7 Phases of the Typical Church Lifecycle + How to Move Towards Health from Whatever Season You’re In Today
A few years ago, with the release of my book, The Unstuck Church, my team also began to offer a free online assessment to help pastors better assess where their churches sat in the typical lifecycle of a church.
That lifecycle looks something like this:
Today, more than 14,000 churches have taken the assessment. Let me share some stats that may surprise you… but then again, they may not:
- 15% of the churches who have taken the assessment landed on the left side of the life cycle or at the top in sustained health—that means only 15% of these 14,000 churches are actually experiencing growth. They’re increasing in health. New disciples are connecting through their churches.
Some have been very large churches, and some churches smaller. That’s not the distinguishing factor. All of these churches are moving in a healthy direction and having greater kingdom impact.
- 85% of the churches have landed on the right side—in maintenance, preservation or life support. This is the declining side of the life cycle. The biggest percentage (60%) of churches self identify in the “maintenance” phase.
What does this have to do with ministry planning?
You can’t make ministry plans that lead towards ongoing growth and health if you don’t understand your starting point.
If you begin to regularly check in on your church’s movement in the typical life cycle, you can develop ministry plans that help you continue up the slope towards sustained health—
or reverse the decline that has begun before it becomes overwhelmingly painful.
Here’s one important thing to note:
When pastors take this assessment, they are very rarely surprised by the results. Senior pastors are leaders, and in most cases, I think they see “stuckness” before other staff, lay leaders or congregation members.
So, in this last episode of our ministry planning series, we review the typical life cycle of a church, some characteristics of each phase, and how this knowledge can blow up assumptions and help you make ministry plans that actually lead towards ministry health.
In this episode, Amy and I explore…
- The 7 phases in the typical lifecycle of a church, and why it’s critical to understand all phases of the lifecycle—not just the one you’re in now
- Why lead pastors often see stuckness before other staff and lay people
- Why it so difficult for church leaders to recognize the early signs of entering a “Maintenance” season, and why it’s critical to identify it as early as possible
(Hint: At the beginning of decline, you can still get back to health fairly easily. Further down the road, you end up needing to completely relaunch.)
- How you make a plan to lead your church back to sustained health, and the first steps you can take
- Why financial health and strength is not necessarily a sign of an overall healthy ministry
- The role of building a good spiritual development and leadership development plan in finding sustained health
Leader Conversation Guide
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Share Your Thoughts and Questions on Social Media
We use #unstuckchurch on Twitter, and we start a real-time conversation each Wednesday morning when the episode drops. You can follow me @tonymorganlive and The Unstuck Group @unstuckgroup. If Facebook is where you spend your time, I’m there, too.
Links & Resources from the Episode
- The Unstuck Church Assessment — FREE
In about 15 minutes, get clarity on where your church is TODAY in the typical lifecycle of a church.
The Unstuck Church: Equipping Your Church to Experience Sustained Health (HarperCollins Publishing, 2017)
- Episode 126 – Hope is Not a Strategy for the New Year
- Episode 127 – Developing an Effective Ministry Planning Rhythm
- Developing a Ministry Planning Calendar
- How to Be A More Effective Leader in Your Church’s Vision + Strategy Planning
- Unstuck Planning Process
Do you know where your church is headed in the next year? What about the next five? We’d love to partner with your church to help you plan for what’s next. Let’s Talk.
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Sean: 00:02 Welcome to the Unstuck Church Podcast where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. In the last three years, over 14,000 churches have taken the unstuck church assessment to determine where their ministry is in its lifecycle. We’ve learned that only 15% of churches are in a season of health and growth, while the other 85% are in some stage of decline. Whether your church is in a season of growth or decline, you can achieve and sustain health and growth and on today’s podcast, Tony and Amy are going to explore how. Make sure before you listen, though, to get the shownotes. You can get them every week in one email along with our leader conversation guide, all of our weekly resources as well as access to our podcast resource archive. Go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for today’s conversation.
Amy: 00:56 Tony, one of the ways The Unstuck Group helps churches is by identifying what phase of the life cycle the church is in and then creating a plan to help them move towards sustained health. That’s such an important part of our process that you wrote a book about it. Right? And there’s probably many leaders listening who’ve read the book, but we know it’s important from time to time to check in on each churches movement in the life cycle so that they can develop ministry plans to continue to move towards sustain health. So as we wrap up our podcast series on ministry planning, can you just give us an overview of the life cycle of the church again, and some of the characteristics in each phase?
