Church Growth: Hiring the Right Preacher, Part 1

churchgrowthl.jpgLet me start by saying that I’m very, very happy with our preacher. This is a post for churches looking to hire a preacher — and for Christian college presidents — and for churches who already have an excellent preacher.

Point 1: Although the literature often omits this, it’s very likely true that the first requirement for church growth, especially for a large church, is a really good preacher.

Now, as an elder in the Churches of Christ, I’m not supposed to say this. After all, in our theology, a preacher is a hired hand, working under the oversight of the elders. And only elders and deacons get to be leaders. We therefore don’t like to talk about preachers as great leaders. They’re just supposed to be great speakers.

And it’s not a fashionable thing to say in terms of Church Growth Movement theory. The guys who write the books — the preachers — generally insist that the preacher doesn’t drive growth. But they’re wrong.

In Beyond Megachurch Myths, the authors compared large churches that still had the original preacher under whom they’d grown and those churches that had had to change preachers. The result — not really surprising — was that churches that had changed preachers either stopped growing or else grew much more slowly than before. I was surprised that the churches had not shrunk! Also, see this site.

This tells us that the right preacher is both essential and rare. I mean, if a gigantic church can’t find a replacement preacher without losing momentum, who can?

Point 2: The Churches of Christ have a shortage of preacher talent. I can’t prove this, but I know it’s true. It’s probably true of all denominations.

I know it’s true because I’ve served on committees doing preacher searches. And while there are a lot of good guys out there, very few are adequately prepared to preach in a large, growing church. And, for this, I blame the Christian colleges.

You see, tuition just keeps going up, and our colleges and universities generally give only minimal scholarship help for preaching students. They might give a $1,000 stipend or some such, but that’s about it.

Now, if a young minister graduates with a college degree and $60,000 or more of school debt, he’s in a world of hurt. I mean, starting salaries are low. Worse yet, large, progressive churches don’t want to hire someone just out of college.

Smaller churches will take a chance, but smaller churches tend to be conservative and legalistic. And our colleges tend to produce grace-oriented preachers (which is good, but tough on getting a job!)

And our churches only want to hire someone who’s married. We live in an age when young people are delaying marriage decisions, meaning a lot of bright, talented preaching graduates aren’t married and so aren’t employable.

Now, if you’re a spiritual young man trying to make a career decision, would you be willing to incur $60,000 in debt on the chance that once you graduate you’d be (a) married and (b) able to find a small church willing to hire you? I think a lot of young men whom God has gifted for ministry find themselves unwilling to face these hurdles. They go into business or something and decide they’ll serve as volunteers at church while working a “secular” job. Better to work for free than to get paid and starve.

Oh … and let’s not forget that smaller churches generally offer no health insurance, no retirement, and when they fire you, no severance. See this post.

The least the Christian colleges should do is cut tuition in half or less. But they don’t. Rather, they give athletic scholarships to non-Christians while ignoring the desperate needs of the churches that support them. And they wonder why there are so few large Churches of Christ.

It’s not the theology so much as the lack of full-time leadership. We have leaders, of course, but just not enough.

You know, somehow or other, many of these megachurches are training there own preachers and sending them out to plant churches, many of which grow into megachurches. And if a large church can do it, why can’t our colleges do it?

Conclusion. We need more preachers. And we especially need more preachers who are talented as leaders of men and women who are trained in building vital, growing congregations. A college can train leaders to be better leaders. They can’t train non-leaders to be leaders.

To get men with the talents we need, we need to cut them a break on tuition. And we need internship programs that let these precious talents be nurtured by proven leaders, so they come out of school with the experience needed to get them hired.

And we need to get over our prejudice against single ministers. (I’ve known many ministers who’ve fallen to sexual sin. All were married.)

Comments in response to David’s question that are too long to type in the comment box:

Point 3. I entirely agree with David’s comment (below) that churches should not be built on a foundation of the preacher’s personality. And that is certainly not what I’m suggesting. I’ve seen that movie and didn’t like the ending!

