8 Leadership Barriers to Church Growth - Leaders.Church


8 Leadership Barriers to Church Growth (Part 1 of 3)

A lot of church leaders I interact with seem to express how they hit plateaus at times, and sometimes … even decline. Needless to say, this can be extremely frustrating!

Have you been there? Or maybe you’re there now, and you feel like you’re doing all the right things …

Your church is friendly.

The worship is relevant.

The preaching is solid.

The kids and youth ministries are top notch.

People tell you they love the church.

And you even do external marketing like we teach.

But you’ve plateaued, and you cannot figure out what to do next.

In this post we’ll look at the 8 primary leadership barriers to church growth:

#1 Your own spiritual growth is stagnant
#2 Your personal leadership growth is stifled
#3 You must approve all decisions
#4 You think too small
#5 You are not truly listening
#6 Your organization structure has not changed
#7 Your network is limited
#8 You are managing what you have now

(NOTE: This is part 1 of a 3-part blog series. In part 2, we talk about How to Develop Abundantly Capable Leaders . In part 3, we share The Step-By-Step Process to Develop Any Church Team .

So, the question is:

How to grow the church… how can you push through the barriers and see the growth you want to see?

Well … I want to answer that question in this series. I’m going to “open the vault” and reveal what I’ve seen after working with thousands of pastors …

… but before I do, I need to lay the foundation.

I’m amazed at how often I see pastors and church leaders engage in a type of “Hope Strategy” for growth. They just kind of HOPE it happens, and they frequently miss opportunities to set the stage for it to ACTUALLY happen.

Some churches throw stuff on the wall and just wait to see what sticks …

Others take the gunshot approach, where they try a little of everything rather than intently focusing on a few things …

… and still others fail to measure their efforts, and as a result, they don’t know if the ministries actually accomplish what they hope to see happen.

They’re continually looking for areas for church growth.

But that doesn’t have to be your church’s story.

If it currently IS your story…

The script is about to change.

You don’t have to hope for church growth. Instead, you can set the stage for the church to grow by removing eight specific barriers.

Your church’s growth and success as a ministry rests in large part on its leadership. Churches that see impact and regular growth do so because they have strong leadership throughout the church (not just the lead pastor).

This is one of the missing ingredients that churches fail to pay attention to, and it’s a key differentiator between growing churches and stagnant churches.

When a church has a leader not personally growing in their leadership, that lack of growth trickles down through the organization.

Pastors will tell me they want to learn how to lead the church. FACT: As the leader goes, so goes the staff. As the staff goes, so go the key volunteers. And as the key volunteers go, so goes the church.

As an aside, let me mention a very good blog worth your reading is the 11 Components of Leading Volunteers. This will really help you.

This is what I like to call “Trickle Down Leadership.” Everything in your ministry rises and falls on leadership.

You have the capacity to lead the church to an entirely new level, but you can’t just “hope” for it.

Just imagine what it’d be like if your staff and volunteers are more effective with what they do.

Think of the impact your church could have if you had more volunteers than you have positions.

What will it be like when you no longer have to “hold people’s hands” …

… but you can delegate ministry and know you have a trusted team who will own it?

Just imagine.

Well, that doesn’t just happen automatically.

Would you like a personal leadership boost? Take the 5-day Leadership Challenge for Pastors! A 15 Minute per day investment for 5 days will change the trajectory of your leadership and influence.

5-Day Leadership Challenge for Pastors to Grow the Ministry

The challenge comes when YOU feel stuck … when YOU’VE hit a wall. How do you push past it? If you’re going to keep digging, leaving no stone unturned in your ability to lead and develop others, it’s just plain hard work.

You might say…

“I’ve done about everything I know how to do. I’ve exhausted all my options; I’m continually trying to learn how to grow the church and I don’t know what to do next.”

You might feel like you’ve reached your leadership ceiling and can’t lead to the next level …

Or maybe you’re just wiped, and your passion and desire to see the church or ministry grow is not what it needs to be. You just don’t know how much longer you can do it …

Or it could be that you feel like you’ve put in your time, you’ve seen great days in the past, and you want to coast for a while.

I recently met with a staff pastor who felt his lead pastor had hit a leadership ceiling and needed to make changes in order to breakthrough his leadership barriers and lead the church to the next level. He was experiencing a leadership bottleneck.

Too many times this is the case. As churches grow, a pastor’s personal leadership capacity must also grow.

The challenge is…

All pastors face obstacles that will occasionally hinder their ability to lead effectively at the next level.