Tony: 01:33 Yeah. It’s funny that you referenced the book. Amy, I like to refer to it as, “the good book,” by the way. Yes, no, seriously. I tend to forget—it just came out about three years ago, but it captures the philosophy behind our unstuck church process. The book is called The Unstuck Church. And you’re right. The primary framework of what I wrote about a few years ago is the lifecycle of the church and the seven phases of the life cycle, beginning with launch, then moving to momentum growth, strategic growth, the pinnacle being sustained health where we want every church to end up. But then on the declining side of the life cycle, we see churches in these three phases, maintenance, preservation and life support. And I’m not going to go into specifics on all of the phases, particularly because the book has a lot of description, not only of the characteristics of churches and all seven phases, but additionally within the book, there are some next steps once you identify we’re in this phase. Then I wrote about, well, if that’s the case, here are the next steps that you need to be focusing on in your leadership and as a church to move towards sustained health. But let me highlight some characteristics of a few of these phases. Number one, the distinction between momentum growth and strategic growth. Churches in these two phases are both experiencing growth and they’re moving towards sustained health. But the key difference is this word intentional. And I see we see in churches that land in this strategic growth season that they are intentionally establishing strategy. They’re intentionally establishing systems and they’re intentionally establishing structure to help the church move forward in its mission and vision. And that that is significant because as churches experience growth, they need that intentional alignment across all phases of how the church engages its ministry in order for everybody to stay focused on accomplishing the mission and the vision God’s called the church to.
Tony: 04:53 Let me highlight around sustained health, which I mentioned is the pinnacle of the life cycle. It really is where we want every church to be and to stay for quite some time. It’s all about reproducing at all levels of the church and so the key thing we see in churches that are in sustained health is they’re replicating disciples of Jesus by replicating leadership through leadership development, by replicating groups or every aspect of their discipleship strategy, by replicating services, by replicating locations or sites or through church planting. In other words, when churches are in sustained health, it’s, it’s not only a multiplication that’s happening, but it’s almost as if they are creating a movement now. It’s moving from being a single location church with a smaller imprint as far as who they’re trying to reach to becoming more of a movement. And within that movement, more and more people are becoming disciples of Jesus. And then we’re going to talk a lot in this conversation today about maintenance. But maintenance—it’s just a challenging season because in many respects, churches don’t recognize that they have landed in the maintenance season of the life cycle, because the church is still having significant impact in people’s lives. If you were to look at the lifecycle, it still would be toward the top of the life cycle. However, plateau or decline has started to set in. And like I said, in many instances, churches don’t even realize it. And I think we’re going to talk some more about churches that land in the maintenance season of the life cycle. But Amy, that’s just a quick overview of all seven phases of the life cycle.
Amy: 05:49 Well, I think the good news is with the book being around as long as it has now, we’ve seen a lot of churches engage with that book and taking the unstuck church assessment. And so what, what are some of the themes that have emerged, Tony? What kind of things and where are churches getting, where are they showing up on that life cycle most often?
Tony: 06:07 Yeah, so in conjunction with the release of the book, we also began to offer, it’s a free assessment available through our website theunstuckgroup.com and we call it simply the Unstuck Church Assessment. We have a challenge with branding around here. Everything is unstuck and church. So this is the Unstuck Church Assessment and now over 14,000 churches have taken the assessment. So we have an indication based on responses of where they are self identifying their church in the seven phases of the life cycle. And what we’ve learned from all of those thousands of churches that have taken the free assessment is that 15% of the churches are on the left side of the life cycle or in sustained health. In other words, 15% of these 14,000 churches are actually experiencing growth. They’re increasing in health. New disciples are connecting to their, through their church. And as the result of that, we would classify these as really healthy churches. Some churches very large, some churches smaller, but all of these churches are moving in a healthy direction and having greater kingdom impact. But what that means then is 85% of the churches are in maintenance. They’re in preservation or they’re in life support. In other words, they’re on the right side or the declining side of the life cycle of the church. And surprisingly for me, maybe not for the listeners, but the biggest percentage of churches is in they’ve self identify in the maintenance phase of the life cycle. 60% of the churches have identified that that’s the season that they are in now as a church.