Rather, the question I’m trying to investigate is what is the best organizational philosophy for a large church growing larger. As churches grow, they have to change their organizational or leadership structure to accommodate the challenges their new size presents. Churches of 500 that try to operate like a church of 200 will stop growing and likely shrink over time.

We were taught at an eldering seminar a couple of years ago that a church can’t grow any larger than a church that can be administered by part-time volunteers unless the elders allow the full-time staff authority to manage the church day to day (which seems obvious once someone points it out). The elders, if they’re not careful, can choke off growth just by not changing how they operate.

There are several models for how this might be done. And, plainly, the elders must retain the general oversight of the church. The key element is that the elders can’t delegate responsibility while simultaneously insisting on approving all the decisions. (More on this in future posts.)

In Break Out Churches Thom Rainer concludes that the key ingredient of church growth is the right pastor — but the right pastor is a servant-leader who does not focus the spotlight on himself and who works diligently to accomplish the vision of the church. The book is well summarized at Good to Great is a similar book in the business world, reaching similar conclusions.

George Barna, in Turn Around Churches, concludes based on survey data that the number one factor in churches that change from declining to growing is a change in pastor. Barna explains in an interview,

One of the necessary components is that those churches brought in a new individual to be their primary leader, and that individual is not just a preacher-teacher — not that that’s bad, we need those — but that the individual who came in to spearhead that ministry was first and foremost a leader. This is one of the driving difficulties we have in most churches in America today. We have good people who are well-educated, good-intentioned and called to ministry, but they are not for the most part leaders. They are teachers, preachers, counselors, they have good skills, and they certainly have spiritual gifts and they can help people, but they can’t lead. …

You see, most of the churches in America have no God-given vision that they’re centered on. And so what do we wind up doing? We revert to playing the religious game. Let’s have more programs, let’s get more people in the seats, let’s build a bunch of buildings — all the things about which the world would say, “Ah, that’s success.” This has nothing to do with God’s equation of “Are you holy? Are you obedient? Are you serving? Do you want to be like Christ?” So we’ve missed the boat there. We’ve got to have the leadership component.

The right preacher matters quite a lot, but not because the church should be personality centered. Barna seems to be saying that the church has to be missional but to change into a missional church requires excellent leadership.

And it’s very hard to build a church around an ineffective preacher (I’ve seen that movie, too), but I’ve seen churches grow quite large with a preacher who isn’t a great speaker. However, he has to be great as a leader — as a quiet motivator, mentor, and equipper and as a single-minded, insistent voice for remaining true to the church’s vision.

Elders and others can and do lead, but  if the preacher doesn’t lead — and lead well — the church may well grow, but it won’t grow much. Pretty soon, the elders and other church leaders will be worn out trying to lead around the preacher (also a very ugly movie).

And if you find yourself a leader, the leader has to be freed to lead. Of course, the wrong staff can frustrate it. But if the staff is truly on board, the question becomes, again, what is the best organizational philosophy? Do all decisions have to go through the elders? Or do they delegate to the staff? And just where should the line be drawn?

Future posts will address these questions.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Church Growth: Hiring the Right Preacher, Part 1

  1. Alan says:

    There's something to be said for raising preachers in the local congregation. Paul didn't send Timothy and Titus to a Christian university. Maybe, instead of educating willing young men and then trying to turn them into leaders, it would be better to train young talented leaders in the local congregation, and then add the educational part. The scarce resource may be senior ministers who are dynamic leaders and who know how to identify and develop young leaders. Those who have this skill should make it their number one priority to develop as many as possible, and then to send them out.

  2. Jay Guin says:


    This is a really interesting thought. Many of the megachurches have their own training programs, typically an internship of some sort.