Here are eight primary leadership barriers to church growth that can lead to your ministry experiencing plateaus:

1. Your own spiritual growth is stagnant

Sorry, friend, there’s no way around this one. It all starts here. You can be an incredible leader, but if your personal relationship with God has grown stagnant, you can be sure this is why your church has plateaued.

I have to tell you that you’ll need to put aside your own sense of how spiritual you are and not get offended as I talk about your personal spiritual growth. Please, you’ll help yourself if you approach this with arms-wide-open and not arms crossed.

I’m serious.

Here’s the reality. All ministry leaders experience moments when life gets crazy. I get it. Hey, that’s ministry! But you cannot go long without communing with God.

It is critically important the pastor spend time in the presence of the Lord, seeking His mind for the pastor as a person, not the pastor.

We so ably teach and preach to the people at church to make the spiritual disciplines a regular part of their lives. Yet, do we do the same ourselves?

Spiritual Disciplines

I would encourage you to give an examination of these spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, bible reading, solitude, community, giving, serving (yes, even pastors need to do this) and giving thanks.

You may look at that list and have the word, “overwhelming” come to mind. Don’t allow that to dissuade you from moving forward in your examination.

Start by taking just one of the disciplines and talk to the Lord about where you are at in its application in your life. Don’t do all of them. You’ll get too discouraged.

But one at a time, you can begin to see your leadership in the church grow. Then go on to the next one and the one after that.

In order for you to remove leadership barriers to church growth in your life, you will get there by growing in the spiritual disciplines.

It will take you time, but you will be able to discover areas for church growth. Spiritual stagnation will take a back seat to vibrant spiritual growth.

Remember, while you may be a pastor, you’re still a disciple of Jesus. As you grow, the stage is set for the church to grow.

2. Your personal leadership growth is stifled

You probably can tell that in addressing the 8 leadership barriers to church growth it gets very, very personal.

The two primary parts of your leadership life emanate from this first and second barrier to growing the church, the spiritual and the human.

One of the first questions I’d ask is, “What are you doing to invest in your own personal leadership?” Certainly, consuming content like this blog is one of those investments.

What are you reading? It’s cliché, but it’s true — leaders are readers. If you rarely read books and blogs or listen to podcasts, you probably are not growing as a leader.

If you are looking for areas of church growth, have you capped your personal leadership? Because if you have, then you’ll find your quest in how to grow the church to be sorely lacking in direction or solutions.

Things are Changing

Society is rapidly changing. Ministry is changing. And the way you lead must also change. You have to stay fresh, constantly feeding yourself and digging deeper to learn the newest, latest practices when leading others.

This is true both for you and the leaders in your ministry. Are you challenging the leaders in your ministry to grow? Do you have a development strategy to help your entire team grow?

If you’d like some additional resourcing on improving your personal leadership, I’d take a look at the Top 8 Areas of Ministry to Improve. You’ll find this particular blog to drive directly to your own leadership of the church.

If you want to know how to lead the church, you have to be willing to examine the leadership barriers to church growth… and your personal leadership growth stands front and center as a major obstacle to that growth.

It’s time to “un-stifle” your personal leadership growth.

3. You must approve all decisions

If you micro-manage every detail, you cannot possibly lead at the next level. Either you’ll burn out or your ministry will plateau. It’s that simple.

Now, here’s the deal. I have yet to come across a pastor who disagrees with this barrier. Everyone agrees that if the pastor has to make all the decisions, the church will experience little to no growth.

However, getting the pastor to change the way they lead in order for them NOT to be the bottleneck in decision-making is an entirely different story.

If you’re sitting at the top of the church with the sense that the church can’t move forward without your brilliant decision-making, you have a barrier that can and needs to be removed NOW!

God has put capable people in your sphere of influence that you can empower to help move the ministry forward.

How do you empower people to move the ministry forward?

First, I would encourage you to stop long enough to ask yourself, “In what areas do I really need to be the final say?”

Second, determine to whom you’re going to give authority and be assured of why you feel you can trust them to make decisions that previously were yours to make.

Third, train them to know how you think. This frequently happens more by example than it does in a sort of training exercise. That is why adult children of pastors frequently can make the decisions the pastor would have made, all because they’ve watched it being done their whole lives.

And fourth and finally, reconcile in your mind that when you allow those good folks to make decisions, that you will be able to live with decisions that might not always be exactly what you would have done. And that’s okay.

Want to remove obstacles to church growth? Get out of the way and allow others to participate in decision-making.

Would you like a personal leadership boost? Take the 5-day Leadership Challenge for Pastors! A 15 Minute per day investment for 5 days will change the trajectory of your leadership and influence.

