I was thrilled to join Sam Chad and Chris Willard at Leadership Network earlier this year for a Rapid Growth Leadership Community. A leadership community is a gathering of 10 church teams that come together around a topic or theme as convened by LN.
Here is what I shared from my own soul scars:
I think the over-riding challenge in a growing church is that the success can shape your identity. As God shapes your life and heart as a leader, the success of an increasing attendance can begin to thwart His work. Remember that an idol is anything you add to Jesus to make life work. Growth idolatry occurs when all of the emotional and physical benefits of a growing church contribute too much to our sense of well-being. Our “ability” to grow ministry becomes a functional savior. For example, one friend planted a church that grew for ten straight years. The first year it didn’t grow, he reported to me that it “felt like death.” He was describing, to some degree, the dynamic of growth idolatry.
I see growth idolatry most clearly in four ways:
1. A growing church environment can reinforce approval addiction
Many people called into ministry have a people-pleasing “additive” within their motivational fuel. A growing church simply injects more additive into the system. It creates a “leader’s high” and starts a vicious cycle. At some point, when growth slows, the leader feels pain on an identity level- their world is shaken. This hazard can only be confronted on a gospel level. Pastors must, like our Savior, find their deepest sense of approval in one relationship and one relationship only- the heavenly Father.
2. A growing church environment can create an entitlement mentality
The gospel of Mark reveals the stunning beauty of Jesus’ mission: He came “not to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.” Like Christ, most pastors start ministry with a robust desire to spend their lives in service. But with years of growth, the desire to serve is displaced by an ever-increasing comfortability with being served. Salaries go up. Benefits come. More staff provides more support. Demand for your time goes up. Leadership doesn’t get easier; it gets harder. At the end of the day a small voice whispers, “You deserve it…you deserve more.”
I am grateful for a profound little talk that Craig Groeschel gave that helped me see my entitlement tendencies. If you resonate with this point, check out the short post, How Much Do You Believe the Gospel?
3. A growing church environment can enable inordinate isolation
Even for the “people people” in ministry, a growing church over the years can wear you out. The influx of needs and people who want to talk grows and grows. While every healthy leader finds the appropriate rhythm of solitude, some allow the reality of their success to justify an approach to leadership that is too isolated and disconnected. Sometimes, it’s the elephant in the room when I work with a client. Everyone feels it, but no one talks about it. Here’s the kicker: As long as the church is growing, the empowered lay leadership (board, elders, etc.) aren’t going to know there is a problem or confront it if they do.
Here’s a powerful question: “Are you growing more dependant on God and others as your ministry grows?”
4. A growing church environment can set a competency trap
New levels bring new devils. In order for a church to keep growing, a leader must grow. Sometimes, the years of growth actually embed a perspective or solidify a skill set that refuses to adapt and change. The reason goes back to the identity issue. Leaders want to be competent. If the years of success create hardened proof of competence, it’s easier to “dig in your heels” when cultural changes or organizational dynamics require flexibility. Going back to my friend’s comment, it “feels like death” to imagine that the leader himself must continue to learn and grow. It’s easier to repeat internally, “After all, I’ve made it this far.”
Don’t let the gold medal of yesterday’s success become an iron trap around your ankle.
How do you address these hazards? I believe half the battle is identifying them, and the other half is allowing God to continually shape a gospel-centered identity.