Recent research has provided considerable data on how leadership, growth, and assimilation happen in congregations up to 400 and beyond 2,000 in weekly worship attendance. But what happens in between? What are the leadership, growth, and assimilation challenges faced by congregations with weekly attendance between 400 and 2,000? The lack of research and literature addressing this size range suggests that once a church has crossed the corporate size barrier, few significant adjustments in organizational strategy are required until transition into megachurch status. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Having worked with a number of these congregations in my years as a senior consultant for Alban, I’ve discovered that very different issues are faced by the so-called corporate church depending on its attendance and budget. This has led me to develop a classification system that further stratifies the corporate size designation into what I call the multi-celled church, the professional church, and the strategic church.

The Multi-Celled Church
Congregations with annual operating budgets of between $400,000 and $1,000,000 often have between 250 and 400 people in worship attendance. This is the congregation that is learning to behave like a complex, multi-celled church, and the organizing principle that drives much of its decision making and attention is leadership development. In the multi-celled church there are never enough leaders to do the work that needs to be done to generate consistently excellent programs. This congregation is largely guided by lay leadership, and the staff team exists to support and coordinate the laity in their ministry.

The multi-celled church has already learned some things about managing multiple cell groups, but growth will stagnate if it does not come to terms with its identity as a complex congregation where everyone doesn’t know everyone else and not everyone is cared for by the pastor. The culture of the congregation must be intentionally managed to allow for multiple congregations to reside within the same corporate body.

The assimilation challenge in the multi-celled church is about creating enough programs of excellent quality to generate a continued stream of newcomers. The congregation that fails to develop enough new leaders to provide ongoing quality programming will stagnate and falter.

The pastor in a multi-celled congregation leads primarily by discerning and articulating an energizing vision for the congregation, one that will hold together the growing number of operating cells. The pastor must also be able to guide congregational leaders as they translate their own visions into action. As one pastor put it, “The real tension exists in trying to hold the vision and helping to build the vision with others. You’ve got to let them have their own vision but tie it all together.”

The overwhelming challenge of the multi-celled church pastor is learning to communicate a caring presence without being the “one” who provides care to each congregation member. The pastor must instead focus his or her energies on other members of the staff team and key lay leadership, who in turn are providing congregational care.

Staff members in the multi-celled church are just beginning to identify themselves as a team. Although some members of the team are specialists, most members are still generalists serving the needs of wide constituent groups, so the team is challenged to balance and honor the role of the specialist alongside the role of the generalist.

The governing board of the multi-celled church must organize its work around the mission and vision of the congregation. Lay leadership is grasping the importance of saying no to ideas that distract the congregation from its mission. The board is also largely preoccupied with the development of new lay leadership to fill the growing volume of leadership needs.

The Professional Church
The congregation with an annual operating budget of between $1,000,000 and $2,000,000 and/or weekly worship attendance of 400 to 800 is driven by the need to professionalize operations. Its programming has outgrown the capacity of its lay leadership, and the demand for a staff team of specialists emerges.

In the professional church, growth is related to capacity. Ideas abound, but they are limited by the capacity of the staff team and/or the physical limitations of the facility. Consequently, the congregation’s capacity for growth is largely a function of the size of its budget.

Assimilation of new members in the professional church becomes as much about watching the back door as it is about bringing people in through the front door. The professional congregation can quickly feel anonymous to newcomers, so finding innovative ways to keep track of members and to get people to engage beyond the worship experience takes a great deal of leadership energy.

The pastor of the professional congregation is learning a more managerial style of leadership, and letting go of a purely relational style. He or she is figuring out how to create and sustain the performance management cycle of the congregation through goal setting, budgeting, performance review, and a coaching leadership style.

As staff members take over many of the functions previously provided by volunteers, they must find new ways to engage the laity in the life and ministry of the congregation. The staff is increasingly moving away from a generalist orientation toward a specialist orientation. An executive leadership team of staff and lay leaders often emerges to coordinate and guide the work of the staff team. An administrator may be appointed in this size congregation to relieve the senior pastor from having to manage the church’s day-to-day financial, personnel, building maintenance, and information technology needs.

