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The one growth obstacle churches don’t admit

By Sam S. Rainer III

Some churches stay in a perpetual cycle of growing and declining. The church peaks, then dips, only to peak again. It’s possible for a church to stay in this cycle for decades.

For example, look at the below chart.

The above chart is an annual average of weekly worship attendance, charted for 20 years. Two factors stand out. I’ve highlighted them with a dotted line.

First, a clear ceiling exists. Second, a clear floor exists.

The church has been in a 20-year cycle of growing and declining. A growth obstacle is keeping the church from breaking through 600 in attendance, and something is keeping the church from dipping below 400.

Obviously, a number of issues could be influencing this cycle. When it comes to growth obstacles, churches will often point to a variety of factors:

  • Lack of parking
  • Inadequate worship space
  • Transitioning community
  • Limited budget resources

These growth obstacles are relatively easy to see and easy to admit. But one growth obstacle often goes unsaid: Churches find it harder to admit leadership capacity could be the reason for a growth ceiling. A church might grow or decline for any number of reasons; however, churches are often slow to admit one of the main causes of a cycle of growth and decline could be the capacity of the senior leader.

I’ll call this situation leadership capacity reversion. The “leadership capacity” is the maximum church size a pastor can handle. The “reversion” is the movement downward from that maximum point. In the example above, the pastor is the reason for both the ceiling and the floor. The pastor’s leadership capacity is about 600 people. However, the pastor has leadership capacity to grow the church above 400. The church stays in a cycle between 400 and 600.

Clearly, a church should not push out a 20-year pastor over such an issue. So, what should be done?

Leadership development. Leadership skills can be learned. In many cases, the leadership capacity of a pastor can increase dramatically with something as simple as coaching.

An additional staff person. A church of 400-600 might not have the resources for a full-time executive pastor. However, more churches are intentionally bringing on a team member with complementary skills to the senior pastor. If the senior pastor is weak in administration, then a part-time administrator could help.

New leadership structure. Leadership capacity can stem from structural issues. For example, a pastor might be stuck because the leadership structure is no longer a fit for the church. Such a situation is like swimming against a strong current. The pastor might be exerting far too much energy without even knowing it.

Culture change in the church. Leadership capacity can stem from cultural issues. If the pastor is attempting to fulfill unrealistic expectations of a congregation, then a growth ceiling is likely to occur. The church might need a cultural shift away from unattainable expectations.

It’s easy to admit you need more parking. People recognize when the worship space is too small. Churches find it harder to admit that a growth obstacle could be the leadership capacity of the senior leader. But like other obstacles, it can be overcome.

Sam S. Rainer III serves as president of Rainer Research (rainerresearch.com), a firm dedicated to providing answers for better church health. He also is the senior pastor at Stevens Street Baptist Church in Cookeville, TN. He writes, speaks, and consults on church health issues. You can connect with Sam at @samrainer or at his blog,samrainer.wordpress.com.


1 Comment for “The one growth obstacle churches don’t admit”

  1. Very true. At one time I went to a church with average attendance of about 70. We grew this church to over 200, but the pastor insisted everything had to be approved by him. Several elders and his bishop advised him he needed to delegate, but he didn’t change and the church fell back to 60.

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