Leading Ideas:  Why Churches Get Stuck

Orginally published on Monday, December 01, 2008 at 7:35 AM
by Alan E. Nelson

This fall, I left my friends at Group Publishing & Rev! Magazine and moved to the Monterey, CA area, to dive fulltime into leadership development. Im appreciative of my friend, Todd Rhoades, for letting me continue a LeadingIdeas column as a part of MMI that Ive enjoyed for years. Todd is an amazing info maven.

If you want to change the world, focus on leaders. If you want to change leaders, focus on them when theyre young. Thats the motto of a new organization we have launched called KidLead (http://www.kidlead.com). Although a majority of my new work involves investing in future leaders, Im still interested in assisting pastors in getting their ministries to the next level. When a congregation gets stuck, its nearly always an issue of leadership, but perhaps not the way you think. What weve found in churches that have been on a growth plateau for at least three years, is that sufficient catalyzing leaders have left the church or become marginalized, so that they are not using their gifts in church. Michael Lindsay, in his research involving 360 interviews with high powered Christian leaders, noted that most were not highly involved in the local church because their best gifts did not seem to be welcomed or used.

There are four types of church leaders...

1.  Relational leaders are the care givers and sales people of the world. They influence through their superior people skills. Relational leaders gain followers by genuinely caring for them. They are both introverts and extroverts, but they excel in making people feel good about themselves.

2.  Teaching leaders have the power of communicating information that helps people gain knowledge. Many pastors are teaching leaders, as they enjoy investing 20-25 hours weekly in sermon prep and presenting. They are wearied by other ministry aspects, but love the task of preparing to feed the flock.

3.  Managerial leaders are good organizers, tracking details, and following through on plans. They are the people who get things done, so long as there is something to be managed, maintained, or carried out. Managers make sure that the bills get paid and things get put where they belong. They are administrators and task oriented.

4.  Catalyzing leaders are the pioneers and strategists. They are willing to take risks, problem solve, and make the tough calls where they need to happen. Because they are willing to step out in faith, they are sometimes spurned by others who grow weary of the full-speed-ahead attitude of these go getters. These are the Joshuas and Calebs needed for Promised Land ventures.

While we need all four types of leaders in church, congregations that have gotten stuck nearly always have too few or in many cases, no catalyzing leaders left in places of influence. Barna suggests that over 90% of pastors are not catalyzing leaders, yet most pastors feel that leading the church is their ministry. No wonder over 85% of congregations are on a plateau or are declining. Perhaps its time for us to swallow our pride, repent for running off the catalysts, and seek their help. Begin by figuring out who around you may have the catalyzing leader gift and then offer to buy them a cup of coffee this week.

Alan E. Nelson

This post has been viewed 684 times so far.

  There are 18 Comments:

  • Posted by Kim

    This certainly explains a lot.  Can you imagine the sparks when a catalyzing leader reports directly to a mangerial leader?

  • Posted by

    I may just be flattering myself, but I think this hits the nail on the head regarding my current situation.  I hate being a manager or administrator, but I love sharing big ideas and seeing them successfully implemented.  I get so frustrated, though, with elders and senior staff who write me off as naive or immature.  I’m tired of hearing that “those ideas just won’t work here.”

  • Posted by gw gold

    thank you buy gw gold

  • Posted by Alan

    Kim, you’re right on.  I’ve been in a couple of situations where I’ve tried to work under a managing leader and one I was asked to leave and the other I ended up leaving.  Life is too short to be in the wrong fit.  I think there’s little chance of changing people, so if you’re not in a position of power, you’d best be on your way to find a place where you can shine the way God wired you.  It becomes a stewardship issue.

  • Posted by Alan

    Brent, that last part of my comment to Kim was really for you.  You need to weigh your ability, either in age, rank, or reputation, in terms of your ability to change your situation.  If you’re lite on the power, you may want to team up with some other catalysts who do have the clout and you can borrow their power.  That’s a very shrewd way of doing it that sounds political, and it is.  Politics are little more than relationships, so people who say “you’re being political” should really just wake up and smell the coffee.  Course, it may get you crucified, but then you may also be following in some famous footsteps.  Just know when something is worth losing your life (or job).

  • Posted by Kim

    Just know when something is worth losing your life (or job).

    Word!  -Kim

  • Posted by

    Alan, I’ve been thinking in that direction (of looking elsewhere for the right fit).  Thank you for your thoughts.

  • Posted by Martin Davis

    Obstensibly, the piece is about the types of minsters in this world (4, says Nelson--Relational, Teaching, Managerial, and Catalyst) and how they stick or unstick their congregations. What I find interesting, however, is not the analysis (the first three types are necessary, but ultimately bog down churches; catalysts take churches “to the next level” but have largely been run out of the church, so says Nelson). Rather, it’s that he defines a church’s being “stuck” as a church that’s ceased to grow members, and a church that’s “unstuck” as a church that is growing membership.

    Hence his love affair with catalysts, those ministers whom Nelson says have a “full-speed-ahead attitude.” They’re all about growth--new ideas, cutting edge experiments, etc.

    Pardon me while I yawn and ponder another idea. That by connecting “stuck” to enrollment numbers we’re missing out on the key to getting unstuck--Christian maturity.

    Let’s face it, catalysts may be go-getters; they may get folks in the door; but at the end of the day, their appeal is limited to the young (in faith), the immature (in belief), and the gullible (in their desire to find something new to entertain them).

