Can a Congregationally-Led Church Be Healthy?

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Why are the majority of small churches in America congregationally-led instead of being led by pastors and ministry staff?

Here’s a short history lesson:

The congregational style of church government finds its sustained growth in the birth of our nation. The driving force behind people risking everything to sail to the new land was to throw off the tyranny of government and religious persecution. Unfair policies and spiritual hierarchy, along with unbearable taxation, served as the motivators for families to uproot and risk everything.

Oppression lingered in the minds of these pilgrims, and their response was to establish congregations that mirrored the newly embraced form of democratic government. Once and for all, we would be free from persecution and tyrannical rule in our houses of worship.

Another major contributing factor to the congregational structure was the effects of the Protestant Reformation which was now firmly established in religious thinking. The doctrine of the priesthood of the believer declared that every believer has direct access to God without requiring a human mediator. It is easy to see the direct correlation between an individual’s personal connection with God and the rejection of spiritual leadership after so many centuries of spiritual aristocracy and hierarchy within Christianity.

If It’s Good Enough for the USA

The majority of the rural churches did not have a bishop or pastor to lead them. So circuit-riding preachers would travel from church to church on Sundays teaching from the Scriptures. The prevailing attitude became that the preacher tells us what the Bible says without actually meddling in our day to day lives.

Today, the average small church in America is still democratic, choosing deacons, trustees or elders through a popular vote, and voting on the installation of a new preacher whenever called for.

This attitude is so ingrained in church DNA that the thought of a pastor or staff-led church sounds like heresy. It prevails from one generation to the next.

If It’s Not Biblical, What Is It?

Ephesians 4:1-16 gives us uncompromised clarity about how Jesus intended for His church to be structured.

A church led by those God has called to lead will equip the saints to do the work of the ministry. The results will be a church that models maturity, stability, integrity and community.

This passage also states very clearly that His church will grow. At its core, a healthy church grows both deep and wide, in character and numerically.

So, can a congregationally-led church be healthy?

In most cases, the answer is no. And even if they experience health for a season, it’s not likely to be sustained.

A small church mentality is what keeps a church small. A proper understanding of how Jesus intended for His church to work should eventually motivate us to adopt His design for His church.

Leading a shift from congregational leadership to staff-led leadership is no small feat. But as our team at The Unstuck Group continues to serve stuck churches, this is one of the major reasons vision has stalled out and churches are starting to die.


Tony Morgan and Amy Anderson dive deeper into this topic in a recent episode of The Leadership Unstuck Podcast. Check it out here:

Episode 10 – Staff vs. Congregational Leadership

Does choosing a new shade of paint for the lobby require approvals from three different committees at your church? Maybe it’s time to start asking if your current structure is the best way to make decisions.

This episode addresses challenges that both staff-led and congregation-led churches face and provides clear roles for effective lay leadership boards.

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About Author

Dale Sellers

Dale Sellers has been in ministry for 35 years. He and his wife, Gina, have been married for 34 years. They have three daughters and two sons-in-law. Their first grandchild is due in July! He launched Dale Sellers Leadership, Inc. in March 2014 to assist organizations in the areas of leadership, inspiration, and evangelism. He has recently become an Associate Consultant for The Unstuck Group with a focus on helping the small church. You can contact him at dalesellersleadership@gmail.com.

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