Growth by Accident, Death by Planning: How Not to Kill a Growing Congregation
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Growth by Accident, Death by Planning: How Not to Kill a Growing Congregation

by Abingdon Press

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It is a familiar experience. A congregation that had been growing in numbers and spiritual vitality reaches a plateau and then begins to decline. Most of the time, the plateau occurs long before the church arrives at the optimum number of members it hoped to attract. What has happened here? Why does growth slow down, stop, and then decline? The real question to ask


It is a familiar experience. A congregation that had been growing in numbers and spiritual vitality reaches a plateau and then begins to decline. Most of the time, the plateau occurs long before the church arrives at the optimum number of members it hoped to attract. What has happened here? Why does growth slow down, stop, and then decline? The real question to ask, says Bob Whitesel, is why the church grew in the first place.

Most of the time young, growing churches make a series of decisions based not upon careful planning and analysis, but rather upon necessity and intuition. Thus these decisions are not planned strategies, but strategies that often occur by accident, owing their genesis to circumstance. These unplanned strategic decisions are driven not by knowledge, but often simply by the church's environment. When that growth slows, these same churches begin to engage in more careful planning. The problem is that this planning so often ignores the considerations and decisions that led to the church's growth to begin with. The result is stagnation and eventual decline.

In the plain, direct style that is his hallmark, Whitesel lays out where churches go wrong in their planning for growth and how they can correct themselves. He does so by looking at three related phenomena: first, the factors that cause initial growth; second, the erroneous decisions that lead to getting stuck on the plateau; and finally, corrective steps that churches can take to regain growth and vitality.

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Growth by Accident, Death by Planning

How Not to Kill a Growing Congregation

By Bod Whitesel

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2004 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-3218-8


Missteps with Staff Influence

Service is the rent that you pay for room on this earth. —Shirley Chisholm, African American congresswoman

Growing Away from Your Roots

"We aren't the church we used to be. We're in Mendellville, but we act like we're in Southtown. No wonder we've stopped growing."

"They could have asked me," quipped Marty, the head usher of a new church recently started two blocks from Mendellville Church (a pseudonym). "Mendellville Church once really understood this neighborhood," continued Marty. "Now they're just like those people in Southtown. Is it any wonder that's where they're going?"

Southtown was a growing suburb, less than four miles away, but light-years away economically from Mendellville. Mendellville was a small community nestled along the river of a growing city of 65,000. Originally home to Ukrainian immigrants, in recent years Mendellville had enjoyed an influx of Hispanic families attracted by the affordable housing. And though annexed by the city some forty years ago, Mendellville had winding streets and thickly wooded hills that helped it preserve the feeling of a distinct community.

Only eight years earlier, Mendellville Church had been a declining congregation. But the hiring of an energetic new pastor named Serge inaugurated growth. Of Hispanic extraction, Serge led the church into a strong growth cycle, and soon the church was exploring the possibility of constructing new facilities.

At that time I was hired to help the church plan its future. However, as I analyzed the growth patterns, a disturbing trend came to my attention. The growth at Mendellville Church had been slowing and had almost reached a standstill. The small group network, outreach strategies, assimilation programs, facilities, and other key church growth components did not appear to be the culprits. Yet as I probed deeper, I discovered that an informal, but persistent exodus of attendees had been taking place over the past two years. Emmanuel Church, of which Marty was the head usher, was the most recent unplanned offspring of Mendellville Church. And thus, Serge encouraged me to start my investigation there.

A series of interviews with Emmanuel's leaders revealed that they held an impression that as Mendellville Church grew, its leaders became less in touch with the needs of the neighborhood and the congregants. "They were part of the neighborhood when they began," remembered George, a member of Emmanuel Church. "But as they got big, so did their heads."

Trying to defuse the comment, Marty interrupted, "It's not that they didn't care about the Lord. It's just that they seemed to be less concerned about the problems in this community and more concerned about the problems of running a big church. When a lot of the leaders moved to Southtown, that just made it worse."

Southtown was a growing suburb nearby, with quiet streets, upper-middle-class housing, and good schools. Many Hispanic businessowners and professionals had made it their home, often moving from Mendellville. As I continued the interviews with Emmanuel's leaders, it became clear they felt that Mendellville Church's leaders had subtly shifted their focus from the needs of the congregants to the needs of a staff that was climbing the socioeconomic ladder.

I summarized these observations in a letter to Serge. When we met two weeks later, I prepared for some tension, if not outright disagreement. "You have understood this exactly," began Serge. "We aren't the church we used to be. We're in Mendellville, but we act like we're in Southtown. No wonder we've stopped growing." As we continued our conversation, Serge recalled incident after incident where the staff's wishes and needs had taken precedence over the needs of the neighborhood constituency. "I guess we grew away from our roots," summarized Serge. "That's a horrible thing to do."

