The One Growth Obstacle Churches Don’t Admit

Sam Rainer

July 19, 2015


Some churches stay in a perpetual cycle of growing and declining. The church peaks, then dips, only to peak again. It’s possible for a church to stay in this cycle for decades. For example, look at the below chart.


The above chart is an annual average of weekly worship attendance, charted for 20 years. Two factors stand out. I’ve highlighted them with a dotted line. First, a clear ceiling exists. Second, a clear floor exists. The church has been in a 20-year cycle of growing and declining. A growth obstacle is keeping the church from breaking through 600 in attendance, and something is keeping the church from dipping below 400.

Obviously, a number of issues could be influencing this cycle. When it comes to growth obstacles, churches will often point to a variety of factors:

  • Lack of parking
  • Inadequate worship space
  • Transitioning community
  • Limited budget resources

These growth obstacles are relatively easy to see and easy to admit. But one growth obstacle often goes unsaid. Churches find it harder to admit leadership capacity could be the reason for a growth ceiling. A church may grow or decline for any number of reasons. However, churches are often slow to admit one of the main causes of a cycle of growth and decline could be the capacity of the senior leader.

I’ll call this situation leadership capacity reversion. The “leadership capacity” is the maximum church size a pastor can handle. The “reversion” is the movement downward from that maximum point. In the example above, the pastor is the reason for both the ceiling and the floor. The pastor’s leadership capacity is about 600 people. However, the pastor has leadership capacity to grow the church above 400. The church stays in a cycle between 400 and 600.

Clearly, a church should not push out a 20-year pastor over such an issue. So what should be done?

Leadership development. Leadership skills can be learned. In many cases, the leadership capacity of a pastor can increase dramatically with something as simple as coaching.

An additional staff person. A church of 400-600 may not have the resources for a full-time executive pastor. However, more churches are intentionally bringing on a team member with complementary skills to the senior pastor. If the senior pastor is weak in administration, then a part-time administrator could help.

New leadership structure. Leadership capacity can stem from structural issues. For example, a pastor may be stuck because the leadership structure is no longer a fit for the church. Such a situation is like swimming against a strong current. The pastor might be exerting far too much energy without even knowing it.

Culture change in the church. Leadership capacity can stem from cultural issues. If the pastor is attempting to fulfill unrealistic expectations of a congregation, then a growth ceiling is likely to occur. The church may need a cultural shift away from unattainable expectations.

It’s easy to admit you need more parking. People recognize when the worship space is too small. Churches find it harder to admit that a growth obstacle could be the leadership capacity of the senior leader. But like other obstacles, it can be overcome.

24 comments on “The One Growth Obstacle Churches Don’t Admit”

  1. Jason says:

    Sam, can you elaborate on the pastor trying to fulfill unrealistic expectations on the congregation? Thanks, Jason

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Jason – Excellent question. One area that often becomes a glass ceiling for pastors is too high of expectations for hospital and home visits. They are extremely important but also time consuming. A church can expect too much, and a pastor can be guilty of trying to meet those expectations.

      1. Doug Hibbard says:

        That’s a good example. This is one of the big barriers here in the South, because it’s a transition from the “old school” mentality to the new one. Former pastor always visited everyone, but many pastors now are realizing that keeping up a 30-40 hour a week visitation schedule keeps them from doing the teaching and preaching they should be doing well.

        But there are folks who struggle with thinking that the pastor doesn’t care if he didn’t come himself. This means the church cannot grow larger than the pastor can personally visit, no matter what the potential to reach the community becomes.

  2. Travis says:

    How much time should a pastor spend each week on trying to increase leadership capacity? In my experience it seems that those who need to work on it, have the least amount of time to devote to it.

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Travis – Very true. Let me offer two quick, general thoughts:
      1) Part of becoming a better leader is prioritization. Step one in growing leadership capacity is setting aside time for personal development.
      2) Leadership development is more about quality than quantity. What you do to grow is more important than the amount of hours you spend.

  3. Ken Taylor says:

    In an Elder led church where the pastor is one of the pastor/shepherds it possible the entire elder team can share responsibility for the problem you mention.

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Ken – I agree. And it’s one of the major benefits of churches having a plurality of leaders.

  4. Ben says:

    You just described my church and I’m the senior leader. We went from about 175 when I arrived and have bumped up to 625 and then dropped for several years. We keep rising and dropping over and over. So my question is, do you know of specific places where I can be trained to lead past this ceiling? Thanks in advance for any help you can offer.