Amy: 08:08 And has that surprised the churches, Tony, that you’ve worked with, that they’re actually in maintenance? What’s their reaction when they see that?
Tony: 08:14 The funny thing is they’re not. Maybe that’s not funny. But they, they take the assessment and I think what we’re finding from the feedback that we receive, Amy, is that the pastors, the church leaders that end up after taking the assessment in that maintenance phase, for them, it was just a confirmation of something they already knew in their gut.
Amy: 08:38 What I’ve seen is that the senior pastor, the executive pastor have had those type of, you know, gut feelings that something’s off. But I often find some of the other staff members are really surprised to hear and see that they’re in maintenance. Do you?
Tony: 08:52 Yeah. And, but that’s surprising to me because senior pastors are leaders and what I’ve seen in leaders is they see things before other normal people see things. And it’s not that the other people on the team aren’t gifted or don’t have the same aspirations for the church to have a greater kingdom impact. But when people have the leadership gift in them, part of that gifting is they see things before normal people see things. And sometimes that means opportunities in front of our organizations, in this case, our ministry. And in other instances it’s seeing challenges or obstacles that could prevent our churches from experiencing the greatest impact. And so it’s, it’s not, it’s not a shock to me that sometimes pastors know in their gut that they’re in maintenance before other staff people or even lay leaders might sense that that’s the case.
Amy: 09:50 So Tony, why is it so hard for churches to recognize that they’re actually in the maintenance phase?
Tony: 09:55 Yeah, so again, as I mentioned, this, this phase of the life cycle is still toward the top of the life cycle. So there is still typically a lot of impact that churches are having even though they’re in this maintenance phase. But, it is a plateau or declining that’s happening in the ministry. And because though it’s still a high impact, it can feel like the church is still experiencing growth. But what we’ve seen is when churches get into this maintenance season, and it’s usually for a combination of factors, one being complexity that over time, churches take on more complexity and that creates challenges. Another key factor is churches always drift toward becoming insider focused rather than trying to reach people outside the church and outside the faith. And surprisingly what we’ve learned is churches in this maintenance season, what masks sometimes the fact that they’re in this phase of the life cycle is in almost every instance what we’ve seen the church is financially healthy. In fact, we’ve had churches tell us we’re healthier financially than we’ve ever been as a church, which is not a surprise to me because people have matured in faith through the years, but the church has matured as well in how they approach their ministry. And I think they’ve just grown comfortable. And the way I describe it is this is—churches have lost sight of kind of the why behind their engagement in ministry. And they’ve just kind of started doing what the church has always done or more specifically the way they do church has become more important than why they do church. And, uh, but this, I think it’s really a season for the church because if changes aren’t made, if the assessment doesn’t happen and then if action isn’t taken, the church will naturally without further change drift toward eventually preservation and then life support. There will be a death for that church. And that’s why it’s so critical that uh, leaders identify if they’re in the maintenance season to identify that as quickly as possible because it is possible then to make changes when the churches in the maintenance season and more quickly get back to sustained health. But over time, if a church continues to decline and get into preservation, and then, especially in life support, it’s going to take dramatic changes at that point, almost a complete relaunch of the church in order for them to get healthy again and to begin taking steps towards sustained health.
Amy: 12:52 So Tony, if the goal is to be at that pinnacle at sustained health, you know, is it, you said it’s possible, but can you share a little bit of what it’s going to take to get out of a maintenance place and get back into a sustained health place on the life cycle?
