Every leader is hungry for knowledge and insight from those who have breathed the rare air of church growth. I bet you’ve read hundreds of blogs and books about the topic. I love those blogs, but this isn’t one of those. Instead, let me tell you how I shrunk my church. Hopefully, I can save you from some of my mistakes. Let me give you a little backstory first.
Looking back now it was inevitable; I started pastoring at the age of 24, which was probably not the wisest decision at the time, but you couldn’t have convinced me otherwise back then. I was a cocky, stubborn, opinionated young leader convinced I knew what needed to be done to grow a church.
I remember when I told my dad I was becoming a senior pastor, he warned me, “Jason, pastoring is hard work.” “I’m sure it is for a lot of guys,” I said with the arrogance of a boxer who had never been punched in the mouth, “but I know what I’m doing. Our church will be running 1000 before I’m 30.” I cringe thinking about it now. I had no idea what I didn’t know.
God was gracious enough to allow me to fail. The church experienced little wins here and there, probably due to stubborn work ethic, but my soul, the staff culture, and church health were all toxic. That’s why it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when our congregation of almost 400 people came crashing down like a house of cards. Over a period of six weeks, the worship pastor, children’s pastor, and half the elders left the church, which led to a steady leak of 200 people over the next 12 months. When the dust settled, 200 people remained, ready to follow me, their pastor, but I had lost all confidence and wasn’t sure I knew how to be a pastor.
God has graciously allowed me and my team to learn valuable lessons and has regrown the church, this time in a healthier way. I’m a better pastor and leader, and the biggest lesson I learned in all of it was this: You can’t grow your church. By “you” I mean your talent, your ideas, your personality, your opinions. It takes a team, a body of Christ. Yes, be the leader, but at some point people have to believe it’s their church too, (and you have to believe it) but I’m getting ahead of myself. Looking back on all the leadership mistakes I made, I think there were 3 big ones that lead to our mass exodus.
1. I didn’t empower people (I tasked them)
For the first few years pastoring, I was pastoring “my church, ” and everyone else was here to help me. I never said it like that, as a matter of fact, I would cast vision and talk about “our church, ” but everyone knew it wasn’t their church because every idea was my idea and every decision had to go through me. I would’ve done everything myself if I could have but we were growing, so I hired staff to do things exactly like I wanted because I viewed their role as “task doers.” I never empowered anyone to run with an idea because my ideas were the best ideas (or so I thought.) I critiqued everything because I believed the goal was perfection instead of people development. Truly empowering someone was too dangerous because they might want to do something different than I would do it, and my way was always the best way. You can tell someone you believe in them as much as you want, but if you don’t empower them to do something they know is important to you, they know the truth: they’re replaceable.
2. I built a church service not a church family
I could talk for hours about this one. Every blog, book, and conference you attend talks about Sunday, Sunday, Sunday, and I agree. It’s hard to grow a church with a terrible church service, but a church is more than a service, it’s a family, and in a family, everyone plays a part. When you use (and sometimes pay) specialists to provide you with an amazing Sunday service you create a church of consumers. It’s not their fault; 5 or 6 people put on the best show in town, and they decide to stay at the church because “I love the music,” or “we’ve never been to a church with lights,” or “our kids loved the kid’s service.” We still desire for people to love what they experience, but the difference is we’re going to empower the body of Christ to do the work of ministry like Paul instructed in 1 Corinthians 12:18. As crazy as it sounds, our church got better (and grew) when the quality of our music went down a little and when other people we’re given a chance to speak. It’s hard to build buy in if people are trained to watch. If you pay everyone in the “talent” positions of your church, whether you realize it or not you’re sending the message that a few professionals do the important stuff, and what’s most important is singing and preaching. People are excited about their new awesome church service for about 6-12 months but eventually, they want a place to belong, and they don’t care about the quality of the production if they have friends.
3. I led from the middle
Becoming a senior pastor at the age 24 came with a set of unique challenges, mainly immaturity. Some people left our church because they didn’t view me as their pastor. How could they, they heard me fart in the car on the way to the conference (and other things, this is just the most embarrassing.) We all thought it was funny at the time. They said things like, “I’m so glad I can relate to my pastor,” or “I’m so glad you’re not like my other pastor who was always boring.” In other words, they were glad I was normal. It took me too long to realize familiarity is dangerous. I would tell people, “Don’t call me Pastor Jason, just call me Jason.” And honestly, to this day, I don’t really care what people call me, but I do care how they view me. When they are in the hospital fearful about sickness and death, they don’t need their buddy Jason they need their Pastor Jason to pray with them. The painful lesson I learned is that if you lead like “one of the guys” when a pivotal moment arises in their life, they will find another church where they feel they have a pastor who can lead them.