Established Churches, Leaders, and Confident Humility

The numbers are not precise, but we estimate there are around 400,000 churches in the United States. Of that number, nearly 90% could be described as “established.” I prefer the term “established” to the more commonly used “traditional.” Unfortunately, the latter term has come to mean to some a style of worship or a focus that is program driven.

We use the nomenclature “established” to refer to a church that has not made significant changes in its ministries, programs, and lay leadership in the past five years. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with an established church. Change may not be needed if all is well in the church. Unfortunately, that is not the case in most established congregations. In nine out of ten of these churches, the congregation is decreasing in average worship attendance, or the attendance growth rate is not keeping pace with the growth rate of the community.

Leaders and Established Churches

The good news is that we found a number of established churches that are truly impacting their communities. Though these churches are a clear minority, their examples and stories are worthy of study. Indeed we sent researchers across America to learn from these congregations and from the leaders of these congregations.

And what was one of the key lessons we learned? It was no surprise. The health of these churches could largely be tied to the leadership of the churches, and the way God worked through these pastors.

In this and a few subsequent blogs, we will look at some of the characteristics of these leaders. The lessons are instructive and sometimes surprising.

The Paradox of Confident Humility

To use Jim Collins’ well known wording, we have seen many good leaders, but few great leaders in established churches. Pastors in both groups have confidence in their leadership, but then differences began to emerge.

The pastors of the “good” churches had a focus, determination, and unswerving faith in what could be accomplished. Indeed, the laypersons in these churches spoke of their pastors’ confidence often. This confident leadership seemed to be a requisite to attract followers to the ministries of the church.

Yet, when we interviewed these leaders, we would often hear phrases such as “When I came to this church . . .” They were eager to tell us of their accomplishments. And while we wouldn’t accuse all of these leaders of being egotistical in their ministries, many were happy to tell us what a wonderful job they were doing.

We saw no less confidence in the leaders of the "great" established churches, but their confidence centered more on what God was doing in their lives and less on their own inherent abilities. They were often reluctant to attribute any of the church’s accomplishments to themselves. Their modesty was compelling and sincere.

The “Why” of Confident Humility

Because most of the great leaders in established churches had experienced difficult times in their ministries, any sense of self-importance had been tempered over the years. While they confidently believed their leadership was critical to the health of the church, they also believed their leadership abilities were a gift from God upon whom they were totally dependent.

Many established churches are struggling. Many leaders in these churches are struggling. The great leaders have moved from the struggles to an awakening of confidence that is compelling to followers. But that confidence is not in themselves, but in the God they serve.

Such is the oxymoron of confident humility. Complete confidence. Because the God we serve is able.

Posted on December 8, 2009

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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