In the professional congregation, the governing board must learn a more distant approach to leadership, relinquishing the daily management of the church to the staff team. Working with the pastor on vision articulation, the governing board is instrumental in creating policy and systems for managing performance, maintaining accountability, and preventing vision drift. The board spends less time on the daily fiduciary work of the congregation and more time on strategic leadership.

The Strategic Church
Once a congregation has a budget of between $2,000,000 and $4,000,000 and/or an average weekly attendance of 800 to 1,200, it requires a more strategic orientation. As congregations grow they develop complexly layered staffing structures, board structures, and governance practices. There are so many operating cells at work in strategic congregations that it is easy for individual cells to drift out of alignment and for tremendous energies to be wasted. For that reason the strategic congregation must align its leadership energies just as the wheels of a car must be aligned to prevent them from pulling against one another and wasting energy needlessly.

In the strategic church, the congregation owns its identity as a strategic institution and expects continued growth. The work to continue growth (program expansions, worship excellence, etc.) is managed by the staff team; it is not the missional focus of lay leadership. The challenge of strategic church growth is that the congregation can excel at just about anything it focuses its energies on, but it doesn’t have the resources to excel at everything. This means strategic choices must be made.

Assimilation in the strategic church must be managed as a seamless process of membership, discipleship, gift discovery, and leadership development linked through a fully formed network of classes and/or small groups. So many program offerings exist in the strategic congregation that a new member can easily get lost in a maze of choices. Intentional p
aths of assimilation must be created and communicated to ensure that first-time attenders eventually become members and that members eventually step into leadership roles.

The challenge of the strategic church pastor is learning to lead with a direction-setting orientation. One pastor of a strategic church put it this way: “Whatever I pay attention to grows. If I pay too much attention to the wrong kind of conflict it will grow. If I don’t pay enough attention to a new initiative it won’t grow. I have to be extremely careful where I focus my gaze.” Similarly, the strategic church pastor must learn to say no at the right times so that the staff team and governing board don’t lose their focus. The strategic church pastor is always struggling to take a step back and examine the larger organizational picture. These pastors are learning to personify the mission and vision of the congregation in everything they say and do. They will often crystallize the vision of the church into articulated sound bytes that every member of the staff team and board can learn and utilize.

The staff team in the strategic church has grown so large (usually well over 20 people) that it is virtually impossible for the collective group to identify itself as a singular team. Consequently, the staff team begins to form itself into identifiable and manageable sub-teams (the children’s ministry team, the youth team, the administrative support team, etc.). The challenge of the staff team in the strategic church is avoiding a silo mentality, where every sub-team operates as if it were the only or most important team. Program staff members are continually challenged to keep a relational focus in ministry as the administrative components of their jobs expand. Maintaining the right balance between program and administrative support staff becomes critical as the complexity of the congregation mushrooms. An executive minister is often appointed in this size congregation to supervise the staff, who effectively run the day-to-day operations of the church so that the senior minister is free to focus exclusively on preaching, public speaking, and fundraising.

In the strategic church, decision making is hampered by a board that has too many people on it and committee structures that have grown too complex to allow for nimble decision making. Leadership, in general, is learning to support the decision making effectiveness of a smaller, trusted group of leaders. The effective governing board in the strategic church focuses on directional decision making, keeping the church focused in response to these basic questions: Who are we? What constituency do we serve? And what is God calling us to do or become? These boards exist to provide a strong support and accountability system to the senior minister and executive minister.

What It All Means
Is a church guaranteed to grow once it has learned to operate with an organizational and leadership infrastructure appropriate for its size? Not necessarily, but this much is clear: The congregation that doesn’t adapt its structure and leadership approach to reflect the size congregation it wants to become has no hope of sustainable growth. And the congregation that has not been appropriately structured to manage its complexity will eventually stagnate or decline.

Adapted from “Beyond ‘Corporate’: New Insights on Larger Churches,”  from the Summer 2008 issue of Congregations magazine, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

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