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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  • I am not a pastor, so probably shouldn’t even dip an oar in the water. That said, I wonder how these seven points are affected by pastors who serve at the pleasure of boards/committees who can and do decide to begin a search for a new pastor as soon as the current one bumps up against the ‘Seven Deadliest Words”: ‘But we’ve always done it this way.’

    I have come to believe that a pastor’s two single most focused purposes are to preach the gospel and set vision for the church. I completely agree with you that this cannot be done unless a commitment of at least 10 years is made. One cannot set vision in less time than that. (#3)

    However, doing so means change; and change is what most churches don’t want—in any form. So getting THERE is where most of the difficulty comes, I think. (#5)

    Were I to add anything to your list, it would be that the pastor must cast the vision for the church that the Gospel—reaching the lost and bringing them to a saving knowledge of Jesus—is HOPE for a hurting world. If their church can do THAT, then their church will, incrementally, survive. But they must focus on THAT and not programs, and meetings, and fundraising, and internal issues that meet the needs of those already at the feast. (#7)

    I think you said that in #7. I would just be more bold in articulating it.

  • Robert Bowen says on

    Always interested in this research. I wonder if there were any patterns regarding the specific characteristics of the church focus areas other than the outward focus. For example, things like going back to the basics of biblical preaching (maybe even old school expository preaching), improvements in the requirements for church membership, focus on consistency of doctrine, specific evangelism focus, and even some gradual implementation of church discipline or at least more formalized expectations of the body.

    Just wondering. Thoughts?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Robert –

      I do address these issues in other posts on my blog. The seven issues I note here are new or renewed emphases by the pastor.


  • Theological and scriptural depth in preaching should be part of this list. Otherwise, you are building a crowd – not a church.

  • Anonymous Pastor says on

    Great post! Very encouraging. Satan regularly attacks me in regards to my leadership, emphasizing my own doubts and fears. I’ve read half a dozen leadership books or more and I’m still not quite sure “what it looks like.” Thanks for putting on the wheels. Even more thankful that God has blessed my attempts to be faithful.

  • I’ve been spending a lot of time in internal debate about #4 “They led incrementally.” From a pragmatic or even cultural p.o.v., I don’t necessarily disagree. But from a Biblical view, I struggle with this. The key question seems to be “what is a healthy speed for churches?” and a second like it should be “on what basis do we determine a healthy speed for churches?”.

    I struggle with the proper balance of intentionality and relationality. I don’t want to abandon the latter, but at the same time, I’m afraid we tend to make Christianity about the individual and the individual’s wants/desires, not about dying to self, picking up our crosses and following Him.

    There’s an obvious caveat of whatever it is we’re trying to change. Some things are matters of preference, and thus aren’t really all that important. I guess my struggle, however, is when we act like we’re trying to woo people into obeying Christ. In a way, American Christianity has mellowed itself from any radical surrender. So is it wrong to expect people to count the cost and decide if they’re willing to die to self, and follow Him? If not, is it still wrong to be expeditious in giving the same call of Christ, to “come follow me”? I don’t remember Christ waiting around.

    We rightfully want everyone know know God, experience His goodness, and to proclaim His glory to the earth. But at what cost? At the cost of a shallow faith? An incomplete or illusioned surrender?

    I’d love to come to a place where I can feel satisfied with an answer to this question. Right now, I feel like there’s a lot of dissonance between what I read in the Bible and what I see as the modus operandi of American Church Culture. I’d love others to share their Biblically-based thoughts/arguments.

    • Great post. The problem is that unhealthy churches are the way they are because of, well, the way they are. They did not get there (usually) in a day, week, or even a year. Too much change introduced too quickly can wreck people further, because the people cannot/will not handle it. Why? because of, well, the way they are. It is a patient leader who can hang around in leadership at a church for 5 years and “slowly” reintroduce people to following Jesus. Reintroducing people to following Jesus is precisely the issue. Calling people to his standard of discipleship (as you noted) is the key. I have found even when doing that slowly, people balk. It really takes a mind change for each individual in the entire local church for the church to change. Jesus didn’t wait for people, but neither did he snuff out a smoldering wick.

      • Thanks for the insight. There is great wisdom there.

        You said: “but neither did he snuff out a smoldering wick.”
        I don’t know if I see that. Jesus had a lot of “disciples” following him. Sure, he never bluntly turned to them and said, “C’mon guys, you’re just going through the motions.” But he is the same person who said “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” He’s the same person who quite possibly snuffed out the rich young ruler’s “smoldering wick.”

