5 Reasons Churches Don't Break the 400-Member Barrier

There are reasons your membership is stuck around the 400 level.
There are reasons your membership is stuck around the 400 level. (Flickr )

If your church has spent more than five years in an attendance range of between 290 to 490, you are stuck at the 400 barrier.

In my experience, more senior pastors reach out for help at this size range than any other. That's because the complexity of issues they confront at this size is fundamentally different from what had to be addressed to break the 100 and 200 barriers.

If you keep bumping up against this size range, consider these five most common reasons why this might be happening:

1. The governing board still operates a small-church leadership structure. As a church grows from 100 to 400, frequently the senior pastor has changed, and the church has changed, but the governing elder board has not. To move past this barrier, the board must evolve.

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I've written elsewhere about the bylaw shift that must take place at this size, so I won't repeat that here. Governing board members must wrestle with this question: "Are we willing to change (and even lose our positions on the board) to reach people far from God?"

2. The senior pastor hasn't shifted from operating as a hands-on pastor to a leader who delegates hands-on pastoring. We senior pastors never want to stop doing hands-on pastoring. That's part of what makes us who we are. The shift that has to occur, however, is the focus of our pastoring. To break 400, the senior pastor must stop trying to pastor the whole congregation and instead focus on pastoring staff and leaders.

This means disappointing people. You must teach your people that it's OK when people on staff or key volunteers show up at the hospital, or you aren't available to meet to talk about their problems. That's hard for some. Some senior pastors struggle with interpersonal boundaries, particularly those who are an ENFP or ESFP on the Myers-Briggs. The relational gregariousness that got them through the 200 barrier becomes the very thing that entraps them at 400.

Senior pastors must ask themselves this question: "Am I willing to learn a new skill set and modify things I love doing to reach people far from God?"

3. The senior pastor hasn't dedicated three solid years to new leader recruitment. I promise that if you spend 20 hours a week finding, meeting, leading to Christ and deploying the best leaders in your community, you'll blow past 400. Choose not to do this, and, well, 10 years will fly by and you'll be in the same situation.

Listen, whatever question you're wrestling with, at any attendance size, I promise you that nine out of 10 times the answer is going to be leadership recruitment and development.

In my experience (and coaching observations), it takes roughly three years of intentionality to break a growth barrier. That means if you decided today to do the things necessary to break 400, more than likely it will take three years to materialize.

When I think of the 400 barrier, I'm reminded of the proverb about diligence and focusing on priorities: "When's the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. When's the second-best time? Today."

How to Create 'Leadership Development Meetings'

My simplest suggestion is to create two rounds of five-month "leadership development meetings" where you pick and meet with the top seven leaders who have come to Christ at your church in the last three years. The first round would start in September. The second round would start in February.

You meet weekly at a diner for breakfast. In that five-month session, you take these seven leaders through an intensive crash course on leadership: Choose Bible passages to study, read great leadership books together (five total, one per month), and have them take the Myers-Briggs, the Strengths Finder and more. Throw the kitchen sink at them. Have them memorize Scripture. Lead them through personal and group Scripture study. Then pick a brand-new group that would start in February.

Over a 10-month period, you'll take 14 leaders through an intensive leadership-development process. Over a three-year period, that's 42 people. If you have the energy and want to accelerate the process, then meet two mornings each week and take 84 people through it in three years.

Here's the thing: Nobody is stopping you from doing this. You know you can do this, and you know what would happen if you did. Plant the tree today, friends.

4. The senior pastor hasn't shifted from a reactionary focus to a proactive focus. Senior pastors who lead churches at this size are some of the most stressed-out folks you'd ever want to meet.

They operate in what Tim Keller calls the space between a small church and a large church. Their church is neither. It's too big to have one staff member care for them. It's too small to afford enough staff to cover all the bases to do everything they want to do well.

Where does the stress of pulling rabbits out of the hat fall? That would be on you, my friend.

How to Shift to a Proactive Focus

One of the things I do when I coach a senior pastor at this size range is get them to take a step back from the flurry of activity, take a deep breath, and then look at their ministry from a 30,000-foot level.

What do you see? What's right, wrong, missing and confused? I have them lay all their challenges on the table—from the biggest to the smallest.

Then I tell them that they can focus on all 79 things that they identified as "absolutely life-altering and critical in nature," or they can do what senior pastors who have broken through this barrier have done: Focus on their top five priorities.

I tell them there are five things that never leave a senior pastor's plate: leadership development, preaching, evangelism, generosity and personal development. That's it. That's all they should focus on.

Senior pastors at this size must pull back, recognize their reactionary mode of leading and living and then pivot by implementing a proactive ministry mindset focused on these five priorities.

Admittedly, this is incredibly hard to do. It's one thing to give mental assent to the need to do this. It's quite another to change one's behavior. This is why few ever do so.

5. The senior pastor hasn't hired that "second pillar" staff member yet. In every case, and I mean in every case without exception, the senior pastors I've watched lead their churches through the 400 barriers have made a hiring decision that changed everything.

For churches under 400, cash is limited, so they hire staff and pay staff in very random, unorganized ways: 10 hours a week here, $20,000 a year there. This person covers this area, plus some utterly random area over there. It's a mess. When it comes to staffing, there's nothing happening in many churches under 400 that could remotely be called strategic.

This is normal. The staffing is simply a manifestation of the bizarre nature of where you exist right now: limited money, few truly gifted leaders and the presence of three or four dominant giving units that dictate policy. We have all been there and bought the T-shirt.

Making the Hard Choices to Lead Beyond 400

Senior pastors who break 400 all have one thing in common: They decided at some point that they were going to bet the bank on a single staff hire. They pulled together the finances and buy-in necessary to hire a blue-chip staff member who took the staff culture from a C-level to an A-level overnight. This person is almost always the worship pastor or children's pastor.

I call this person a "second pillar" staff member. When you're not around, this person is the next best thing. They are your confidant, and the fact that they so far outpace the rest of your part-time staff members in terms of quality and gifting gives the rest of your people at the church a glimmer of the future.

You'll hear things like...

"Wow, I can see this thing happening."

"Man, everything changed overnight."

"The volunteers this person has raised up and the quality of the programming have been remarkable."

My question to you is: Are you willing to fire staff to lead your church through the 400 barrier?

Of course you want to keep people. Of course you want to find another seat for them on the bus. We all do.

But if you've been stuck at 400 for a while now, I promise you that you've kept people on your team who you wouldn't dream of hiring right now if they came to you and asked for a job. They don't have the skills and gifting necessary.

So you have to make hard decisions.

That, my friend, is why you're the senior pastor.

Brian Jones is the founding and senior pastor at Christ's Church of the Valley. He is the author of Second Guessing God and Hell is Real (But I Hate to Admit It). Connect with Brian at seniorpastorcentral.com or on Twitter @brianjonesblog.

For the original article, visit pastors.com.

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