    We recently hired a youth minister straight out of college. His preacher had identified him as minister material while he was a teenager and began training him for leadership long before he started college. I'd never heard of that happening, but it obviously helped this young man in a powerful and dramatic way.

    We aren't a megachurch, but we've produced a significant number of missionaries and ministers — without a great deal of intentionality. Maybe we should focus more on that …

    Thanks very much for the thought.

  3. David Guin says:

    I agree with you that preachers drive church growth, but I don't see that as a good thing. It seems to me that if a church loses members or stalls when a preacher leaves, that fact does not support the value of the preacher as much as it indicts the church for not truly being church. See 1 Cor. 3:5-15. I'm bothered by the concept of building a church – mega or not – on a foundation of the preacher's personality or communication skills. Building around a dynamic personality is very much what the “Church Growth Movement” of the 1970s-90s was all about – have a dynamic speaker talking about “relevant” issues so as to attract the “unchurched.” It’s a model that is Sunday-morning meeting-centered, and hence, seems to be the antithesis of the “missional model” addressed in your earlier series. In the missional model, church is not built around Sunday morning but is much more intentional about living church instead of “going to” church.

    Re Alan's point of training ministers/leaders within congregations, I agree wholeheartedly. This is about exercising spiritual gifts and about churches being intentional about helping members – young and old – develop those gifts. It's fine for Christian colleges to offer scholarships to preaching students. In fact, that would be a good thing. But even more importantly, churches should be identifying, raising, and sponsoring (i.e., paying for the education of) young people who choose ministry as a full-time paid position.

  4. Jay Guin says:

    See my response appended to the end of the post.

  5. David Guin says:

    Much better concept than what I first understood you to say. I think what you're really saying is that – with apologies to George H.W. Bush – it's about the vision thing.

    What a church needs, regardless of size, is a vision of its role in God's redemptive work. For a lot of churches, if they're honest with themselves, their role is to die to themselves and merge with neighboring churches. I saw that movie with my own church planting experience. It was humbling but also enlightening.

    But the point is – the church has to understand its role/vision as part of God's redemptive work (i.e. why does this congregation exist independent of other churches in the area?), and the leadership role of the preacher – regardless of personality or pulpit skills – is to keep the church focused on working out that role/vision. It is not to be "the" priest so much as to make us better priests in the priesthood of believers. That requires leadership, but as a servant-leader. And even more importantly, the preacher has to understand who it is he serves as a servant-leader; i.e., Christ, NOT the church members or any subset thereof, not the elders, not the deacons, not the "founders" of the congregation.

    That's not going to be easy, for serving Christ first in the proper role/vision of the congregation may well mean stepping on toes of those with the power to hire/fire. But that's why this is not just a job but a calling. What happened to Jeremiah when he spoke the truth? Isaiah? John the Baptist? Christ? And by legend, all the apostles? Yes this hard truth may dissuade some from ministry, but if it does dissuade them, they're not ready for the job.

  6. Melina says:

    interesting stuff. I strongly favor both formal education AND local training/interning. But it really should be both. I've seen a lot of young folks "training for the ministry" who really had a very shallow knowledge of the scriptures and virtually no knowledge of world history or church history.

  7. David Guin says:

    I'm with Melina – and I'd add to that the need for preachers to have spent time in the "real world" with a secular job. I think there was a good reason Jesus waited until He was 30, after years as a carpenter, to begin His ministry.

  8. Jay Guin says:

    I've often felt the same way about ministers. But the practical problem seems daunting. It's hard to require someone with a Bible degree to work a secular job until he's 30 (or even 25). But this would solve one problem: the fact that most churches don't want to hire 22-year olds as their preacher.

    The alternative would be for them to wait to get their Bible education until later, but this is financially very difficult, as your typical 28 to 30-year old is just starting his family and can't afford to stop work and pay tuition. Of course, if the church had the resources to put him on salary while he takes 2-year Bible and leadership classes and then serves an internship, it would be quite effective.

