Six Guardrails for Multisite Churches

by John Mark Yeats April 24, 2015

The news stunned the evangelical world. A leading congregation in the Northwest with 13 campuses signaled a sudden and rapid change. In the span of two months, their entire structure would cease to exist. As questions swirled around the lead pastor in late spring, giving dropped precipitously over the summer leading to the closing of three campuses.  With the formal resignation of the lead pastor two weeks later, the structure collapsed completely.

These were not small ripples in the evangelical pool.

If a leading multi-campus church can’t make it long term, how do we create structures that aid multi-site congregations survival into the next generation?

A few years ago, Dr. Thomas White and I authored a book titled Franchising McChurch. Our thesis? The gathering of the body of Christ matters too much to be taken lightly. We were concerned about rapid expansion of ecclesial structures with little thought as to the long-term ramifications of how a church operates. There had to be more than the reigning “it just works” methodology – especially if the congregation wanted to transition to a multi-campus model.

Our caution was simple: If a church decides to pursue a multi-campus structure, a congregation must place guardrails on the structure to keep it from being centered on one person. In the case of many first-wave multi-sites, the rapid expansion traded on the high-level capacities of the senior pastor. His vision, leadership and preaching defined the brand of the congregation thereby hamstringing the church should he leave. And this doesn’t apply only to multi-site congregations. This isn't simply a "megachurch problem." The heart of the issue is found in congregations of 80 people as well as those with attendance in excess of 8,000. Many churches of all sizes struggle with this same issue: pastors who build a strong vision tied only to themselves leave congregations with significant challenges when the eventual change of leadership occurs.

So what’s to be done?

Well, here are 6 ways multi-campus churches can ensure greater health ensuring continuity towards the next generation.

1. Re-define success

As evangelicals, we should admit that we like to win. We enjoy success that is framed and measured in ways the world even understands. Bigger budgets and buildings, increased influence and stronger platforms become the fodder for type-A pastors to focus upon. Pastoral and ministerial success is not found in numerical expansion, but in growth of the body of Christ through evangelism and the preaching of the Word. Numbers may (and often do) accompany such growth, but the ultimate standard for pastors and churches is whether or not we preach Christ.

2. Plant churches

It sounds counter-intuitive. Send out people and resources to start a congregation instead of expanding our own brand? You bet. In an interview I had with Gene Getz sometime back, he talked about the intentionality Fellowship Bible had in the 1980s and 1990s to plant churches. When Getz reflected on how many people met weekly in a church connected back to Fellowship Bible, he remarked that the number would exceed 70,000 people – way more than the largest church in the US. But each of those churches were autonomous and Getz had zero control. I would challenge every church that decides to multiply its campuses to plant as many or more independent congregations than it keeps as part of its structure.

3. Build an internal, multi-campus structure that gives each campus the right to become self-sustaining

Make sure each campus has its own elders, pastors and identity. The campus pastors should be on the regular teaching rotation that increases every year until the main campus pastor is seen less frequently. 

4. Rotate the teaching ministry.

If only one man preaches every week, that congregation is built upon that person, not Christ. This is the joy of a strong, multi-elder structure where the entire church is encouraged in the Word of God and our focus is on the church’s one foundation – Jesus.

5. Ensure your elders and your pastoral accountability come from inside the congregation

One of the oddest ecclesial movements that has cropped up recently is to form an external board of advisors who provide accountability even though those comprising the bards are frequently people external to the congregation nor even in the region. While we all need accountability, moving to an external board for the governance of a congregation invites more “top-down” leadership and less biblical accountability from internal participants.

6. Create a contingency plan today

What will the church do if the lead pastor is found in sexual immorality or needs to step down or suddenly passes away? The solution may be somewhat easier for a single-site structure, but for a multi-campus congregation, a contingency plan is essential for survival should something drastic occur.

Unfortunately there will be other church collapses. But your congregation never has to go down that road. Instead, plan from the beginning to create a structure designed for next-generation success by building from a healthy, biblical model.