15 Differences Between Healthy and Stuck Churches

I’m guessing many pastors think of The Unstuck Group as the organization that helps churches with mission, vision and ministry strategy, and that’s true. However, if you were to ask pastors at mid-size or larger churches what they most valued about their experience engaging with our team, I would venture to say most of them would agree it was our help with staffing and structure that made the biggest impact.

Here’s what you need to know. When we help churches with vision and strategy and future direction, it’s a facilitated process. We let the Holy Spirit and the church’s leadership team guide the conversation. I learned a long time ago that there are many ways to build a healthy, thriving ministry that helps churches accomplish the gospel mission. In other words, there’s no one right way to build a healthy church. Because of that, we facilitate a conversation. We don’t prescribe a solution.

However, when it comes to staffing and structure, we take a different approach. We become much more prescriptive. We share what we see working and not working in other church ministries. We provide clear recommendations for getting the right people in the right roles to move the church’s mission forward. We provide a customized staffing plan for the future. We know that for almost all churches, the staff team is the biggest financial investment that the church will make. We also know that getting staffing and structure right is critical to helping a church maximize its kingdom impact.

On this side of the pandemic, I’m guessing we’ve already helped more than 100 churches refresh their staffing and structure. We are getting calls daily from other churches who are looking for help. The volume of pastors reaching out has increased as the reality of our post-pandemic world has come more into focus.

Here’s what I’m hearing from pastors:

  • We’re overstaffed. We have the same number of staff and the same structure that we had before the pandemic, but now we are a much smaller church.”
  • We’re starting to experience financial constraints. Though our giving was strong and our expenditures were down during the worst of the pandemic, now our giving isn’t keeping pace. We’re spending down cash reserves or cutting ministry expenses to continue to make payroll.”
  • Our vision needs to change. Things are different than before the pandemic. Our ministry strategies need to change. The same strategies that worked five or ten years ago aren’t working today. Therefore, we think the makeup of our team needs to change.”
  • We’re experiencing the impact of the ‘great resignation’ at our church. We’ve had a lot of staff turnover. We think now is the time to right-size our staff team and prioritize the roles that will help us move forward on this side of the pandemic. And now we have the staff openings to allow for that change.”
  • We are too close to our team to make the tough decisions that we need to make. Several of our staff have been with us for many years. We have a legacy team operating in a legacy structure. Some of them are ready and capable of the changes needed to help us in this new reality. Some are unwilling or lack the wiring needed to help us going forward. We need someone from the outside to help us with these tough calls.”

Have any of these thoughts crossed your mind in recent days? If so, you’re certainly not alone.

Whether you reach out to us for help or not, I hope you take advantage of this unique season of ministry. The pandemic, financial constraints, open positions and many other factors are creating an opportunity for almost every church to reevaluate their staffing structure. This is your chance to make sure you have the right people in the right roles to pursue the right path moving forward.

With this in mind, I thought you might be curious to know what I’ve noticed through the years when it comes to how healthy and stuck churches approach staffing and structure differently. There’s no doubt about it—healthy, growing churches approach staffing and structure with a distinctively different philosophy than churches that are stuck and in decline.

Here’s a table that highlights some of the key differences I’ve witnessed:

