And if they stay engaged and growing, that sweet spot will last into their mid to late seventies. Anyone who has ever led a church, or been led by a pastor in a church, knows this.
Put another way, I believe a Senior Pastor’s personal ministry effectiveness, as defined both biblically and experientially, doesn’t reach its full potential until a pastor has grandkids and starts to get AARP letters in his mailbox.
You can understand my great disappointment then when I read in one of my denomination’s periodicals an article written by my good friend Kent Fillinger entitled, “Better With Time?”
I wrote a response to the premise of the article, and though directed towards pastors within my own tribe, I thought you might find value in reading it.
Here it is…
Correlation Or Causation?
In examining the long-term effectiveness of Senior Ministers in megachurches, Fillinger writes,
Senior ministers, especially those of large churches and megachurches, typically believe their congregation’s best days are ahead of them. But research consistently shows church growth rates diminish as the senior minister’s age and tenure increase. Many senior ministers are in denial about this, because they are fully engaged by optimism bias. This bias also helps to explain how 42 of the church leaders surveyed could describe their church’s momentum as “strong or stable” when it declined in attendance last year. The optimism bias may also explain why the phrase “preacher’s count” exists.
The age and tenure of the senior minister are bigger factors than church size when studying the correlation to growth rates. The average start date for the senior ministers in our survey of megachurches, large churches, and medium churches was 1999. The research once again confirmed that senior ministers with 8 to 10 years of tenure have the fastest-growing churches at 8.3 percent in 2011. Consistently, churches led by senior ministers with tenures of 21 to 30 years, and 31 years or more, are the slowest growing (2.4 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively, in 2011).
I know Kent personally and have been a fan of his writing for a long time. I consider him our fellowship’s own Thom Rainer or Ed Stetzer. He’s that good.
But I believe Kent missed the mark in this article. Like seriously missed the mark. Like, “Kent wrote this article on crystal meth while listening to non-stop Barry Manilow songs in the background” kinda missed the mark.
To insinuate that a church, especially a megachurch, stops growing because of (a) The Senior Minister’s age and (b) length of tenure is just not accurate.
Megachurches in this article grew in the first decade of their Senior Pastor’s ministry because under the Senior Pastor’s leadership each of these churches took out exorbitant loans to finance the church’s growth. Huge sanctuaries were built. Children’s ministry wings were expanded. And growth followed. Skyrocketing growth happened.
Without exception, in every case but one (that I know about), each of the churches in this survey grew in large part because they took out a massive loan to buy buildings to house people. It’s that simple.
The formula for growing a mega-church is very clear:
Catalytic pastors + growing communities + available land + a strong economy + massive mortgage payments = mega-church-like church growth.
At some point in every one of these ministries, the leadership had to start paying for these buildings. Ministry began to suffer under the weight of mortgage payments. Programs were curtailed. Missionaries couldn’t be supported. Initiatives had to be put on hold because they couldn’t be funded.
Finally the leaders in these churches woke up and realized, “Holy cow guys, we’ve got to eliminate this debt.” Money previously funneled into marketing and new programs and expansion projects started to get earmarked toward paying down the debt that created the growth in the first place.
Well what happens when you stop funding the things that drove your growth in the first place? You know what happens. Growth slows down. In most cases that’s what happened in the churches in Kent’s survey.
Outward-Focused Missions Emphasis
But debt only explains part of the story.
Slow church growth can also be attributed to God eviscerating the Senior Pastors of these churches and emptying them of their selfish ambition. The end result being a kingdom-focused Senior Pastor instead of one focused solely on his own church’s growth. Many of the Senior Pastors I coach are going through that transition.
Recently we had a decision to make: spend $50K from our offerings on direct-mail and other outreach initiatives to help CCV grow, or support a church planter in northeast India reach a completely unreached community.
After much prayer we felt that God wanted us to support the church planter.
