Creative LeadershipStrategy & Marketing

Do Successful Churches = Great Pastors? Not Quite

In spite of all the Bible says about faithfulness, the last being first, and pleasing God rather than men, it’s absolutely fascinating how enchanted we are with numbers.  Check out the latest conferences, and most of the speakers are from the most attended churches.  Look at the pastors on the best seller lists, and once again, you’ll usually find pastors of the largest churches and ministries.

What is our intoxication with what the world views as success?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for growth and expansion.  God called us to reach the world, and naturally, that means increase.  Many of the clients of Cooke Media Group are large churches and ministries, and some of my closest friends are pastors of mega-churches, and are brilliant leaders.  Many pastors who are leading the largest churches are doing it for a good reason – they know what they’re doing, and are mentally, spiritually, and socially, right for the job.

On the other hand, there are plenty of leaders of large churches and ministries who frankly aren’t that good at it.

I’m not being critical, I’m just stating facts.  Today, pastoral ministry is a tough job – and it’s a complex job.  There are many reasons why a pastor or ministry leader can actually be leading a vibrant and successful church, even though he’s actually pretty weak.

Nepotism, timing, momentum, age, location, other strong leaders in the church, and more are good reasons.  (I’d love to hear others.)

My point is that when you look at pastors to model, don’t forget some of the small guys out there.  There are men and women leading small churches and ministries who are gifted, highly skilled, creative, and have a powerful calling on their lives. Just because thousands don’t show up on Sunday doesn’t mean they’re not good at what they do, or don’t have something to say about leadership, ministry, and even media.

Find the strongest leaders in large churches and study them. They have a lot to share about leadership at the highest levels. But don’t think for a minute that big numbers automatically mean anointing, smarts, skill, or innovation.

And for the record, it’s the same in the corporate world.

Focus on significance and insight, not numbers and size.

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  1. Great thoughts!

    I have to agree. I'm big on grading success by seeing what a leadership team is doing to facilitate what God is doing in the lives of the members. We grade ourselves when a person who's known God for 10 years finally gets "activated" into doing what God made them to do, or in a lost person coming to God for the first time. But people coming…that just makes us feel good.

    This is why I'm a HUGE fan of multi-campus or multi-site church structures. (although we're still single-campus until '09) They seem to be able to activate, develop and challenge so many more of the saved, capable people who are otherwise sitting or handing out bulletins.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you Phil.  I spent so many years down on myself & my ministry because I didn't seem to measure up.  I saw younger guys"moving on up" while I languished in smaller churches.  Then I finally realized that someone had to pastor those folks too!  If it was to be me then that was fine.  Freedom came and joy in ministry followed.  Please spread this message to all you come in contact with

  3. Phil, thank you so much for this reminder.  As pastors of a new church plant, we could easily get caught into comparing growth patterns, etc.  Growth is awesome, but the season we are in now is significant, too.  We don't have to wait for the thousands to realize that what we are doing is significant – serving and loving people is ALWAYS significant.  Thanks!

  4. You are so right Phil. A large church following and church buildings do not signify that a pastor is a great leader or that he is even successful.  It depends on how  you define success.  And too many "pastors" today define it narrowly to focus on numbers and how much tithe and offering comes in each week.  Some even gather to exchange bragging rights over lunch.  I am so sick of this hero worship going on in too many churches today, where most of the message is on "honoring the man of God" and "touch not mine anointed".  I find there is very little teaching going on in many churches today, especially the largest ones.  They have 3-4 services each Sunday so they hype you up quickly with shouting and rockstar music, pass that offering bucket (literally a bucket) bring on the star of the show and get you out of there. There is no time or place to learn of Jesus and his message of love and life to us.  No time to worship Him.  The message is all about giving and getting so that you can give more.