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Ben – This may sound biased, but I believe my father, Thom Rainer, has just recently launched one of the best ways to grow over at

      1. Ben says:

        I just tried to join but they are not taking new subscriptions. Any other ideas would be greatly appreciated.

  5. Bruce says:

    How about grow close to 600 and then send 100 off to plant a new church?

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      It’s certainly a good option!

  6. Dixon says:

    I think two important points were left out of the article. First, it did not differentiate between spiritual and numerical growth. It does appear it talks about numerical growth but spiritual growth is much more important.
    Secondly, according to scripture it is God’s responsibility to grow the church, not the pastor’s. The pastor is to equip the members to do the work of the ministry. Are the members witnessing as they should or not. If not, why aren’t they?

    The areas covered by the article were excellent and need to be considered.

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Thanks Dixon. I appreciate your added thoughts.

      1. Dixon says:

        You are most welcome. God’s best be upon you!

  7. Bev says:

    Thank you for the invitation for self-examination.

    I find that both I and my parishioners tend to have unrealistic expectations. One of my recent awakenings was that I have not been called to be the executive director, human resource manager, referee etc. while doing hospital, nursing home and home visits in addition to sermon prepartion and being presnt in the comuniyy. i have been called to shepherd and coach; to be pastoral
    propjetic. Now, trying to become clear about reasonable expectations for my role in a congregation that worships between 250-300 requires partnering with elected leaders and inviting them to become clear in their role as well. The bigger hurdle is I feel guilty if I can’t make all of the visits or mert the unreasonable expectations. The guilt then becomes a burden that robs me of the energy that I need to be focused and creative.

    1. Dixon says:

      Dear Bev,
      I emoathize with you. A couple of things you might consider — 1. Bible says the pastor is to equip the people to do the work of the ministry. It is not your job to do it all. Some congregations try to put it all on the pastor.
      2. You do not have to feel guilty when you cannot get everything done. One has to be careful with guilty feelings as they are often covering up underlying resentment.
      3. Thank God for all the problems – Eph. 5:20

      Blessings and grace be upon you!

      1. Bev says:

        Dixon thank you for your reflections and Epb. 5:20.

  8. Jeff says:

    Sam, I’ll own my part of this sort of pattern, but when I see a similar chart play out well before my time in service, I have to ask if part of the “leadership capacity” problem can also be one of congregational structure, where the roles and responsibilities of congregational leadership are defined and limited in such a way that while the evangelistic intent is present, the structure (and the pastor’s limitations) doesn’t allow the church to either grow above a certain size . . . or indeed to shrink below a specific floor.

    What do you think about the anti-synergy of church structure?

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Jeff – Absolutely, church structure can play a role. In fact, there are a variety of reasons why a church may plateau. I was isolating one reason (leadership capacity) for sake of simplicity. Of course, most stagnant churches are more complex. Thanks for the good question!

  9. kris ann leonard says:

    It has been my experience that when the church is not teaching God’s Word in a way that encourages responsibility for being in the Word of God and instead makes the Bible “palatable” so that it is more entertaining than learning and obeying you will have very weak unstable growth. When the pastor is qualified because he is a “cheer leader ” and a “motivator” than a true Biblical teacher growth falls away. When the inspiration to do good things comes from a person rather than a connection with the Holy Spirit that is consistent , the motivation fades when it is God working in and through us, it causes growth that has deep roots that continues to produce fruit in the lives of Christians who have truly made Jesus Lord over their lives!

  10. Mark Clark says:

    In many churches this pattern can be found. But the differentiation is found in the cycle of senior ministers. In a typical church the average tenure of the senior minister/pastor is 3-5 years.

    Is it possible that the peaks and valleys are the cycle of the coming and going of the professional staff? And what responsibility then comes to be laid at the feet of the congregational leadership (elders, deacons, board, etc.) whose tenures span this entire time?

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Mark – You’re right, the churn of pastors can certainly be a cause of growth/decline cycles. My goal was to highlight one potential cause–that of leadership capacity. In most cases, there are several factors and many who should be responsible. Thanks for your thoughts!

  11. Dixon says:

    Another factor — most churches today are “Blended churches” which means the current pastor was not the founding pastor. In these churches, because they are “blended” they obey blended family dynamics for the most part. That means the pastor has to stay 5 to 7 years to begin to gain control/following of the congregation. Most pastors are not aware of these dynamics and leave too soon because the people are not following their leadership.

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