    As I think back on it, we've had a number of young men over the years consider going into ministry as a second career, only to have their wives demand otherwise, not wanting to take the pay cut or struggle while the husband quits work to take classes ("We live in a material world … ." — Bob Dylan).

    I've actually written and met with administrators of Harding, Lipscomb, and even Faulkner asking that they teach extension courses around the Southeast to train men for ministry, on nights and weekends, thereby supplanting the horrific schools of preaching and encouraging second-career ministers. But they seem entirely uninterested in leaving their campuses.

    On the other hand, we have had an internship program for several years, which has produced a number of ministers and missionaries. But it's been for men and women either in college or just graduated and working on a masters.

    This bears further thought … What if we instead set up an internship/second degree program for second-career men and women wanting to move into ministry? And helped support them during their experience? It would be expensive, as the candidate would need both a salary and tuition, but they could be on staff, serving our church as they train. And as second-career types, they should bring some serious skills and experience to the job we don't normally get from college kids.

    One of the difficulties is the practical necessity for a college degree. It's just the nature of things today. This means accreditation. And this means teachers with Bible degrees. This means interns have to travel to Nashville or Montgomery to get classes that count toward a degree, even though we have a number of excellent teachers here but who don't have advanced degrees in Bible. This rather inhibits our ability to teach our ideas and experiences.

    Interns get credit for work experience, but all their class work is from professors in Nashville, which takes away from their ability to serve our church and gain hands on experience.

    Suggestions would be welcomed!

  9. David Guin says:

    My suggestion would be stop limiting yourself to Nashville/Montgomery. Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham is excellent. Our full-time youth minister is working on his masters of divinity, and his salary is conditioned on obtaining that degree (and was determined with the educational costs in mind). A LOT of the Beeson students travel from even farther away than Tuscaloosa; there are few "full-time" divinity students anywhere. Most attend classes after hours and/or work with churches to pay their way. Many churches provide scholarships, and some offer preference to their own students. That part doesn't seem so difficult. Gaining "real world" job experience outside of a church-paid position is tougher. But divinity schools are full of older students who have tired of the rat race – the ones I've known have often made excellent teachers because they have been through the Ecclesiastes experience and can speak to it credibly.

  10. Jay says:


    I too have often thought along these lines. Why can't we get our Christian colleges/universities to develop Bible degree programs (B.A. and M.A.) like the Executive MBA program? It would seem to me that if enough of us who are alumni began clammering for it… After all, where does the money come from?

  11. Jay Guin says:

    You can get an M.Div. on a part-time basis. Our interns have been doing that for years. It's just that the programs are (a) too expensive and (b) too far away. Going with schools from other denominations can help with the distance, but higher ed in general has become a business — trying to suck all the money they can from their "customers" rather than seeing education as a true mission.

    It really is tragic how badly our colleges have bought into the ethos of the university world rather than a truly Christian ethic. I mean, did Paul charge Timothy $100,000 to learn at his feet?

  12. JFM says:

    The average church member and elder and deacon in the church of Christ has no clue as to what to look for in a preacher. I'm not saying this to be sarcastic. If GW Bush is elected then chooses a cabinet why would the cabinet turn around and be over him telling him what to do? The only place we try to make this fit is in the "church". God has never instituted his diving plan through a whole group of men at one time. Moses was a single leader with elders, so was Joshua, David, and Jesus.

    We can't grow our churches because our concept about leadership structure is wrong and we are too stingy to give to our own members in distress without holding them to some standard of obedience. For every person we send to hell not in our group there are three or four who need to see the real Jesus in us.

    We should stop treating the church collection plate as if it only belongs to the "brothers" in charge and hold ourselves accountable like every other 501(3)c: give away almost all of it to the charitable causes of our members and our community instead of being a bank that is more interested in church buildings than people who make up the church.

    My friends the problem is not preachers; our concept of the church of the bible is skewed.

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