7 Obstacles To Growth In Congregations

In recent articles we have described congregational cultures which are ready for growth; for adaptive
change. Yet, most congregations require intentional “clearing of the fields,” as part of the cultivation process which positions us for growth. When preparing fields for planting, farmers notice when rocks, roots, or any other impediments are lurking in the growing environment. When noticed, they are removed as quickly as possible in order to enhance the soil’s receptivity. When it comes to our growth in faith, practice, spirit, community engagement, witness, and nearly everything else in line with our callings as churches, there are obstacles to recognize and remove. For an “obstacle removal strategy,” see Farming Church: Cultivating Adaptive Change In Congregations. Recognizing the following 7 common growth obstacles positions us for clearing the fields.

1 – When leaders hear a litany of “buts” when suggesting adaptive change

“Yes, we could make that change, BUT…” When these kinds of statements are spoken in enough meetings and conversations to become a theme, then this congregation is not ready for much change at all. Perhaps they perceive change as too difficult, or beyond them, or just inconvenient. A litany of “buts” indicates an obstacle to growth is present in the congregational growing environment.

2 – When leaders hear a strong emphasis on how good things currently are

When we are so proud of our way of being church that we don’t see any need for change, then the congregational growing environment is not fertile ground for growth. The lyrics below this music are, “We are content with the way things are and have little interest in growth.” Excessive contentment with the status quo is an impediment to growth.

3 – When we see symptoms of Post-Traumatic Conflict Disorder
Church conflict makes most of us run for the hills. Nobody wants to experience THAT again. At the same time, if we don’t process the pain and learn our lessons, then the highly charged emotion lurks in the background. Then, when we start cultivating the growing environment, the residual and unfinished business from conflict introduces toxicity into the soil. This contaminates the good seed when it’s planted.

4 – When the congregation is paralyzed by institutional threats

Threats to our congregational strength, or even existence, do arise in congregational life. This in itself is not an obstacle to growth; giving into the fear surrounding these threats becomes the obstacle. Proactively acknowledging and addressing threats lowers this anxiety. When we pretend real threats are not there, ignoring them the best we can, we nearly guarantee the related anxiety will be an obstacle in the growing environment.

5 – When participation levels dip below what’s needed to maintain our current way of being church
This development in itself is not the obstacle. The congregation’s viewpoint on this development can become an obstacle. Certainly there is concern when this occurs, yet it can also be an opportunity for imaginative exploration of what it means to be church in the current context. If the congregation continues to interpret these declines as negative over time, they will act in a self-fulfilling-prophecy kind of way.

6 – When ministries and programs are just good enough

Over time, these run their course…live out their life cycle. Yet, ministries and programs grow beloved with time, leading to strong emotional attachments. Even after they are barely strong enough to survive, they often continue onward, draining our energy for more fruitful efforts. One or more of these existing in the life of the church may serve as obstacles to growth.

7 – When the congregation baptizes the status quo

Subtly, over time, we slip into the belief that the way WE do church is THE way to do church. Not only do we come to see how we do church as our preference, we often come to see the way we do church as the best, most spiritual way to do church. The result is strong resistance to changing or growing. After all, when the best ever is in place, why would we want to change anything (even when the results are diminishing before our eyes)?

So, where do we go from here? Repeatedly, Scripture encourages us to be strong and courageous when it comes to engaging our reality. When we know and trust the One who is not afraid, then we are not afraid either. When we trust God’s sustaining power, then we develop the eyes to see and the ears to hear. May your fields become rich, fertile growing environments with few obstacles to growth this year.

Mark Tidsworth
Pinnacle Leadership Associates