Last week, we looked at the organizational life cycles of churches, including two of those stages, Inception and Growth. This week, we’re looking at two other key phases in church ministry and how to lead through them …
When churches move to a mature stage, they have high confidence in who the organization is and its focus. At the peak of their influence and size, churches are strongly results-oriented with a well-defined and less flexible structure, multiple strong ministries and established procedures.
In this season, you are refining events and programs more than creating them. Even as individual team members come and go, the staff structure is stable. The church is known in the community. You are making a difference.
Release expectations: Once the church has reached its maximum size and is at peak influence, release the expectation that change will come quickly. Larger and older organizations are slower to change. By this point, your culture is set and the church is bearing fruit with this particular approach. The time for large cultural shifts was at an earlier stage and will come again in the next stage. Release expectations of informality and spontaneity. Most event planning and budgeting are done far in advance, according to well-honed processes you would do well to learn.
Seize opportunities: As a mature church, you have the opportunity to leverage your scale and influence for larger impact. This is the time to look at partnering with other churches and organizations. You can lend leadership to larger outreaches in your community, starting ministries with other churches and community groups outside your church.
The maturity stage is fraught with danger because apart from a new surge forward, the next stage is decline. British business author Charles Handy, who popularized the “sigmoid curve” in his book The Age of Paradox, showed that, paradoxically, an organization is in the greatest danger when it’s most successful, at the top of the curve.
Now is the time to bring on a new, younger pastor. Under long-time founding pastor Gene Getz, I had a front-row seat to how he prepared for transition. Years in advance, he named his successor, Jeff Jones. He gradually handed over the reins. When Jeff took the helm, the church was able to start a new curve forward. With Gene’s full support, Jeff led the church into a new growth stage with a new name and a relocation. Sadly, this kind of healthy succession process is rare, but it will enable you to move effectively from maturity back to growth.
Anticipate what’s next: When the church is mature, you need to anticipate a potential new growth phase. You must seize the opportunity to proactively create it or you will decline. Change is scary, especially when what you are doing seems to be working and a new direction is unproven. Look past the transition to see a future of reaching the next generation for Christ with a new model and new strategies for a new day.
Some characteristics of decline are self-deception, unrealistic optimism, inflexibility and short-sightedness. It’s difficult to move past group-think, commitment to past strategy and nostalgia for past achievements. Typical issues include rivalry among factions, scapegoating, blaming and polarization. Even among friends, communication may be poor as past hurts cloud current clarity.
No local church has lasted since the New Testament. Christ’s church endures, but not individual local expressions. Local churches have a life span. The point is not to grow larger and larger for hundreds of years but to reproduce many times over. It would be bizarre for a tree to grow larger and larger but wonderful for it to reproduce into a forest of trees. The better dream for a local church is not to grow larger indefinitely or last for millennia but to give birth to a movement of multiplying churches.
Release expectations: When a church enters the stage of decline, you will not have the same kind of numerical success you experienced during the growth and mature stages. Release those expectations for your sake and the sake of the church so you can focus together on how to be faithful to God in this stage. You may be leading the church to dissolve or to reinvent itself as a new church. Release the expectation that you can ever go back to the way things were in the same way you got there the first time.
Seize opportunities: Remember that in the darkest days the light shines the brightest. It is not fun to decline, but there are opportunities to seize. While Paul was locked in a Roman prison, he seized the opportunity to write letters and win guards to Christ. If the church has declined to an alarming point, the opportunity to restart usually presents itself. It takes great courage to reinvent a church.
Anticipate what’s next: In this declining stage, anticipate a restart, merger or the opportunity to grant your facility to another church or become a campus of a dynamic church that is reaching people for Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ will not die. Your individual church will come to the end of its life cycle as an organization, but hopefully you have planted the seeds of many new churches.
Discerning Your Church’s Stage
Once you discern your church’s organization stage, you can apply practical strategies to more effectively lead your church at this unique time.*
When you release expectations that don’t fit this time in your church’s life, you’ll reduce stress and experience more peace. When you pursue unique opportunities that fit this stage of your organizational life, you’ll find joy in accomplishing more of what God has for you at this time. When you anticipate change coming, you’ll experience hope for an exciting future.
What time is it in your church?
Read this article in
entirety in the Oct/Nov 2011 issue of Neue magazine.