5-Day Leadership Challenge for Pastors to Grow the Ministry

4. You think too small

A major obstacle to church growth is thinking small.  Stop doing that. Think big. Think VERY BIG!

When I suggest doing so, this is where the debate between optimists and pessimists jumps to the forefront.

When I suggest thinking big, I invariably here from pastors who call themselves “realists.”  Actually, they’re pessimists but they can’t bring themselves to classify themselves in that way.

Not many pastors want to admit they think small. And small is different for every person.

But whatever your definition of small is, if you don’t begin to think bigger, you’ll operate the same way you did in the early days when the ministry was smaller. As the church grows, your mindset must shift, and the way you lead must adjust.

And as a related aside, don’t feel sorry for yourself?  I see way too many small thinking pastors wallowing in the “woe is me” mentality.

Small church or large… urban church or rural… makes no difference. Virtually all pastors CAN feel sorry for themselves. But only those who choose not to, will the potential to grow be in their sights.

Leaders of churches of any size that are growing, are constantly thinking big. They are regularly looking for areas for church growth, looking to remove obstacles to church growth. These pastors say, “More is better.”

What is the current dream you have for your ministry?

Is it a God-sized dream that’s only possible with His help?  It needs to be.

Honestly, if your dream doesn’t scare you a bit, it is not big enough. Why in the world would you partner with the God of the universe to hope for small things at your church?  Makes no sense to me!

If you really are serious about how to grow the church, you need to remove the barrier of small thinking. Think BIG and watch God do what only He can do… when you think BIG!

5. You are not truly listening

Someone once said, “A leader who fails to listen will be surrounded by people with nothing to say.” Boy oh boy, is that true or what?

Unnecessary obstacles follow those who do not listen.

I can hear some of my pastor friends right now saying, “Oh, but I listen all the time. I value feedback I get from others.” To most of those pastor friends, I suggest they stop and look and LISTEN.

Be smart with who you put around you, and then pay attention to those people. There’s nothing worse than to have a team of capable people who don’t feel they can share with you.

Listening doesn’t mean you will agree with every thought that comes your way…

… but many pastors cap their leadership because they don’t create an environment that gives people the freedom to speak candidly about their thoughts for the ministry.

The smart pastor creates an environment where respectful disagreement and challenge can be given to the pastor without fear of recrimination. This wisely protects the pastor from doing dumb stuff.

So, if you’re serious about removing pastoral leadership barriers, this is a major one. You’ve got to listen, really listen.

Pay attention when people are talking with you. Engage them as they speak with you. Let them know you genuinely value their feedback and it means the world to you.

Wisdom says, “pay attention” and do so with your whole being. Your body language and posture should say to those around you that you are intent on listening. When you do, you’ll learn how to lead the church to the highest levels possible, the level He has for the church.

6. Your organization structure has not changed

As organizations grow, the structure of how they are led evolves. Without an evolving structure, churches become operationally unhealthy.

I recently had a conversation with a friend (we’ll call him Bob) who is part of a church that is probably running just over 13,000 in weekend attendance. No end in sight for what God continues to do at that church.  It is an amazing place.

The church had scheduled a rarely-called membership meeting and my friend was concerned that a proposal might come forth that would limit the “voice” members would have in the future.

We talked at length about how the structure of the church had changed multiple times since he had been part of the church which was coming up on 20 years. I told Bob that the church’s proposal was probably fairly normal for churches of their size.

The reality is…

The voices of members in churches of 100 do sound one way, churches of 1000 another way and churches overs 10,000 membership are completely different. The membership structure from one end to the other cannot stay the same, if the leaders are continuing to ask how to grow the church.

The complexity of a church of 13,000 makes Herb and Mabel jumping up to talk about whether the church should pay for snow removal or buy new hymnals as impractical as can be.

And remember, what worked organizationally last year probably won’t this year and certainly won’t next year.

Frankly, I could argue that to not change your church’s structures, whether it be membership, board, staff or volunteer structure or the way you recruit and onboard volunteers, could be rather arrogant. Can we really suggest that the way we’ve been structured in the past is the end-all be-all?  I don’t think so.

You may need to reconfigure who leads different ministries. You may need to re-assign responsibilities. People come and go and what worked with one team of people might look different with a new team of people.

Outdated church structures can clearly grow into obstacles to church growth.

7. Your network is limited

Connecting with other leaders in your same field is crucial to keeping current with what’s working and what’s not.

One of the saddest cases I see is when a church leader has not networked for years, and all of the sudden they want advice from others who’ve blazed the trail before them, but have no one to turn to.

