The average age of the congregation was 62 years old. The budget had been red for a while; the church was only a few years away from being cashless.
They were on life support. The elders knew it, and that’s why they called The Unstuck Group.
This church of 120 people is located in a highly populated, major U.S. city. It’s over a hundred years old and has been experiencing steady decline for a long time. During the strategic planning part of our process, we determined several priority action initiatives to bring the church back to an outward focus, as well as a major budget revision to stop the bleeding.
Without difficult changes, the church would continue to dwindle as it focused only on itself — but it would also run out of money, and fast.
Here’s the kicker. Digging into the budget revealed a disproportionate amount of spending on staff. Specifically, the senior pastor was paid a six-figure salary for leading this small church, even though they were financially unable to meet their budget each month.
Check out Tony Morgan’s recent article —
The Money Series: How Much Should Churches Spend on Their Staff?
As we wrestled the elephant in the room, one of the elders informed me this had been an ongoing conversation for some time. In the end, the team (and the pastor, though reluctantly) agreed this must happen.
When Majority Rules
After returning home, I received an email from one of the elders. The church had held a business meeting, and the congregation was asked to vote on whether or not to adjust the pastor’s salary. Of course, the congregation loved their pastor and voted not to make a change. (By the way, this is the same congregation who voted to give him the salary, despite their financial situation, just a few years before.)
In addition, they also voted down the other three action items the pastor, board and elders had worked on, and they decided to discontinue working on their strategic plan.
In essence, the church voted against reaching people who don’t know Jesus. The elders and leaders, who wanted to see change, left the church in disbelief.
An Extreme Example?
This may appear to be an extreme example, but let me just go ahead and say it: The mentality that allowed this story to happen is all too common. It is impossible for congregational-led churches to be healthy. When vision, mission and action require a majority vote of the congregation, impact is paralyzed. I have worked with small churches across the country, and I have seen churches vote on everything — from buying ink pens to which type of light bulbs would be used, standard or fluorescent (I’m not kidding). Such environments are infected with me-ism and a heavy inward focus.
This is one of the biggest reasons churches in America are 85 people or less: They operate like a democracy.
There isn’t one Scripture to support the democratic church model. Even large churches that claim to be congregationally-led, really aren’t when you look closely at their process; it’s still theocratic at best.
God certainly doesn’t intend for a pastor to serve as a dictator or solitary voice for the church. But, the Bible teaches us the importance of having the right people to lead, including pastors, staff and elders. Moses had a team around him, led by a guy named Jethro. Nehemiah, though the leader, had a competent staff around him as he rebuilt the wall in Jerusalem. Jesus had twelve guys, in which three of the twelve (Peter, James and John) acted as senior staff.
One Final Thought
I leave you with this thought. Imagine you are at the emergency room and the doctor discovers internal bleeding. Which should he do? Should he gather your family, those who care about you most, and ask their advice on how he should proceed? Or should he consult with his associates who spent years in medical school, experienced hundreds of similar situations and have the right tools to fix the problem? If you chose the first option, I would make sure your life insurance policy is current.
At the end of the day, the scenarios are the same. Who should lead the church? Who should determine the vision and mission of reaching people for Jesus? Should the 80,100 or 200 people who love, care for and attend church determine the direction? Or should the pastor, staff and elders, who are called by God, trained and experienced, lead the way? Again, if you choose the first option, chances are your church’s growth and impact is on life support, or soon will be.
I honestly haven’t met one lead pastor who gets excited about the congregation-led model of church leadership. If most had their way, they would immediately move to a staff-led church. That’s easier said than done when the congregation has to agree to that by a majority vote. It takes courage to make such a transition. It also takes the willingness to endure people leaving your church. It’s not an easy task, but who said growing a church was easy?
Pastor, be courageous and lead strong.
Tony Morgan and Amy Anderson dive deeper into this topic in a recent episode of The Leadership Unstuck Podcast. Check it out here:
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.