     I know personally of a church where the Pastor spends nearly 20 minutes every week "receiving" the offering.  I've been in churches that spent over an hour having people line up to bring a "love offering" for the pastor, but spend 10 minutes offering salvation, prayer for healing,membership,etc.    The focus is NOT on what God's people need, but what brings the greatest response – especially from their presence or their pocketbooks.    

    My family and I learned to be wary of churches where the crowds flock to and the pastors name is the draw.   We hunger for the Word of God and fellowship with those of like precious faith striving to please Him.  We want to be led by a pastor who defines success as getting the church members to grow spiritually.  Woe to these pastors who call themselves CEOs and treat the church as their private money-maker. 

    Jesus said, "If you love me feed my sheep."  The sheep are coming, but they aren't being fed.    

  5. Good Insight on this issue.

    One thing I've learned is that growth is a panacea that people point to and take comfort in as a measure of success as if that trumps all criticisms.  Certainly the Great Commission lays out that it is important, but I've seen Church's kid themselves a great deal about it.

    Most churches that are growing, grow because of the area that they are located and the surrounding demographics.  If you live in a metropolitan area where you are in or close to a growing area, there's a certain level of growth that will happen and be sustained because there are new people moving in the area a certain percentage of them are either established Christians who are looking for a church or there's a large population of people in an age group where traditional changes in life, such as children, loss of parents, etc. moves them to want to become involved in a Church.

    Many Churches that are growing numerically are kidding themselves.  If you look at the statistics, most of the growth is transfer growth of existing Christians and there's very little conversion growth that impacts and increases the kingdom overall.

    It's arbitrary, but I've usually held that if a church that is growing isn't having at least 1/3 of its growth from conversions then all it is doing is playing a shell game.

    Ironically too, many churches grow at a rate lower than the surrounding demographics of the area that they are in, and fail to see that they are actually losing ground in terms of their impact and standing in the community.

    Man looks at the outside, God looks on the heart.  I'm moving strongly away in my own personal life from this corporate mentality that sees the church as an organization like any other.  The Church is an organism.  If there's not something more than a marketing campaign and a CEO running Church, Inc. I don't want anything to do with it.

    A lot of Church's that claim God's favor because they are growing, could have the Holy Spirit move out of their midst and nothing would change and maybe nobody notice as long as the corporate growth principles and growth measurements continue to work and be positive.

  6. Great preachers are not always great leaders.  I have known many men who were very gifted in the pulpit, but terrible one-on-one.  They didn't know how to grow leaders around them, and thus the church did not grow.

    If a church is led by a strong elder board, you can overcome that as a body and still grow.  But too often these same men run the church with no accountability.  Then it is doomed to fail.

  7. "Find the strongest leaders in large churches and study them."

    Studying success is a good idea.  I suggest that we not only study the aforementioned type of success, but others as well.

    Some denominations have less trouble with respect to pastoral staff members acting out inappropriately.  It might be a good idea to figure out what they're doing right and if these patterns could have broader applications.

    Some churches are ethnically diverse, or manage to change with the demographics of their community.  How do they achieve this?  Lots of other churches would like to know.

    Some churches serve their communities on many, many different levels.  They have host soup kitchens, rummage sales, fancy weddings, meetings large and small, dinner theater, square dance clubs, mommy's day out clubs, home school support networks, adoption agencies, food drives…  Wow!  Some of this is lucrative, all of it is helpful to the community, it seems to be good for the church as well.  How do they do that?

    Then there are the military chaplains.  They really rock!  They function beautifully in all sorts of challenging conditions.  They work well with people of different faiths, they rarely have gender issues and when they do they resolve them sensibly, they handle crisis with aplomb…  I could go on and on.  They definitely deserve study.

    Then there are the tiny little churches that cling to life in increasingly hostile environments.   They overcome the odds, find funding in amazing ways, and deal with discouragement, frustration and disappointment.  I think we need to take a closer look at their achievements. 


  8. Thank you for this truth! So many Pastors are overlooked and not given the same opportunities because they aren’t on the A list of Pastors-whose hot and whose not!

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