        Perhaps it is just a heavily personal pastoral evaluation of each individual. As I said, I’m still struggling for that answer. I just know that even for the person who is still smoldering, a good poking and some more kindling should be enough to re-start the fire.

        Of course, I didn’t mention this before, but what place does the Holy Spirit have at this table? Would seem much more significant than we make it (His place).

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You raise some great points, Steve. I too would love to see some expanded discussion on the issues.

  • All these points are spot on. In my context, #3 and #4 are crucial. My church has been “burned” by some short term pastors, who were not here very long. Without giving false hope of how long I will be here (because of course, God may have other plans), I am consistent in reminding my church of my love for them, and my desire to be their pastor for a long time. I truly believe 1 Thessalonians 2:8 is a true statement as I think of my church, and I try to remind them of that. They know I am not going to “run away” at the first hint of trouble or a more lucrative offer. The fact that we are intentionally laying down family roots here I think gives them hope. Also, by casting a vision for the church that shows an incremental plan toward being the church God prescribes in Scripture shows them I am thinking long term. The more they see me committed to them, the more they will be committed to the vision of the church, and the call to make disciples.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Well said, Brian. Our congregants are intuitive. They can sense if a pastor has a longer-term commitment to the church.

  • When my pastor came was “candidating” 30 years ago at my present church, then 400 members and shrinking — and which he attended briefly in college — the elders told him that it was planning to close the balcony and use it for classroom space; he told them not to because they would eventually need it. That turned out to be a gross understatement, because today we have four Sunday services — and one on Saturday to boot — but he had to break some barriers, a major one racial because it was at the time an all-white assembly in a largely black neighborhood. Bottom line, all the things mentioned in that list were done, and today the church is nationally known for that transformation.

  • Tom Buck says on

    Having led two churches through revitalization, I have found another major component is “honoring the past before moving to the future.” There is the tendency of many pastors to either forget or to dishonor the heritage of the church they are attempting to revitalize. Even though things are presently in decline, there was a day that things once flourished and many still remember those days. The history of the church existed long before I ever showed up. So I always wanted to remind them that together we were building on the shoulders of those who had come before us. I learned this in my first church where it became necessary for us to sale the church property and relocate due to a variety of reasons. Many people were attached to that building – some of them had actually helped in the labor to build it. That building is where they had been married, seen their children baptized, buried their parents. So before we moved, I invited several former pastors back – including the pastor who had been there when the building we were selling had been built – and we had a service to honor the past and thank God for the great heritage He had given to the church. Thankfully, we didn’t lose one family when we relocated and we left that building with celebration rather than clinging to the past. I learned that honoring the past helps them actually to trust you to move them to the future.

    In His Grace


  • I historically categorize pastors in three groups: Default Preachers, Default Shepherds or Default Leaders. Most (not all) pastors are going to be great at one of these and weaker in the other two. Do you see this as well and is there a trend among breakout pastors to recognize their strength and formulate a plan to deal with their weaknesses? If so…I’d love to hear about THAT! It’s so hard for “old dogs to learn new tricks”… but I believe that God can empower us to do it. How have others done it?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Great points, Ben. I go over many of those issues in my book, “Breakout Churches.” Send your address to [email protected] and I’ll send you a signed copy (or if you want to the book to have higher value, I will refrain from signing it.).

  • Please forgive my simplicity but how do you start?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Jerome –

      If I understand you correctly, you are asking where you begin on my list of seven. The first three can take place initially and concurrently, and most of the others can take place in the short-term as well.

      Let me know if I did not respond in the context you asked.

  • Mark Dance says on

    BREAKOUT CHURCHES is my favorite Rainer read…mostly because of its personal impact on my life and ministry.

    One of the underlying themes of the research was the humility of the breakout pastors in the study. “Our breakout leaders did have personal ambitions, but they more often spoke of their ambitions for the churches they served” (P.49). Honestly, I still struggle with this.

    I hope this article inspires other church leaders to read it and apply it’s timeless truths, as I continue to do in my church.

    Thank you Dr Rainer!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      The humility factor is huge. Thanks, Mark.

      • Humble is not always a trait that I see. Instead there is a desire to make over the church as the pastor’s own ‘show.’ Building relationships should be more important than building a fan-base.

  • I would add that they led people, not charitable organizations nor religion clubs. They also allowed anyone to join not just certain people who could pass the litmus test.

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