5 Ways Leaders Can Promote Church Health
For church leaders, every time we turn around there’s a new book, blog post, conference, or podcast on church health. There are so many resources for leaders to build healthy churches, yet it seems so few churches are truly healthy.
Whether it’s leadership struggles, budget shortages, or declining membership, many churches have a hard time achieving health.
Sure, health is measured in many ways. What constitutes health for one church may not be a factor for another. And it’s even possible for a church to exhibit health in metrics like growth and giving yet behind the scenes the staff culture is anything but healthy.
I’d like to present five factors that I’ve seen contribute to the health of the church I serve. These are not meant to be inclusive of all health factors, but they cover a lot of ground toward overall health.
1. Avoid Unilateral Authority
The shift in the past few decades from committee or deacon-led churches to staff-led churches has, for the most part, been healthy. The problem is that many churches have allowed the pendulum to swing too far the other way, and there are too few leaders making the decisions. In many cases, the senior pastor is given near-unilateral authority for just about any decision in the life of the church. This is not only equally as impractical as the committee/deacon-led model but it is also unhealthy.
Yes, the pastor has been set apart, equipped, and called by the church to serve as the spiritual leader. But nowhere in Scripture do we find the pastor/shepherd being required to have authority in all matters of church life. In Scripture, we see a plurality of elders, including the pastor, taking the lead (I Timothy 5:7; Acts 11:30). It could be said that the pastor’s primary duty is spiritual leadership (Ephesians 4:12).
Pastors are human beings who, like all of us, have strengths and weaknesses. The pastor should lead with his strengths, and the church should delegate other responsibilities accordingly.
In my church, our senior pastor is charged with the responsibilities to preach, pray, cast vision, and develop leaders. These are his strengths, not administration. That seems to be common for many pastors who are visionary leaders. It’s been said that if the pastor does these four things effectively, there would be no time left for business administration or even other ministry matters of the church.
Church business and ministry oversight are delegated to the trustees (elders) and their appointees, including two additional standing committees (personnel and finance) and the executive pastor(s) and staff. Our pastor is grateful to be free of the burden of these matters that don’t fit his strengths. And I’m certain he’s a healthier husband, father, pastor, and person because of it.
2. Be Intentional About Accountability
This is related to the first point, but it goes further. Not only should there be a plurality of leadership for the sake of effectiveness and efficiency, but also for accountability. I don’t have the statistics, but I would bet the biggest reason for church splits is a power struggle. By sharing the decision-making process, pastors are not only protected from scrutiny but also have pre-agreement among a broader leadership base to lean on (I’ve written a post about the benefits of institutional power over personal power).
Our church has chosen to define this system of accountability in our bylaws. There can be no misunderstanding as to the roles of the congregation, the trustees (elders), the deacons (a serving body, not a leadership body), the senior pastor, the executive pastors, and the staff. In my view, this is the healthy “middle position” between the unhealthy extremes of being exclusively committee/deacon led and being unilaterally pastor-led.
Yes, this model includes committees, the bane of many pastors. But if they’re limited in number, their roles are well-defined, and they’re comprised of godly, mature believers, it’s a model that can work well. It has worked very well in our church for the past 15 years. We enjoy a high level of trust among our congregation because they know there’s accountability.
3. Clearly Communicate Expectations
Intentionality is a key to church health. And being intentional about expectations is essential. Our church regularly defines our objectives for a prescribed period, and every full-time staff member writes personal goals that support those objectives. Their contribution is discussed in regular performance review meetings (3 per year).
These review meetings make it very difficult to avoid discussing expectations and performance. But I’m afraid a lot of churches do just that, avoid the performance problem and sometimes the person. When a staff member is ignored or otherwise marginalized, morale is lost. If there are performance issues, deal with them directly and compassionately. If they continue, the church should have a plan for improvement, with the consequences clearly outlined.
At our church, we have what we call a 90-day improvement plan in which expectations are further defined. By having a robust system of personnel selection (I blogged on that as well), we very rarely have to implement improvement plans.
4. Set High Standards But Lead With Compassion
People want to be challenged, especially leaders in the church. They want high standards to be set, and they appreciate excellence as much as anyone. But it takes only a few instances of being treated harshly when something doesn’t go as planned for a leader or any staff member to become deflated.
I believe it’s possible to have both a culture of high standards and high compassion. This is accomplished by treating everyone fairly, giving each person the benefit of the doubt, and engaging in pro-active and productive communication. A good dose of regular appreciation should be in the mix as well. Too often both good and bad performance is ignored, and no one wants to serve in such a culture.
5. Love People
This should be a no-brainer. But, despite church leaders being called to be role models for how to love God and love others, many people in the church feel anything but loved. Yes, people can be mean, ungrateful, critical, and even sometimes undermine leadership. Whether on the staff or in the congregation, they might even look like our enemy. But we know what Jesus said about our enemies.
No matter the circumstance, and no matter the action that needs to be taken with someone under our authority, there can always be an expression of love and care for the person. This is the utmost call to be like Jesus. Those of us who are parents understand how we can be disappointed or even frustrated with someone but still love them unconditionally.
These are a few, but in my opinion, critical factors to promoting church health.