Strong Leaders Make Churches Grow, Survey Shows

By Marta W. Aldrich

(UMCom) – In a survey of United Methodist congregational development leaders, Anna Workman expected poor funding to be cited as the No. 1 cause of failed new churches.

To her surprise, money wasn’t even mentioned. Instead, she consistently heard grumbling, lamentations and outright horror stories about poor leadership - from inexperienced or poorly trained pastors to mismatched assignments to an inadequate system of expectations and accountability.

“We always talk about not having enough money,” says Workman, director of congregational development for the United Methodist Church’s Virginia Annual (regional) Conference. “It was an awakening for all of us to see that every one of our fantastic failures had to do with leadership.”

Historically, the denomination often has dispatched inexperienced or untrained pastors straight out of seminary or divinity school to new churches. Denomination leaders have learned the hard way to change that approach. Today, the church increasingly is loading up and equipping pastors on the front end before they’re ever considered for an appointment.

“Annual conferences realize they must train their leaders and give them the necessary tools to succeed,” says the Rev. Craig Miller, director of new congregational development for the denomination’s Board of Discipleship. “The conferences that really focus on developing a leadership pool for new and existing churches are the ones effectively turning their conferences around.”

The North Alabama Conference is a good example. In 1995, the conference held its first “academy for congregational development,” a seven-day retreat stretching over nine months, to improve pastoral and lay leadership for new and existing churches. The event trains 30 people annually - now with a waiting list - using regional and national presenters, the latest technical resources and the most effective training materials for building leaders in congregational development.

Nine years later, most of its 270 graduates are engaged in planting new congregations, revitalizing existing ones and developing new paradigm worship experiences throughout the conference. In that same time period, the conference has started 31 new churches in settings ranging from rural to inner city to ethnic to foreign language and multicultural. None has failed.

“Our academy targets worship resourcing, discipleship development and outreach ministry,” says Dick Freeman, director of congregational development for North Alabama. “We’re not developing middle management for a corporation. We work real hard on the spiritual depth part. (As a leader of a new church), you can’t give people something you don’t have.”

Some 15 of the denomination’s 63 U.S. annual conferences now hold similar leadership academies.

Another leadership tool is the Fitzgerald Pastors Program, providing training and support for United Methodist pastors throughout the denomination in the first year of their appointment to a new church start. A ministry of the Center for Evangelism within the Board of Discipleship, it assists 20 new pastors annually in areas including time management, demographics, developing personal spiritual disciplines, building a core group and developing the worship life of a new congregation.

To reach an even broader audience, the School of Congregational Development is held annually to train pastors and laity about church growth strategies. Co-sponsored by the Board of Discipleship and Board of Global Ministries, the 2005 gathering is scheduled for Aug. 3-8 in Dallas.

For Workman, who conducted her informal survey in congregational development in 2003 and 2004, such investments in leadership training are critical to helping newly planted churches “bear fruit.” The training enables the church to appoint the right people to launch new ministries in new settings.

“A pastor of a new church must understand on the front end what’s involved in church planting because it’s very hard work and very lonely work,” she says. “But if they have the assurance this is truly where God wants them to be, they’re more likely to succeed.”

Marta W. Aldrich is a freelance journalist based in Franklin, Tenn.

This feature was developed by, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.


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