What Really Keeps Churches From Growing?
by Josh Hunt

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The number one predictor of the growth a church is the preaching ability of the pastor. The number one deterrent to the growth of any church is the people skills of the pastor. Preaching well provides the fuel that energizes growth. A well conceived and executed plan creates the drive train through which the energy of the pulpit transforms an audience into an army. The pastors people skills are analogous to the brakes of a car. Many pastors drive with their foot slightly on the brakes. They think the problem is the deacons or the uncommitted or the Luke-warm. Actually, they need to take a look at the beam in their own eye. The sharp edges of their own personality are digging deep groves into the brake's disks. Some pastors have more than a slight touch on the brakes. They have a full force straight leg onto the peddle. Not you, the reader of course, but some pastors. You know what I mean, those other guys.

Sometimes this deficiency in people skills causes conflicts between that pastor and people. Other times it is the inability of the pastor to be obedient to Matthew 5:9, "Blessed are the peacemakers." In other words, the church stops growing because the pastor cannot create an atmosphere of love and acceptance. Friction halts the growth of any church.

Conflicts are the reason people are not attending church now. Eighty-five percent of the unchurched can point to a time when they attended church regularly. The number one reason why the stopped attending church was conflict. Conflict is killing our churches. Jesus said the world could look at us and if they find live there, they can know we are disciples of his, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:35) By all rights you would have to say that we have not passed the test. They came. They saw. They looked inside. They left. They didn't like what they saw. They didn't find love here. What they found was conflict, pettiness and bickering.

Like the church I attended once where the big brew-ha was over who got to say the offertory prayer.

Like the church that was in a major upheaval over who got to serve on the personnel committee.

Like the church that got in a big to do over whether the pastor preached from behind a pulpit or lectern.

Like the church whose attendance was going through the roof. People were being saved. People were excited. They built a new building that would hold 500 strong. Two church splits later, they were huddled in the old chapel, all thirty of them.

Big stuff. Important stuff. The stuff that church fights are made of. It is the pastor's ability to steer the ship through these white-waters that is going to spell the difference between doubling a church every 5 years or less or being stalled.

Churches are not stalled for lack of a plan. Plans--good plans--abound. This book has one of them. If you will work this plan in the power of the Holy Spirit, it will work. But it will never work in an atmosphere of conflict.

The best way to deal with conflict is through love. When people know that you love them, it is difficult to be mad at you. Love, indeed, covers a multitude of sins:

  • Proverbs 10:12 Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.
  • I Peter 4:8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

Remember, love in the Bible is not an abstract commitment. It is about sipping coffee and laughing and enjoying being together. I think it even includes liking someone. To hear someone say, "I love you, but I sure don't like you very much," is not very satisfying. The first way we deal with conflict is through day in day out loving people. One good expression of this is to minister by dictaphoneing around, discussed later. Another way is by regularly scheduling appointments with the entire church body. It is hard to be mad at the people you sip coffee with.

This is a pretty old fashion idea, really. In the old school, this is what pastors did: they preached and called on church members on a regular basis. This idea has gotten out of vogue. Pastors today do not call upon their flock on a regular basis. I think it needs to be resurrected in a modified form.

The argument against doing this in many cases has to do with the size of the church. If a church is above 100 in average attendance there are so many members that it would take an enormous amount of time to see everyone. However, just because you can't do it all is not an excuse for not doing anything.

What I suggest is this: regularly schedule one afternoon a week when you meet proactively with church members on a systematic basis. Have your secretary schedule the appointments and make the coffee. This is different from the people who want to schedule appointments with you. I am speaking of your initiative in scheduling appointments on a systematic basis with the entire church body. If it is a large church, it would take you years to get through the whole church body. No matter, the individual contact you have with these people will give you a feel for what is really happening below the surface. People will appreciate immensely the fact that you took the initiative to do this. They will tell you things one-on-one about what is going on in their lives that you will never learn any other way. They will tell you how they really feel about how the church is doing. You will learn subtleties and minor problems that can often be corrected before they become big problems.

