13 Pastor Mistakes That Hinder Growth

“Here are 13 common mistakes that lead to sluggish growth, or even decline. Fix these and watch what happens.”

Here are 13 common mistakes senior pastors make that contribute to sluggish growth, or even decline. Fix these and watch what happens.

1. You are afraid to fire staff.

Bill Hybels once said that the time to fire someone is the first time you think of it. In other words, once you’re convinced they’re not the right person for the job, you either have to move them to another seat on the bus (which often can’t be afforded), or begin what we at our church call our “corrective action process.”

The goal of this is to help a struggling staff member succeed, not fire them. Only after you’ve exhausted all efforts at correcting poor performance should you terminate someone. That’s only fair. But once they must be let go, don’t postpone the decision. I see churches keep underperforming staff all the time, thinking that it’s the Christian thing to do. Trust me, Jesus would fire underperforming staff if he were in your shoes. Don’t overspiritualize the decision.

2. You’re pastoring regular attendees instead of your aggregate ministry group.

Stop defining your “church” as the sum total of your regular attenders. Your job is to pastor what Doug Murren calls your “aggregate ministry group”—the sum total of all the people who are connected to, but may not be actually attending, your church. In outreach-focused churches, the aggregate ministry group is a group two to three times their actual Sunday morning worship attendance. If you are a growing church of 200, that means between 200 and 600 people consider your place home.

The average Christian leader thinks that if someone visits his or her church, and doesn’t come back, they’re not a part of their congregation. Not true. Get inside the mindset of a purely unchurched person. One lady came up to me after our grand-opening service and said, “This was fantastic. We ought to do this again sometime!” I said, “Um, we are. Next week in fact.” Senior pastors who don’t focus on conversion growth aren’t attuned to the behavior and mindset of the average 21st century non-Christian.

The non-Christians in your area are not church shopping. If they visit, they consider it a one-time commitment. One and done. They’re not visiting your church and then trying four or five other churches like yours in the area until they find a church home. Many non-Christians visit, then say, “OK, I like this place,” which is their way of saying, “That’s my church.” In their mind, they are a part of your church, even though they may only come back one to three times that year. Your job—in your church newsletter, emails, stage communication, vision casting, etc.—is to speak to them and pastor them as if they are already a part of your church community.

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3. You are the new visitor follow-up process.

You know you only are the visitor follow-up process when you don’t have people coming up to you one, two, three or even four years after they started attending your church to introduce themselves to you.

Ben Merold once told me he knew his church was ready to grow when a young couple introduced themselves in the grocery store. They said, “Hi, Pastor Ben. We’ve been coming to your church for over a year now, and we wanted to introduce ourselves.” He realized they got connected and he didn’t even know who they were.

Your job is to be what Carl George calls “a rancher” instead of a hands-on, one-on-one shepherd. Both care for sheep. But the former gives other people the privilege of getting up to the front lines of greeting, following up on and enveloping new people into your church. If you personally make it your goal to meet every new person at your church in the first six months of their tenure with you, you are virtually guaranteeing that it isn’t happening.

4. You are afraid of killing programs.

You are afraid to eliminate things in fear that people will get upset and will stop giving or leave. Let them. I guarantee that if we looked under the hood of your church, we could identify numerous things that could go on the chopping block, enabling your community of faith to become more streamlined and focused on your mission. Trust me, the dollars and members can and will be replaced. Don’t allow a few long-standing members to hold the future health of your church hostage.

5. You haven’t clearly defined your staff values.

Average staff members perform above their skill set in vibrant staff cultures, but even highly talented staff members deliver substandard performances in unhealthy staff cultures. Staff culture is king. I’m shocked by how many senior pastors haven’t clearly defined their staff values, and then hold annual 360-degree performance appraisals that measure how well staff members are adhering to those values. Reviews aren’t foreign to churches. What is foreign is placing just as high a value on the staff culture as an individual staff member’s performance.

When we do annual 360-degree performance reviews at our church (meaning everyone reviews everyone), we ask each staff member to answer three questions about the other staff member, and then share those answers in a one-on-one meeting. Here are those questions:

  1. What is this staff member doing well?
  2. What could this staff member do to improve?
  3. What can we do to improve our working relationship?
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As a staff we jointly created, and then review regularly, our team’s 11 staff values. When staff members meet to review one another, I want them to speak to one another about how well they are doing on the following:

As a staff we will …

  1. Have fun together.
  2. Maintain healthy boundaries with the opposite sex.
  3. Not gossip and only speak positively about one another
  4. Commit to having one another’s back.
  5. Have no unresolved conflict.
  6. Seek, value and apply feedback from one another.
  7. Consider all ministry areas with equal value.
  8. Work hard, but protect personal and family time.
  9. Pursue personal, professional and spiritual growth.
  10. Pray for one another.
  11. Communicate with one another with grace, tact and honesty.

Do you have anything like this in place, along with a regular review process to ensure this is happening? Implement something like this and watch what happens.

6. You aren’t willing to spend money.

When giving is low, senior pastors quickly forget that churches are not in the money-saving business; we’re in the money-deploying business. Yes, you have to have clear processes in place for handling and allocating the church’s money, but these are institutionalized behaviors put in place to help you wisely spend the church’s money, not save it. The reason, quite possibly, for your church’s lack of growth is because you are afraid to take some calculated financial risks. You have to spend money to grow, period. Your job is to ensure fiscal responsibility and bold responsiveness.

7. You don’t view yourself as the chief resource raiser.

If giving is down, whose responsibility is it to fix that? If it’s not yours, you have a problem on your hands. Simply put, until you take responsibility for raising the generosity level at your church, your church will never grow.