Strategic Church Leadership
Building thriving, healthy churches
The face-to-face meeting with the pastor and his leadership team was a normal setting for me, as the focus of my leadership ministry is on helping leaders. The atmosphere was an open, lighthearted discussion with a Q&A time. I asked the lead pastor questions I’ve asked dozens of pastors whose churches average between 200 and 5,000 in weekend worship attendance. Size is not the concern with these questions; it’s more about the leader, the style and the focus.
I asked, “What are the things you do overall most of the time as a pastor and pastoral team?”
The pastor’s answer was similar to those I hear from other pastors: “I lead, I preach, I work hard, I raise money. I find volunteers, I dream big. I have strong values, I believe in evangelism. I worship, and I try to grow the church.”
Sound familiar? We all do these things as pastors and leaders, differing only in the amount of time we give to our areas of focus.
Then I asked my second big question: “Is it working for you?”
Again, his answer was similar to those I commonly hear from other pastors: “Well kind of, but not as good as I want. Honestly, I’m frustrated. I am tired of working so hard with so few results.”
Does this sound familiar too? Being a good leader whose church experiences biblical, identifiable growth is certainly the sincere desire of most pastors. But the fact is, it’s a tough road to travel, and it has a lot of potholes, curves and steep hills — and not enough signage.
The challenge to all pastors and leaders is to become more strategic in leading the church through the many different seasons of church life. Many times, the demand on the pastoral leadership team spreads them out and forces them to become generalists, leaders who do the many things expected of them and put upon them.
This style is not bad at certain levels of pastoring. For instance, a pastor taking over a new church with no staff and few willing workers must be a generalist, using all of his or her knowledge, aptitudes and skills.
But there comes a time when you move from generalist to strategic leader. Without this change, the leader may burn out, live in overload land or keep the church at the size that fits the old style of leadership.
The good news is that every pastor, team leader and team member can be a strategic leader. The challenge is that many of us were trained for the work of pastoring people, rather than becoming strategic pastors of people or architects of strategies.
To be strategic pastors and leaders, we must understand that times have changed. We live in a complex day of church decline in North America. We are seeing slower progress, a decline in influence and slippage in attendance throughout many mainline denominations.
Most U.S. churches have 80 or fewer worshippers each week, and fewer than 45 percent of churches have grown more than 2 percent in the past five years, according to a study from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
Our collective culture when it comes to the church has become like the king who “knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8, KJV). We face the information age, postmodern thought, pluralism and marginalization of the church. But don’t go jump off the nearest bridge!
There is hope for leaders who want to build a powerful, impacting, thriving, healthy, biblical church, whether in a small Midwestern town, an urban area on the East Coast, or somewhere in between. We can do this, but it is going to require strategic leaders who are strategic thinkers making strategic changes.
Strategic leaders have several things in common:
- They become skilled in developing workable and successful strategies for every ministry of the church.
- They answer the important questions. What do we do? For whom do we do it? How do we excel?
- They skillfully move from a vision to a plan and process.
- They communicate a powerful, clear vision, establish simple organizational structures that match the vision, and allocate resources toward those structures.
The strategic leader does the work of strategic analysis. What is the spiritual state of your church today? Understanding the life and times of your church is essential before you develop strategies. Strategy has to match the season of your church.
You don’t announce a building program right after a church split or a moral crisis in the church. You can’t borrow strategies from other churches, as they were probably in sync with the season of that church and may not fit your church.
What is the season of your church? Is it a new church plant? Is it in a succession situation, with a pastor leaving and a new one coming on board? Is it in decline, plateaued, or even dead in some areas? Is it in a season of revitalization, repositioning and revision?
To strategize effectively, you need to know where this church has been and how it got to where it is now. Facts are important, and the history of the church plays a role in knowing what the best strategy is going forward.
You must also consider your demographics. A demographic study can help. Such a study gathers information about the characteristics of your particular population, including ages, income levels, nationalities, education, religious beliefs, occupations and family structures.
This is a key step toward being more strategic, as it allows you to understand in detail what is going on in your field of reach — your mission field. This is valuable when planning to reach particular people groups, organizing community outreach events, and looking for the best opportunities for advancing the gospel and connecting your church with the community.
The good news is that every pastor, team leader and team member can be a strategic leader.
The strategic pastor and the entire leadership team must understand the chosen strategic direction, and everyone must own it. Strategic leaders assess, analyze and then set strategy to achieve direction. They choose the right people to lead teams — individuals who share the established values, methods and models that unify the direction forward.