Healthy Churches

Stuck Churches

Structure around their strategy—They think strategy, then structure, and then people. Structure around their people—They think people, then structure, and then strategy.
Right-size their staff team—They shoot for one full-time equivalent staff person for every 75 to 80 people in attendance. Overstaff for ministry—They have 50% more staff than growing, healthy churches.
Right-size their staff budget—They try to maintain a staffing budget between 45% and 55% of their overall budget so that they can continue to fund their mission. If anything, a lower percentage is better. Over-budget for staff—Especially after the pandemic, they have let their staffing budget consume more of their overall budget and now they are eating into cash reserves or having to cut ministry budgets to meet payroll.
Hire fewer staff and pay them well—They are adjusting compensation to keep up with the cost of living. That also helps them retain high-capacity staff leaders. Hire more staff with lower compensation—Because of that, staff are often considering new roles inside and outside of ministry so that they can support their families.
Hire leaders rather than doers—They hire staff leaders who know how to identify and empower volunteer leaders and build volunteer teams. Hire doers rather than leaders—They hire staff to do the ministry and that fuels the assumption within the congregation that staff are paid to do ministry so volunteers aren’t needed.
Elevate high-capacity leaders—They recognize that just because someone can lead a team doesn’t necessarily mean they can lead a ministry department or a campus. Elevate positional leaders—In other words, they promote from within to fill vacant leadership roles without considering the leadership capacity needed to succeed.
Structure for both their “reach” strategy and their “discipleship” strategy—They know that it’s important to structure around ministry strategies to reach people who are outside the church and outside the faith. Structure solely for their “discipleship” strategy—They focus all their staffing dollars on spiritual formation while ignoring the strategies that will reach new people.
Change their structure when they change their strategy—They recognize that if vision or strategy changes, the structure must change; otherwise, the legacy structure will always revert back to previous vision and strategy. Try to fit fresh vision and strategy into existing structures—Leaders and teams will always gravitate back to what they were hired or built to do. They will work hard to preserve what they know and avoid change.
Build diverse teams—They prioritize having a staff team that includes a mix of strengths, experiences, ethnicities, genders, and  ages that reflects who the church is trying to reach in their mission field. Build homogenous teams—They hire people who are a similar age and ethnicity while possessing similar strengths and experiences, and, commonly, women are under-represented in leadership.
Evaluate structure every 18 to 24 months—They recognize that the ministry is constantly evolving as strategies to reach and disciple people also change. Because the strategy is changing, the structure must also regularly change. Retain legacy structures … even after legacy staff leave or retire— Because they think people, structure, and then strategy, stuck churches rarely change their structure. They, instead, just promote or rehire people to fill vacant positions.
Build a senior leadership team—By doing so, healthy churches model team-based leadership from the top, they streamline strategic decision-making, and they align the team to eliminate ministry silos. Build a flat leadership structure—Every pastor and every leader who is added to the team reports directly to the senior pastor. Over time, this leads to an unmanageable span of care for the senior pastor and fosters competition rather than alignment among ministries.
Maintain appropriate span of care—They make sure every leader is managing the right number of staff and volunteers to accomplish their part of the mission  while also caring for the people on the team. Let span of care outpace the capacity of the leaders—They add too many direct reporting relationships which either compromises the mission or the care and development of the team.
Ensure staff are led by staff—That means every paid staff person, other than the senior pastor, is hired, led, directed, managed, coached, and, if needed, fired by a staff leader under the ultimate direction of the senior pastor. Ensure staff, other than the senior pastor, are accountable to a board or committee—When this happens, the senior pastor and staff leadership lose the ability to lead, direct and provide accountability for follow through on the mission and ministry priorities.
Link every ministry to the senior leadership team—In other words, there are no silo ministries that aren’t connected and aligned to the rest of the ministry. Allow ministries to operate independently of the senior leadership team—This leads to silo ministries that eventually compete with the rest of the church for resources, people’s time and attention.
Decide how they will decide—They clarify decision rights by deciding who will have a voice and who will have a vote before every decision is processed. Assume every leader has a voice and a vote on every decision—This slows down decision-making, makes it challenging to get consensus around necessary change, and fosters an “us against them” culture that creates distrust on the team.

This may be a good tool for you to review together with your staff or board. Use this table to assess how you’ve approached staffing and structure in the past.

  • Where does your staffing approach lead to health?
  • What about your staffing approach may be causing your ministry to be stuck?

I get it. Talking about staffing and structure is not very appealing to many pastors and church leaders. Wouldn’t we all rather talk about how our ministry can continue to fulfill the Great Commission in our community so that we see more and more people meet and follow Jesus? I know I would. However, as my teammate Amy Anderson has said many times, “Our structure is part of our strategy.” We can’t disconnect the two.

Now, let me offer one last thought. I know staffing decisions are challenging because they involve people. But let me shoot straight with you. It’s been more than two years since the start of the pandemic. If people haven’t come back to your church, they’re not coming back. Because of that, you are experiencing your new financial reality. If the forecasts are accurate and the early warning signs are real, we should be preparing for a pullback in the world’s economy in the coming months. That will also eventually impact the giving in your church.

Why do I share this? Because waiting and praying will not fix your financial issues. You need to continue praying, but you also need to act now. These staffing and structure decisions are only going to get harder in the coming months. With that in mind, I hope you will act sooner rather than later. Don’t wait until it’s too late and you’re putting the long-term viability of your ministry at risk. Don’t get caught having to make quick decisions, because that’s usually when we make risky decisions.

We need to right-size our teams and restructure for the future health of our churches today. The time is now. Please don’t wait.

Read more from Tony Morgan »

This article originally appeared on TheUnstuckGroup.com and is reposted here by permission.