Pastors have a tendency to be insulated from the real scuttlebutt in the congregation. This is why it is so common for a person to come to the pastor and say, "I represent 45 tithing families who feel that. . ." When a church member does this, they have really trumped the pastors hand. What they are saying is, "Pastor, I think I have more power than you. Dare to challenge me?" When a pastor has been in regular, systematic contact with the church body, he will have a feel for these things before they come up. He will know if there is anything to this. He will know if it is a situation in needs to cave to or a situation where he needs to dig in his heals.

Many things that are big deals to many people are not big deals at all. The pastor would do well to acquiesce every place he can. For one thing, this builds a reciprocal dynamic that is almost irresistible. If people see the pastor giving in on three points, they are far more likely to give in when the pastor really feels strongly about something. Part of the art of leadership is knowing which issues are worth dying for. Precious few are.

Suppose a pastor wants to lead the church to start a new service. The wise approach is to keep the idea of the new service sacrosanct. Dig in your heals hard on that one. But, be flexible about the implementation of it. Do you want to start in September or wait till January? Whatever. Do you want to start the early service at 8:30 or 8:15. I prefer 8:30 because I don't like getting up early, but, whatever. Only dig your heals in on issues that are absolutely crucial to the success of the mission. People like to feel they had a hand in tinkering with the plan.

Part of the role of spending time with church members on a regular, systematic basis is draining off the venom. This is a difficult, painful and dangerous task, but someone has to do it. Far better for the leader to drain off the venom then to allow the venom to seep into the rest of the body and poison it.(1)

Draining off the venom is a learned skill requiring dexterous proficiency. The key to effectively draining off the venom is to resist the tendency to defend or fix. If a pastor does not resist this tendency he will only increase the potency of the poison. In other words, people will not feel listened to, accepted, affirmed or loved. They will feel defensive and angry. Only now, they will have some weapon of some slip of the tongue that you said in the conversation that will be used against you. The last state will be worse than the first. You meant it for good, but they will use it for harm.

Listening without arguing or defending is hard work. It requires extreme discipline. The goal here is not to persuade. It is to make them feel heard. When they feel thoroughly heard their defenses will come down and you will have an opportunity to lead them at a later time. They will love you more, and will be more likely to be lead by you.

Be careful, of course, not to agree when you do not. This will also lead to disaster. I am not talking about agreeing. I am talking about understanding. Respond with sentences like, "I sense that you feel frustrated in my approach to preaching." Then, let them talk. Or, you might say, "It seems like you are afraid we are moving in a direction you don't want to go. Tell me about that." Affirm people. Say, "It must be really unsettling for you to see your church changed in this way."

When I say that a pastor ought to schedule these times on a systematic basis, I do not necessarily mean to go through the alphabet. In fact, I recommend against that. There will often be times when you will want to meet with a particular family, but you do not want it to appear that they have been singled out. As far as they know, they are part of the regular, ongoing plan of the pastors to meet with the whole church body. You can bet that people will notice who is being invited and who is not. Explain often what you are doing and invite people, if they like, to schedule an appointment with you. This will help to relieve any jealousy that might exist. You don't want people saying, "Well I sure wish the pastor would invite me to talk." Say if often regularly, "If you want to talk I want to talk. If you have a special need or concern, I want to hear it."

I have asked certain people in the church to help me be aware of who it would be good for me to meet with. Perhaps because they heard them complaining, or perhaps because they know they are hurting, or perhaps because they have some good ideas that they think I should hear. I ask them to call my secretary and put anyone one the list that they think could use a timely conversation. When people walk into my office, I don't even know why they were put on the list--whether through random selection or because someone thought they needed to be listened to.

Be careful about scheduling too many negative people. You need to do some draining off of the venom, but their is only so much you can take. Guard your own heart, (Proverbs 4:23) lest the venom poison your soul.

