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Sometimes becoming multi-site is more accidental than planned

Structure is essential, but culture and morale are more important for staffing at multiple locations.

By Sam S. Rainer III

The multi-site paradigm has become a mainstay in conversations about the church. The multi-site church takes many forms, and numerous models are used. At the core of the movement is the principle that geography does not limit a single local church. The success of several multi-site churches demonstrates that the model may be around for quite some time.

It’s not for every church, nor should we expect every church to strive to become multi-site. However, for churches that do expand to multiple locations, there are unique rewards and challenges.

Our story as a multi-site church is like many others — we stumbled into it by accident. Sarasota Baptist Church celebrates 25 years in September 2009. Back in 1984, having more than one campus was completely off the radar for the handful that started our church. That small group had no idea where God was taking them — they were just seeking to be obedient. But we’re multi-site today because of the culture that was fashioned 25 years ago.

The founders created a mission statement that became the culture of the church: Doing whatever it takes to connect people to Jesus Christ. I was in kindergarten when our church began to reach the Sarasota community, but now I serve as campus pastor alongside many of the same people that started it all.

A month away from defaulting

Becoming multi-site was not intentional, but it happened at Sarasota Baptist because of intentionality of mission. The second campus was unplanned and rushed. A dying church 11.5 miles north approached our congregation about merging. They were one month away from defaulting on their bank note. Within 30 days, Sarasota Baptist Church became two campuses. From initial contact to church vote to the first service, everyone united around the 30-day, whirlwind process.

The mission was intentional; the process of becoming multi-site was unintentional. Our church seized an unlikely opportunity to reach further into the community and overcome geographic challenges. Like our church, many multi-site churches have stumbled into it. A healthy church culture only goes so far before exciting chaos becomes frenzied frustration. Once the process begins, churches making the leap to multiple locations must become intentional. Staffing the multiple locations is one area of critical importance. Here are some of the key markers of intentionality in staffing a multi-site church:

Build the right structure. Staff structure is more than an organizational chart demonstrating who oversees whom. The structure of the staff is also not as important as other facets of staffing. Staff culture and morale are more important than structure. Without the right structure, however, communication breaks down and responsibilities are muddled.

In many ways the structure of the staff is determined by the structure of the multi-site model. Our church has a regional-campus model with two large campuses that are staffed with similar positions. Our senior pastor, Mike Landry, oversees the staff at the first campus. As the campus pastor I oversee the second campus. My primary role is to ensure that our senior pastor’s vision is implemented at the second, newer campus.

Balance authority and responsibility. Nothing frustrates a staff person more than having a large amount of responsibility and little authority. Senior church leadership must be intentional about balancing the responsibilities of staff roles with the corresponding authority to accomplish those roles.

A staff member with big responsibilities and little authority will either withdraw from making decisions or battle others for authority. A staff member with little responsibility and big authority will either waste time or micromanage others. Matching authority and responsibility is crucial in a multi-site system where decisions are made in different venues and geographic locations.

Capitalize on the role of the campus pastor.
Not every multi-site church has campus pastors. And some don’t place campus pastors at every location. Some campus pastors preach regularly but others do not. The position of campus pastor is a difficult one to fill at many multi-site churches. It requires strong, visionary leadership at a specific location, but the campus pastor is not to be the main person of the church.

One of the most important components of a campus pastor’s ministry is to connect with the leaders in the community around the campus.

Create a common vision and philosophy among the staff. One of the biggest problems in a multi-site system is differing visions and philosophies among the staff. Rogue leaders and island campuses can become major headaches with high potential to break away from the multi-site system.

At Sarasota Baptist, our philosophy is for each additional campus to remain in the multi-campus system. Our senior pastor made it clear when I came to the campus that the second campus would not become autonomous. I assured him I was not his man if there were plans for it to be autonomous; we were totally on the same page.

At a multi-site church, the elephant in the room must be addressed: What are the plans for the campus? The issue of autonomy must be addressed upfront. Campuses that will likely become independent have shorter periods of investment from the multi-site system, but they also have more freedom in creating their own vision. Campuses that will unlikely become autonomous have a reciprocal, long-haul relationship but less freedom to do their own thing.

Determine how communication takes place. In a multi-site system, a recurrent complaint is that someone did not receive the communication. Multi-site churches have unique problems in this area.

Select specific times and modes of communication. At Sarasota Baptist, we have layers of communication. The strategy team sets the vision. The administrative team organizes the vision. The support team helps implement the vision. All meetings must take place on Tuesday, and everyone at both campuses are required to be in the office that day.

Staffing a multi-site church correctly is not the main thing, but it is critically important for the health of a multi-site system.

Sam S. Rainer III serves as the campus pastor at Sarasota Baptist Church at Lakewood Ranch, Sarasota, FL. He is president of Rainer Research. [www.rainerresearch.com]

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