Seven Traits of Pastors Who Lead Breakout Churches

If you want to experience an “aha” moment about revitalizing churches, this research may be near the top.

Most of you have heard the dire information and statistics about congregations in North America. Indeed, I have been among the purveyors of the negative news. For sure, the overall picture is gloomy. There is no hiding from that reality.

Reasons for Hope

But I remain an obnoxious optimist about churches across our nation. And one of the primary reasons I do so is some ongoing research and observations about churches that have truly been revitalized.

My own research began several years ago and culminated in my book, Breakout Churches. It was a massive project, beginning with over 50,000 churches. My research, and that of many others, continues to this day.

While most of the research has focused on information endemic to structural and congregational issues, I have taken a laser approach to look at the leaders of these churches. And while I will release more comprehensive information later in a video consultation, I am incredibly excited to release some key information about leaders of these churches today.

The Seven Traits

The churches I have studied are churches that were once declining, but now are growing in a healthy fashion. The decline may have been dramatic, or it may have been almost imperceptible. In almost every case, however, the pastor embodied seven key characteristics.

In some of the churches, the pastors were new, and the presence of a new leader energized the congregations to move forward. In other churches, the pastors had been the leader during the decline, but now they were leading a church headed in a positive direction, a breakout church.

But here is a key to remember. The pastors intentionally adopted seven traits that were key to the churches’ turnaround. Let’s look at each of them briefly.

  1. These pastors faced reality. They looked at the current condition of the church. They likely did an informational historical survey of attendance trends. They refused to put their heads in the sand.
  2. They became leaders of hope. They looked at biblical truth regarding possibilities. They communicated that hope to their congregations. They truly believed all things are possible through God, including the revitalization of seemingly dying churches.
  3. These pastors adopted a long-term perspective. They likely did not make some type of public declaration of their intent, but they did begin leading as if they were going to be at their current church for around ten years. Most of them admitted that they did not want to close the door if they sensed God’s leadership elsewhere, but they led as if they were going to be around for a while. In other words, they were not seeking to move.
  4. They led incrementally. Because they had a long-term perspective, they were willing to lead in a way that the congregation could manage. It was not at the speed the pastors desired, but it was healthy for the churches.
  5. They learned how to deal with critics and setbacks. Most of these pastors determined that they would deal with challenging issues in a positive way. Many of them had their own inner processes developed to deal with critics. I have articulated many of those issues in previous posts.
  6. The pastors developed their own intentional outward focus. Many of them admitted they had become inwardly focused, so they started intentionally getting out in their communities. A number of them became highly intentional about sharing their faith on a regular basis.
  7. They led their churches to an outward focus. These pastors began to lead their churches beyond their own walls. More energy and time were devoted to connecting with their communities and beyond. The congregations became Great Commission churches in action, not just in theory.

The Most Encouraging Part

Though any story or report of church revitalization is encouraging, I was particularly encouraged to find pastors who had moved from a sense of hopelessness in their own leadership and churches, to an attitude of hopefulness and possibilities.

Breakout churches have breakout pastors.

Let me hear from you. Let me hear your stories. What do you think of the seven traits I noted? What would you change or add?

Posted on August 18, 2014

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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  • Point#1: besides facing current condition, the pastor makes the church honestly aware of it & face it too

    Point #2: not just a leader of hope – he prayed & waited on God to give that special (“hrema) word of what He wants to do through that church for its outward focus.

  • Thom,

    Thank you for your wisdom. I am currently in the process of a replant in Euless, TX. I just finished reading “Autopsy of a deceased Church” and the new members are currently reading “I am a church Member” and the Lord has used you in a mighty way to encourage my wife and I. I love your article and the only thing I would add that I have encountered in a few breakout pastors that I know as well as what I am striving to do is a focus on preaching God’s word verse by verse. The belief that God’s word is sufficient!! Thank you for your time. I will try and pick up breakout church’s. To God be all the Glory!


  • Jay Smith says on

    Thanks so much for this article. I’ve been pastor of two turn-around churches before which were not successful. Conflict stopped the turn-around. I’m now at the 5 year point in my ministry at this church. It’s been in decline long before I was called here, and it’s been a struggle ever since arriving. Some of it I brought on my self and some was just ingrained in the culture of the church. Our DOM told me that whoever was called would have run into the same problems. There’s little interest in outreach. No leaders for outreach and no willingness to budget for outreach. But I myself am guilty of #6: not having a personal outreach to the community. We invited the previous pastor back for a 25th anniversary celebration. The church really liked that, but I felt totally alien. So I said all of that to say your article has helped me to ask myself, “Am I committed to do what it takes to becoming a breakout church?” Thank you for that.

  • Dr. Thom,
    Great post, thanks for your work in this area. Is it possible that a pastor could, more or less, have each of these seven traits and the church still not make any significant progress toward revitalization or growth? Are there factors out of the pastor’s control that impact the process? I suppose what I am saying is: you can not grow the church without these seven traits, but you the fact that you have them doesn’t guarantee a turn around.

  • What is your opinion or do you have a blog about a pastor who does not preach the whole bible because of the denomination he was brought up in preaches in and also is afraid to rock the boat?

  • Scott Andrews says on

    Dr. Rainer:
    A year ago, after several ‘desert years” which had me just about ready to give up, I intentionally committed to pastoring a church of only 24 because I believed I could help them to turn around. I believed I could put the education I received from you and Drs Lawless and Cox in the BG School to use, and with the Lord’s help, give this church a new vision and get it growing again. We have been experiencing steady growth and have just about doubled our attendance and offerings in the last year.
    This article has been VERY encouraging, as it is very nearly the exact approach we have been taking. Please pray for us and for Emmanuel Baptist Church. I always enjoy your articles. God bless!

  • Thom, Having led a revitalization congregation for 20+ years I can relate to all seven traits. I am working with our association’s revitalization team, and one of the key elements is helping to prepare pastors/leaders to lead revitalization. I am working on a tool to assess pastors as to where they may be in such traits as you have written about. Do you know of any type of assessment like this that is currently available? If not, then what are good resources for putting together a valid assessment tool? Appreciate your input and insight.

  • Thom,

    Thanks for the post. I noticed there isn’t much on preaching, or leading the church to a renewed understanding of the gospel, what a Christian is (conversion), restoring meaningful membership, or church discipline.

    Is it because in this post it’s assumed that they are preaching well and that there’s a renewed understanding these things or is it because they are not common characteristics of these pastors? When I think of revitalizing a church my mind goes in that direction. Maybe I’m a bit off since it’s theoretical to me.

    Thanks again for your work brother!

    In Christ,

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