Moxie — 1. vigor; verve; pep, 2. courage and aggressiveness, 3. skill; know-how.  Moxie is an American slang word, coined from a depression-era soda pop (that tastes a little like carbonated shoe-polish…).  It came to be a term of admiration — someone with Moxie was brash, bold, eccentric, impressive and generally got things done.  I use the term to describe what I believe are the qualities and characteristics needed to launch high-growth potential congregations.  I have a reputation for not liking large and mega-churches, which is not true.  My position, consistently, is that our largest churches are not our healthiest churches, they are incredibly difficult to create and sustain in a healthy manner, they require a very rare skill set (moxie), they are not a good model to lift up for others to follow, and they have generated a mythology based in wishful thinking rather than reality.  And yet, we have some, and they do a lot of good work.  Yet, a truly healthy congregation never depends upon the lead/senior pastor for their long-term effectiveness.  Take the pastor out of the equation and the whole formula comes apart.  So, I don’t equate size with health, numeric growth with systemic growth, or popularity with effectiveness (and this often gets me in trouble).

But I cannot (and do not) deny the success and prowess of a handful of United Methodist pastors.  I have nothing but admiration for the results Adam Hamilton has produced — I simply don’t think you can remove Adam from his results.  Doing what Hamilton does won’t produce the same results.  The same is true for a Slaughter, Rasmus, Caldwell, Gordon, etc.  These pastors all possess moxie — innate qualities and drives that are foreign to many of us.  I personally am not an ambitious person, nor am I an entrepreneur.  I’m visionary, but not patient.  I am a good critical thinker, but I am not overly self-confident.  I would be a poor church-growth pastor for a variety of reasons.  So what are the rare variables that make for a great founder/savior/turn-around large church pastor?  I offer five — in Scrabble order — that add up to “moxie.”

E is for entrepreneur — to build something, to grow something, to create something — this is a key drive for new launch pastors who can generate large/mega-churches.  There is a strong streak of the salesman/saleswoman in effective entrepreneurs — as well as marketing pitch and spin.  Not everyone can do this, and not everyone can learn this, but for those who are born with it the question is never “can we?” but merely “HOW can we?”  Where there is a will, there is a way, and may entrepreneurial pastors pursue both their will as well as the will of God.  For the most deeply committed, this makes them a veritable unstoppable force.  This, of course can be both a great strength and a glaring weakness.  Talking to pastors about the church they lead produces a very different story than that of many who are led.  During my Vital Signs research an interesting correlation emerged: the larger the church, the larger the disparity between the story that the pastor and key leaders tell and that of the people in the pew.  It often sounds like two completely different churches.  But I believe entrepreneurs do not live in the realm of the “what is,” but in the realm of the “what I am trying to create.”

I is for innovation — effective launch/turn-around pastors are leaders, not followers.  They don’t buy books by other pastors to see what they are doing.  They don’t attend leadership academies hosted by other successful pastors.  They are innovators, not imitators.  They are constantly looking at their setting and asking what’s missing?  Where is the next new thing we can do or offer that adds value to the people we serve (or those we want to serve).  There is very little copy-catting in the most enduring large churches.  You may get away with following the herd for a short time, but in the end church growth is just like any other growth industry — if you don’t establish a competitive advantage, then reinvent it constantly, you won’t lead for long.  Doing a new thing, even a risky thing — and doing it well — is a hallmark of moxie.

M is for mission — I have yet to meet a successful pastor of a large, growing congregation who was not trying to create a large, growing congregation.  Big church pastors are pursuing a big church mission.  They see mega-church as their raison d’etre.  They have a missional objective to lead a large church.  The gospel compels them to reach as many people as they can with the good news.  However, like the apostle Paul, often they pursue their own mission to the detriment of the empowerment of the whole body of Christ.  Bottom line focus and results driven program often lead to representational ministry — where a handful of leaders (many paid) do the ministry for the whole church.  It creates a passive complacency among most of the members (however, this phenomenon is not limited to large churches.  We have found creative ways to allow passive pew-sitting to define us as a church in congregations of all sizes…) where attenders are “proud” of the ministries of their church, though they never do more than give a buck or two for others to do the ministry for them.  It is stunning to interview members of some of our largest churches and realize how very little they know about or are connected to in their own church.  Many of our pastors are mission driven, but this drive does not trickle down throughout the whole congregation.  Yet, it contributes to the” irresistible force” nature of many successful pastors.