As much as possible, find common ground. Fellowship means, "to have in common." Emphasize that we have a common love for the Lord, the Bible, the Church and for missions. Talk about experiences you have had that will help people to feel, "He is one of us." Try, in these moments, to be like by your people. Make it easy for them to "long for you with the affection of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:8)

It will serve the pastor well to be as popular as he can be. This is what the Bible teaches. Consider the following passages from scripture:

  • Romans 12:18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
  • Romans 14:18 Because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.
  • Romans 14:19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
  • Ephesians 4:3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
  • Hebrews 12:14 Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

The dictionary defines popularity as "commonly liked or approved."(2) Now, according to that definition ask yourself the following questions:

Is a father a better or worse father if he is commonly liked or approved? Would you prefer a father who is liked or disliked?

Is a husband a better or worse father for being commonly like or approved by his wife?

Would you expect a leader to be more of less effective if he were commonly like and approved?

Who would your rather have teaching a Sunday School class: someone who is commonly liked or approved, or someone who is generally disliked?

Think of the most effective pastors you have known. Were they generally liked by their congregation or generally disliked?

Let me emphasize that I am not speaking of seeking the approval of men (See Galatians 1:10) as an absolute. That is absolutely wrong. It neither pleases God or, in the long run, please men. There is nothing quite so frustrating as someone who tells you whatever you want to hear only to tell the next person whatever they want to hear regardless of the incongruity with what they just told you. That is the kind of behavior that is disgusting to God and frustrating to people. That is the very sort of thing Paul was referring to in Galatians 1. That is not what I am referring to.

I am inviting pastors to consider that the more well-liked you are the more effective you will be. It is a pastor's duty, then, to be as well-like as he can be. If you would pastor well, try to keep people from hating you, or even disliking you.

There are far too many butt-heads for God in Christian work. Far too many leaders who blame obstinate people when the facts are the problem is an obnoxious pastor. There is no virtue in being obnoxious. There is no virtue in being hard to get along with. Disagree, have your convictions, speak your ground, lead boldly, but do it all with a gracious and kind spirit. Boldly lead with a underlying heartfelt love for people. Confront when you must, but do it with tears. Never enjoy it. Never see it as competition. Never delight in beating them. We are not called to beat but to love. Be quick to reconcile, slow to hold a grudge, slow to gossip, slow to become angry.


A Short Course on Getting Along with People

Getting people to like you is really pretty easy. Remember this: If you want people to like you, be nice to them. Remember the verse we learned in Vacation Bible School: "Be ye kind one to another." Be kind. Be thoughtful. Be polite. Smile. Enjoy people. Be interested in them. Listen. As simple as that sounds, it is beyond the reach of many. For some people, being nice to them is not enough, we need some other tools.

The tool of rapport is one of our most powerful. People like people who are like them. People like people with whom they have in common. In fact, that is the meaning of the Greek work for fellowship--to have in common. Christian fellowship is about sharing a common faith. This common faith is so important to us, that are differences pail by comparison.

If you would improve your people skills, concentrate on what you have in common with people. Find things you have in common. Talk about those things. Don't talk so much about your differences. Ultimately, talk a lot about your common faith in our uncommon Lord.

Another tool in developing your people skills is developing a keen sense of boundaries. People with good people skills understand that I am me and I am not you. I know what I am responsible for and I know what I have the authority to do. Pastors often get themselves in trouble because they believe they have more authority than their people think they have. This is a boundary issue and should be openly discussed. Good fences make good neighbors. A clear sense of boundaries is very important in interpersonal relationships.

The last principle of getting along with people is articulated in Colossians 3:13 "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you." Bluntly, this verse teaches that we are commanded by God to put up with each other. No one is perfect. People will hurt you. Put up with it. Forgive it. Take it to the cross and go on.

Okay, that is the short course. Now on to a couple of specific issues related to people skills. This is the grist of church life.


What to Do With Anonymous Hate Mail

Anonymous hate mail is one of the greatest opportunities a pastor has to get his hands on the pulse of the church. Pastors are far more insulated from the real scuttle butt than they know. Anonymous hate mail is an outstanding help to the pastor is braking through the insulation and hearing what one group in the church is saying.