Wise leaders show the way forward by communicating clearly and often, by giving ample time for all leaders to buy in, and by providing a pathway that is easy for people to perceive, understand and interpret. Alignment among leaders and teams won’t happen without a crystal-clear pathway that lays out where you are taking the church and the steps to get there.
One young pastor succeeding a seasoned pastor in an older church said this about his strategic process: “As we began to shift the culture here at our church, I had to bring clarity to who we are and why we do what we do in order to take steps forward. I had to start bringing clarity to our elder team first and get them on the same page as to why we exist, which is still a work in progress. From there, I really had to spend tons of time with staff members, sharing vision and imparting to them the culture we desire to become. I then brought that to our Sunday morning gatherings through different series. However, all of that started with reading a lot of books on culture and vision and reading books on what I was sensing the Holy Spirit had for us. I also invested in relationships with those who are either doing the same shifts as me or are further along in the process than I am. I even have an outside mentor to help ask probing questions and give advice on how to get where I believe God is wanting me to lead and go.”
This is strategic leadership. It rises above ambiguous, clouded and vague communication. If confusing objectives and priorities muddle the church mission, those attempting to fulfill the mission will be less focused, less effective and less satisfied. I see this kind of problem often when leaders have great vision but poor communication; they present a fuzzy path forward and don’t link decisions to process.
Strategic leaders understand how to maximize the impact of their church, regardless of its size. Most churches in the U.S. have fewer than 300 attendees. These churches can and should be spiritually healthy, with an atmosphere that invites the presence of God. They should offer solid Bible preaching, a prayer culture and a vibrant worship experience. They should see believers becoming disciples, members serving the community in specific and impacting ways, and active involvement in world missions as an integral part of the vision.
Small things can make huge differences. A single stone killed a giant; an army of 300 defeated thousands; five loaves of bread and two fish fed a multitude; and faith like a mustard seed still moves mountains. Don’t limit your vision. One towboat can pull 40 barges, each carrying 1,500 tons. Such is the power of one small church not thinking small!
Just because the church is small doesn’t mean you don’t need good strategy. Small-church leaders have a lot to juggle. Strategic pastors and leaders who are bivocational are becoming increasingly common. According to a Faith Communities Today study, fewer than 62 percent of U.S. churches have a full-time pastor.
Bivocational pastors are heroes who make many sacrifices for their churches — and they’re in good company. The apostle Paul was bivocational, a tent maker and an apostle. The bivocational leader must be strategic in training leaders, delegating as much of the church work as possible and allowing people to share in the ministry.
Use your time strategically. Overworked pastors are at high risk for burnout. Bivocational leaders, especially, must do the best they can with the ministry while setting aside personal time for family and their own spiritual health. If you are a leader in a small town or an impoverished area, you can still dream big and remain strategic with what you have and what’s available to you.
As you grow, it’s also important to use your facilities strategically. Constructing a bigger building may not be the wisest choice. Smaller buildings with multiple services create more cash flow without more overhead. More cash flow means more resources for new ministries, staff positions and mission opportunities.
Strategic pastors and leaders will make the necessary changes to position their churches for success in the biblical definition of church success. You are intelligent, the Holy Spirit is in you, and the Holy Spirit is the best strategist ever. We have an edge, an Insider who understands cultural complexities and has the ability to prepare the way for the work God wants to do in our communities.
Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). He continues to build His Church today, through ordinary men and women who look to Him in faith. You are a church builder, and you can become a better church builder.
The size of the church is not the same as the health of the church. You can be unhealthy small or unhealthy large. The size of a church may depend on geographic and demographic variables. The health of the church has to do with its spiritual vitality and its community, cultural and world impact.
Be a strategic leader in the right things at the right time with the right leaders to do what is right for your church. The frustrated pastor I met with was doing the work but needed more strategy. So begin your strategizing with these questions:
- I lead, but am I producing leaders?
- I preach sermons, but am I moving the church forward with my preaching?
- I work hard, but do I delegate and build team leaders?
- I dream big, but do I dream strategically?
- I have strong values, but do I cross-pollinate with others who are different from me?
The difference between good and great is often smaller than we think. What seems like a small adjustment can — and often does — grow larger over time. You can produce highly qualified leaders with the modern technology available to you. Online resources are everywhere, and much of it is free.
Don’t limit your training of leaders — worship leaders, children’s ministry leaders, youth ministry leaders, etc. — by only using what you have residentially at your church. Be strategic!
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of Influence magazine.