O is for obsession — single-mindedness and clarity of focus characterizes our large church pastors.  Regardless of what they write in their biographies, it is a little overwhelming to see how tightly aligned everything is to their ministry and work in real life.  Even when not “on-the-job,” they are on the job, their minds moving a million miles an hour with details big and small on where they want to go next.  I find it amusing trying to have a conversation with some of our lead pastors about anything but ministry.  Every conversation comes back to the church.  It’s inescapable.  This total immersion in all things church-success related may take a toll in family and other relationships, but pays big dividends on the church development end of things.  For large church pastors, church growth is the Promised Land and they are willing to do whatever they must to get there.  Here is another place where pastors tell a different story than others — this time their own families.  During my research for Vital Signs, I found that most successful large/mega-church pastors feel they do an excellent job juggling work and while family members report that they understand the sacrifices that must be made, but they only rate the juggling act as “fair” at best.  For this reason, successful church growth pastors require the loving support of a family willing to make necessary sacrifices so that the whole family fulfills the call to ministry of the pastoral head.

X is for x-factor — here is where I often get my head handed to me — over the intangibles.  There is an x-factor in successful large and mega-church pastors.  Rarely are they the most handsome, charismatic, charming, eloquent or smooth.  Most have rough edges and noticeable flaws.  They are far from perfect… and it doesn’t matter one bit.  The books they write are not the best books published on their respective subjects.  Their seminars are rarely deeply profound or unique.  Almost everything they do, someone else is doing better somewhere else… and it doesn’t matter.  There is just something about them that works.  They are greater than the sum of their gifts, knowledge, experience, skills, and competencies.  This is not to say that aren’t gifted and exceptionally skilled.  It is to say that there are many people out there with every bit as much to offer, but who function in relative obscurity in comparison.  It isn’t an issue of “fair,” it just is.  Some people are able to take what they have and maximize it beyond its apparent potential, and the danger then becomes setting such exceptional performance as a standard or norm for others to emulate.

Take the E, I, M, O, X — shake ’em up, toss ’em out, rearrange ’em, and you got MOXIE — the building blocks for successful church growth pastors.  At least, these are the qualities and characteristics I have found to be at the heart of our brightest and biggest.  Add a lead pastor with these characteristics to a good location and some adequate resources and you have the foundation in place to grow a big church.  This is the good news.  The bad news?  There simply aren’t that many people with this unique blend working for them.  Even if we could clone them (and our Social Principles aren’t likely to approve cloning any time soon…) it probably wouldn’t make any difference.  History shows us that large/mega-church success is a one-time occurrence for 4-out-of-5 lead pastors.  It’s those pesky intangibles again.

I close sharing two things I have said many times in the past.  I have nothing against large churches, though I am a bit more leery and cautious about mega-churches.  It is simply that with quantity, quality trade-offs are made.  There is ample evidence that ten healthy 300 members churches are more effective than one 3,000 member church.  The only measurable advantage the big church has over the smaller churches is less overhead (one 3,000 member church costs much less to run than ten 300 member churches).  Usually, large and mega-church proponents compare a healthy 3,000 member (or 10,000) to a handful of small, struggling churches… where there is really no comparison at all.  The second thing I offer is that Christian seekers who are currently unaffiliated with an organized church overwhelmingly state that they would prefer intimacy and engagement with a community of faith, and wouldn’t be interested in a church with more than 100-200 members.  And our successful large churches actually figured this out, which is why so many are designed around “cells” or small groups — trying to be a large church of small churches.

Last word?  One size does not fit all.  No church, based on size, is going to be the standard (or the salvation) for the future.  Quality — health, vitality, engagement and impact on community and world — are much more important indicators of “success” and “effectiveness” than size, prominence, or popularity.  There is a place for everyone, and opportunity enough to go around.  It might take moxie to make a church huge, but it only takes God’s Holy Spirit to make it bear fruit — fruit that will last.

12 replies

  1. I find Moxie to be more of an unfortunate mix of root beer and cough syrup. My Dad grew up in a small town in Maine that this year just had it’s 27th annual Moxie festival. Believe it or not, I have family that would crawl on their knees through the desert for a can of Moxie. I think they’re all disturbed.

    But addressing the main point of your article, I appreciate your comments. Under the appointment system, you serve where you are sent. I currently serve a smallish congregation I love. I know we have room for growth, and we could be more mission-oriented. But I appreciate the reminder that numbers aren’t always the best indicator of health. This congregation has a very high participation rate among members, and given a project, they tackle it will full strength. Now we just need to figure out what our next project/mission/direction is…

    • Sharon,
      smallish sounds like just the right number for your congregation. Have you thought about engaging them in the larger body of Christ through ecumenical projects?

  2. Are you suggesting that the only talented clergy are those serving the largest churches? Or that only those types can successfully lead a large church? If so, then you are elitist and sexist.