Of course, it never feels that way at the time. In fact, it feels pretty dog gone awful. There are few things more professionally discouraging than getting anonymous hate mail. It is difficult indeed to "count it all joy." (James 1:2)

When you get signed hate mail you get discouraged. It can be pretty painful too. But, at least your know who to get mad at. You can salve your wound by murmuring to your wife about that person. "That ranel-scanel-fanael rrrrrrrr. . ." It makes you feel better. Probably sinful, but like a lot of sin, it feels good at the time.

But with anonymous hate mail, you don't even know who to get mad at. There is this vague feeling that all those people out there are unhappy and out to get you. And people can say some awful things. Painful things. Hurtful things terrible things. One time a lady told me, "You have never ever done one thing to minister to me." There is still a scar in my soul from that dagger.

I have found a very effective way of dealing with anonymous hate mail. This idea will be worth the price of this book. Before I mention that, let me present the other two options which I feel are your only two choices.

First, you can ignore the hate mail. Some pastors have a standard policy of having their secretary screen all their mail. This is within the boundary of your power to do. You can simply put up a fence and not allow anonymous hate mail to enter. When they get an anonymous hate letter, the secretary is instructed to simply throw it away. If you do take this course, I would suggest you state this policy publicly on a regular basis. It will surely cut down the number of hate mail you get. Who wants to bother to write a letter if they know it is just going to be thrown away?

The problem with this approach is that you do not have the benefit of knowing that people are upset or what they are upset about. If you take this approach, I think it would be a good idea to have your secretary inform you from time to time in some general way that she senses some people are concerned about this or that. This way, you get some residual benefit from the mail, and are still insulated from its venom. Still, I think there is a better way.

The second option in handling anonymous hate mail is to read it and do nothing. You can't respond; you don't know who wrote it. There may be many cases where you actually agree with the person who is writing. They will never know your points of agreement because you don't know who they are. You may have a solution to their problem in the works that you would like to tell them about, but you can't. They may have flat got the story wrong about something and you would like to graciously, but clearly tell them what really happened. Again, your hands are tied. You throw the letter away, swallow the venom and wish you could do something about it. This approach does give you a one way feed back loop from the congregation. But there is another way which completes the feedback loop and accomplishes some other things in the process. Let me tell you about the more excellent way.

Publish anonymous hate mail with your reply on the back. That's right. Make a actual copy of the letter, whether it is hand written or typed. Don't have your secretary retype it; make a copy with your reply on the back. Be gracious and firm in your reply. Have some people help you to analyze how your reply will sound from their view point. Pray about it. Get over the grief and anger of getting the letter before you write. Don't storm off and write a screeching rebuttal. Establish rapport where ever you can. Agree as much as possible. Find common ground. Affirm as much as you can. Set the record straight where you need to apologize where you need to. Tell them you would like to respond personally, but were unable because you did not know their name.

This approach has several benefits. The first is, you will get a lot less anonymous hate mail. It is just too risky. There is a reason people write hate mail anonymously. They don't want to be found out. They do not want what is done in secret to be proclaimed from the roof tops. (Luke 12:3) When people realize that their hate mail is going to be photocopied and distributed with a firm and gracious and well-thought through reply, they will not quickly pick up their pen.

More importantly, you will have an opportunity to respond. I believe a pastor ought to respond to every piece of mail he gets. If my senator can find time to write me what looks like a personal reply, my pastor can find a way to do it too. If someone signs the letter, don't publish those. Just respond privately. When they do not give you the courtesy of signing their name, turn on the Xerox.

With this feedback given back to the body, the white blood cells will begin to attack the disease. Someone will stand up in a Sunday School class and say, "I don't know who wrote this kind of thing to our pastor, but I think this is awful. They guy is not perfect, but give him a break. If someone in hear wrote this, I think you ought to go to him today and apologize. I wouldn't lay your head on your pillow tonight before you took care of this." The body will police their own.

A side effect of this approach is that you will find a lot of people becoming extra nice to you. They will want to counter the negative effect that the letter had on you. They will bake you cookies and take you out to eat. This is all very pleasant. I think it is healthy for the body to know what kind of crap (pardon me, not other word would do) many pastors put up with.