Factors That Caused Initial Growth

Over the next three months, I worked with the church leaders to uncover some of the causal factors for the growth and the ensuing plateau of Mendellville Church. The following were some of the most notable:

Cause of Growth #1: The church reached out to the community's changing ethnicity. When Serge became the pastor of Mendellville Church, he was the first Hispanic pastor in the church's history. Previously a community of Ukrainian immigrants, Mendellville had developed over the years into a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. Recognizing this, the leaders of the church hired a talented Hispanic pastor to reach out to the community. Gerald, a former leader of Mendellville Church who was of Ukrainian descent, remembered, "We hired Ukrainian pastors for years to reach the neighborhood. Why shouldn't we hire a Hispanic pastor now?" He was right, for there was no compelling rationale not to.

Cause of Growth #2: The church instituted a leadership development program to train indigenous leaders. As the church began to grow, it was desperate for leaders. Serge launched a lay-training institute to develop leaders from the community. This clear route into leadership attracted many people who otherwise might not have considered leadership due to inexperience and/or apprehension.

Cause of Growth #3: The church leaders were in touch with the needs of the community. Because the leaders of Mendellville Church lived and usually worked in the community, they understood it intuitively. "I lived in the parsonage for five years," recalled Serge. "And you can't help getting to know a lot of people in Mendellville when your home is thirty feet from the church."

Cause of Growth #4: Any willing community resident could become involved in leadership. A pressing need for leaders forced the church to utilize almost any willing volunteer. This approach will be discussed in greater detail in chapter 8. But here suffice it to say that anyone, regardless of skill or background, could try his or her hand at almost any leadership responsibility. This not only created new and innovative ministries, but also bolstered the self-esteem of congregants.

Cause of Growth #5: The leaders inaugurated innovative ministries that met the community needs. The result of Causes of Growth #2 to #4 was that the church launched ministries that effectively and creatively addressed the needs of community residents.

Erroneous Decisions That Led to Plateauing

The future looked bright for Mendellville Church, but as the congregation experienced growth, the leaders unintentionally and often unknowingly began to distance themselves from the constituency they served. Here are some of the erroneous decisions that contributed to this growing gulf and eventually plateaued Mendellville Church.

Error 1: Leaders slowly became isolated from the average congregant. With the growth and success of the church, which in five years numbered more than 450 in attendance, a slow distancing of the staff from the average attendee took place. Many of the staff enjoyed incomes almost 60 percent more than what they had received five years before. And many moved to Southtown and other nearby middle-income communities. As a result, the staff had less and less daily contact with Mendellville residents. Though the staff served in the community, they no longer lived in the community.

Error 2: Leaders relied more on their past experiences to guide them rather than on current circumstances. Management researchers David Dotlich and Peter Cairo have discovered that as leaders climb the ladder of success, they begin to distance themselves from those they serve and fall victim to the "experience trap." This trap arises when a leader, increasingly detached from the needs of his or her constituency, begins to rely more and more on past experience for guidance. However, these past experiences are becoming antiquated, and leaders become less innovative and creative because they are caught in an outdated, but comfortable, "experience trap."

Error 3: A minority began to resent the majority because it seemed that 20 percent of the congregation was doing 80 percent of the work. A burgeoning congregation meant increasing pressure was put on the staff. Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto is famed for his observation that "80% of the value lies in 20% of the elements, while the remaining 20% of the value lies in the remaining 80% of the elements." This adage has been used anecdotally to imply that 80 percent of the volunteer work in a church is undertaken by 20 percent of the volunteers. And often, something near this percentage is the case. In the Mendellville Church, the 20 percent or so who assumed the majority of the work began to reach a stage of burnout. And this emotional exhaustion often led to disparaging remarks about the uninvolved 80 percent. Though these comments were tendered in jest, they signaled a growing rift between the leaders and the people they served.

Error 4: Experience was preferred over willingness. This error will surface again in chapter 8 as a culprit behind early plateaus in growth. However, it also occurs here, for as the church grew in stature, its duties also seemed to grow in importance. "It seemed harder to trust inexperienced people with tasks in the church because so much was riding on it," remembered Serge. As a result, a subtle, almost imperceptible, professionalization of the paid and volunteer staff took place.

Error 5: Staff concerns carried more weight than congregational concerns. As the staff grew, so did their clout. Increasingly insulated from the average congregant, they assumed their needs mirrored the needs of the neighborhood. And when it was time to make decisions, the staff's input carried a disproportionate amount of weight. "The staff were the ones lobbying for a move to Southtown," recalled Serge. "It's closer to where most of us now live." The effect of staff preferences upon church relocation will be investigated further in chapter 5.

Error 6: Clashes between leaders began to receive more attention than the clash between community residents and secular culture. As Mendellville Church grew, subtle fiefdoms developed among various programs. When the church crossed the 200 attendance barrier, its orientation became what Gary Mclntosh calls "programmatic in orientation." In other words, the programs and their staffing, space, and fiscal needs began to seize the church's attention. In a milieu of increasing but still limited funds, each ministry begin to fight over resources. The result was polarization, with some segments of the church coalescing into identifiable factions. And when a church passes the 400 attendance barrier, Mclntosh points out the orientation will begin to focus on administration. As a result, a further estrangement among factions took place due to disagreements over systems and styles of administration. Subsequently, conflicts among the leaders took a disproportionate amount of the church's energy, time, and focus. The community, engaged in a battle with secularizing culture, failed to garner sufficient attention from church leaders embroiled in battles between fiefdoms.