Tony: 13:07 Sure. Yeah. I mean it’s a big, basically the antithesis I guess of just some of the common factors that I just shared. But it’s going to, churches will have to prune. They’re going to have to remove some of the complexity that exists and get more focused. And with that, the focus needs to be about the why. Why do we exist as a church? Where are we going and how are we going to get there? So a new focus on mission, vision and strategy, a renewed focus, if you will. And that means change is going to be necessary too. So the reasons that we got to where we are in the maintenance season, we can’t continue operating like we have as a church and expect magically that we’re going to be healthy again. Remember in one of the previous episodes we talked about the fact that hope is not a strategy and so change is going to be required. And so we’re gonna need to take some risks. We’re gonna need to take some bold moves. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but we’re going to have to do things differently if we’re going to expect to experience health again. The common question though I get from people, Amy, is once a church enters sustained health, that pinnacle of the life cycle, you say sustained. Can churches really stay there? And our experiences that that can happen. In fact, a couple of churches that were just highlighted on our podcast in the last couple of months—specifically Sun Valley Community Church. Paul Alexander joined us for episode 119, which was about leadership development. Their church, Paul’s church, he’s the executive pastor there in the Phoenix area, they are a church that is experiencing sustained health and they’ve been there for a number of years. And primarily I would say one of the reasons why they’re there is because of the very topic that Paul and I talked about—leadership development. Sun Valley, it continues to raise up new leaders and then multiplying not only leaders but locations. And so there really, it has become moved from being a single church to a movement within the Phoenix region. Another church more recently—I had Chris Hodges joined us—episode 123 if you want to go back and listen to that conversation. Pastor Chris and I talked about budgeting to thrive, but there’s no doubt Church of the Highlands and Alabama is experiencing sustained health. Not only in a city but throughout the state now. They’re continuing to see more and more people come to Christ. And it is, it’s a multiplication that’s happening in there. And that for them has been developed primarily because of the growth track that Chris referenced in that conversation. They have figured out how to help more and more people experience spiritual transformation and then specifically engagement on the mission in their church. And so two great examples I think of of churches that continue to see growing kingdom impact and they’ve done this for years. So it really is possible to get to sustain health and then to stay there.
Amy: 16:37 And just to reflect on that, I just have to believe those churches have gotten comfortable with change. That’s just part of their normal cadence and rhythm.
Tony: 16:45 That’s absolutely right. Yeah. And I wish, I wish, it were possible to experience and sustain health and a church without ever experiencing any change because gosh, wouldn’t that be more comfortable for us? It would just be so much easier, but this is something that leaders have to do. I’ve shared this with others in the past is the tough thing about being in a leadership position is sometimes you actually have to lead. And a lot, a lot of what leadership is about is initiating and then seeing change through. And so, unfortunately that is one of the key characteristics when you look at churches like Cun Valley or church of the Highlands, or other churches that were engaging with that are in sustained health is as leaders they’ve continued to embrace appropriate change in their ministry.
Amy: 17:41 Tony, how important do you think it is for church leaders to understand the characteristics of the different phases of the life cycle other than the specific phase that they’re currently in?
Tony: 17:50 Yeah, so I do think it’s important to know what phase you’re, of the seven, what phase is your church in currently? Because especially in the book and then among all of the other resources that we provide through The Unstuck Group, we can, we are offering specific next steps that your church can take. So for example, if your church is currently in momentum growth and you do want to move to strategic growth, there are some specific next steps that you need to be taking so that you can see that continuing increase in your ministry. And then on the reverse side of the life cycle, if your church is currently in that preservation phase, and I had a conversation just within the last couple of weeks with a pastor that said, you know, I used to think, we were in maintenance, but now when I really look at what’s happening, the current condition of our ministry, if I have to be completely honest, I think we’re, we are now firmly in the preservation phase of the lifecycle for our church. And if that’s the case, there are some specific next steps that you can be taking. And that’s my prayer, Amy, is that churches, particularly pastors, we were just talking about it again this morning, that pastors would acknowledge this is where the ministry is now. And as challenging as it may be and as much courage as that may take as a leader, as the pastor of the church, we’re unwilling to just stay where we are today. We believe God has a greater plan, a greater vision for where the church is going to go. And we’re willing to take the courageous steps that are necessary to move in that direction. But just as important as it is to know where your church is today, I do think you need to have some awareness of the characteristics of the other phases of the lifecycle because it’s very likely at some point your church will be there as well. And again, you’re going to notice it before anyone else notices it as the leader and you have to be equipped then to see it as quickly as possible and then be prepared to lead the rest of your team, your congregation in the next steps that are necessary so that you can move toward in staying in sustained health. But Amy, I think it does a raise, I mean there’s some opportunity here I think to share a great story of a leader that identified, “we’re in maintenance, and change is necessary.” And you and I had a chance to work with a church that did this, but could you, could you share the story of The Beach Church and pastor Jerry and some of what has happened in the last four or five years?
