Strategic Ministry Units

We’re all probably familiar with the standard “life-cycle” chart that describes organizational growth, maturation, and decline. The chart usually looks like this:

Life Cycle Basic

For any organization there are seasons of growth, maturation, and either renewal or decline. Churches across America see this trend just like other organizations. This life cycle graph can be worked out differently for different organizations or entities. Sometimes the growth stage is shorter, other times it is longer. Ultimately, every organization sees this life-cycle curve come into reality.

Churches in particular are subject to this life-cycle and see it repeated in various churches at different times. There are many reasons why a church, following a season (or two) of growth suddenly plateau and then, eventually, decline. For churches in America, 80% are plateaued or declining. Sometimes it has to do with changing demographics in their area, other times it is established leadership unwilling to commit to change, also there are crisis moments that impact the church and cause people to leave. Whatever the reason churches will see this life-cycle play out. The challenge for church leaders (just like other organizational leaders) is to recognize when strategic decisions must be made to alter the life-cycle curve.

Leaders who are able to understand their place on the life-cycle chart can make appropriate moves well before a crucial organizational moment arises. However, if leaders are not aware that they are entering a time of plateaued ministry growth there is another key moment prior to either a time of renewal or decline. This space provides time to make strategic decisions concerning the eventual direction of the organization to either decline or renewal.

 One of the ways that successful leaders move their ministries to renewal instead of decline is by starting new strategic ministry ventures or units. Just like a strategic business unit can add value to a corporation and provide new avenues of growth, strategic ministry units can create several key forces to move a church from plateau to renewal. These key forces that are created include: new staff, fresh opportunities for vision to be articulated, organizational synergy, and a new entry point to connect with those outside our church.

Strategic ministry units often arise out of crucial conversations with key leaders that provide innovative new ministry avenues to renew and, often, energize a local church. Types of strategic ministry units include:

  • Small group unitsLife Cycle SMU
  • Outreach ministry opportunities
  • Partnering with other local ministries
  • Multi-site campus expansion
  • Life stage ministry
  • Athletic outreach
  • Alternative worship service
  • Family ministry


Other examples abound. The central idea here is that strategic ministry units provide an opportunity to change the course of an organization’s natural life-cycle. These strategic ministry units don’t have to be high cost or have high barriers for implementation. One of the central ideas in implementing them is, however, high validation from the senior leadership of a church. For highly structured church staffs, lower departmental staff can be tasked with carrying out the objectives (and certainly even in the development of units) but the new ministry unit will only grow as much as far as the leadership level which the primary motivator is given.

Many churches that need to break out of season of plateaued ministry can implement strategic ministry units to provide them the impetus to move from a pathway of decline to an avenue of renewal.

We’ll be talking a bit more about strategic ministry units a bit down the road. However, they are vital components of crafting an effective ministry playbook for healthy churches.

How have you seen strategic ministry units benefit a church? What are some examples of strategic ministry units that you’ve seen work? Where are some land mines along the way?


Measuring Up

One of the challenges of living in an increasingly post-Christian culture that is fragmented and dispersed as we are, is that how we engage with church and activities is changing. Even up into the late 1980s, maybe the early 1990s, we could reasonably expect regular, consistent attendance at events and programs. Indeed, the average church built their year around a programatic structure where we could move people from event to event to event to event and expect that this would be a decent marker of how well a church was doing in its ministry. 

With the explosion of fragmented and dispersed people, who are often faithful believers, that is driven by a shift in technology, media, and social involvement this programatic model is suffering a much needed death. The challenge for church leaders is understanding that there are two kinds of measures that go into assessing how well, or not, a church is accomplishing its goals and ministry.

Vertical Measures – are largely how many church leaders track, analyze, and assess their ministries. This approach asks the question: how many people showed up to (insert activity.) It is fundamentally a church of last century approach to ministry assessment. It has, as an underlying assumption, that church folk are moved and motivated to personal growth by attending events and regular involvement in ministry. Vertical measures track numbers and draw conclusions based on those numbers. (How many of us have a designated counter on Sunday morning.) They are also how most senior leaders have been taught, in both seminary and vocational life, how to assess programs and ministries.

Horizontal Measures – seek to track how many people are moving along in their journey of spiritual maturity. This approach asks the question: how many people are being changed/transformed in their spiritual lives? In utilizing this approach, church leaders attempt to understand how people are drawn from being passive observers (imagine the people in the stands of a baseball game) and grown into active contributors (the players on the field.) This is a difficult assessment to get our arms around, particularly since our measure tools are designed to track this growth. When leaders move to utilizing this measure as a primary tool for assessing ministry performance the metrics change and conversations are shaped differently.

Horizontal Measures

For churches that are seeking to grow their ministries (not necessarily numerical growth) the horizontal measures, appropriately tracked, might lead to increased vertical measures. Here the focus is on making disciples, making maturing Christians. With the fragmented and dispersed people who fill our pews and chairs from week to week, their weekly/regular attendance isn’t a metric of their spiritual maturity. Frankly, many spiritually mature church goers know where and how to get resources for their own growth that are unconnected with the specific church where they serve.

How church and ministry leaders develop tools and metric to measure horizontal growth becomes the key matter. Perhaps some questions lead will bring about some focus: how many more of our people are interested in missions work (local, international)? how are we doing starting a new ministry to an external need? where do we turn for new group leaders? how are doing filling vital volunteer positions? how are our people doing in moving from an inward focus to an outward service? how are we doing moving people from sitting and soaking to being involved in serving and giving?

Horizontal measures help develop people and draw them along a spectrum of spiritual maturity. Of course we can still use vertical measures, but to exclusively rely on them misunderstands appropriate ministry goals. A good balance between the two measures will bring about a healthier ministry culture and more informed leaders as we consider our next opportunities for expanded ministry.

 So what do you think? What are some ideal measures of horizontal growth?