    • I’m saying just the opposite. Our fixation with a limited set of qualifications and characteristics mean that we overlook some our most talented and capable clergy. It is problematic that we have no women clergy serving our largest churches as lead/senior pastors, and that none of our mega-plants are given to women. However, in my research I discovered that most women are not interested in giving over their entire life to the institutional church. The trade-offs are unappealing to most women clergy surveyed (and a significant number of men). The vast majority of truly healthy, sustainable, productive and creative congregations are in the 150-300 active participant range, and over half are pastored by females. I wish we did a better job telling this story and lifting the vision of health over size, impact over activity, and people serving instead of people coming to church to be served.

      • So, tell us some stories.

        I don’t think I’ve ever seen or been part of a vital and healthy 150-300 active participant church. (I just caught you use “ap” and not “member” or “worship attender” as your scale.)

        Does that church survive independent of the pastor? What kind of pastor is needed for that kind of church?

      • These stories are at the heart of the “vital” quadrant in Vital Signs. There are congregations with a high percentage of participants (these churches are not overly hung up on “membership” as much as “engagement”), focused primarily on spiritual formation and faith development geared to equip them to live their faith and service in the world. They are not pastor-centric, though leadership is critical. The overall health and well-being of the congregation comes from wide spread vision and ownership. This allows the church to remain strong, even through changes of appointment. I think of Kent Millard and Mike Mather in Indiana as pastors who effectively model and equip this kind of setting. However, I met dozens of pastors that fit the mold when I did the study (2000-2006), and found the strongest churches were those that did not grow too large. This doesn’t mean they can’t grow larger — but this gets to the point of the article. I like Kent and Mike because they have “Moxie” but also a more healthy and sustainable vision for the whole congregation.

  3. Excellent points, Dan. As a student of Adam Hamilton’s work, I’ve been confounded at several points by my lack of success in emulating his work. In a nutshell, Adam diagnosed the problem by asking me how old was the church I was serving (at the time). The reply was, “Over 145 years.” He said, “They didn’t get that way overnight.”

    Let me encourage you to take another look at Adam Hamilton — and add Jorge Acevedo. You are right in that they cannot be removed from their results. The answer is: Don’t remove them. In fact, leave them there, and insert them into other churches nearby.

    Jorge’s multi-campus leadership is shockingly close to Wesley’s model of oversight, and the way we should have been utilizing District Superintendents. This also harkens back to the supervising elder model that was floated around a few years back with regard to cluster leadership.

    The failing then was recalcitrant cluster pastors and overbearing cluster leaders. That failing is overcome in a few simple iconoclastic steps.

    I should mention that I’m a part of Jorge’s hosted Incubator (via SLI) and have been stealing Jorge’s best ideas for going on a decade now. 😀

    Thanks for raising these issues!!

    • Thanks for the balanced view. I am a big fan of multi-campus, satellite styles of ministry, building on existing successes and adapting principles in multiple contexts. Once again, the “moxie” elements play a big part in the success — as evidenced by the fly in the ointment being the recalcitrant cluster pastors who don’t (perhaps) share the same zeal and passion. Always glad to hear where the Incubator model is working. And as I said before and will say again, I praise Adam for all he does and is able to do. More power to him — I simply think he is the exception rather than the rule.

    • Uhm, it’s how I imagine carbonated shoe polish might taste. Moxie (the soda) is a tad bit nasty (in my opinion).

  4. I do find you a little confusing. Sometimes you praise an Adam Hamilton and sometimes you criticize him. Sometimes you praise a COR, sometimes you criticize it. I have been under the impression you don’t like “popular” pastors, though I have to admit that you praise them for what they do well. So, would we be better off without big churches? It seems that our small churches aren’t doing so well, and it feels self-defeating to not celebrate our success stories. Isn’t it better to have a dozen healthy “super” churches?

    • Let me say again — celebrate the successes, but be honest about them and don’t pretend they are something they are not… like models for others to emulate. We need churches of all sizes, doing all kinds of different things in different ways with different groups of people and different audiences. All churches (by size) share a similar “bell-curve” distribution — a few healthy examples at one end, a few toxic dysfunctional examples at the other end, slightly larger populations of solid and struggling closer to their respective means, and then a solid middle of churches just floating along. They myth is that all the big churches are at the healthy end and all the small churches are at the struggling end. When I plotted a scatter diagram of our churches from healthy to toxic, there was a fairly even distribution of churches of all sizes across the page. Newer churches have a greater advantage than longer-existing churches to grow and generate activity. Churches with “moxie” pastors have a greater advantage for growth than churches without. Churches in high-transition areas have more potential than those in stable or declining areas. Middle class areas are the most financially promising for churches, so most suburban growth corridors have advantages over low- and high-income areas. If you are lucky enough to hit on a combination of these factors, you will have growth potential no matter what. But if you don’t have this combination, it has no impact on whether you can do good ministry or not, and in fact where strong ministry is happening in the absence of these factors, congregations are generally stronger and healthier than those that are depending on these conditional (and fragile) variables.

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