    Read more of my thoughts on this at http://faithandfumbleswriter.typepad.com

  • Posted by Kim

    Martin - My goodness, such words.  The article is talking about church leaders.  I took that to mean leaders in various ministry areas in the church, not necessarily the senior minister or pastor.  Or did I miss something?

  • Posted by Martin Davis

    Such words--perhaps. But then, I’ve been at this for a lot of years, and I’m comfortable with them. The article did apply to all types of church leaders. But regardless of whether that person is a senior minister or a Sunday School teacher, my criticisms still apply. Energy’s fine, but a faith reved up solely with emotion--as many, many of the catalysts practice--is rarely a faith that individuals can grow into. Don’t just take my word for it--look at the study recently done by Willow Creek which showed just this point. The more “mature” people become in faith, the more an obstacle the church comes to growth. The result? They leave. A reasonable response to a faith that doesn’t take reason seriously.

  • Posted by Kim

    Martin, you appear to be reading an awful lot into this piece that simply isn’t there, that I can see anyhow.  Faith rev’d up solely with emotion?  I’m sure there are some, but that’s not me, nor the other similarly gifted leaders I’ve met and have worked with.  As for those I haven’t met - well, I wouldn’t presume to judge the maturity of their faith.  The article is talking about leadership styles - not depth of faith, or rev’ing people up on emotion, or even personality types.  It’s not even addressing Willow Creek’s and other mega churches’ admitted weaknesses.  Sounds to me, however, that you’ve had clashes with leadership styles that differ from your own, and with less than stellar outcomes.  No disrespect intended - are you maybe projecting just a bit?

  • Posted by Martin Davis

    Projecting? Yes, indeed. If you’ll have a look at my blog entry on the story, you’ll see how I’ve spun this article out. Moreover, as I noted in an earlier post, What’s interesting about this piece is not the analysis, it’s the equation of success with butts in the pews. And that’s what I’m writing about. That connection.

    I am, as you are no doubt un-surprised to learn, extremely critical of the protestant tradition and its very flaccid intellectual life. This comes in part from personal experience (seminary student for 3 years, involved with churches in one capacity or another for most of my 46 years of living), in part from academic experience (professor of history with graduate degrees in American religious history), and in part from my professional experience (journalist who has covered religion for a number of respected publications, including National Journal).

    I am, and remain, a Protestant by choice. But my experience with the church’s ability to move parishoners to a level of faith that moves beyond “the basics” is not good. Moreover, the people that I frequently speak with (seminary presidents, ministers from congregations across the nation, and parishoners) further fuel my understanding.

    So yes--there’s a huge issue here that goes beyond the style of leader. It cuts to the core of what ministers are teaching their members. Be you a catalyst or a manager or whatever, if you’re not developing members’ intellectual faith along with their experiential faith, then you’re not doing a good job.

    Of course, there are major exceptions to this generalization, and I’ll be the first to acknowledge them and tip my hat to them (see my list of interviews on my blog site with such individuals). But these folks are a distinct minority and are decidedly swimming against the stream.

    Growing membership is the least of the church’s problems. Growing people who think independently from a mature Christian perspective that has impact in the culture at large is the problem.

  • Posted by New Fairings

    Agree. People get used to certaing routine or lifestyle and never noticed that a change is always a good thing.

  • Posted by

    Yes, let’s all go look at Martin’s blog (since it’s the second time he’s asked us to).  Martin, I believe you’ve made the mistake of equating knowledge with maturity.  Maturity is the balance of truth and grace.  You sound like you’ve got a lot of info in your head, but I think you need to season it with a little more grace.  You make a lot of assumptions based on someone else’s studies and your own opinions, but I wonder if you’ve ever spent time getting to know any of these catalyst leaders.  Even if they are a bit too emotional for your taste, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  • Posted by

    Sorry, Martin.  I missed your paragraph about your interviews with some of these leaders on your blog.  So I guess you have met some of them.  And I believe that makes three times that you’ve asked us to take a look at your blog.  ...Why are you here again?

  • Posted by Kim

    OK then, that explains a lot.  Thanks for clarifying.

  • Posted by Martin Davis

    Brent--I’m here because I genuinely enjoy the site. Learn a great deal from it (and, Todd’s linked to my own articles in the past--and no, I’m not asking you to go there and read them). I’m intrigued by your definition of maturity--the balance of truth and grace. Perhaps I could season my own life with a bit more grace. It’s the truth component, however, that I have a great deal of trouble with, as do a lot of other people of faith who can no longer hold to a religious tradition that claims unique truths for itself. Truth must be seasoned with understanding and knowledge. Truth is not, in and of itself, the same as knowledge and understanding.

    “Truth,” however you understand that term, is ultimately beyond our ability to fully comprehend it. So it’s not just a matter of finding it, but making sense of it within the intellectual framework of our lives.

    Martin Luther and I share the same experience of grace (and he was a tough old cuss, like me), but I dare say his understanding of Christ and faith would be markedly different today were he alive. We simply know a lot more about life, death, and the universe that we inhabit than he could possibly know. “Truth” hasn’t changed, but our ability to understand it and contextualize it, has.


  • Posted by Kevin

    Great post… would you say that there are ways to develop one’s catalyst skills? Or is it simply something that is naturally a part of a person’s personality?

  • Page 1 of 1 pages

Post Your Comments:





Live Comment Preview:

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: