation, teaching, preaching, and fund-raising. She has fully delegated the management of the staff team to one or more executive ministers.

The staff is learning new ways to coordinate its decentralized decision making.

A congregation approaching the upper or lower limits of any one of these stabilizing zones will experience leadership stress. Rightsizing the systems requires a fundamental paradigm shift in how the church functions. The congregation that tries to avoid the difficult work of adapting its leadership systems risks stagnation in growth and/or the ineffective use of congregational resources.

Susan Beaumont is a senior consultant with the Alban Institute. Her practice specializes in the unique leadership dynamics of large congregations.

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