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The Phases (in Leadership) of a Growing Church

In reflecting upon my church’s story, there appears to be, generally speaking, at least three phases (as it relates to leadership) through which a growing church can pass[ref]I first heard these three terms by Bruce Wesley as he was reflecting on CCCC’s leadership journey.[/ref] :

Phase 1: Entrepreneurial

This is the riskiest of phases. A high-wire act. The church planter is doing everything and anything he can to get the fledgling congregation off the ground. This often results in empowered teams out of necessity. A big positive is that the leadership involves as many willing laypeople as possible. It’s an “all hands on deck” mentality. The entrepreneurial leader thrives because often he or she is given oversight of a ministry with little top-down management. The “top” (aka, church planter) is too busy tackling the thousand other pressing tasks in front of him.

This type of empowerment can be a double-edged sword because while teams feel they own the ministries they oversee, those ministries may not be led with the same values, spirit, or even doctrine as the rest of the church leadership. Misalignment is more apt to occur. Consequently, it’s easier to have rogue ministries, doctrinal compromise, and mission drift in the Entrepreneurial Phase.

Phase 2: Established

This phase finds the church in stasis. The church planter’s fears of “Are we going to make it?” have subsided. The congregation is viable and stable. The same is true of leadership. The planter himself has moved from a lone elder to lead elders. He also isn’t any longer fighting to fill holes in ministry chairs which seem to be vacated every other month. Now ministries aren’t so much being started (with the kind of frequency as in beginning) as they are being deepened, solidified. Frankly, at this stage you feel a greater freedom to be pickier about who leads what, when, and how.

The church in the Established Phase naturally moves toward centralization. Mission, vision, and values that were set in the entrepreneurial stage with ministry teams (but left largely unchecked or at least loosely checked) now have a tighter set of screws. And while lay leaders still abound, most, if not all, critical ministries are now overseen by full-time or part-time staffers. This gives another reason for a strong alignment in this phase.

Decisionmaking from the highest level of leadership becomes more strategic. The Lead Team moves from working in ministries to working on ministries. They lead leaders. Yet in this stage, churches can lose their missional edge. Get fat and happy. Content with where they are and what they’ve done. Leaders can be praised for merely staying true to who “we are” as a church instead of looking outward and onward. This is one reason why larger churches need to consider a third phase.

Phase 3: Reproductive

This phase find the church reproducing herself for mission. This could be seen in another campus, an independent congregation, or something else that shows the church wants to give birth in a congregational sense for gospel ends. Let me continue thinking about this phase with a church who has decided to add campuses (since that’s my experience).

This phase is challenging because it demands that you act differently than before. Indeed, it’s somewhat a call to dance in two worlds. It’s to re-engage elements of decentralization and empowerment of Phase 1 while retaining certain elements of centralization and alignment in Phase 2. As you might imagine, this is more art than science – hence the allusion to dancing. At times it will [frustratingly] feel you are taking steps backward as you fight battles you knew were settled in the Established Phase. Really? Yup. Why? Because to enter into the Reproductive Phase with any sense of effectiveness is to re-introduce leaders with entrepreneurial spirits. You cannot move forward without them. They will lead the way for reproduction just like you did when you planted the congregation that is sending them out. But it’s not just them, it’s you with them and them with you.

That’s why the crazy demand on the current leadership will be learning how to dance in Phase 3 well. For example, if you reproduce campuses, how much freedom do you give your campus pastors? Do they set the vision for the student ministry or does that happen in concert with the Lead Team centrally? What input and leverage do campus pastors have in the worship service planning? How different and how similar are campuses to be from one another? How should we related to our teams? Vertically, horizontally, a matrix of both? This is just the tip of the iceberg. However, the tensions of centralized/decentralized and empowered/aligned teams/staff/leaders are part and parcel of becoming a reproducing church. I believe the biggest challenge for leadership will be deciding how best to dance in this phase. I know it is for my church!

Which phase is your church in? One way to tell is how would you characterize your leadership culture? Is it one of building, aligning, empowering, stabilizing, depending, expanding? Know that each phase has its strengths and weaknesses. But knowing where you are can help you decide where you need to go.

Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

1 thought on “The Phases (in Leadership) of a Growing Church”

  1. Does anyone want to comment on the “incorporating newcomers” into each phase? Had some extremely helpful info from JJ (you know who you are 😉 but I still find myself wondering how to “fit in”. Our church background included leadership roles in every other spot we have landed except this one. Are there any short term “help out” roles? Is everything a full time commit? Group feels so weird because we could teach it! It seems like everyone is just starting out on their walk and we are so far ahead. But that’s not covered in “group link”. And group feels SO sermon-y. Where’s the fellowship/get to know you time? Maybe we’re missing something.

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