Consequently, our church did not grow by the 150-200+ people it would have in the last 12 months. We are growing, certainly, but not at the rate we could have if we spent the money on “ourselves.” In the meantime that church planter has planted three flourishing churches among completely unreached people groups.
I bring this up because this is not a decision I would have championed at year 6 in my tenure at our church. But I am thankfully much wiser and less selfish now.
Fillinger wrote, “Last year, those churches weekend attendance increased an average of 8.3 percent – about double the figure for years 11-20 of a minister’s tenure.”
In most of the situations of the churches Fillinger surveyed, those churches grew slower in the second decade by design.
Thank God for churches like New Life Christian Church in the suburbs of Washington D.C. That church, led by Brett Andrews, has been one of the top three churches in our movement to fan the flames of new church planting. Ever heard of the Exponential Conference? You have those guys to thank for that. They are selfless, constantly giving away money, time, staff and resources to spread kingdom growth.
Meanwhile New Life itself as a church has shown respectable growth, especially in Brett’s second decade there. Not amazing growth. But respectable growth. And if you ask Brett, that’s okay with him. It’s not about their one singular church anyway. That’s not their focus.
While the formula for growing a megachurch is well-followed, the formula for growing a kingdom focused church is not:
Giving away members + giving away money + giving away your best staff for kingdom projects + Senior Pastors cultivating obscurity instead of celebrity status = the great commission flourishing worldwide.
Flawed Methodology And Analysis
The reality is there are dozens of factors that go into church stagnation in addition to the factors just listed: size of community, availability of land to expand, zoning regulations which curtail expansion, and of course, sin. All of this in addition, no doubt, to the Senior Pastor losing heart.
In fact, the same flawed methodology used to show that a pastor’s age/tenure causes slow church growth could be used to show that black pastors lead stagnating churches in their second decades.
“In our survey, black pastors on average…uhh…wait…there were no black pastors leading mega churches…therefore, one must ask if there is a correlation between the ability to plant and grow a megachurch and ethnic background. This warrants further study.”
Drawing conclusions based on correlation alone is ridiculous.
The same flawed methodology could be used to help us avoid colleges that produce leaders that produce slow growing churches:
“In our survey Lincoln Christian University grads tend to lead the most sluggish churches in their second decades. Of the two Lincoln grads leading churches 2,000+, their churches displayed the slowest growth. One must ask if Lincoln is a desired locus for pastoral preparation. This warrants further study.”
What’s next? Attributing slow church growth to pastors without M.Div. degrees? Pastors under 6′ or over 6′? Carry out the logic.
Attributing church stagnation to one singular factor (or two factors) is horribly flawed.
What’s most troubling to me about arguing that slow church growth can be attributed to a Senior Pastor’s age and tenure is what happens “out there” in our churches.
Carry out the logic…
Instead of looking beyond their churches and supporting kingdom ministries outside of their local contexts, pastors will spend that money on another direct mail campaign, staff member, or new wing on the children’s building. All to keep growing.
Leaders on the governing boards of churches will start thinking about looking for a new pastor at year seven. Pastors will think the answer to their own personal quest for meaning will be found in moving more frequently, not less.
People like Howard Brammer and Charles Cook, who had decades-long ministries in one church, will cut their ministries shorter, leaving ten times less healthy churches for their predecesors, people like Ben Cacharias and Aaron Brockett to build on.
And the kingdom will suffer, grossly.
Like I said previously, I believe pastors don’t hit their ministry “sweet spot” until they’re in their mid-fifties. And if they stay engaged and keep growing, that sweet spot will last into their mid to late seventies. Anyone who has ever led a church, or been led by a pastor in a church, knows this. Even the business world recognizes this! Don’t believe me? Read Michael Hyatt’s article Who Makes The Best Entrepreneurs?
Ministers that put in the time and personal growth to make it to this coveted “sweet spot” are wiser, kinder, and more focused on future generations of leaders than their younger counterparts.
Which is why, given the choice, I’m pretty sure most people would rather attend a church led by one of these pastors, than one whose church’s name appears at the top of a church growth survey.