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The importance of bench depth in ministry

By Tim Spivey

One way churches leave themselves vulnerable in ministry is neglecting “bench depth” development. Bench depth in ministry is similar to that in sports – having more than one player who can play any position. The same principle applies to plans – having a plan (three or four deep) in case something goes wrong. What would your church do if:

  • The electricity or air conditioning went out on Sunday morning.
  • A key staff member quit or had a moral failure.
  • The preacher came down with a scorching case of laryngitis on Sunday morning.
  • Your most pivotal volunteer had a falling out with someone and left the church suddenly.
  • Leadership made a decision that alienated your largest givers, and 20 percent of offerings vaporized suddenly.

One universal trait of stagnant and declining churches is they have no backup plans or people. They have no bench depth. The same person has taught the 2-year-olds for 20 years. The same person has worked the sound booth for the last 15 years, etc. Far more dangerous: there is no one behind them.

To be fair, these churches would lead you to believe it’s because they don’t have the people or financial resources. Others would say those serving in ministry love doing it and don’t want to share it with others (sigh). In my experience, the real issue is simply a lack of rigor in developing a bench depth. Developing bench depth takes time. It takes looking far down the road. It’s often a clumsy process that misfires a few times before it works.

But, it’s vital.

Churches that have no bench depth are not only neglecting their biblical responsibility to cultivate an atmosphere in which the whole Body can serve, they find themselves caught off-guard or held hostage by the disgruntled. When someone moves, or someone threatens to leave if a certain change is made, leadership must acquiesce because if the person leaves, there is no backup plan.

It’s important to have backup plans. Yesterday at New Vintage Church, I made a significant mistake that almost resulted in us having no media during a sermon in which it was really needed. Not only did I blow it, our backup plan also failed. The third plan (the nuclear option) came through, but caused a ton of stress. So, this morning, we’re revising our plan C for Sunday morning media collapse.

Some may say it’s a lot of work to do that. Yes, it is. But, we’ll take that over the stress caused by lack of quality bench depth. It’s saved us on Easter. It’s allowed leadership to do what God leads us to do rather than the preferences of any one person. Why? Because, if they leave, the church rolls on. If they stop giving, the church rolls on.

Three tips for developing bench depth:

  • Make it an evaluated part of every minister and ministry leader’s leadership. Praise them not only for what they do, but who they raise up.
  • Put church systems in place that allow and facilitate bench depth cultivation. For instance, now that our church is a bit larger, we have an informal rule that children’s ministry volunteers can’t serve more than four months out of the year. This forces us to find others to serve. Is it a nuisance? It can be. But, it’s better than having no bench depth in that area and scrambling for volunteers at the last-minute because we have no reservoir to draw from. We now have a rotation of experienced children’s ministry workers. In addition, people are also more ready to volunteer because they know they won’t be doing it until the Lord’s return.
  • Abide by the motto, “No one is the only one who can…” anything. No one is the only one with a key, in a ministry, who knows the passwords, etc.

Have backup plans for these four areas – staff, ministry, volunteers and finance.

Do the thinking. Develop the plans. It may not help you for many months. But it will pay off over the long-term as you develop a greater culture of service and free up the church to grow because you have bench-depth to accommodate it.

One other benefit is it saves some open seats of service for newcomers. Many churches lament their inability to get new people plugged in when the truth is there really isn’t a place for them to do so – except in the jobs no one else will take.

Think about this: the best servants in your church may be idly sitting in your church right now.

Do something about that.

Dr. Tim Spivey is lead planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, CA. Tim is also an adjunct professor of religion at Pepperdine University and purveyor of New Vintage Leadership, a blog offering cutting-edge insights on leadership and theology. He is the author of numerous articles and the book “Jesus, the Powerful Servant.”

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