Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 61
Unhealthy leadership structures will cost you dearly.
I know this truth from personal experience, and chances are, you do too. If you’re fortunate enough to only experienced healthy church leadership, understand that your experience is rare.
The consequences of unhealthy leadership structures are self-evident: burnout, moral failures, low effectiveness, poor performance, arguing, apathy. Not to say unhealthy leadership teams produce all of these outcomes, but one or more are inevitable.
These disastrous consequences are the reason why Jesus invested so much time and energy in his ministry to leadership development. Jesus taught that the effectiveness of ministry is directly proportional to the number of healthy leaders.
Jesus said in Matthew 9:38 to pray for more laborers for the harvest. Laborers are leaders.
This article outlines three critical steps to developing a healthy leadership structure in your church.
Step 1: Structure for Health
The phrase “Structure for Growth” is much more common. There is nothing inherently wrong about it. Yet because unhealthy churches frequently use an aversion to “church growth” language as an excuse to avoid necessary change, I find the term “Structure for Health” to be more helpful. Additionally, it’s easy to read “Structure for Growth” to mean “copy everything a megachurch does,” which isn’t always appropriate or healthy.
Structuring for Health means creating the right infrastructure for your specific church to make and maturing more disciples.
What does a healthy structure look like? The specifics will vary by church. But generally, a healthy leadership structure is broken into five key levels:
Level 1: Frontline Volunteers (Leading Self)
We often don’t think of greeters or ushers as leaders, but they are. Today’s greeters are tomorrow’s elders. The sooner you start to see leadership potential in your frontline volunteers, the faster you feel the need to invest time and energy in cultivating that potential.
Level 2: Ministry Leaders (Leading Others)
Still, volunteers, ministry leaders are the group of volunteers you already mentally associate with leadership tasks. These are the people who are leading small groups, Sunday school classes, children’s church, and more. This leadership level exists in nearly every church but benefits from increased attention to their training and development.
Level 3: Ministry Coaches (Leading Leaders)
The Coaching Level is the most under-developed layer of leadership in modern churches. This level leverages volunteers’ capacity to manage small volunteer teams by cultivating this layer of volunteers, church staff delegate three essential tasks: coaching, scheduling, and evaluating down-line volunteers. For example, a children’s pastor who oversees a large team of volunteers can reduce her number of direct-reports from 100 to 8 by creating a Coaching Level. Imagine how much more effective staff can become when they empower high-level volunteers to assist with team management. This single shift alone transforms the health of any church that takes on the challenge.
Level 4: Department Heads (Leading Ministries)
Level 4 leaders are always on staff. Your church may have full-time, part-time, or even unpaid staff. But a Level 4 leader is considered staff, regardless of their pay, due to the burden of responsibility placed on them. These leaders are responsible for shaping a ministry’s strategy, overseeing a budget, and safeguarding the congregation’s spiritual care within a specific area. To know which roles should be considered staff and what can be done at the volunteer level, read this article we released on the subject.
Level 5: Board & Executive Team (Leading the Organization)
When you think of “polity,” this is likely the level you are thinking about. So why mention the four previous levels? Because senior leadership cannot be understood apart from its relative relationship to the other levels of leadership. Put another way. It is impossible to determine what senior-level leaders should do without comprehending downline leaders’ roles first.
As you look at the previous four leadership levels, it becomes clear that it is inappropriate for board-level leadership to make tactical decisions (that’s Level 4) or get too far into the weeds of a specific ministry (Level 3 and below). Instead, church boards must focus on what is not being done at any of the previous levels: vision development and church-wide spiritual oversight.
Level 5 leaders have two essential functions: high-leverage decision making and spiritual oversight.
With this mandate, two things become clear.
First, Level 5 leadership is most effective when accomplished by a single, streamlined board. That means a church with nine key committees with equal authority is incapable of fulfilling the role of Level 5 leadership. It also makes clear that the congregation, as a group, cannot fulfill this role. Nor can a senior pastor on his own. A group of 4-8 senior leaders best accomplishes level 5 leadership. Your theology and background will influence the language used to define this team, but the leadership level determines its function.
Second, to have an effective Level 5 leadership team, this group’s standards must be faithfully maintained, which leads us to our second step.
Step 2: Set the Standard
Churches often have guidelines for who can be a pastor or staff. Rarely do churches define the core competencies of leadership at every level. This is a mistake.
Once we define our leadership levels, you must determine what kind of person is qualified to serve at each level. This unified standard for leadership is central to healthy church leadership.
It should go without saying, but one fundamental reason churches have unhealthy leadership teams is because they elevate unqualified leaders. But the reason churches promote incapable leaders is that they do not fully develop what a qualified leader looks like.
Core Competencies for leadership don’t just look at a person’s character, but also their capacity. A lot of churches elevate friendly people to positions of influence without recognizing their ineffectiveness at leadership skills. By defining both the character and capacity requirements for leadership at every level, you ensure that your church is putting the right people in the right positions at the right time.
Step 3: Leave Nothing to Chance
Finally, your church must commit to leadership development to bail on bad polity and implement healthy leadership structures. While it’s beneficial for you to identify and develop leaders personally, your church should create leadership development systems that outlive your tenure.
The healthiest churches are defined by sustainable systems for growing more and better leaders. Our Leadership Pipeline Design service helps churches customize a three-part leadership development system for their church.
First, churches must assess leaders. You cannot know if a leader is qualified if you do not evaluate them. Assessment at every level becomes central to understanding when to moving people along your pipeline. But more importantly, good assessment processes empowers leaders to take ownership of their own growth. If you aren’t assessing leaders, you’re leaving untapped leadership potential on the table.
Second, you must train leaders. A well-defined training regimen activates leaders to reach their full potential. Leveraging a blend of process- and event-oriented training opportunities gives your leaders the best chance to become the leader God intends for them to be.
Third, you must launch leaders. Knowing where to place leaders based on their leadership capabilities and their divine design is vital. Getting the right leaders in the right place at the right time unlocks the collective potential of your church.
Your church does not have to suffer the consequences of bad polity. You can change. Change might be difficult, and there will be barriers.
However, when your church implements a healthy leadership structure and pairs it with a highly effective leadership development process, you will experience a degree of kingdom impact you never thought possible.
Simply follow the three steps outlined above, and unlock the full potential of your church.
That said, I know first hand how difficult it can be to transition from bad polity to a healthy structure. I’ve walked many churches through the process.
Our Leadership Pipeline Design service leverages a two-day workshop to customize your ideal structure and processes. It is followed up with a year of implementation coaching to ensure you make the switch smoothly. If you believe your church needs to bail on bad polity, but you don’t think you can do it alone, let’s talk.
I believe in you. I know your church can change. I’d love to help you get there.
Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).