Amy: 20:40 Sure. You know, maybe I’ll just start with this. When I work with churches that are currently in that maintenance or they’re in life support, preservation, anyway, on the right side, right there in decline, what they’re looking for is hope. In fact, I had a large mainline church I was working with and at the end of our day one on the retreat, they said, can you just tell me like, someone has actually gotten back to, you know, the left side or the top. And actually I, we had just gotten this email from pastor Jerry at Beach Church and what I love is this started four or five years ago and they were stuck. They were on the maintenance side of things. They had a lot of hard decisions to lead through. But if you remember, I believe they went from three styles of worship venues, down to one core style. And when they did that, I know they lost somewhere around 250 people, about 20% of their church at that time. But that change started to unify their church. By the way, they had to make some staffing changes to when they looked at the strengths of their team. They didn’t have diversity in different strength mixes and a couple of super high level loyal great people, they actually, you know, worked with pastor Jerry to say, I think we need to add some different strengths to our team. They renovated a worship center, but all that to say it didn’t happen the next month, but working that plan and over time and leading through change well, they started to get more unified. They started to grow for the first time in years. I think last year they grew by 20%. But what I love the best is when Jerry emailed us. He said, “What’s most amazing though is that over 1,200 people have accepted Christ in the last three years. He said, in other words, about 250 people left our church, but 1200 people will now experience heaven for eternity.” And he said, “I would make that trade all day long.” But it was hard.
Tony: 22:32 And it’s a good example though, too many times, and I’ve experienced this in my own life. I’m unwilling to make change. I’m almost paralyzed by change because I fear the negative consequences that are very real and almost every change that we make in our personal lives and our leadership and certainly in the churches that we’re leading, there’s going to be a step backwards before there’s a step forward. But, as so often happens, Amy, God exceeds more than we can imagine. The impact of those courageous leadership moves that we’re making as pastors. And so I’m grateful for Jerry for sharing the story, but it really is one of really hundreds of stories that we could share of churches. And really I’m talking with about pastors that have been willing to take those bold steps. So yeah, pretty exciting.
Amy: 23:30 Well, Tony, what are some possible next steps for our listeners who aren’t sure maybe where they’re at in the life cycle or aren’t sure like what the next steps are for their church?
Tony: 23:39 Yeah, so, they’re pretty simple and they’re pretty cheap. The first is to actually get a copy of The Unstuck Church book. In fact, I would encourage you to get several copies. I’ve heard stories—one of the churches we worked with recently got copies for all of their staff leaders and all their lay leaders and they read through it together and they identified together where are we as a church and then they identified together what are the next steps that we need to be taking. And I’m advocating for you to do that. The reality is I personally am not making money from selling my book because all of the money that comes in for the sale, which is pretty minimal, goes back into our ministry at The Unstuck Group. And as I’ve shared before, if you aspire to write a book, you should do that. But if you aspire to make money, I would encourage you to get a job at McDonald’s instead because all of the time you invest in writing the book, you’ll be ahead financially if you just get a job at McDonald’s. So that’s what that’s about. But yes, start with the book. Don’t do it solo. Don’t read yourself, read it with your team and process together as a team—where are we in the life cycle and what are the next steps that we need to be taking? And then to help you with that assessment, I already mentioned it’s free. You can go to theunstuckgroup.com and take The Unstuck Church Assessment and we have some questions there for you to complete. And then the assessment for you to share with your team so that again, together you can figure out where are we and then figure out what are the next steps we need to take together.
Amy: 25:20 Well Tony, as we wrap up this podcast and actually this series on planning, do you have any final thoughts before we end today’s conversation?
Tony: 25:28 Yeah, so let me talk specifically with the pastors that are listening today. Let me just assure you, it’s highly unlikely that anyone else is going to initiate the type of assessment self-reflection for the church around health. Everybody else is really focused on living their life, performing whatever roles they have in their jobs, trying to have healthy families, connecting with your church, but they’re not thinking about the overall health of the church and where the church is now. So this is a part of what you have to embrace as the spiritual and ministry leader of your church. However, this really doesn’t have to be a journey that you take on your own. I want to strongly encourage you to invite other staff and or other lay leaders to join you as you assess where your churches today discern where God wants you to go in the future. And then with unity and full alignment, determine the action steps you’re going to take together to move towards sustained health in your church as well.
Sean: 26:34 Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. If you’d like to determine where your church is in its lifecycle, take your team through our free assessment at assess.theunstuckchurch.com. At The Unstuck Group, we work every day with church leaders to help them build healthy churches by guiding them through specifically designed experiences that focus them on vision, strategy, and action. If that’s a need in your church, we’d love to talk. You can start a conversation by visiting us theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, we hope you have a great week.