Believe it or not, many people have no idea that the pastor is ever criticized. Most people love and appreciate their pastors and they have no idea that people feel anything different. Printing these letters sensitizes people to the pain the pastor often has to endure from the biting sheep. This will make the congregation, on the whole, more loving.


Handling Meetings

Newton's first law of physics states that an object in motion will remain in motion, in the same direction, and at the same velocity until acted on by another object. Of course, that is only true in a vacuum. On planet earth there must be a constant supply of energy to overcome friction. Someone has to push the machine; there is no such thing as perpetual motion.

What is true of objects drifting through space is also true of churches drifting along. They will remain in motion at about the same velocity in about the same direction unless and until they are acted on by an outside object. If they are at a standstill, they will stay at a stand still unless and until something different happens. If you keep doing what you have been doing you will keep getting what you have been getting. We are like the balls in a pen ball game that travel in one direction until we hit something that sends us careening in another.

There is way too much wishful thinking in church life. Too much hoping that we keep doing what we been doing and something different is going to happen. Never happen.

That something that changes the trajectory of churches is often a meeting of one kind or another. Of course, there is a lot that happens outside the meetings. There are telephone conversations and conversation over coffee and conversations in the hall way. Some would argue this is where the decisions are really made. But it all comes to a head at the meeting. A pastor's ability to handle meetings can spell the difference between doubling a church every five years or less or not.

Everything else can be running smoothly:

The Pastor can be preaching great sermons

The Minister of Music can be leading the congregation into cheek moistening worship.

The group life can be Velcro sticky with not a molecule of Teflon in sight.

The whole operation can be causing people to say, "Wow!"

And it can all come to one big screeching halt if the pastor doesn't know not how to handle meetings with gracious but firm-handed leadership. I said earlier that the pastor's people skills, if not effective, can act like a break on the growth of the church. No where is this more true than in the area of handling meetings. Lack of effectiveness in handling meetings is like trying to drive a car with the emergency brake on. Everything else can be working splendidly, but with the emergency break firmly locked, the vehicle will go no where fast. Here are some simple rules for handling meetings.

Make sure your own manner is positive, relaxed and poised. Your mood will set the mood of the meeting. This is not a place for jokes, but you should display yourself to be a person who is doing his best to be obedient to Philippians 4:4. If you are nervous, don't show it. Be calm. Slow down. Smile. Shake lots of hands before the meeting. Smile a smile that comes from deep within. Smile with your eyes.

Know the rules. Most meetings in America run with some connection to Robert's Rules of Order. You should have a good working knowledge of these. It helps to also have a parliamentarian who knows every jot and tidle. In large, rather formal meetings, it also helps to have a clerk who is taking notes. If you ever get lost as to where you are, these people can help to keep you straight. You need to be able to rattle off the routine rules so comfortably that it puts everyone at ease. It makes everyone feel like someone is in charge who is competent and fair. When someone speaks out of turn you should just routinely say, "The motion we have on the floor has to do with such and such. The chair rules that out of order. Only comments and questions related to the motion please."

It is common for people to stand up in a meeting and say, "A bunch of us feel we ought to do this or that." The proper response to that is very matter of fact: "We cannot discuss anything until we have a motion from the floor and a second. If you would like to make that in the form of a motion, and I receive a second, I will be happy to entertain it. Otherwise, I will have to rule it out of order." Always smile when you say the words, "out of order."

I like to vote on the agenda at the beginning of the meeting. That way everyone knows everything we have to talk about and we can pace the meeting to give ample time to everything. Sometimes people like to throw out bombshells late in the meetings after everyone is tired and ready to go home. If the body has voted on an agenda and this matter was not on it, then you have a very legitimate and fair response. "The body has already voted on an agenda, which we have been following. It is now time for our meeting to adjourn. Would you like to amend the agenda at this time, or take this matter up at the next meeting? If you would like to take this matter up now, I will entertain a motion that we amend the agenda to include this matter. Otherwise, I will rule it out of order (smile). I will, however, see that it be place on next months agenda.