A year ago…

I had a pastor call me; he had been at his current church for 10 years. The church had flattened and slipped, as had the community where the church was located.

I’m always happy to talk to pastors like this. I did with this guy what I normally do. We talked through his journey from young pastor to whatever age. As an aside, way too frequently the pastor calling me is in his late 50s to 60 years old, so I’m talking about his 30-year journey.

First, I asked him about the churches in his community and the relationship he had with those pastors. He had no relationships locally.

Second, I asked him about whether he was in a denomination or some sort of fellowship and in his case, he was part of the Assemblies of God. I know a bit about the AG, so I asked him about his relationships in the section and the district/network. Relationships were limited.

And third, I asked who he knew around the country that he could call and have a conversation like he was having with me. He came up with three guys he could call. So, I gave him an assignment, just as I would do for you if you and I were talking in this vein as well.

I told him to call those three guys and have the conversation. Then I suggested he spend some time coming up with seven more guys that he could at least have a scaled down version of what we were doing. He committed to do that.

I asked him to contact me once he had done all of these things. He never did.

Build a Network

You have to build a network of friends, not just to receive from them, but for you to give, as well. Had this pastor spent his 30+ years in ministry building friendships, then when he had reached age 58, he would have friends to turn to when he had need.

The key is, pastors have to take the intentional steps to build networks of other pastors and not be limited in this way. Doing so will you remove one of the biggest pastoral leadership barriers to growing the church.

Would you like a personal leadership boost? Take the 5-day Leadership Challenge for Pastors! A 15 Minute per day investment for 5 days will change the trajectory of your leadership and influence.

5-Day Leadership Challenge for Pastors to Grow the Ministry

8. You are managing what you have now

The final and I think most subtle of the leadership barriers to church growth is that of managing just what is in front of you or what is on your plate right now.

This is particularly frustrating for the pastor who has been at it in one church for a long time. There gets to be a routine of doing church, of how to lead the church.

I had a friend who was a really good guy, pastoring a good church in the Midwest. The guy was a good preacher, his family was all-in for ministry and the community of 13,000 had some very nice growth occurring.

He had been the youth pastor and had taken over the church from the 35-year founding pastor a couple of years earlier. However, he was having a real struggle getting the church to move forward.

One of the areas of church growth we identified was for him to stop leading just what he had, rather leading more than he had. It was a challenge getting his head around the concept and the jury is still out whether he’ll get there but I’m hopeful.

While you have to manage staff or teams of volunteers, remaining there will only get you so far. Always think and manage with the future in your present. What do I mean by that?

Always have in mind what you’d like the church to be in the future and begin to act like that size of church.

For example, if you are currently a church of 150, try to envision how to lead the church when it is a church of 300. And let me tell ya, it’s not just double what you have now.

To effectively learn how to grow the church and to manage more than you have now, you’ll need to take apart all that you’re doing now in order to create systems to manage more than you have now.

How can you move from managing what you have now to the point where others are managing it for you? When you determine this, you begin leading higher and higher. You begin to lead your present with the future in mind.

If you remain bogged down with the minutia from day-to-day and are not leading at the 30,000-foot level, you’re slowing the capacity for the ministry to grow, you have built-in obstacles to church growth.

In Summary

Having many of these eight barriers in place currently could indicate a leader is in a dangerous place. The first step in growing individually as your church grows is to recognize the current reality of your situation.

You would not have read this far in the blog if you weren’t serious about improving your situation. In fact, you might take a look at a helpful blog we wrote on the 7 Questions to Ask When Striving to Improve Ministry. Getting serious about those questions will help you in how you lead the church.

It’s easy to see flaws and “opportunities to improve” in other people’s leadership. However, it’s much more difficult for leaders themselves to come to grips with these realities in their lives.

Are you creating a ceiling for your church because of your leadership?

Additionally, can you identify with any of these barriers or are there other indicators you see that may be capping the organization?

If you want to see your ministry grow, it starts with the leader. It starts with YOU!

You can “hope” you’ll get better, but if you don’t take action it’s not going to happen…

… yet God can help you see the growth you desire as you take intentional steps to eliminate potential barriers in your leadership.


What if you don’t have a team of capable leaders?

They’re great people. They love God. But their skill set and capacity to help take the ministry where you want it to go just doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen. You may be doing all you can, but it’s not a one-person operation. What do you do?

So, in part 2, we’ll take a look at how to solve this dilemma. Click here for part 2, How to Develop Abundantly Capable Leaders .

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