“Lead Better” Is Not The Answer

AdminCoaching Corner

When the business principles referenced in last week’s post don’t create healthy church growth (and they won’t), many pastors conclude that another business precept is at fault – leadership.  Countless business books, articles and consultants tell company executives how to lead better.  Today, leadership concepts are being pounded into the heads of pastors.  Megachurch pastors are publishing leadership content at a mind-numbing clip.  Many of the largest pastor conferences in America feature leadership as the central theme and advertise prominent church leaders as the main attraction.

The implication is clear – and insulting.  Your church is still small because you’re not a very good leader!

However, rather than view the implication as an insult, pastors gobble up leadership blogs and books.  I’ve seen hundreds of pastors stand in line at conferences for the opportunity to have a megachurch pastor sign their latest book on leadership.  I’ve heard thousands of pastors cheer like fans at a Beatles concert when a “celebrity” pastor steps on the main stage to speak about leadership.

Better leadership isn’t going to fix the Church’s declining growth, impact, influence and perception in America.  A new CEO of a company in the paper industry may make product design, customer service and advertising changes that take market share from competitors, but won’t materially alter its long-term fortunes without adapting the business model to account for market dynamics lowering demand for paper.  A more savvy and eloquent pastor can bring in new attendees and members, but won’t make the church more effective in making disciples and reaching the community for Christ without reverting to the Biblical definition of “church” and its “customers”.

In other words, better leadership of a bad model isn’t the answer.  Identifying the wrong issues has led to the wrong solution.  Churches shouldn’t fix the ineffective application of business principles with more business principles.  Those business principles don’t belong in a church in the first place, but became more prevalent as pastors and staff have assumed greater responsibility for “being” the church and the commitment level of members to act in that role has declined.  That’s the issue.  Leadership is important but it’s not the solution to the challenges facing the Church today.

The Real Issue…

Many large churches got big not because their pastors are more competent leaders, but because they’ve adapted better to the redefinitions of the terms “church” and “customer”.  As a result, some of the fastest growing churches in America place a great deal of emphasis on:

1. LEADERSHIP – positioning pastors and staff as “insiders” (e.g. the embodiment of “church”) and members as “outsiders” (or “customers” to attract and retain).  Therefore, they eagerly consume advice from today’s most renowned experts on church leadership, like:

  • Cast Vision – For the church, its future Growth and expected Impact
  • Track Key Metrics – Emphasizing Growth measures (attendance and giving) rather than Impact measures (# of Disciples Reproducing Disciples or # of Lives Changed by Members)
  • Empower Staff – Delegating responsibilities to staff for enhancing the church experience for select groups of members and visitors (e.g. families with children, men, women, singles, elderly).
  • Leverage Membership – Frequent requests for volunteers to build the institution and serve those inside the “4 walls”, yet few offer intensive (1-on-1 or triad) programs to build disciples who “go” and serve the real “customers” (who are outside the “4 walls”).
  • Deliver Quality – Excellence in communication, worship experience and programs

2. RETENTION – making church leaders more reluctant to challenge members to the level of life change expected of them as the personification of “church” (i.e. treating them as “customers”).

In light of that redefinition of “customers”, leaders of large churches have generally become more adept than small churches at “Customer” Experience DesignSmaller churches are typically slower to innovate, many resisting changes that would attract more attendees.  The new pastor we discussed earlier likely will encounter severe headwinds when trying to change the definitions of “church” and “customers”.  Asking members to take on greater responsibility for “being” the church and reaching out to the community (the intended “customer”) won’t go over well in most small churches.  Rocking the boat could quickly result in dissension or a split, led by a few long-time members who have far too much power and control.  Many small churches have become private clubs where new initiatives (or new faces) aren’t necessarily welcome.  New pastors would need to earn a great deal of trust and credibility before introducing any innovations that could upset the apple cart.

Numerous widely-recognized authorities on “Customer” Experience Design (labeled instead as church leadership coaching) stress:

  • Building staff roles around the needs of particular “customer” types to optimize the church experience for each group – a common practice in business but warranting caution in a church setting
  • Devoting significant staff time to putting on a well-organized, professional-grade event every weekend
  • Choreographing worship services down to the minute, unfortunately leaving little room for the Holy Spirit to shake things up
  • Meticulously planning and scripting emotional build-up from the music crescendo, to the announcements, to the message and all the way through to the closing songs and readings
  • Studying and applying the science of “customer” experience design (e.g. ideal # of parking spaces per attendee, % of seats filled to appear full, decibel level, visual effects, even down to seat spacing and cushioning)

A better “customer” experience may mean more attendees, but doesn’t translate into more disciples or greater Kingdom impact.  It can actually have just the opposite effect.  A goal to Attract and Retain will make church leaders more hesitant to Transform and Release.

The Real Answer…

  • Leading Better = Leading Biblically.  In other words, invoke Servant Leadership principles modeled by Jesus.  Flip the definition of “church” and “customer” by reversing the church hierarchy.  Rather than having staff serve pastors, pastors and staff serve members, and members serve the institution, make sure all hands are on deck preparing members to serve and share the gospel with the actual “customers” (those in need of help and hope).  That’s the path to better leadership of the right (Biblical) model rather than better leadership of the wrong (business) model.
  • Resist the temptation to control of the church’s future.  Subscribing to the philosophy that your church’s success hinges on your leadership is alluring – you can always improve and control your leadership skills.  Yet much like we must all resist the urge to think our actions impact our salvation, pastors should surrender control and distribute knowledge, power and responsibility to members.
  • Pastors and staff should commit themselves fully to discipling, equipping and empowering the congregation.  That doesn’t require fantastic leadership, just a deep abiding in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, compelling them to disclose the costs of discipleship and to hold members accountable to the Great Commission standard.  That’s when we’ll start to see more people showing up who didn’t simply come from another church down the road.  Personal relationships with members who’ve been challenged to become disciples and evangelists can attract even those who otherwise wouldn’t dare darken the doors of a church.
  • Carefully consider which business practices belong in your church, if any.
  • Overcome resistance to change, even when the risks are great.  Church planters are initially bold and externally-focused, but become more risk averse once there’s something to lose.  Isn’t the opportunity to dramatically increase your footprint by challenging your congregation fervently to live out the Great Commission worth risking the departure of those who view church as a social club?