The culture of different churches, as well as the size of the group will affect the formality with which Robert's Rules are carried out. A sensitive leaders is adaptable to the situation. In small groups it is more appropriate to ask, "Does everyone feel good about this?" That is often better than saying, "All in favor say, 'I.'" If it is a small meeting and you are not sure, you might even call people by name, "Bob, do you feel good about this. . . Tom. . . Mary. . . George. . . everyone? Speak now. . ."

Know when to break the rules. There comes a time for a pastor to take off his moderator hat and preach a little in a business meeting. Use this sparingly because your political enemies know it is against the rules. This is one of the reasons it is a good idea for he pastor to not be the moderator. The moderator is by definition moderate. As pastor, I have an opinion on almost everything. In many churches it is expected that the pastor will speak his mind to some degree even if he is the moderator. Wisdom is knowing how much.

There is a time to put on the "Daddy" hat. There is a time to look at someone after they have crossed the line of disagreeing and are being downright disagreeable and ugly and say, "Not in this house. This is God's house. We are brothers and sisters and I will not allow anyone to treat anyone else with disrespect. We can talk, share, disagree, argue on and on. But, we will not be rude to each other."

There is a time for a pastor to be pastor and bleed. There is a time for a pastor to remind people of issues of the heart and issues of mission and issues of people's feelings. Sometimes the pastor needs to remind people that this is not just money or schedules or policy, we are talking about people's lives.

Churches need to strike a healthy balance. On the one hand, we need to help people to be obedient to the command of God to "do everything without complain or arguing." (Philippians 2:14). (Wouldn't you like to be a part of a church that took that verse seriously?) On the other hand, this is not rule by intimidation. We need to create an atmosphere where honest feed back and various opinions can be voiced and heard.

We often quote 1 Corinthians 14:40 with reference to meetings: "Everything should be done decently and in order." (KJV) Perhaps we should also consider Titus 3:2b "to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men."

Meetings can be the pivotal points in which the trajectory of the church is pushed in a forward direction, or they can be the detour that derails the growth of the church. Most of does not have so much to do with the motion of the floor as it has to do with the leader at the helm. It is a delicate skill to be firm enough to cause forward movement while soft enough to still be a church.

In the next chapter, we will deal with an issue so important to people skills, it deserves a chapter all to itself.


20 Questions

Note: I believe that life change always happens in the context of relationship. If you don't believe this, cancel Sunday School. If you do believe it, grab a handful of pastors and talk about these issues. Here are some questions to help guide your discussion.

1. What is going in the life of your church right now that you are excited about?

2. Anything going on in your private life that we can pray for you about?

3. Why are people skills so important to the health and growth of a church?

4. How have you seen bad people skills ruin a good ministry?

5. Why do you think good people skills are so hard to come by?

6. How do you teach people good people skills? Is this part of discipleship?

7. Do you agree with the concept that, generally speaking, the more people like you the easier it is to be effective?

8. Is popularity something to be sought after or shunned?

9. How would your rate your own popularity rating at this time?

10. Who can tell of a person who is inactive in church today because of an interpersonal issue that was handled poorly. Let's examine this situation as field test. How could it have been handled better?

11. What do you think of scheduling an afternoon a week to "drain off the venom?" What is your plan for draining off the venom of your people?

12. Josh says pastors tend to be insulated from the pulse of the church. Do you agree? What do you do to keep your hand on the pulse of the church?

13. Do you think getting along with people is easy or hard?

14. How would you complete this sentence: "The key to getting along with people is ____________________."

15. How do you deal with anonymous hate mail?

16. What do you think of Josh's plan for dealing with hate mail? Would it work in your setting?

17. What meeting most effected the trajectory of your ministry?

18. Tell me about a meeting that turned into a train wreck. How could it have been avoided?

19. If your people were asked if they could change one thing about the way you relate to them, what would they say?

20. What is one way you could improve your people skills?

1. Alan Loy McGinnis, Bringing Out The Best In People, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1985), p. 156.

2. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, (Springfield, Massachusetts: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1979)p. 888.