The news yesterday out of Seattle broke my heart. A leading congregation with 13 campuses announced that in only two months, their entire structure would cease to exist in its current form. As questions swirled around the lead pastor, giving dropped precipitously over the summer leading to the closing of three campuses and with the formal resignation of the lead pastor two weeks ago, the structure collapsed completely.
A few years ago, Dr. Thomas White and I authored a book entitled, Franchising McChurch. Our thesis -- the gathering of the body of Christ matters too much to be taken lightly. We were concerned about rapid expansion of ecclesial structures with little thought as to the long-term ramifications of how a church operates. There had to be more than the reigning “it just works” methodology – especially if the congregation wanted to multi-campus.
Our caution was simple: If a church decides to pursue a multi-campus structure, a congregation must place guardrails on the structure to keep it from being centered on one person. In the case of many first-wave multi-sites, the rapid expansion traded on the high-level capacities of the senior pastor. His vision, leadership and preaching defined the brand of the congregation thereby hamstringing the church when he leaves. And this doesn’t apply only to multi-site congregations. Many churches of all sizes struggle with the same issue. Pastors who build a strong vision tied only to themselves leave congregations with significant challenges when the eventual change of leadership occurs.
So what’s to be done?
Before we start, it’s helpful to note that the problem is not multi-site churches. The heart of the issue is found in congregations of 80 people as well as those with attendance in excess of 8,000. Below, I have given 6 ways multi-campus churches can ensure greater health ensuring continuity towards the next generation.
1.) Re-define success. As Evangelicals, we should admit that we like to win. We enjoy success that is framed and measured in ways the world even understands. Bigger budgets and buildings, increased influence and stronger platforms become the fodder for type-A pastors to focus upon. Pastoral and ministerial success is not found in numerical expansion, but in growth of the body of Christ through evangelism and the preaching of the Word. Numbers may (and often do) accompany such growth, but the ultimate standard for pastors and churches is whether or not we preach Christ.
2.) Plant churches. It sounds counter-intuitive. Send out people and resources to start a congregation instead of expanding our own brand? You bet. In an interview I had with Gene Getz sometime back, he talked about the intentionality Fellowship Bible had in the 1980s and 1990s to plant churches. When Getz reflected on how many people met weekly in a church connected back to Fellowship Bible, he remarked that the number would exceed 70,000 people – way more than the largest church in the US. But each of those churches were autonomous and Getz had zero control. I would challenge every church that decides to multi-campus to plant as many or more congregations than it keeps as part of its structure.
3.) Build an internal multi-campus structure that gives each campus the right to become self-sustaining. Make sure each campus has its own elders, pastors and identity. The campus pastors should be on the regular teaching rotation that increases every year until the main campus pastor is seen less frequently.
4.) Rotate the teaching ministry. If only one man preaches every week, that congregation is built upon that person and that person's brand. This is the joy of a strong, multi-elder structure where the entire church is encouraged in the Word of God by multiple men and our focus is on the church’s one foundation – Jesus.
5.) Ensure your elders and pastoral accountability come from inside the congregation. One of the oddest things in this particular case was the move to a board of “Advisors and Accountability” that were not members nor in that region – they were persons external to the congregation. While we all need accountability, moving to an external board for the governance of a congregation invites more “top-down” leadership and less biblical accountability from internal participants.
6.) Create a contingency plan today. What will the church do if the lead pastor is found in sexual immorality or needs to step down or suddenly passes away? The solution may be easier for a single-site structure, but for a multi-campus congregation, a contingency plan is essential for survival should something drastic occur.
As we seek to be Christ-honoring congregations, let’s pray for our brothers and sisters in Seattle so that out of this tragedy comes healing and Gospel advance in their city and beyond.
John Mark Yeats