When Your Church Needs New Wineskins

One day a group of people approached Jesus, confused that his disciples were not fasting. After all, John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees were fasting. Why were Jesus’ disciples not as committed to “doing the right things”?

Jesus answers the question about his disciples’ lack of fasting with an illustration of a wedding feast. Jesus introduces himself as the bridegroom who has a special relationship with his bride. When the bridegroom is here, it is time to rejoice—to feast. But when he is gone (a foreshadowing of his death, resurrection, and ascension), fasting will resume.

Jesus was not against fasting; he was against fasting for the sake of checking fasting off a spiritual checklist. To show that the man-made system of religion could not contain his grace, he used two common cultural illustrations:

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new patch pulls away from the old cloth, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost as well as the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins (Mark 2:21-22).

The old clothing cannot handle the new patch; the old wineskins cannot handle the new wine. The old man-made legalistic system of the Pharisees could not handle the grace revolution of Jesus.

While the illustration Jesus gave is clearly about the inability of a system to contain his grace, I also find his illustration helpful in thinking about the growth of a ministry/church. In many churches, what the Lord desires to do will disrupt the current structure. Often new wineskins are needed.

Church Architects

As church leaders architect their staff structures, they must design them in a scalable manner, in a way that allows for growth. But growth creates new problems and sometimes demands new structures. Here are three common philosophical tensions that confront leadership teams as they consider their structure. There are godly and wise advocates on opposite sides of each spectrum. My goal is not to convince you of one philosophy over another or to resolve the tensions, but to help you surface the discussion points. The more a leadership team aligns on a philosophy of each of these “tensions,” the easier it will be to stretch the wineskin/broaden the structure.

As you read these, please understand I am not addressing the people—merely the structure. Having the right leaders, who fulfill the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and love well, is infinitely more important than structure. In fact, a good structure will never make up for bad leadership. But godly and great leaders can overcome an inhibiting structure. Still, that is no excuse for eschewing wisdom on how to steward the responsibilities given by God to church leaders.

(1) The ‘Flat/Span of Care’ Tension

Typically, a flat structure has less management. Here is an extreme example: A middle-school pastor may report directly to the lead pastor in one church. In another church, he may report to the senior student pastor, who reports to the pastor of spiritual formation, who reports to the executive pastor, who reports to the senior pastor. Those who advocate a flat staff structure point to the obvious advantages: cheaper and faster. Each additional level of staffing adds costs to the church. And each additional level of staffing slows down communication and decision-making.

But before you sign on to the flat line structure, consider a potential pitfall: the flatter the staff structure, the less development and energy each staff member receives from his/her supervisor. At one point in my tenure as Christ Fellowship Miami’s executive pastor, I had 18 direct reports. As the church grew, we kept adding to the team without adding layers. I loved the speed and the stewardship, but at that point, I could not provide the care and coaching as I should. And to encourage spiritual transformation in churches, staff teams should be nurtured. So while flat structures express stewardship, span of care speaks to the issues of discipleship and development. Span of care theorists would argue for 4 to 6 direct reports to managers.

Your leadership team should wrestle with this tension. How flat do you desire to be? If you lean toward the flat side, how will you ensure the staff receives coaching and care?

(2) The ‘Lean/Ahead of Growth’ Tension

The biblical argument for a lean staff emphasizes the priesthood of believers—every believer is gifted to serve others—and reminds pastors that they equip the body. If all of God’s people are invited into the ministry of the church, staff members are not hired to “do ministry” but to “lead and train others” for ministry.

Often churches that spend 45 percent to 55 percent of their budget on personnel costs are considered to be in the average range. We find tension here, though, because some advocate that church leaders hire “ahead of the growth.” For example, a church in a college town has few college students attending—not enough to justify a staff member in the minds of many on the leadership team. They could wait for college students to attend, though they haven’t shown up in the last decade. Or they could staff ahead of the growth and invest in the role now.

Those who staff ahead of the growth point to fruit of individual pastors/leaders. They are not as concerned with having a lean staff, because they believe their investment in staffing bears ministry fruit. Those who staff lean often point to the releasing of ministry to volunteers and the investment of resources in other areas.

(3) The ‘Leader/Manager’ Tension

Many churches are over-managed and under-led. They become slow-moving institutions designed for control rather than mission. Decision-making is cumbersome, empowerment is low, and movement is lethargic. They are unlikely to change because, after all, no one loves management as much as managers.

On the other end of the spectrum, churches are led by visionary and passionate teams with few systems in place to support the mission. And because they lack the systems and processes provided by capable managers, the church quickly becomes chaotic and unfocused. While we are much more attracted to leadership, management is just as necessary. The “down with management” and “up with leadership” thinking is unhelpful and unhealthy.

Ultimately, structure produces no life change. Nor does it produce health. Healthy churches have myriad staffing structures; same with unhealthy ones. But structure is important, because it can provide clarity. It can enable effective communication and help ensure ministry is executed well. Wise leadership teams will wrestle with these philosophical tensions beneath the structure and develop convictions that guide their staffing as they trust God with the growth he grants.

Read more from Eric here.

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Eric Geiger

Eric Geiger serves as the Vice President of the Church Resource Division at LifeWay Christian Resources. Eric received his doctorate in leadership and church ministry from Southern Seminary. He is also a teaching pastor and a frequent speaker and consultant on church mission and strategy. Eric authored or co-authored several books including the best selling church leadership book, Simple Church. Eric is married to Kaye, and they have two daughters: Eden and Evie. During his free time, Eric enjoys dating his wife, playing with his daughters, and shooting basketball.

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What say you? Leave a comment!

Mr. Steven Finkill — 10/24/12 11:28 am

I've certainly seen these tensions in play in many of the churches I've interacted with. I love that Eric describes the tensions without suggesting a one-approach-fits-all solution for them. The truth is that these tensions will always exist and it's the job of good leaders to navigate them well. And that's something that's done on an ongoing basis, not once-and-done.

Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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