Notes on your First Church: Part 2

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Planning for Your Future:
Making Ministry Model Decisions Now to Avoid Future Disaster

Churches (and thusly their pastors) often fail by running into a wall or falling off a cliff. A majority of these issues are usually avoidable with prior planning or having a ministry philosophy for the church that accounts for various contingencies. Remember not planning is a plan, it just happens to be a really bad plan.

 

 

Planning Issue #1: Church Growth 

  • Who is more spiritual?
    • Church Planting vs. Continued Enlargement: neither is more or less biblical, neither is more or less spiritual, neither is more or less effective. BUT, a church needs to pick one path or another and plan for it.
    • Absent a plan, a church will often go through repeated periods of growth, problems related to dealing with growth, decline, new pastor, growth, and so on.
  • Growth benchmarks for any church.
    • There are benchmark numbers that a church must consider (for both facilities and staff) and they are fairly simple: 100, 250, 500, 750, 1,000.
  • Buildings and stuff are important.
    • The church facilities and all that goes with them are actually important. A church needs to pay attention to these issues.
    • The “church that meets in the school” statistically only has a life span of 7–10 years. After five years if the church has no plan to acquire its own facility it will typically begin to plateau in attendance and key people, especially those with young families, start to leaving.
    • A church may also be in a location that will ultimately doom their growth or even their entire ministry. Location and facilities are important.
    • Churches, for whatever reason, almost always stop growing once they begin to reach 75-80% of their sanctuary capacity.

Planning Issue #2: Church Staff

  • What do you need?
    • Not every church needs the same type of pastoral and support staff in the same order. Again, facilities and personnel are often intertwined. Often a church cannot add needed staff because there is no place for them to work. Every pastor and every church is different in this regard.
  • Who do you need?
    • A church MUST build staff, both support and pastoral, to work around the strengths and weaknesses of their senior pastor. Churches often sputter or fail when they have a lot of pastoral staff who have the same skill set.
    • Remember: There are different types of senior pastors; they have different skill sets and different abilities. Some well-known, successful pastors are really terrible at important aspects of church ministry. They NEED the proper support to be successful.
    • Most of us will do what we enjoy doing and are good at and will not spend time on doing things we don’t like, no matter how important those things are.
    • A church is usually best served by operating on the principle of “strength based leadership.” However, you cannot avoid necessary things, even if no one is good at doing them.
  • When do you need them?
    • Generally a church must add pastoral and support staff as it grows and hits certain benchmarks. For ease of discussion, typical growth marks are 100, 250, 500, 750, and 1000.
    • Every church will be slightly different, if they are unsure how to proceed, getting outside consulting assistance is a very good idea.

Planning Issue #3: Church Transitions

  • Transitioning ministries.
    • Typically any church will benefit from having an interim pastor between full-time senior pastors.
    • Statistically, if a pastor follows someone who has had a ministry of more than 20 years, unless there is an interim pastor (ideally for about a year) then the next pastor will last for less than five years (often unhappy years). This drops to about three years if the retiring pastor stays at the church.
    • There have been notable exceptions (J. Vernon McGee had a long ministry after Louis Talbot’s long ministry at the Church of the Open Door and W. A. Criswell had a long ministry at First Baptist of Dallas after the long tenure of George W. Truitt) but eventually it catches up (in both of these cases there were significant struggles in both churches after the retirements of McGee and Criswell).
  • Transitioning staff and leadership.
    • A Senior Pastor, regardless of structure or polity, needs to be able craft his own staff. If he doesn’t or can’t the church is likely to struggle.
    • Transitioning staff is always difficult. Typically it is better to do what must be done quickly.
  • Transitioning You.
    • It is, oddly enough, not always difficult to know when to “move on.” Many pastors I’ve talked with said they just “knew.” Even when there were no particular problems or issues, they just came to the realization that they needed a change. Warren Wiersbe has talked about this when he left a successful pastorate in Covington, KY, and then when he decided to leave Moody Church to go to Back to the Bible. The key in transitioning is to be sure not to leave a mess. I have come into a couple of churches where a man started several initiatives and in the middle of implementation decided he was “called” to go elsewhere.
    • The biggest problem with pastors is generally not knowing when to transition, but rather, NOT knowing when to retire (see the above note on Transitioning Ministries). There is simply no hard and fast rule (in my opinion McGee retired too early and Criswell retired too late, but neither properly prepared their church for the transition). By and large the general consensus is that men stay too long.
    • When you follow a pastor who has had a long and successful ministry it is a near statistical certainty that if he remains in the church “as just a member” or “pastor emeritus” you will experience significant struggles.

Conclusion

The most important issue to remember is that there is no “one size fits all” answer to church and pastoral ministry questions. There are, obviously, general principles of godliness and Biblical guidelines for both practice and ethics in ministry; however, the New Testament largely is silent on the nuts and bolts issues. Every pastor is unique and so is every local church. This article is just an attempt to list some observations I have made in my little world of church consulting.

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