Corrective Steps to Regain Growth

Ten Steps to Staying Connected to the People You Serve

To regain growth, church leaders must recognize their inclination to become isolated from their constituency and then undertake corrective steps to reverse this disconnect.

Corrective Step #1: Stay connected with your congregation by living among them. Though the rising social and economic stature of a congregation may allow its leaders to move up the socioeconomic ladder and out of the local community, leaders must seriously consider the benefits of residing among their constituents. Jesus modeled this behavior, choosing to eat and fellowship among society's disadvantaged, much to the annoyance of the religious elite (Mark 2:15-16).

Corrective Step #2: Stay connected by visiting small groups within the church. Chapter 10 points out that much of the accountability and candor of a congregation takes place in small groups. As for the present discussion, leaders should regularly visit small group environments to stay connected. Participants will feel more comfortable sharing their concerns and needs in these small groups.

Corrective Step #3: Stay connected with your church newcomers. Guests and visitors can give you a perspective on how well you are competing with the distractions of a secularizing culture. And newcomers do not have the historical baggage that sometimes makes people guard their words and their true feelings. One component is a five-week newcomer course, which allows newcomers to experience a small group environment with other newcomers. This course is an ideal venue for leaders to interact with those new to the congregation and/or Christianity.

Corrective Step #4: Be a servant leader, ready to partake in even the most mundane (and perhaps distasteful) tasks. "One of the things people don't like to do around here is wash the dishes that come back from our weekly dinner at the downtown homeless shelter. You should have seen their faces when they caught me washing them. I do it once a month now," confided Serge. Throughout the Gospels, we are reminded that Jesus, God in the flesh, dutifully and happily modeled the behavior of a servant. His washing of his disciples' feet was the ultimate example, one that stunned Peter in its deference and humility (John 13:1-17). Leaders who stay in touch with their constituents will not find it beneath themselves to model servant leadership even in the most mundane or unpleasant tasks. "Never ask a person to do something you wouldn't do yourself is a famous adage. For a Christian leader, it might be better expressed, "Never ask a person to do something you haven't modeled yourself."

Corrective Step #5: Evaluate the effectiveness and appropriateness of the church's ministries on a regular basis. This should be accomplished via anecdotal insights and empirical investigation. Chapter 7 is devoted to addressing the important task of evaluation in more detail.

Corrective Step #6: Poll the opinions of the congregation and the community to stay connected. Surveys, town hall meetings, and focus groups can be helpful in uncovering needs and concerns of both the congregation and the community. Let's look briefly at each:

Congregational or community questionnaires can be highly beneficial if they are well designed and permit anonymity. Questionnaires are good gauges of opinions and needs.

Town hall meetings should be conducted at least twice a year in a congregation, and when warranted in a community, to assess opinions and needs. Some denominations already have these structures in place due to democratic forms of church government. However, for those that do not, a meeting modeled after ones convened in the town halls of early America can be invaluable. Certain guidelines, such as Robert's Rules of Order, should be followed to prevent these gatherings from digressing into grievance sessions. If care is taken to engender a spirit of consideration and openness, these venues can be important places for discovering needs.

Focus groups are small groups convened to direct thinking toward a particular topic. Similar to town hall meetings, only smaller, these groups of three to twelve individuals allow reticent and/or reserved participants to share their thoughts in a more intimate environment.

Corrective Step #7: Develop leaders from your neighborhood. While the temptation will be to utilize professionally trained staff as well as lay leaders experienced with large churches, oftentimes such staff will be out of touch with the needs and spirit of the community. Chapter 9, "Missteps with Staff Education," addresses this in detail. However, for the present discussion, remember that a leader developed from the neighborhood will bring a long history of familiarity with the needs and preferences of that community.

Corrective Step #8: Beware of the "Absalom at the Gate Syndrome." The previous steps are essential for remaining aware of community and congregational needs. But they can also lead, sometimes deviously, to more division. In the process of gathering information from congregants and community residents, it will be tempting to politic or champion one's personal solutions and ideas. Leading conversations and/or interjecting personal solutions may undermine information gathering. Remember that King David's son Absalom cunningly sat at the city gate to politic for his father's overthrow (2 Sam. 15:1-12). Leaders must be careful not to succumb to this syndrome. When gathering information on the needs of the congregation and community, suppress your desires and predilections. You are there to learn, not to politic or polarize.


Excerpted from Growth by Accident, Death by Planning by Bod Whitesel. Copyright © 2004 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Bob Whitesel is a one of the most sought-after speakers/consultants on changing a church, who has been called by a national magazine, “the key spokesperson on change in the church today.” The award-winning author of 12 books, he holds two doctorates from Fuller Seminary (D.Min. and Ph.D.) where he received the “McGavran Award” for outstanding scholarship. He is also the founding professor of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. When not helping churches bring about healthy change, he helps churches recapture the multi-ethnic and missional methods of John Wesley in the popular “Land & Leadership of Wesley Tours” to England. His websites are and

He lives in Marin, Indiana.

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